Tag Archives: Gérard Depardieu

CAPSULE: A PURE FORMALITY (1994)

Una pura formalità

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Tornatore

FEATURING: Gérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski

PLOT: Apprehended during a downpour in the middle of the countryside, a famous writer is challenged to explain his whereabouts that evening by the station’s resident inspector, a great fan of the author’s work.

COMMENTS: “When I tell this story, no one will believe me. How can a place this absurd exist?”

Though technically an Italian movie—an Italian wrote and directed it, the ancillary actors are all Italian, as is the entire film crew—there are few movies I’ve seen that feel more “French” than Tornatore’s A Pure Formality. Of course, having Gérard Depardieu, a Frenchman’s Frenchman, as the lead does quite a lot to lend it Gallic bonafides. But beyond that primary anchor are the secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary anchors, all of them latching the film squarely in the great ocean of French cinema. Had you told me that this was Jean Cocteau‘s final film (though he would have been 104 at the time), I might well have believed you.

The story concerns a disillusioned, alcoholic, end-of-his-tether novelist—the second French anchor—named Onoff (Gérard Depardieu), who is found in a frazzled (and drenched) state by the local gendarmes in the French (naturally) countryside. Hostile and unable to produce identity papers, he is taken back to the water-logged police station to await “the Inspector” (a genteel, but commanding, Roman Polanski). Upon the Inspector’s arrival, a strange dialogue ensues, replete with literary quotations and oblique philosophizing—anchor the third. As the late night turns into early morning, their conversation continues, teetering between truth and lies, and becoming increasingly existential in tone as the station gets wetter and wetter.

As this is a psychological thriller, there is a monumental twist near the end; this being a French crime thriller, that twist has monumentally philosophical overtones (the fourth anchor). But throughout the often fraught interrogation occur absurd comedic moments. The police station seems to inhabit some timeless liminal space existing indefinably in an era pieced together from the 1950s through the present. During their talks—which are a real pleasure to witness, as Dépardieu is at the top of his game, and Polanski shows that he should really act more often—the ceiling’s leaks grow in number and intensity. Around the midway point, all the officers, helped by Onoff, literally bail out the station and vainly try to mop up the floodwaters with towels. Meanwhile, a metaphor skitters around the floor in the form of a white mouse, whose fate is alluded to by the baited trap found in a cabinet whose door keeps opening mysteriously.

Whether or not all this artful playfulness works for you hinges on the ending, about which I can say no more. But presuming you appreciate a bit of theatricality (this is, effectively, a two-man stage show) accompanied by an Ennio Morricone score, then A Pure Formality is one of the tastiest slices of crimembert cheese you could hope for1.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the end of the film, amid reminders of Kafka and Beckett, we learn the answer to the strange night’s interrogation. Some members of the audience will have guessed it. Others will have feared it. Few will find it worth the wait.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Doyle, Oliver Schmitz, The Coen Brothers, , Wes Craven, , and others

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, , , Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga, , Elijah Wood, Olga Kurlyenko, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, , Li Xin, and many, many more

PLOT: Eighteen short films (averaging about six minutes each), each set in a different Paris neighborhood and each focusing loosely on the theme of amour.

Still from Paris Je T'aime (Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" segment) (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Of the eighteen shorts, only Christopher Doyle’s offering is actually weird (although a few others have some mildly weird elements).

COMMENTS: Like any anthology film, Paris, Je T’aime is a box of chocolates, with some bittersweet bon-bons, a few of the dreaded coconuts, and one oddly shaped piece with a taste you can’t quite place.  Putting the most curious confection aside for last, there are a few novel flavors in this box of sweets.  The Coen brothers serve up an absurdly paranoid—and laugh-out-loud funny—sketch.  A bemused and horrified Steve Buscemi stars as an American tourist who unwisely forgets his guidebook’s advice not to look Parisians in the eye in the subway, with strange, unfortunate, and hilarious results.  Impossible teleportations and lusty Gallic vindictiveness remove this one from the realm of reality.  Climbing a rung down the weirdness ladder brings us to Vincent (Cube) Natali’s offering, a stylized, silent eroto-vampire number starring Elijah Wood and luminous Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko; shot in faux black-and-white with hyperreal pools of red blood, it’s a mood piece tapping elegant cinematic myths.  Further down, Juliette Binoche is a grieving mother who dreams of cowboys in “Place des Victories”; and Sylvian (The Triplets of Bellville) Chomet brings us a slapstick story of love among mimes that won’t change your view of those despicable creatures, but offers respite from the reality of the surrounding tales.

The most memorable segment of all, it should be mentioned, isn’t one bit weird: Oliver Schmitz’ “Places des Fêtes” is the account of an injured Nigerian immigrant who wants to share a cup of coffee with the cute paramedic who comes to his aid.  His story is told in flashback, and the piece ends on a quiet but shattering image.  Compressing a lifetime’s heartbreak into five minutes of film is an amazing achievement.

The one fully weird sequence comes courtesy of respected cinematographer Christopher Continue reading CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)