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16 March 2017

Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud (1958)

Lift to the Scaffold/Elevator to the Gallows
Directed by: Louis Malle
Music: Miles Davis
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, 
Georges Poujuly, Yori Bertin
Last year, during the Indian monsoons, I’d written a post on the Rain in Ten Moods – focusing on scenes from Hindi films. You see, things happen in the rains in films. In the comments, my husband had posted a scene from a French film, where the lead protagonist is wandering around the streets of Paris on a rainy night. 
I’d not heard of the actress or the film, so, aghast at my ignorance, my husband decided he had to remedy matters. Of course, it took him a year to obtain the DVD and a few days to convince me to watch it.

The film opens with a telephone conversation. ‘Je t’aime’ (‘I love you’), she (Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala) murmurs, over and over – ‘Je t’aime’. 
He (Maurice Ronet as Julien Tavernier) needs to hear that. ‘Je t’aime’ he whispers back; he’s in office and can’t bear the desperation in her voice. She doesn’t seem to want him to hang up the telephone, and exhorts him to ‘do it’ if he wants to be with her.
Back in his office, Julien methodically sets his papers in order, and asks the receptionist to stay back because he needs to finish up some work. She agrees – she’s quite often the last person to leave anyway. Julien’s next steps are puzzling – he locks the door to his office, opens the window and makes his way up to the floor above. He’s remarkably agile.
Unusually, he’s also carrying a file. When he enters the office, it is clear that he’s known to the man behind the desk. As that man peruses the files, the intruder coolly takes out a gun in a gloved hand and shoots him in the temple. 
Then, methodically, he presses the dead man’s fingers around the butt of the gun, arranges the body to look like a suicide and, going out the door which he takes care to bolt from the inside behind him (a neat trick) returns to his office the same way he came – via the rope.

Just as he shimmies down the rope, the telephone in his office rings, and quickly, he enters the room just as the ringing stops. He then puts on his jacket, and taking his file (which he has carefully brought back with him), goes out the door, signs off with the receptionist, and with her and the security guard in tow, leaves the building. A perfect crime, a perfect alibi.

Downstairs, Véronique (Yori Bertin), the girl who works in the flower shop is shooting the breeze with her boyfriend, Louis (Georges Poujoly); she admires Tavernier who often comes to the shop to buy flowers for Florence. He’s handsome, sophisticated, and having been a paratrooper in the Foreign Legion, there’s that edge of danger that she attributes to him. Louis is not enamoured by his girlfriend’s crush on Tavernier. 
He’s a small-time crook who thinks of himself as dangerous, but Véronique informs him that Tavernier has been in the Indo-China and Algiers during the wars. And look, that’s his car! The Chevrolet convertible is more to Louis’s liking but as he’s eyeing it, Tavernier exits the building.

Tavernier gets into the car and starts the engine; as he does so, he idly glances up.
How could he have been so stupid?!

Leaving the engine idling, he quickly re-enters the building, and making sure the security guard doesn’t see him, enters the elevator. He must get rid of the evidence before anyone else spots it. As the elevator ascends, the security guard shuts off the power in the building before locking up for the weekend. Tavernier is stuck – between floors.
Meanwhile, Louis, who has been enviously been eyeing the convertible takes a chance to sit behind the wheel. He’s keeping a lookout for Tavernier, meaning to hop out before the man catches him. But when Véronique exhorts him to get out of the car because Tavernier wouldn’t like it, her anxiety makes him obstinate. 
Even as Véronique gets into the car, still pleading with him to be sensible, Louis puts the car into gear and drives away. Véronique, though still anxious, is nervously beginning to enjoy herself. She hands Louis Tavernier’s coat and hat, and the youth puts that on. She still retains enough sense to plead with Louis to return the car; unfortunately for her, someone cuts them off on the highway, which makes Louis decide to race them, just to show them – which leads to an accident.

Louis and Véronique are relieved when the owner of the Mercedes they crashed into turns out to be a cheery, hail-fellow-well-met kind of person, who isn’t too bothered that his car’s headlights have been smashed. When Horst Bencker introduces himself and his wife, Frieda, Louis assumes Tavernier’s identity. It’s rather late in the evening and Louis is sure that, by now, Tavernier would have reported his car stolen. Louis has a police record for petty thievery, and so Véronique checks them both into the hotel as ‘Mr and Mrs Julien Tavernier’.

The young couple spend an evening with the Benckers, where Frieda takes photographs with Tavernier’s spy camera, which Véronique has discovered in the car’s glove compartment, along with a gun. 
After which, while the men are drinking, the two women take the film roll to a shop beside the motel for developing.

That night, having blown his cover as a soldier in the Foreign Legion (Herr Bencker is a military man himself and very easily punctures Louis’s story), Louis decides to steal the Benckers’ car and escape. Unfortunately for him, Herr Bencker is a light sleeper and the errant pair are accosted by the jovial man, who holds them up with his cigarette holder in his pocket. Frightened at the thought of being sent to prison, Louis picks up Tavernier’s gun and shoots both Bencker and Frieda. Scared out of their wits, the two then drive Tavernier’s car back to Véronique’s apartment where they hole up for the night. 

Meanwhile, Florence, eagerly waiting for news of her husband’s death, is taken aback she sees his car go past with Véronique in the passenger seat. Feeling betrayed and forlorn, and hoping against hope that she’s mistaken, Florence wanders the streets of Paris looking for Julien, asking at several bars and clubs they used to frequent whether anyone’s seen Julien that night.
This stretch of film is accompanied by some fantastic Jazz (original score by Miles Davis), and beautifully photographed, Florence’s face only lit by the street lights and the lights of the shops as she passes.

Here’s Julien still stuck in the elevator; there’s Florence spending the night increasingly lonely, filled with deep sadness, and even arrested as a prostitute, and there’s Véronique and Louis who, frightened silly and incapable of thinking straight, deciding to commit suicide. 
In the morning, the Benckers’ bodies are found – and Julien is the prime suspect. So. Julien is arrested for murders that he didn’t commit; however, his alibi puts him on the spot for a murder he did. Can he prove his innocence in one crime, while slipping out of the noose for another? What about Florence, Véronique and Louis?

Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold/Elevator to the Gallows) is a stunning debut feature of a 24-year-old director who continually experimented with his films – certainly, a noir thriller is not a genre he returned to in his decades-long career. Malle wisely focuses on creating an atmosphere rather than focusing on a water-tight plot. Based on a pulp-fiction novel (by Noël Calef) of the same name, the film’s plot runs not on coincidences, but on plans going awry and each action having a ripple effect, setting other actions in motion. This film captures the desperation of its characters with an exquisite simplicity, and the use of natural light to shoot the night sequences emphasised the air of suspense. This air of desperation begins with the initial conversation between the lovers and is a thread that continues – in different shades, in different characters – throughout the film. Interestingly, it is the one character who has the most to lose who is the calmest – at least until the morning.
The three strands of the story diverge after the murder only to converge in the strangest of ways towards the end. The fates of Véronique and Louis are inextricably linked to Julien’s actions, while Florence, following Louis, seals her own fate and that of Julien’s. Life comes full circle.

Perhaps the greatest acting came from Jeanne Moreau who, along with Maurice Ronet, had very little dialogue in the movie. Florence’s air of fragility, her increasing desperation tightly controlled and evident only in the way Moreau walks through the street, her face a mask of misery. She might be the adulteress, plotting her husband’s death with her lover, but Moreau brings a vulnerability to her performance that gives the audience a sneaking sympathy for her devastation at the seeming betrayal. As she plots to free Julien from one crime without implicating him in another, one also sees the will behind that fragile façade.
I mentioned Miles Davis’s score earlier; as haunting as that music is, during the scenes where Florence wanders the streets, Davis ratcheted up the tension when the young couple’s fabrications are discovered by the German tourists. Malle also uses long silences to build up the suspense. Of particular note is a sequence in the lift where Julien is searching for a way out, tireless searching every square inch for a possible escape route.

What’s interesting about the film is the thread of fatalism that underlies the whole escapade. We are not invited to be sympathetic to them, and here, more than with any other film I’ve seen, there’s a sense of detachment from the characters. We, who know the sequences before the characters in the film do, are aware that the characters are trundling onwards towards a destruction neither they, nor we, can stop. Despite that, the ending still comes as a surprise. If you’re in the mood for a stylish black & white French noir film, packed with beautiful images and haunting music, then do take a look at Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud.

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