' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Patrice Chéreau

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

In Memoriam: Patrice Chéreau


"Why do you hate the grey hair, Magua?"

The name of General Marquis de Montcalm is first mentioned within the first 15 minutes of "Last of the Mohicans." We do not actually see General Marquis de Montcalm, however, until another half-hour has passed. And that seems about right. He is not there, not in view, but his presence, his role as "the gallant antagonist", quietly hovers over the proceedings. He may be a man of war, but what he really is is a delegator. Delegators don't need to be on screen for large chunks of time. They've got other people taking care of business.

Montcalm is a vital character in Michael Mann's 1992 masterpiece. He is the French general orchestrating the siege of the British-held Fort William Henry, commanded by Colonel Munro (Maurice Roeves). Eventually he takes possession of the fort by offering the British a deal - pack up, leave, go with God. Unless he doesn't actually want them to go with God. But more on that in a minute.

Despite his importance, Montcalm only has three scenes. And, in turn, that means Patrice Chéreau, the Frenchman known for his directorial efforts in his native country more than a few spots of American acting, only has three scenes. In those three scenes, he cultivates an arc that eventually pulls the bearskin rug out from underneath us.

Initially he is seen at a 1757-sorta meet and greet with a few Seneca Indians. He sends them on their way and then says "whatup?" to Magua (Wes Studi), the requisite villain, the Huron Indian hell-bent on revenge against Colonel Munro and his daughters. Even if Montcalm seems gentlemanly, this particular ally leaves us suspicious.

Alas, once Montcalm has battered Colonel Munro's defenses he calls a parlay, and it is there that he offers terms of surrender which involve Munro and all his soldiers and all the inhabitants of his fort to leave unmolested. Our suspicions are allayed.

Unless they aren't. Because in his final scene he seeks Magua's council in a dimly lit forest and essentially gives him the go-ahead to attack Colonel Munro and his men and women and children after they have departed the fort.

In all likelihood, that's revisionist history (or false history, if you prefer). But then Colonel Munro did not have two daughters named Cora and Alice and there was no Mauga seeking blood vengeance against the Colonel. (The Colonel's name was also Monro, not Munro.) And even if the real life Montcalm did not order such butchery, it paves the way for Chéreau's finest moment in the film.

If you pull up the "Last of the Mohicans" screenplay you will find Montcalm spelling out in no uncertain terms what he is asking Magua. In the film, Michael Mann chooses to let Patrice Chéreau communicate his desire for the dirty work non-verbally. He explains to Magua he is certain to face Munro again and then lets his gaze, those hyper-focused eyes, linger for a second before looking down. Contemplating. Wondering. Re-thinking?

He looks back up and it's an expression worth five very specific words: "You know what to do." And then he's gone.

Patrice Chéreau died yesterday at the age of 68. He was beloved for his filmmaking in France, filmmaking with with which I admit in great shame I am wholly unfamiliar. But Mr. Chéreau was a featured cast member in Cinema Romantico's all-time favorite movie. Thus, we honor him.

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