The bizarre twists taken by Louis Malle’s exquisite 1958 noir are magnified by the pristine manner in which the narrative begins as Julien, ex Foreign Legion, murders his boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), an industrialist whose real business is war. It’s a firmly composed sequence, every last detail, from a pencil sharpener to an over-eager elevator operator, designed to fit just so, for now and for later, the work of a man who has thought though everything. Ah, but there has to be a slip-up, there always is with a crime of passion, and that’s what this is, the film’s pre-title sequence involving Julien and Florence (Jeanne Moreau) exchanging
At this point, a tightly plotted thriller broadens into three separate stories. Another movie might have merely kept its focus on Julien’s plight and the pragmatic details of how he might attempt to get out and what he might do to make it through the night. None of that matters much to Malle. He sees the dark humor in the circumstances and in the events taking place outside the elevator and how they absolve Julien and put the nail in his coffin nonetheless. As he flounders in the dark, smoking cigarettes and poking around the elevator shaft, it essentially underlines how so much remains out of our control. Julien makes the initial choice, sure, but then has no choice other than sitting back and letting the crazy old world runs its course.
Thinking he’ll be back in mere minutes after attending to the rope, Julien leaves his sports car running along the sidewalk, where a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin), ogle it. She is a flower girl, sorta in love with Julien, dreaming of living his fancy-pants lifestyle. Well she’s about to do just that, yes she is, because her wannabe badass beau, who sees Julien as some sort of vaguely defined slave to, like, you know, The Man, steals Julien’s ride as she and Veronique employ it to find some joy. What transpires is more or less a lampooning of a French gangster film, two dopey kids masquerading as romantic hoodlums. This is emblemized in their encounter with a genial German tourist (Ivan Petrovich) who consistently sees right through every single angle of their ruse and calls them on it, laughing all the while, like they’re playing a parlor game. The whole episode builds to the most absurd suicide sequence I’ve seen a movie, one that’s less Romeo & Juliet and more Will & Grace, built on an awe-inspiring jejune misunderstanding and misplaced hearts & flowers.
Florence, meanwhile, waiting for Julien, sees the car, unaware that it’s stolen, drive right by her and mistakes Louis and for her accomplice, thinking he’s lit out with some other girl. Devastated, she wanders the streets in a positively spectacular side story, one worthy of its own movie, so bewitching is Moreau, so atmospheric its rendering. Opposite the by-the-book elevator scenes and the kids gone crazy it’s like a French impressionistic painting hung up between an Ansel Adams and McDonaldland Playground art.
If Louis and Veronique are in a fantasy gone wrong then Florence is flitting about in a dream. Wrecked by the apparent abandonment of her lover, she wanders the streets, at one point rambling into traffic, narrowly missing car after car, protected, apparently, by the fog of her own thoughts, relayed in voiceovers, the kind filled with such over-the-top yearning that you simultaneously swoon and laugh. She sidles into cafes and bars, hoping that someone has seen Julien, but no one has, and nameless men leer at her, transforming her into a Parisian version of Claudia in “L’Avventura.” But then, if Monica Vitti’s Claudia was consumed more my life’s desolation, the pointlessness of existence, well, I dare say Florence gets off on this kind of desolate existentialism as any clad-in-black French woman might. At certain moments you might even think Malle is sending this up, this idea of French poetic realism, and maybe he is, but, glory to the movie gods in the highest, does Jeanne Moreau sell this with all her soul. If she’s intended as caricature, Moreau gives her breath, gives her life, infuses her with an exultation of gloom. It’s a performance worth all the overwrought metaphors and when she strikes a sudden pose, if for no other reason than to strike a pose, perhaps momentarily willing to offer herself as a sacrifice to the movie gods, well, suffice to say the only reason I was happy to be watching it on my LED TV rather than the Big Screen because I fear her posture would have melted the projector.
These are not just three disparate stories but three disparate tones, which Malle still manages to merge even if the pieces would not seem to fit. As each story presses on, the further the movie seems to be getting away from what really happened, as if determined to fashion an alternate truth from the actual truth. I won’t go into any kind of detail about how the film eventually impresses genuine culpability upon everyone involved because if you haven’t seen the film you deserve to find out for yourself unspoiled. Much as I did, watching this film for the first time only a week ago, leaving me to wonder how I missed it, except to as quickly realized I was intended to see it when I was intended to see it, not unlike how the all-female dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were always intended to breed.
Yes, I just dropped a “Jurassic Park” reference in a review of “Elevator to the Gallows” because “Elevator to the Gallows” brings to mind a minimal variation of Dr. Ian Malcolm’s incredibly wise, insanely stylized words: the truth…ah…ah…finds a way.