“Stavisky” – Madoff with a lot [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Stavisky,” a film based on a true story as seen through the lens of Alain Resnais and screenwriter Jorge Samprún, originally released in 1974, has been given a beautiful 4K restoration by Rialto Pictures. Although all the recent 4K restorations of “classic” movies have been marvelous, this one is particularly significant because of the important role that color and design play in this film. One might even go so far as to say that this is an excellent example of style over substance.
It was Samprún, Renais’ screenwriter for “La Guerre est Finie,” who came up with the idea of making a film based on the infamous French swindler and con man, Serge Alexandre Stavisky. In the seven years since the advent of “La Guerre est Finie,” for which Samprún had been nominated for an Academy Award, Renais had directed only one film. Samprún, on the other hand, had begun a very successful collaboration with Costa Gavras, which had earned him another Oscar nomination for the screenplay adaptation of “Z.” Wanting to work together again, Renais eagerly hopped on board the project.
Resnais, a master of “New Wave” cinema, was most adept at catching a sensation, whether emotional, visceral, or psychological. Plot was never the focus and like the famous quote from Jean-Luc Godard, his cohort in the “New Wave,” “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” This is both a strength and a weakness in “Stavisky.”
Resnais hired the bankable Jean Paul Belmondo to play Serge Stavisky. From a commercial standpoint, this was a brilliant move if only because of the financial backing that rolled in once he was cast. But, even more, dramatically it was a stroke of genius. Belmondo, who skyrocketed to fame in Godard’s “Breathless,” becoming the darling of the “New Wave,” was a classically trained actor from the Paris Conservatoire, and had also made a string of highly regarded dramas with the intellectual director Jean Pierre Melville, whose early film “When You Read this Letter” was recently released in another 4K restoration by Rialto.
Resnais and Samprún, using broadstrokes to define Serge Stavisky, aka Serge Alexandre, aka Sacha. Serge, Russian Jew, was born in the Ukraine and brought to France at an early age. His father was a successful dentist of impeccable standing in the community. His son Serge, on the other hand, unsuccessful at the several legitimate businesses he tried, made name for himself as a petty crook specializing in burglary. Father, unable to bear the social embarrassment of a criminal son, committed suicide.
Serge realized he had set his sights too low and upon his release from a short prison stint, reconstructed himself into the very vision of a modern successful businessman. Handsome, suave, persuasive, he is soon consorting with high ranking politicians and aristocrats, all of whom are hoping that some of his stardust and financial success will rub off on them. Stavisky was grandiose. If he now had a motto, it would be “never steal anything small.” No longer interested in petty theft, he became an expert in manufacturing and selling worthless municipal bonds.
The appearance of wealth was important to his persona for, as far as he was concerned, it established his bona fides. He gambled extensively; he bought a theater and produced money-losing spectacles; he silenced the critical press by buying their newspapers; and he was extravagant in the spread of bribes to politicians who looked the other way. But as will, inevitably, happen, the fraudulent bond schemes blew up in his face with enormous political consequences. It is still debated whether his end came as a suicide, as depicted by Resnais, or he was shot by the police at the behest of politicians about to be exposed. What is not debated is the political catastrophe that resulted from his machinations. The left-wing government was toppled; the subsequent leftist government fell shortly after anti-government rioters were shot; and a right-wing government came to power that all but acquiesced to the rising fascist movements to the east and south. Further, Stavisky’s bond schemes thoroughly weakened the economy that was none too strong to begin with. Many still attribute the rapid fall of France to the Nazis to the damage done by Stavisky. This, however, may be a bridge too far.
Resnais’ “Stavisky” is a somewhat romanticized view of the incidents. His Serge, as embodied by Belmondo, is handsome, charismatic, bold, and magnetic. A Jew and a foreigner, he recognizes what it will take to overcome the inherent anti-Semitism and xenophobia of the French. Is there a touch of revenge in his actions? Are they based simply on greed? Or does he truly believe that one last deal will make everything right? Resnais is definitely on point for that part of the story.
Resnais’ “Stavisky” is ravishing and expressionistic in his desire to illustrate this height of the Art Deco period, with the costumes, the flow, the saturation of the color, the pitch-perfect décor. In terms of acting, he could not have gotten a more perfect cast. Annie Dupery, as Stavisky’s adored wife, was made for this era with her marcelled hair, soulful eyes and model’s body. François Perrier, a leading character actor, adds a touch of needed mystery to his role as Borelli, Stavisky’s major domo. Smart, loyal, and watchful, he does, non-the-less, drop an occasional hint of his anti-Semitic leanings.
And most importantly, there is Charles Boyer at the end of his career, playing one of Stavisky’s closest friends, an aristocrat, who, no doubt, admires the scope of the younger man’s dreams and ambitions. Boyer, nominated four times for an Oscar, was always more than his smooth French accent and seductive manner. Engulfed in a sea of pretty boy actors, this balding, slightly paunchy man with a slightly threatening demeanor and a curling lip, had more charm than anyone should be allowed to possess, becoming a legendary sex symbol. What one can sometimes forget and is front and center in “Stavisky” was that he was a formidable actor and an anchor to which one could tether a film. Look also for somewhat fleeting glimpses of the next generation of famous French actors. Both Gerard Dépardieu and Niels Arestrup have small roles. The always excellent Michael Lonsdale plays Stavisky’s psychiatrist, a role that is perplexing, as shall soon become clear.
Going back to the Godard quote about beginning, middle, and end, Resnais plays with linearity in a way that seemed so new and revolutionary in the 1970s but that now just seems perplexing. Cutting to scenes in the future, not so much in a flash-forward sense, as there is no segue to buttress them, we witness the government proceedings following Stavisky’s death as they try to unravel the fraud. Without warning, Resnais takes you out of the narrative for a brief interlude of post death judicial interviews and then plops you back into the story at hand. Perhaps I followed this better the first time I saw the film forty years ago, but it was tremendously difficult this time to understand what was happening until the third or fourth “scene of the future.” Michael Lonsdale’s Dr. Mézy primarily appears in the judicial sequences explaining the psycho-pathology of Stavisky, making it harder to discern who he is and what he is doing in the main narrative.
Even more perplexing is the insertion of a secondary storyline involving Leon Trotsky who had been granted exile in Paris at this same point in time. Perhaps the point was to use Trotsky, another Russian Jew, as the Communist counterpoint to Stavisky, the ultimate Capitalist who manifests all the elements that idealistic Communists railed against. Unfortunately, too much time and mental energy is expended in trying to integrate this into the main narrative. It’s just one more cypher among the others.
Resnais seems interested in presenting a chronicle that is fluid in nature, much like mercury as it morphs from one shape to another. No doubt more appreciative of that technique at the time, I found it less successful at this point. Radical then, it seems to have devolved in time. What has remained awe-inspiring, however, is his use of color and design to evoke era, atmosphere, and attitude, seemingly becoming a character within the film, filmed sumptuously by legendary cinematographer Sasha Vierny, with a production designed by Jacques Saulnier. Inspired by the rhythms he heard in “Company” and “A Little Night Music,” Resnais hired Stephen Sondheim to do the score.
Compare this story and style to Jack Clayton’s “The Great Gatsby” of the same year. The color is there, meticulous care was taken with the set, movie stars were chosen and yet there is a stiffness and inertia that betrays the story. As stylized and sometimes confusing as “Stavisky” can be, it still moves and undulates with a rhythm of the time that makes you feel the era in a way that “The Great Gatsby” attempts and fails.
Regardless of the shortcomings that have become more apparent over time, this is still a movie to be seen, lived, and consumed for its sumptuousness and for a chance to revisit the best of Belmondo and Boyer, in his last film.
In French with English subtitles.
Opening Friday October 12 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center.