Sunday, January 21, 2024

Ce Que J'ai Fait: On the Return of Paul Vecchiali's 1970 Giallo-Adjacent Film The Strangler

THE STRANGLER / L'Étrangleur 
(Paul Vecchiali, 1970, France, 96 minutes) 

Oh night, conceal my pain, caused by being nothing and being alive.
--epigram that opens the film 

Ce que j'ai fait, ce soir-là 
Ce qu'elle a dit, ce soir-là 
Réalisant mon espoir 
Je me lance vers la gloire... OK 
--Talking Heads, "Psycho Killer" 

As a boy, Émile, the central character of former Cahiers du cinéma critic Paul Vecchiali's fascinating and disturbing film, was a cute, blond kid. Perfectly normal-looking. But then, late one night during a trek to buy a copy of the funny pages, he witnesses an act of misogynistic violence. It could have destroyed him, but it doesn't—it makes him, and he will grow up to be much like the strange man he encountered on the picturesque streets of Paris. 

Years later, a "killer of lonely women" stalks the city. The Jack the Ripper-like figure has killed five women by strangling them with a white child's scarf, exactly like the faceless man in the prologue. On TV, newspaper reporter Simon Dangret (Julien Guiomar) describes the victims, according to those who knew them, as "sad and lonely" and "desperate and suicidal." He asks the killer to reach out to him, and provides his contact information. 

Anna (Eva Simonet), who watched the broadcast, just after being dumped by her boyfriend, approaches the reporter--who is actually a police inspector--and offers to act as bait. "I have nothing to lose," she says. He brushes her off. 

Unbeknownst to Anna, 36-year-old Émile (Jacques Perrin, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Donkey Skin) witnessed the entire exchange, and proceeds to follow her. He doesn't do anything except observe, faithful German shepherd at his side. It's broad daylight after all--but she's now on his radar. 

By day, Émile works at a produce stand in sequences that appear more documentary-like than the rest of this pastel-hued film. It seems likely that Perrin worked at an actual stand, interacting with actual customers. 

Émile's true vocation, however, is killing, and since he feels no shame, no remorse, he calls the reporter to let him know he feels fine. "I'm happy," he states. He kills because it feels like the right thing to do, but just as Anna doesn't know he's watching her, Émile doesn't know someone is watching him, and it isn't the reporter, but Le Chacal (Paul Barge), a petty thief.

Since the film begins after he has already killed five women, Vecchiali depicts his encounters with victims six through eight, each a distinctly remarkable sequence. Émile kills one woman (Jacqueline Danno) after she has performed in a nightclub, singing a sad chanson about sailors while accompanied by dancers in navy-and-white striped tunics; a beautiful, once famous-now-forgotten actress (Hélène Surgère, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), who has made herself up as if she were expecting a gentleman caller, even though she isn't; and a stylishly-dressed ballet dancer practicing in an empty studio late at night. They don't deserve to die, of course, regardless as to their possible heartbreak, but Émile doesn't see it that way. 

Much like Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, a possible influence, Vecchiali alternates between what we see of Émile and what he sees of the world (and whenever he drives anywhere, the action briefly shifts into hyper-drive). 

This implicates us, but not necessarily as voyeurs. Except for the dreamlike opening sequence, the Corsican filmmaker--who produced Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles--doesn't linger over any of the killings, and nor is there any sex or nudity. None of this makes Émile sympathetic, though Vecchiali depicts Le Chacal as a colder character, since he could have tried to prevent the killings he witnessed or shared his findings with the police, but doesn't. Further, pawing through the still-warm victims' effects has no discernible effect on his psyche. 

As the film continues, Vecchiali spends less time with Émile and more with his followers as Anna continues to pester Simon, while he continues to brush her off. Until he doesn't. They're all obsessed in different ways, and the four--including Émile--will come increasingly close to colliding with each other. 

Though Émile insists to Simon that he's happy, and that he's "doing these poor women a favor," the way he reaches out to the reporter suggests otherwise, since he now has someone to talk to, and he seems to relish that, even as it jeopardizes his ability to kill indefinitely. In other words, he's lonely, too--but he's more sociopathic than suicidal. The situation grows even more complicated when the enchanted Chacal reaches out to the attractive Anna. 

By this point, Simon knows enough to act, but doesn't, and Émile knows enough to stop, but doesn't. All of the actors are very good, and each brings a different color or flavor to the film. Throughout, Émile remains the most enigmatic, even as we catch glimpses of his memories and fantasies. 

Though he sleeps next to a portrait of a white-haired woman who appears to be his mother, we never learn anything about their relationship (tellingly, the portrait is situated next to a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince). Other than his trusty canine sidekick, he's completely alone, and it appears that he always has been. Perrin doesn't play him as a sad sack or an incel, but as an introvert who has a set way of looking at the world, and lacks the ability to grow or to change out of his immature worldview.  

For most of its running time, The Strangler didn't strike me as misogynist--or feminist--but a series of incidents towards the end shifted my thinking, one of which involves a group of street walkers who spend as much time strolling the boulevards of Paris as Émile (they look after each other in a way that felt Varda-esque).   

Émile also gets careless, as single-minded serial killers are wont to do, but no matter how you think the film is going to end, you're likely to be surprised, since not one of the four players is exactly who or what they appear to be; the bad characters have good sides and the good characters have bad sides, and all of those sides will eventually--and eventfully--converge. 

It's hard to say if The Strangler, which also saw release in 1970, was as much of a comment on women's lib as Rudolf Thome's Red Sun, in which women act as killers of men. Vecchiali's film is more of a character piece--and not a full-fledged giallo as some have claimed--and the central character is more obviously villainous, yet somehow not a complete monster. At Screen Anarchy, Olga Artemyeva compared the film to Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End, with its dangerously naïve protagonist, and she's not wrong.

Émile proves capable of empathy, sorrow, and even love. In a way, that's the scariest idea of all: that such a seemingly decent person--the cute guy at the fruit stand with the dog and the shy smile--could also be the worst. 

The 2K restoration of The Strangler, which made its US theatrical debut in 2023, is out now on Blu-ray through Altered Innocence. Roland Vincent's fabulous score has never been available on any format, which is a shame as it hews towards light and charming during the day and dark and jazzy at night--with generous helpings of organ, accordion, and reverb. Images: Mubi (Jacques Perrin), Film at Lincoln Center (Émile as a boy, Eva Simonet, and Julien Guiomar), Film Inquiry (Jacqueline Danno), and IMDb (poster). 

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