East of France, December 1917. In a village situated close to the front but protected from it by a hillside, the body of Belle de Jour, a little girl, is found by the canal. Judge Mierck, ... See full summary »
This was, with Les Parrains, the joint last film appearance of Jacques Villeret and although his performance is only one of several reasons to see this exceptional film it is a more than fitting swansong. I doubt very much whether Villeret has ever played someone so wicked - evil may be just a tad too strong - as his Juge Mierck, certainly I have never seen him in anything approaching the blackness of this soul - the title translates directly as Grey Souls. He starts the way he means to go on when, in the opening scene as one of several local officials gathered round the body of an angelic child found strangled on the banks of a canal Mierck calmly takes delivery of a boiled egg, cracks it open and eats it right there in the open air whilst gazing dispassionately at the corpse. This is a surprisingly effective twist on the scene where the villain strokes a Siamese/Persion cat, sniffs delicately at a rose etc, murmuring suavely in accompaniment as a few feet away his minders are castrating the hero. Nine out of ten times we groan or laugh outright in this spot but Villeret merely fascinates. World War One is enjoying something of a vogue lately; at the end of last year it featured heavily in A Very Long Engagement, Paths Of Glory is lined up for revival in London and Paris next month sees the release of Joyeux Noel which addresses the well documented incident of Christmas Day in the trenches when the two sides called a truce and shared food and drink before returning to their respective trenches. Although we don't see any actual combat World War One informs every frame of this outstanding movie. The setting is a small town literally a few miles from the front - so close in fact that one character whose fiancé is engaged in combat actually walks to the edge of the town from where she can clearly hear the gunfire on the other side of the hill that forms a natural barrier between town and Front. It's not a place you'd want to settle in; the schoolmaster suffers shell shock and commits suicide, the policeman's wife dies in childbirth leaving him distraught, the replacement schoolteacher is the character whose lover is at the Front and when he is killed she too commits suicide to say nothing of the young girl who is strangled. Despite all these negatives this is a truly enriching film with fantastic performances from everyone and not just the three top-billed actors - Jean-Pierre Marielle as the Procuriere, Denis Podalydes as the policeman and Jacques Villeret as Juge Mierck who has spent a lifetime suffering implacably the disdain of the Procuriere and retaliates by intimating that the Procuriere may be the murderer. Every shot is muted so that even the rich bindings on the impressive books lining Marielle's walls seem bereft of their high gloss. I have no hesitation in rating this a ten.