21 December 2014 | robert-temple-1
Mysterious and compelling film of a Modiano novel
This film is a masterpiece of adaptation of a novel, UN CIRQUE PASSE, by Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. The mood, atmosphere, menace, and mystery of Modiano's work is conveyed impeccably on screen. The director, Alain Nahum, is a noted photographer, author, and film director. He has entered into the spirit of Modiano's work completely. In Modiano stories, nothing is ever fully resolved, mysteries remain, the searching for people, for one's own past and one's own identity, is an endless process. Modiano often writes about the Nazi Occupation of Paris, but this film is set in the Paris of 1961, just as General Raoul Salan has returned to Algeria to launch his putsch which threatened the French Government and only failed in 1962. An atmosphere of eerie menace and indefinable threats suffuses the story. At every turn, some strange connection with the distant Algerian events is hinted at, but never specified. The main character is a 20 year-old boy named Jean, whose father and mother have both fled the country and abandoned him, and he never expects to see either of them again. He is played by the young actor Théo Frilet, who is perfect for the part. Jean is living in a huge Paris flat where he had once lived with his family, and he has to get out in three weeks. He sells valuables from the flat for small sums to an antique dealer to get enough money to eat. He shares the flat temporarily with his father's business partner, Grabley (played by Hippolyte Girardot), who spends most of his time in the abandoned office burning incriminating papers and files. Neither we nor Jean ever learn what the crimes were or what any of this is about. Jean is called in for an interview at the Paris police headquarters at Quai des Orfèvres and the police ask him if he knew certain people. But their names are unfamiliar to him, so they let him go. A beautiful girl named Marie, aged about 30, is interviewed after him, and he is intrigued, so he waits for her to leave and befriends her. She is played by the alluring Laura Smet, who combines the qualities of childlike innocence with hard-boiled bitterness and a despairing, pessimistic practicality. She has seen a few things, things she would not want to admit to the young Jean, who takes her at face value. She never does answer Jean's questions as to why the police interviewed her, and whether it had any connection with his own interview. They become involved and fall in love. But meanwhile, all sorts of sinister people who surround them are carrying on their wicked designs of which we know nothing, based upon motives which are never explained. Jean likes to show Marie home movies of his childhood, and one of the women about whom the police interrogated him appears in them as a close associate of his father, but because he never knew her name, he does not know that she is the same woman. We know it only because we have seen a scene where Grabley meets with her in the father's deserted office. Everything becomes more and more obscure, and increasingly threatening. Marie pretends to everyone that Jean is her brother, and she calls him Patrick. This is presumably Patrick Modiano's reference to some aspect of himself, not so much one of his inside jokes, but a mysterious inside hint. One never knows with Modiano what the real truth is, and he himself seems not to know it either, for he is always searching for it and never finding it. Perhaps calling Jean by the name of Patrick is Modiano's way of exploring something he has half-forgotten and never fully known. Maybe he writes these stories in order to try to remember things he never knew. Events spiral increasingly out of control. Jean and Marie become involved in a kidnapping, and they also find Grabley lying dead on the floor of the father's office. Did he shoot himself or is the apparent suicide faked by his murderers? Threats are made to Jean by a man who is said to be a police informer but may be a political plotter or may be a gangster, or may be a hired killer. Jean and Marie decide that they too must flee Paris. But things keep coming up which delay their departure. They are driving around in a car loaned to them by a man who seems to be a very dangerous gangster. The plot thickens, and thickens, and still we are not at all clear of the source of the indefinable menace, or what the dangers are, and from where they are coming. All of this is wrapped in the mysterious things of which Jean is in total ignorance, as all the events happen around him. Someone tells him that Marie is really a circus performer, and he sees a photo of her as a star of the Cirque d'Hiver. Marie insists that it is a photo of her sister, whose husband is very violent, jealous and dangerous. There are suggestions that she has been a prostitute. She appears to have no money but wears a stunning fur coat. She then admits to Jean that she has 20,000 francs stashed which she says she has 'saved up' and wants to use for their flight to Rome. Throughout the film, the tension builds continuously in a masterful tour de force by the director and his excellent actors. The mood is impeccable from beginning to end. We are drawn into this mysterious story and wonder if we, or the characters, will ever emerge intact, or even alive. One wonders whether Modiano himself is composed of endless, ill-fitting pieces of some supernatural jigsaw puzzle, bearing an image which he can only vaguely discern, and which can never come into full focus or be wholly comprehended.