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French Film Festival 2008: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows)
Introducing Louis Malle and the smouldering Jeanne Moreau is this heavyset French thriller of best-laid plans. Presented on its 50th anniversary, it’s one of 17 features at the French Film Festival 2008, a digestible and easy on the eye celebration of Gallic cinema, now into its sophomore year. An outsider established within a canon consisting mostly of American film noir, the plotting of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) differs little from the doomed exit strategies of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and so on, yet as an unravelling of infidelity and murder is distinguished less as a lurid crime of passion, than it is a deliberation on cold hard consequence and fate. On the fringes of the nouvelle vague, Malle’s entrée, if not the radical debut of Godard and Truffaut, manages to pre-empt some of Breathless’ delinquent cool by introducing a pair of youths (prototypes for Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg) who get to steal a car, attack the petit bourgeoisie, and end up fugitives from the law. More central to the story are the desperate measures of Maurice Ronet; playing Moreau’s lover, his attempts to fabricate the suicide of her husband come unstuck when he gets trapped in an elevator overnight, giving rise to some perilous moments inside a lift shaft. Meanwhile, Moreau is sidelined for the majority of the film, though having her wander the streets of Paris in isolation has its own unique appeal – the dense black and white cinematography clothing the iconic actress in sultry, nocturnal midtones. The formidable Lino Ventura appears briefly as a tough-nosed inspector, while Miles Davis provides the memorable score; the trumpeter’s smoky jazz passages the ideal partner in crime for noir. The festival covers Wellington (Embassy Theatre, Feb 13-21), Auckland (Rialto Newmarket, Feb 20-28), and Christchurch (Rialto, Feb 26-Mar 2), with the full programme available online at frenchfilmfestival.co.nz.—Tim Wong