Friday, February 19, 2010

Landru's Beard

I think all period films can be divided into two categories: those for which the actors grow out moustaches, and those in which they wear false ones.

Chabrol's Landru falls squarely into the false-moustache category. As Landru, Charles Denner wears the falsest of false beards. I can think of only one falser: the beard Jim Caviezel wears in The Final Cut, a beard so glaringly fake it makes you suspect that the movie is secretly an over-the-top farce and that Caviezel might yank it off any second if he thinks it'll get a good laugh from the audience. With his thick, fake eye-brows and heavy make-up, Denner looks like a waxwork. It reminds me of the make-up Christopher Walken wore in Heaven's Gate (which made him look like a drag king, like a woman doing her best impression of a frontiersman) or the old man who puts on a dandy’s mask to go out to the dance-halls in the first segment of Le Plaisir. Denner’s froggy voice sounds like a little boy imitating an adult, or maybe like Alpha 60.

When we talk about films, we tend to equate falseness with shoddiness. “The acting was unconvincing,” we say. Or, “the special effects were bad.” This is a little ironic, considering the fact that the image itself is always false. There's a function to falsehood. Cinema finds a function for everything. As there is an element of the fantastic that can only be accomplished by a certain adherence to reality (Louis Feulliade discovered that principle; Michel Gondry is the one that practices it most fervently nowadays), there's an emotional reality that can only be achieved through total falseness. A few examples out of an uncountable number: the detail-less rooms of Monsieur Verdoux (more on that one in a bit) and Der Verlorene; the cutaway sets of The Ladies Man, Tout va Bien, Absolute Beginners or The Life Aquatic; the mismatched dubbing of numerous Fassbinder, Antonioni and Rossellini films; the oversized walls of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Nightwatching; those inaccurate accents that take on lives of their own, veering into the abstract, the voices becoming instruments, like the Southern twangs of Robert De Niro in Cape Fear and Nicolas Cage in Con Air; Eugene Green’s imaginary lions and ogres, the way long spans of fictional time lapse in a single take in Doomed Love, the backdrops of Percival and The Lady and the Duke. The false often offers a more direct path to truth than the realistic.

[I’ve already mentioned one Wes Anderson film in this text, The Life Aquatic, and it’s difficult to write for very long about a perceived “falseness,” especially if you wanna talk about cinema at the present, without mentioning Anderson. The point of so-called “distanciation” is to bring the audience closer – for Brecht, to the idea, for Anderson, to the feeling. Anderson, with his storybook pictures, folds Brecht’s principles back in on themselves, using techniques devised to mitigate involvement to involve an audience. His films are earnest. They’re nearly naked in their emotion—genuinely naked, not merely nude like so much “confessional” fiction.]
Making Landru, Chabrol drew on the same nasty little story as Orson Welles did when he came up with the scenario for Monsieur Verdoux. The story is fairly simple: Henri Landru, born in 1869, was a petty fraudster who’d done a little time. World War I rolls around. The middle-aged Landru is running a resale shop. Maybe the money’s no good, maybe he just wants to be better off than he is. Either way, he starts putting personals ads in the paper, saying that he’s moderately well-off and looking to marry. Widows and spinsters answer the ads, and Landru strangles the wealthier ones once he gets hold of their savings. He burns them in his stove; 10 in all, plus a snot-nosed kid who knew too much.

The character of Verdoux can be described as Chaplin’s understanding of Landru. For Chaplin, Landru is a metaphor. It should be noted that, acting the part and directing himself, he makes no attempt at making his Verdoux resemble the historical Landru physically (Chaplin may be doing so out of personal vanity, but vanity has brought us many good things). He makes the character into the genteel gentleman his victims must’ve imagined him to be. Verdoux is “the dream of Landru,” much as Johnny Depp in Public Enemies is the dream of Dillinger more than a historical representation (the difference, though, is that Depp's Dillinger has dreamt himself, whereas Verdoux could only be dreamt up by the society he preys on—an ideal husband, father, murderer and convict).

The perverse truth about Denner’s make-up in Landru, though, is that Henri Landru really did look like a wax figure; he was a creepy, trollish little man. Denner’s Landru talks like a man pretending to be refined, whereas Verdoux is genuinely intelligent. Both Landru and Monsieur Verdoux are comedies, but whereas Chaplin’s targets don’t become obvious until the latter half of his film, the falseness of Denner’s Landru makes Chabrol’s target obvious from the first scenes. He is after all those who would believe a Landru.

In making a sympathetic killer, Chaplin makes the society around him seem ridiculous. In creating an utterly false killer, Denner and Chabrol turn the attack from satire to absolute farce. In Monsieur Verdoux, society seems to be on the wrong path. In Landru, it's a joke. Even the judges wear false moustaches.

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