[A]mong the casualties of an epoch-making movement in cinema – like the French New Wave – are the talents that don’t get enough recognition because they are perceived to be ‘old fashioned’. If the directors of the French New Wave all embarked in new directions in the 1960s, it cannot be asserted that they were all successful. Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol’s later films, for instance, don’t hold much interest and some films of more conventional directors who appeared at the same time – like Jacques Deray and Michel Deville – often look more interesting today. Many of these filmmakers also did not have a ‘signature style’ so valorized by the New Wave and, even when they made the better films, they received less attention internationally. A filmmaker who emerged a little later but made several brilliant films in the 1970s and 1980s was Claude Miller, who did not stick to one or two themes but demonstrated considerable versatility in his handling of subject matter.
Garde a Vue (1981), one of Miller’s early films, relies on a brilliant script by Michel Audiard which does not mean that it is not cinematic. It can be loosely termed ‘noir’ in that it is about brutal crime and the artificial division maintained in crime stories between the law abiding citizen and the criminal is erased. Noir is usually about ordinary people led into committing murder but while Garde a Vue (based on a novel by John Wainwright) does not take this course, it still convinces us that the impulses leading to criminal conduct of an extreme nature are more common than is admitted. Garde a Vue is essentially a police drama involving two characters – the suspect and the policeman interrogating him. Inspector Gallien (Lino Ventura) is investigating the rape and murder of two little girls. The only suspect is attorney Jerome Martinaud (Michel Serrault), but the evidence against him is circumstantial. As the city celebrates New Year’s Eve, Gallien calls Martinaud to his office and interrogates him for hours on end while the latter continues to maintain his innocence. As the interrogation continues, gaps begin to emerge in Martinaud’s story. He was in the vicinity at the time of each crime but Martinaud is apparently lying about what he was doing.
To illustrate the ‘cinema’ in Garde a Vue, the film cuts briefly to the scene to illustrate what Marinuad claims he saw. The most striking one perhaps concerns the lighthouse that night. The night was foggy and when Gallien asks Martinaud if he heard anything, the latter cannot recall. When the Inspector persists, Martinaud finally explodes. “What should I have heard?” he wants to know. “The foghorn,” replies the Inspector as he walks out of the room and the film cuts back to the lighthouse – but now with the foghorn blaring on the soundtrack.
A secondary motif pertaining to the attorney’s marriage is crucial in Garde a Vue. Martinaud’s wife Chantal (Romy Schneider), it gradually emerges, despises her husband and believes him guilty of the crimes. At the climax of the film, Chantal visits Inspector Gallien and tells him the story that will convict her husband. The story goes back several years to the early days of their marriage when the two were visiting friends. The friends had a daughter named Camille – a lovely child of eight or ten with whom Martinaud was taken up. At one moment, Chantal surprised the two deep in conversation, and from a distance, it looked exactly like an intimate one between two adults. As Chantal bursts out to Inspector Gallien, her husband “had no business making Camille smile the way she did”.
The plotting in Garde a Vue is hardly watertight and its American remake Under Suspicion (2000) tries to tie up loose ends much more than it does. We are never told why Matinaud is lying to the Inspector but rather than these ‘loose ends’ making the narration, it frees Garde a Vue from the tyranny of film convention. To elaborate, moral divisions in cinema owe more to film convention (what is allowed to be shown) rather than to human nature (what people are) but over a period of time, representations have tended to define ‘normal’ social conduct, obscuring the fact that that they are only conventions. Categories like ‘child’ and ‘adult’, Garde a Vue suggests, are not intrinsic to humanity but only part of assumed convention. Martinaud’s misdemeanor in Garde a Vue is being drawn to a little girl the way other men are drawn to mature women. Although there is no indication that Martinaud actually did anything deplorable, Chantal is so shocked by the implications of what she saw that she is willing to see him convicted for a brutal crime without there being enough evidence that he is culpable. Since the crime for which Martinaud is accused carries a mandatory death sentence, his wife Chantal is, in effect, willing to kill him for it. Since Martinaud is portrayed as a person who keeps secrets, who is not completely ‘knowable’ there are possibilities of him being both guilty and innocent and his instability is a notion which is central to the film.
It will perhaps be appropriate to conclude with a comparison between Garde a Vue and its remake Under Suspicion. The American film has Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman as the Inspector and the suspect respectively and the two are as competent as any actors one might find in Hollywood. Still, there are two things seriously amiss in the American film. In the first place, Gene Hackman – like virtually every other Hollywood star – does not have it in his range to play someone ‘unstable’, someone capable of child molestation and murder but who might also be innocent. Secondly, unlike the French actors, the two American stars don’t seem to know how to play against each other as Lino Ventura and Michel Serrault do effortlessly.
American cinema works with psychological motivation as the driving narrative logic and begins by according ‘normalcy’ to its protagonists. We are invited to identify with the characters as French cinema is not prone to and this would not be possible if the characters we identified with were ‘unstable’. In the final analysis, where Garde a Vue makes us wonder at the notion of psychological ‘normalcy’, Under Suspicion closes off the possibility altogether because, given the circumstances dealt with in the story, Gene Hackman can only play an innocent man.