[box cover]


Image Entertainment

Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anny Duperey,
and Charles Boyer

Written by Jorge Semprun
Directed by Alain Resnais

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

What ever became of Alain Resnais?

Not that he really went anywhere. Now entering his 80s, Resnais remains, with Jacques Rivette, the grand old man of New Wave Cinema, and he continues to work in France, as vigorous as ever making movies that rarely make it to America. But why is that?

After directing seminal and controversial nouvelle vague masterpieces such as Hiroshima, Mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais embarked on a series of psychological essays and stage-influenced comedies and melodramas. This phase began with Je t'aime, je t'aime in 1968, and it was a weird film that was openly laughed at in the States.

Though he made two very good movies during this period — the beautiful Providence, which was successful critically and commercially, and Stavisky, an elegant throwback to '30s cinema with a complex subject-matter few Americans knew anything about — most of his post-1980 films were at the best obscure and at the worst never made it to the United States. The titles include On connat la chanson (or Same Old Song), the dual-film set Smoking/No Smoking, the hour-long Gershwin (of all things), the Jules Feiffer-scripted Contre l'oubli, or I Want to Go Home, the excruciatingly slow but beloved Melo, L'Amour mort, La Vie est un roman, and of course Mon oncle d'Amerique, his essay on sociobiology which was the last of his films to gain widespread release in America.

Resnais appears to be the victim of the decrease in exhibition of European films in the United States. With the lessening of restrictions on adult content in the U.S. from the late '50s on (now under reversal thanks to the MPAA), American audiences didn't need art houses to see their first revelation of exposed, naked female breasts, or semi-attractive couples bumping uglies; and as the American appetite for disposable fluff seems to continue, indeed take over the world, the appetite for serious foreign films appears confined to centers of corrupted civilization such as Manhattan and certain street corners in Seattle.

This is of course unfortunate, but thank goodness for DVD. Image Entertainment has released Resnais's 1974 historical drama Stavisky, which makes it one of the few Resnais films actually available on disc, at this writing. (For the record, the others are La Guerre est finie from Image, Last Year at Marienbad from Fox Lorber, and Mon Oncle d'amerique from New Yorker.)

Stavisky is an historical drama by virtue of being set in France in the early '30s. In many other ways it is modern; but it also has a supreme theatricality, in keeping with this phase of Resnais's career.

What Teapot Dome, the Keating Five, and Watergate, or the incidents connected to Monica Lewinsky and Gary Condit, were to Americans, i.e., ongoing political scandals implicating high officials, L'affair Stavisky was to the French. Like Watergate, the Stavisky affair toppled a government — in this case a new, experimental socialist government. Stavisky knew many of that government's members, and they were implicated in his financial shenanigans. Conservative politicians were able to capitalize on socialist corruption; and the people — hearing of the political perfidy piecemeal in a myriad of daily papers the way Americans learned about Watergate — rioted, charging meetings and public buildings with the intensity of French revolutionaries or Florida re-count protesters. In a climate of global economic worries and unstable governments, everyone was scared, from pols to peasants.

But all that happens after the events in Stavisky end. And Resnais is more interested in the curious balance of life and death in Stavisky's demeanor. The events in the last years of Stavisky's life are complicated, and even worse, happened in a different country with vastly different systems and financial instruments, and Resnais assumes you know all that, so a typical American viewer is probably at sea without either looking up Stavisky in the Encyclopedia Britannica or reading the screenplay by Jorge Semprun published by Lorrimer (and now out of print). The film isn't impossible to follow if you know nothing, but it requires undivided attention — something perhaps lacking in this ADD culture.

In brief, Serge Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French Burt Reynolds), who went by the name Serge Alexandre during the events recounted in the film, was a Russian Jew who emigrated as a child to France with his dentist father (who committed suicide when he learned about one of his son's early arrests). Under the influence of a rogue grandfather, Stavisky became a major con-man, with a minor in theater. By the time Stavisky begins, he has several quasi-legitimate businesses, a beautiful wife Arlette (the breathtaking Anny Duperey) on whom he cheats for quick financial profit such as acquiring his victim's diamonds, and is juggling a series of schemes all at once, among them a theater scam. In essence, he was enacting a variation on the Ponzi scheme, paying off one debtor with the funds acquired from another bright idea. He utilized something in France called Municipal Banks, which appear to be glorified pawn shops. With the co-operation of corrupt bank managers he could borrow money on fake or over-valued merchandise. His friendships with high government officials, financiers, and other influential people, whom he charmed into covering for him, proved an embarrassment to them when his Ponzi schemes all finally came tumbling down.

Just as most readers pass over the "boring" business pages of a newspaper (where all the real news is to be found), most viewers are bored by business movies, and that's what Stavisky is, a symphony of loan repayments, spread sheets, interest rates, blind trusts, periodic payments, and numbered accounts. The movies' relationship with business — in such films as Executive Suite, Rollover, and Wall Street — is probably one of not revealing the secrets of the Hollywood machine itself, which is really built on a foundation of Manhattan banks. Stavisky, however, has a powerful human element as well: It is a profile of a man moving quickly and selfishly to avoid death. Jean-Paul Belmondo is superb as Stavisky, a lovable louse, a fascinating scam artist who loved to live on the edge. Surrounded by advisors whom he never listens to, such as Baron Raoul (a poignant Charles Boyer) and Albert Borelli (François Périer in a near silent, watchful role), Stavisky lives life to the fullest while others bask in his glow. Clearly, he loved to flirt with death, either in the form of financial ruin, or his literal end. (And look for Gérard Depardieu in a small part as an aspiring inventor.)

Stavisky is at the same time both old fashioned (a lush, unique score by Stephen Sondheim, overlit and conventional photography by Sacha Vierny with a limited palette, a theatrical approach to the material larded with stylish clothes and elegant locales) and modernist. Resnais uses his patented unannounced flashbacks to mount layer upon layer of his and Semprun's narrative. His camera tracks past architecture, making love to it from a distance, in ways reminiscent of Marienbad's evocative strategies. And there is an odd shift in the film as the "story" of the Stavisky debacle, provided in chronological order, gives way to a series of testimonies by subsidiary characters to a commission set up to investigate the breath of the corruption in the wake of Stavisky's mysterious death. Semprun also came up with a clever compare-and-contrast character: Leon Trotsky, who was in exile in France at the same time that the Stavisky scandal was coming down. The connection is not as odd as it seems: Both men were Russian Jews, both were truly outsiders in their society while being charismatic leaders, and both suffered violent deaths meant to silence them. Semprun cunningly overlaps characters between these two camps, primarily in the form of a young radical German actress named Erna Wolfgang (Silvia Badesco) who also runs in Trotsky's circles.

Image Entertainment's DVD release of Stavisky is a bare-bones disc, with 16-chapter scene-selection and that's it. However, the anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) is excellent, and the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is more than adequate for a talky film. By contrast, the responsible reviewer must draw the reader's attention to the disc's French equivalent, which has an audio commentary track by Alain Resnais, a photo gallery, and comes in both CinemaScope and full-frame. French-speaking DVD collectors with all-region players may prefer that disc. But for monoglot Americans, Image's release does help plug at least one of the appalling gaps in Resnais's DVD availability.

— D.K. Holm

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