“Je t’aime. Je t’aime.” A lover whispers desperately into the mouth piece of a public phone. The receiver of these words hangs onto them desperately, gripping the phone as if it was her. A strong horn blasts and flashes across the soundtrack and “Jeanne Moreau” abruptly gets thrown onto the screen. This is the first couple of minutes of this great debut by Louis Malle.
Jeanne Moreau plays a woman who is a wife of a very powerful arms dealer. Her lover, played by Maurice Ronet (who is also in The Fire Within directed by Louis Malle), is employed by this arms dealer. They plot to kill him in order for them to be together in peace. He picks a Saturday and executes his plan. But he foolishly left evidence on the balcony. Quick on his feet, with his car still running, he rushes to retrieve this evidence before anyone notices. However it being a Saturday and he being the last to leave just ten minutes before, the guard turns off the electricity, stalling the elevator that was bringing him up to his floor. He is now stuck in this elevator. Meanwhile a rebellious young couple steals his still running car and passes his lover waiting for him in the cafe. Assuming that it is he in the car with a beautiful young woman, she realizes that he was a coward. And yet she waits for him at the cafe until close and wanders the streets looking for him. Her emotions growing with resignation after every step, she becomes more and more desperate to find him to tell him that she still loves him even if he is a coward.
Jeanne Moreau is the center of this film for me. Her expressions belay a growing sense of dread as she stalks the streets looking for her lover. The extreme close-ups of her face streaked with rain are one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen on film. She embodies this character so thoroughly that when she is doing nothing but walking, you can still feel the agitation, the wild abandon, and the love sickness she is going through. Contrast this with Ronet’s performance as the man stuck in the elevator. He is calculating, stolid, and at all times calm, even when he is desperate for fresh air. He does not give up escaping the elevator and his many attempts mirror his willingness to go the extra mile for his lover. But he knows that this one mistake that he has made very well has cost him his love and his life. In a way he is just as desperate as Moreau, but you can only see it in cigarettes he smokes and the short bursts of feeling he gives way to. It is a magnificent contrast.
The feeling of dread that pervades this film even when we watch the rebellious young couple inch closer and closer to their fate is accentuated by the perfect score. Executed by Miles Davis and a couple of French jazz musicians in only a couple of hours, the score emphasizes the emotions each character goes through with a jagged angle that feels so right. Miles Davis is a genius and it is wonder that this was the only film he ever scored. He would have been perfect for so many of the French New Wave directors.
Louis Malle is a director that I have written about several times on this blog, so my adoration for him is probably pretty obvious by now. However I love watching filmmaker’s first films to see if their genius was evident from the very beginning. Sometimes, it is not, but that is not the case with Malle. This film is a masterpiece for several reasons, not the least because Malle made it happen.