I will never forget when I first saw this film. You often forget when you saw a film for the first time, a film that you really love. You most certainly forget how many times you’ve seen it. After a fourth or fifth time, one loses track. But the first time will always remain in your memory, like a watermark: the close-up of Jeanne Moreau clutching that phone, as if her life depended on it, Miles Davis’s tunes blasting through, Maurice Ronet’s hesitant, but hopeful countenance.
I had just started studying Film at a reputed university in London, which for a girl from a small provincial town in a third world country, was a big deal. London is perhaps a big deal for most people not born in London. Everything was new and exciting, so I suppose I have a fond memory of all the films that were shown to me in class at that time. But this one, this one made fall in love with Jeanne Moreau.
This film has a lot to unpack. There is a generation gap, just unravelling before our very eyes. It’s a transition film between le cinema de papa and the new wave. It’s not exactly the French New Wave, but it has elements of it. You can see it in Henri Decae’s beautiful cinematography, you can hear it in Miles Davis’ gorgeous tunes. Moreover, you get the death of the imperialist France represented by the old Simon Carala. His death by the hand of Julien could simply be a representation of the “out with the old, in with the new” trope. Yet, Julien’s not exactly new new, is he? Therefore, he must pay the price for his past, working for “the Man”, an employee of the system that would become so hated by the “soixante huitards.”
The relatively young couple Florence-Julien, who remember the past (Indochina war, Algerian war of independence), are still tainted by it, so they cannot emerge from this unscathed. They have to be punished, unlike the very young couple Louis-Veronique. The latter couple are rebels without a cause, oblivious of the past or what destruction they leave in their wake. They just want to be modern day Bonnie & Clyde. They live for romance alone. They romanticise theft, spying, suicide, murder even. They have no clue of what’s really going on, but they want to be heard. The one thing they understand is that to be heard you have to commit the ultimate act of murder or suicide. Murder has already been committed, out of foolishness, so that leaves suicide. Thankfully, they have the wiser, slightly older generation to still look out for them. They try to run before they can walk. This might have been seen as a warning for the young generations at the time, but thankfully it didn’t take. The revolutions of the 1960s were indeed necessary and at times glorious, if we are to judge the artistic output.
Like with Casablanca, every time I watch this film I just crave for Julien to somehow make his escape from that fateful lift, make his way to Florence so they can live happily ever after, just like I’ve always dreamed that Ilsa would get on the plane with Rick instead of Victor Lazlo. Sure, Lazlo’s a hero, but who needs a hero when you have Bogart?
With Ronet’s Tavernier and Moreau’s Florence, I get the same urge to just see them together, the rest of the world be damned. It affects me. I see the chemistry between them even though you never see them onscreen together. You just believe them as perfect for each other. I love them. I know they’re adulterous, murderous dubious couple, but it’s film noir. Anything goes. Besides, Simon Carala had it coming, what with all the war crimes and exploitation he’s committed. He’s the modern-day Bezos, if we lived in a just world.
The cinematography was done by Henri Decaë, an artist in the business, who, together with Raoul Coutard, is responsible for the look of the French New Wave. He’s photographed Louis Malle’s The Lovers, Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups, on which I have waxed lyrical extensively, and many more. The story goes that when the lab technicians received the rushes from when Jeanne Moreau was filmed round the streets of Paris, very little make-up, very little light, they were appalled. They were reluctant to work with the material, thinking it would make Moreau too unflattering. Moreau was already a star of the Comédie-Française, so they felt they had a responsibility. Yet, the aesthetics were changing. No more studio-lit, artificial shots. This was real life. This woman was desperate to find her lover. It didn’t matter how big the bags under her eyes were. She was tired, she had been walking around Paris the whole night. She had been caught by the police, thinking she was a streetwalker. It turned out she was the wife of one of the most powerful men in town, so whoops! There goes the establishment, one artificial light at a time.
It wouldn’t be as easy as that, unfortunately. However, what remains is a film noir for the ages, regardless of the politics of the era, of what unrest was still to come. Accompanied by Miles Davis’ exquisite trumpet, Ascenceur pour l’échafaud heralds the change of the guards in French cinema like no other film does, establishing Louis Malle as a high-calibre director and turning Jeanne Moreau into a New Wave style femme fatale.