Alain Resnais was a contemporary of the nouvelle vague, that group of largely Cahiers du Cinéma aligned critics-turned-filmmakers that most famously included Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Resnais, on the other hand, belonged to the more literary coterie situated on Paris’ Left Bank, which included Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and other filmmakers and writers with a commitment to modernism and, of course, leftist politics.
In 1974, after the wild street theatre of the 1968 riots and the “Maoist” posturing of Godard, a film like Stavisky… might have seemed like a charming, stylish detour in Resnais’ rigorous oeuvre. But viewed in light of the fallout of the recent GFC (created with stunningly “derivative” money games and Ponti schemes that all too precisely parallel the voucher schemes of Stavisky), the film can now be read again as both a prescient and deeply polemical work rather than as a jeu d’esprit about a colourful swindler!
Chronicling the last act of Stavisky’s life as he continues to court public and financial attraction and exposure like a dark star even as he desperately tries to salvage his disintegrating financial empire, plan his next scam, and duck the authorities, the film captures the rhythms of the rapidly (and, alas, irreversibly) shifting socio-political landscape of Europe in that false calm between the devastation of two world wars. A parallel subplot about Leon Trotsky and the increasingly rightist politics within the French establishment that would see the Russian thrown out of France, mirrors Stavisky’s equally tragic fall. These insistent historical parallels, of course, can be put down to the powerful beliefs of screenwriter Jorge Semprun as well as Resnais’ own sense of the overriding synchronicity of all things.
It’s also depressing to be reminded by Stavisky… (the movie, the life) how the global markets have ignored the lessons of history, so much so that we must yet again live through the aftermath of international financial corruption on a scale that makes Stavisky’s “crimes” pale in comparison.
Dazzling charm had helped Serge Alexandre (alias Stavisky; played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Resnais’ film), a small-time swindler with a long trail of aliases and scams, to form alliances with many of the most powerful and protected members of the French industrial and political elite during the early 1930s. But when his dazzling sting was exposed, it was an unprecedented scandal that almost caused a civil war. On 7 February 1934, the French Ministry of the Interior and the Paris Police Prefecture banned the showing of newsreel footage of the previous day’s riots by right-wing royalists, war veterans and members of the anti-semitic, nationalist, anti-republican Action Française movement, which had left 17 dead. Stavisky’s own psyche remains a mystery and Resnais is wise enough to leave this puzzle unexplained. As Docteur Mézy (Michel Lonsdale) claims, “To understand Stavisky sometimes you have to forget files. You have to dream of him and to imagine his dreams.” The actual Stavisky remains an enigma – there is no real secret to him. Like his fortune, he simply invented himself.
Sacha Vierny’s cinematography shades most other period films in the use of muted colours for its period look. As for the location work, there are few films of any period in French cinema that so brilliantly use the full panoply of locations from Biarritz to the posher arrondissements of Paris and such wildly different architectural styles making Stavisky… a student’s guidebook to architecture from Renaissance to the Arts and Crafts movement.
Belmondo shines at the heart of this film – it’s his finest hour. And we don’t just see Belmondo at his best: Stavisky… also features Charles Boyer in one of his last and best performances as the hapless and loyal Baron. Stavisky… just looks so classy and still has considerable resonance: far more now, in tranquillity, than Godard’s À bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1960) or even Pierrot le fou (1965) – films which now seem rather shrill.
Perhaps rather than using Sondheim for the score, Resnais would’ve been better off with a calmer Ennio Morricone soundtrack. But: chacun a son gout, Alain! In making the very accessible Stavisky…, Resnais would always remember the reception for his solemn L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) when it screened at Venice in 1961:
During the first 45 minutes of Last Year at Marienbad, the audience reacted very violently, responding to the dialogue in the film with deafening laughter. I turned to the organisers: let’s stop the film, this is painful! […] My directing career could have ended definitively that night because I would never have been able to come back to Venice with another film. (1)
So the choice of Stephen Sondheim is perhaps part of Resnais’ project to make his films easier to read, if no less edgy, elegiac and political in theme and style. Indeed his use of the bookending device of intercutting the proceedings and personal testimonies (the Doctor, the Baron) to a Parliamentary Committee investigation into the financial ruin of so many, gives a curiously intimate feel to this otherwise elegant period piece.
Watching Resnais’ intriguing film today you can sense the forces unleashed in part by Stavisky’s fall – forces that were to lead to the election of Leon Blum, the first socialist and the first Jew to serve as Prime Minister of France from 1936.
Walk through the posh sixteenth arrondissement today (see if you can catch the reference to it that doesn’t appear in the subtitles) and you can still sense that jealous, old and cold power waiting its turn, counting its money. Should another Stavisky happen along, you can be sure his Madoff-like scam would quickly lure the locals into whipping out their chequebooks yet again!
Resnais’ remarkable filmography shows a cinematic life well-lived and a body of work with powerful political implications. His fascination with the role of the past (and how soon we forget it) began with the stunning documentary Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955). In 1959, Hiroshima mon amour took a deeply personal and poetic look at the emotional and moral fallout (sic) of that terrible event, and in Last Year at Marienbad, along with Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1966), brought the sensibility and stylistics of modernist literature to the screen in a formal and rigorous manner. Stavisky… is a timeless and absolutely exquisite film that basically hasn’t aged one bit, and it serves up probably the definitive performance of Belmondo’s captivating screen persona.
But Stavisky… remains possibly Resnais’ most elegant and accessible movie – and one that still has a lesson at its core that we have clearly yet to learn!
- Resnais interviewed by Camillo de Marco, “Cinema Never Goes Back”, Cineuropa 2 September 2006: http://cineuropa.org/interview.aspx?documentID=66603.
- The following works were consulted in the preparation of this article: James Monaco, Alain Resnais, Oxford University Press, 1979; Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2006.
Stavisky… (1974 France/Italy 120 mins)
Prod Co: Cerito Films/Les Films Ariane/Simar Films/Euro International Film Prod: Alexandre Mnouchkine, Georges Dancigers Dir: Alain Resnais Scr: Jorge Semprun Phot: Sacha Vierny Ed: Albert Jurgenson Prod Des: Jacques Saulnier Mus: Stephen Sondheim
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, François Périer, Anny Duperey, Michael Lonsdale, Charles Boyer, Robert Bisacco, Claude Rich, Gérard Depardieu