Also released in some English-speaking territories as either The Inquisitor or The Grilling, this was the first cinema adaptation of John Wainwright’s 1979 novel Brainwash (click here to read my review). The second, Under Suspicion (2000), was in effect a remake based on both the earlier screenplay and the original book, and starred Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Monica Bellucci with the action relocated to Puerto Rico. Although the book has been adapted to various media over the years, the first remains an exceptional effort. Made very shortly after the book’s publication, Lino Ventura, Michel Serrault and the luminous Romy Schneider star in this very wintry whodunit …
I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here. I also submit it as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected..
“the walls of this room would not suffice to write the names of all the murderers who have supposedly discovered the body of their victim”
In Garde à vue (the title translates roughly as ‘police custody’) the setting is relocated from the Yorkshire of the original novel to Normandy and the time is given a festive spin by being set on New Year’s Eve. Otherwise this is a very close adaptation, even to the extent of maintaining to the original timescale and adhering to fairly strict unities of time and place with the opening and closing of the film identified through on-screen captions as setting the action between 9PM on 31 December and 7AM the following morning, more or less as stated in the book. Indeed this is a model of textual fidelity but also demonstrates the real advantages of adapting a text to a different medium as the filmmakers also bring a lot of themselves to the party.
The eternally world-weary Lino Ventura plays Inspector Antoine Gallien, who is investigating a particularly sensitive case – the sexual assault and murder of three girls – so the pressure is on to get a result. We begin with a series of very slow and deliberate tracking shots of the outside of the police station as it is swept by rain. Outside and inside there is chaos but in the interrogation room all is quiet. Michel Serrault is the prominent lawyer Jérôme Martinaud, the scion of a respected and wealthy local family. He is wearing his dinner jacket, evidently yanked from a New Year’s party. He doesn’t seem to worried about the timing and Gallien reassures him that this is a pure formality. Martinaud found the body of one of the victims and the police want to go over his statement. The only other person in the room with them is Detective Marcel Belmont (a terrific performance from Guy Marchand) who is ostensibly just there to type the report – it soon becomes clear though that the police are convinced that the lawyer is not just a witness to the crime but in fact the perpetrator.
Slowly but surely the formal courtesy of the exchanges between Gallien and Martinaud become edgier as they start to harp on his home life (he has no children – it emerges that this is because his wife has for years refused to sleep with him), the details of how he came to find the body and apparent gaps in his own accounting of events that he can’t, and increasingly won’t, explain. One of the ways in which the films improves on the book is in the introduction of a class element to the story, one surprisingly omitted by Wainwright. Barker was a fairly low-level civil servant in the book but Serrault’s Martinaud comes from a prominent family and so initially adopts a slightly haughty and condescending air – this makes the contrast between him and lower class copper Belmont all the greater. As they start to chip away at his story we get brief and sometimes elliptical flashbacks, sometimes to moments related to the crime, but other times to other more domestic scenes from Martinaud’s life. This comes to dominate in the second half of the film with the arrival at the station of Romy Schneider as Martinaud’s beautiful and glacial wife, Chantal.
As it is little more than an extended cameo a major star was needed to play Chantal, and they certainly got one in Schneider, here in one of her last films before her tragic early death. She exudes a kind of spent passion and angry resignation that hints at great complexity and deep problems without getting too explicit (in this respect the film is again more decorous than the harder novel). While Gallien gets her side of the story, one that becomes increasingly dark and provides hints at a possible motive for the killings (courtesy of extended flashbacks), the barely suppressed animosity that Belmont feels for his prey explodes into violence. As in the book this is a jolting sequence, made all the more powerful by its relative understatement, devoid of melodrama but filled with the horror of what everyday violence can be. When Ventura hears of the assault he shrugs and apologises, knowing that Martinaud won’t complain as he is already refusing to see a lawyer and to see his wife – he is behaving like a guilty man getting ready to confess, even though all the evidence is circumstantial at best.
The film is superbly controlled, with every actor’s gesture and camera move subtly but carefully choreographed – the effect is both theatrical in the setting and utterly naturalistic in the playing. Slightly glossier and less grubby than the original novel, as befits the three big name stars perhaps, this is a both an exercise in style and an exploration of broader themes of sexual frustration, class conflict and police brutality that are deepened by convincing acting and the subtle direction that eschews all traces of hysteria from the situation. The ironic double twist at the end, a heightened version of the one devised by Wainwright but now with a clue planted in plain sight right from the very beginning, ends the story on a freeze frame to create a sense of deep unease at the emotional shambles that can lie behind the facade of a happy marriage – even for the better-off middle classes.
DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in Europe on DVD and on Blu-ray in Germany, this appears to be only available on old VHS tapes in other countries, which is a real shame. The Italian release, which I viewed, has the original French language edition with subtitles in Italian as well as a dubbed version as is the custom there. Sadly this is not very useful for those who don’t speak French or Italian, especially given that this is an almost entirely dialogue-driven film. It does appear to be available online is English-subtitled options but I don’t know how legal these are …
Garde à vue (1981)
Director: Claude Miller
Producer: Georges Dancigers
Screenplay: Claude Miller, Jean Herman, Michel Audiard (from Brainwash by John Wainwright)
Cinematography: Bruno Nuytten
Art Direction: Eric Moulard
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Lino Ventura, Michel Serrault, Romy Schneider, Guy Marchand,