Garde à vue (1981) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Garde-a-vue-posterAlso 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 too 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.

Michel Serrault and Lino Ventura in GARDE A VUE (1981).

Michel Serrault and Lino Ventura in GARDE A VUE (1981).

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 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,

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, John Wainwright, Normandy, Police procedural, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Garde à vue (1981) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I always consider it the mark of a good film when the film-maker can evoke things as abstract as a rapid-growing suspicion of a character or a feeling of class differences without being too obvious about it. The result can be a really effective level of tension and I’m glad this one got that right. Thanks as ever for a fine review.

    • Thanks very much Margot. It has all the great virtues of the well-made and well-acted film – which also has the very real bonus of being a whodunit that you can stillw atch again even if you remember the ending – that’s high praise in my book!

  2. TracyK says:

    This certainly sounds good and worth a try, but looks like it is not available here, as you say. I can at least read the book it is based on. And a remake with Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. That could not be all bad.

    • The remake is definitely a bit more accessible and is certainly worth a look. I wish this were more easily available outside of France – there is a German Blu-ray, which I have not seen, though the impression I get is that it had no additional subtitles other than German and French.

  3. neer says:

    This really sounds very interesting however I’ll like to read the book first. Thanks for bringing another unknown author to our notice.

  4. Colin says:

    We talked about this a few weeks back when you reviewed the book. The movie sounds like one to see, but the lack of an English friendly version is a bit of a pain. I could muddle my way through the French I guess, but it would be kind of tiresome. I still haven’t turned up that DVD of the remake, although I know it’s lurking somewhere in the apartment.

    • Clearly the more technically savvy out there would be able to download the subtitles, which seem to be available all over the interweb, and marry them to the picture, but … I must admit, I did have second thoughts about even posting this since its going exclude virtually 90% of the people who are probably going to read the review. It’s a great movie though, really worth seeing – granted, if you have seen the remake you will know the beginnign, middle and end of the story as they are basically the same. Really hope this eventually gets a more English-language friendly release (on Blu would be nice …)

      • Colin says:

        Yes, that might work. Downloading the subs would be a simple matter. matching them up with the film would be trickier, but given time (always a problem) and patience (and here we’re talking major problems) it should be possible.

  5. Colin says:

    I think when you talked about the book that you or someone else mentioned The Offence. I can’t help but think that this film, Lumet’s The Offence and Wyler’s Detective Story would make for an interesting, if emotionally exhausting, triple bill.

    • I did compare the book to The Offence as it is very, very theatrical – the John Hopkins play it is based on predates Wainwright’s novel by over a decade and before that Julian Symons had written a novel along similar lines too. Wainwright was not an innovatr in that sense (too prolific frankly) but was very capable none the less. This films is much less tortured than the Lumet movie, much less intense (it is a failing of that movie I think that it is so relentlessly one note).

      • Colin says:

        Yes, The Offence is a very sour and harsh film. It really isn’t easy viewing.

        • Very much in the ‘once seen never forgotten’ section of my filmgoing brain – which is to say I don’t think I’ve wanted to watch it again in well over a decad, though i really should …

          • Colin says:

            Same here. It’s pretty depressing.

          • In fact, I think i only saw it in Italian … hmm, maybe I should gird myslef up for one more exposure to Connery’s battery of Bannen!

          • Colin says:

            It has terrific performances but it’s just so downbeat and depressing. Right now, downbeat and depressing seems such an accessible phenomenon that I don’t feel like I need a movie to deliver any extra doses.

          • I was thinking about this while reading your excellent piece on the transitional quality Johnny Apollo at Riding the High Country because there is such a problem with works that can come across as too didactic or anyway straightjacketed by a single overriding theme, which is what one would find in most works with some kind of political theme or message. With noir it is fascinating to see how such concerns infiltrated the mainstream crime and mystery genre to subvert from within. The Offence is so much a work of its time, its despairing tone understandable but one does want to look at things in a critical but not hopeless fashion – at least in the sense of believing in some kind of potentially constructive outcome. Obviously in some places even in Europe this is starting to feel like a dream …

          • Colin says:

            It’s only natural for film to reflect the mood of the times even if, like a lot of 30s Hollywood product, it’s a kind of concerted effort to counter the despair. Perhaps we’re due a new cycle of neo-noir, along with a few inspirational pieces.
            Right now I’m in the mood for some Capra – maybe Lost Horizon.

          • Maybe Lady for a Day and You Can’t Take it With You too – definitely It Happened One Night though! Mind you, Mr Smith, Deeds, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life certainly have darkness to spare …

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    Gosh, I would love to see this. Hope its available some day,.

  7. John says:

    You’ve got me itnerested in this one, darn you. I wonder if I’ll get as lucky as I did with finding a copy of TOO MANY CROOKS. (I plead the fifth as always and will no longer divulge my sources. )This movie sounds vaguely familar, but I don’t think I’ve seen it or the US remake. The police interrogation motif cum multiple flashbacks was turned on its head in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. That’s the only one I can think of among the countless crime movies I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    • Thanks John – when I wrote the bulk of the review I hadn’t realised this was as hard to find as it is and yet it was definitely released in cinemas with English subtitles – it’s possible that the remake may have something to do with having made it harder to source. The Hackman version is certainly decent by the way. But no, not necessarily a totally original concept, is it? Hell, even the Ed McBain Blood Relatives does the same and that filmed by Chabrol (review coming but due to my strict chronology reviewing of the 87th Precinct series, not for a bit).

  8. robert says:

    Ventura, Schneider and Serrault, all great actors, had also been stricken by life in the years preceding the film or just after, Serrault lost his daughter 3 or 4 years before the film. He was known primarily as a comedy actor until then. Schneider’s husband died 2 years before and she lost her son the year of the release of the film. Ventura was very much involved in taking care of disabled children because of her daughter. All this probably transpires in the film, especially because of the central theme.

  9. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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