"They'll find the killer some day, but no one will ever hold her in his arms again."
Monsieur Hire is the perfect suspect. Nobody likes him. Conversations die away when he passes by. Children play tricks on him. He sleeps very little. He never uses the lights. He sits in the dark in his room. And he likes to watch... So, naturally, when a young girl is found murdered, Hire finds himself put under the microscope, both by the strange detective who regularly humiliates him in the course of his investigation and the girl he spies upon who suddenly confronts him, with very unexpected results.
Patrice Leconte's film is one of those remarkable career turnarounds that defy expectations. Best known at the time for his unashamedly populist French comedies, Monsieur Hire is the equivalent of the director of Adam Sandler films suddenly having a stab at The Girl With the Pearl Earring and actually getting it right. His adaptation of a half-remembered Georges Simenon novel (literally: when he finally got the rights, no-one could find a copy of the novel to work from!) works both as a spellbinding piece of pure filmmaking and an intriguing drama about the difference between watching and comprehending. Hire may think he knows almost everything about his neighbor Alice because he has watched her so closely, but seeing and understanding are not always the same thing, as he himself reveals when he tells one of the whores he visits the story of a popular old lady who fed the pigeons breadcrumbs: because of her kindly face, people never realised that in fact she was poisoning them.
Above all, it's a very sensual film. Not in any erotic sense, although there is a charge when Hire finally allows himself to touch another human being. Rather this is a film about seeing and smelling, the senses through which we first form judgements but which still allow us to keep our distance - and not just M. Hire himself. It's no accident that the film ends with everyone silently watching him, and with the camera pulling away from a figure who finally understands what really happened too late in a truly haunting image.
Sandrine Bonnaire does remarkably well in what could simply have been a cipher as the object of his attentions, pulling off the difficult scenes where she gets closer to Hire while still managing to remain a credible figure, but it's no slight on her to say that this is Michel Blanc's show. Lurking at the edge of the frame or isolated in the center of the image, the balding, almost expressionless Blanc's performance is a masterclass in control. Not merely physical control, but resisting the desire to make Hire in any way likeable or more accessible. There is no appeal to sentiment, no crack in the façade to let us in and recognise anything admirable or empathetic, no explanation or excuse for the way he is. As a character he remains strange and ill suited for the world of men and women. Even the possibility of love does not free him from his shell. And it's that very inaccessibility that ultimately makes him such a tragic figure. Hire is as dead as the murder victim, who the detective pointedly notes will never be touched again: he just happens to still be walking around.
On the surface, the film is equally controlled - Leconte and Patrick Dewolf's tight screenplay is spare and precise, but with enough room for director and actors to build on, while Ivan Maussion's unostentatious design and Denis Lenoir's restrained yet meticulous cinematography serve the characters perfectly. Even Michael Nyman's music rises above what was then his usual formulised mathematical masturbation to deliver something whose precisely formalized distance is absolutely right.
Leconte's great use of the Scope frame is well preserved in Second Sight's sadly extras-free UK DVD, although the color seems slightly richer than the theatrical print I saw a few years ago (although that could just have been color fading). Hopefully a more ambitious DVD release with some special features will find its way to region 1 sooner rather than later.