Best known for the beautifully framed but now almost comically elusive and incomprehensible Last Year at Marienbad, Stavisky is one of Alain Resnais' most accessible films and one where he manages to marry style and narrative structure to his subject perfectly. While it helps to have some grounding in the disastrous pre-WW2 financial scandal his anti-hero precipitated to get the most out of the film, his approach is particularly well-judged.
For much of the movie we meet Stavisky, financier and con-man, at the height of his powers and the film concentrates both on his style and extravagance - he passionately believes that you have to be seen to lose money on frivolities to make money - and his play-acting - he is even seen reading a part onstage opposite an auditioning actress. Stavisky is a constant contradiction, a man who spends money to be remembered when he would be better spending it to be forgotten, whose need to be loved for the moment makes him unable to deal with oncoming disasters when they can still be averted. As Michel Lonsdale's doctor notes, "To understand Stavisky sometimes you have to forget files. You have to dream of him and to imagine his dreams." Stavisky remains an enigma simply because he is so simple - there is no real secret to him. Like his fortune, he simply invents himself.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is superb in the lead, at once at home in luxury and high society but still able to pull a petty swindle over stolen gems, supremely confident and alive in company yet in private haunted by his father's suicide over the dishonor his early arrests bought on the family name that drives him to strive to live purely in the present. He's complimented by Charles Boyer's wonderful final performance as an aristocrat who has happily wasted the fortune his ancestors took generations to amass over the course of his single lifetime and can forgive his friend anything for the joy to be alive that his company brings. The moment his casually anti-semitic right-wing aristocrat discovers that Stavisky is not only not French but a Jew is beautifully observed: he stands by him as a friend, but is disappointed that he was not honest to him, while displaying just a trace of awareness that had Stavisky been honest, he never would have become his friend.
But this is the story of a fall from a great height - indeed, our first view of Stavisky is of him descending in an elevator as Trostsky arrives in France to seek asylum. It is only in the last third that the dominoes start to fall and the real conspiracy starts to emerge. Stavisky is a criminal, a former petty informer who now has somehow managed to reverse roles and now has most of the government and police in his pocket and acting as his informers, but he himself is being used. Not only is he planning to block funds to facilitate the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (to him simply a financial opportunity: he has no conception of the moral consequences of his actions) but his downfall is used to destroy the left in French politics. (It is only here that the initially clumsy device of paralleling Stavisky's fall with Trotsky's brief period of exile in France comes into focus.) Although his end is not shown, it is left clear that he was more pawn than prime mover. Ultimately his fall leaves the left destroyed, the far right in control and only the most innocent imprisoned.
In a film full of pluses, the script is superb, Resnais' use of the camera impeccable and there's even a good score from Stephen Sondheim. The only major minus is Resnais' handling of the actresses - more vacant than vital, as is so often the case in his films of this era - and the tendency to turn the left-wing characters into purely walking-talking ideological monologues.
Sadly, the Region 1 NTSC Image DVD is a little problematic - the transfer is acceptable but not entirely without problems (it appears to be a standards conversion from a PAL master) and none of the few extras from the StudioCanal disc in France have made the leap across the Atlantic.
on 15 September 2012
The last few months in the life of a con man/swindler (Jean Paul Belmondo) with a mysterious past who has acquired and squandered a fortune. His influence has reached into powerful social and political circles and when he goes down, he's not going down alone. Based on the 1934 scandal known as the Stavisky Affair which lead to riots in the streets and the fall of the French government at the time, the film's prologue tells us that the film makers aren't trying to be historians and reserve the right to take creative liberties. In that case, it's a pity the director Alain Resnais and his screenwriter Jorge Semprun (Costa Gavras' Z) didn't do a roman a clef and call the film SEMYONOV or something. Resnais' Stavisky remains as mysterious to us at the film's closing as he was at the beginning though I suspect that was something Resnais intended. I'm not sure there's a way of making whitewashing Stavisky anymore than if Scorsese made a film called MADOFF and tried to make Bernie Madoff a tragic figure. There's also a subplot involving Trotsky (Yves Peneau) in exile that seems awkwardly inserted. But where the film triumphs is in style over substance and this is one ravishing looking movie, impeccably shot by Sacha Vierny (BELLE DE JOUR). The seductive underscore is by Stephen Sondheim, one of his rare original film scores. With Charles Boyer (who steals the movie), Gerard Depardieu, Michael Lonsdale, Claude Rich, Francois Perier and Anny Duperey.
The Optimum DVD is nice looking wide screen (1.85) transfer in French with optional English subtitles.
Well worth reading about the background to the scandal, prior to watching the film. It deals with the political intricacies of 1930's France where an undeclared civil war was in full scale rage, as the tides oscillated between the Popular Front and the Fascist Right. A polarisation occurred based on the favorite whipping boys of the era - the wandering Jew.
Stavisky covered all of the bogeyman polarities -Jewish, Russian, swindler, took the rich for a ride and spent conspicuously. Everyone's friend when he pays them off, he demonstrates the scotoma of the rich - unable to see reality because they choose not to.
A former low level con man, he rises to the top by duplicating government bonds, print forgeries and then re-assigning the numbers they represent. So he takes serial 110008734122 for a 10 franc note and reprints it for a million and then sells it on. Stavisky was literally made of money. Anyone who stumbled on his trail was paid off with real money. He then built up a theatre and newspaper collection by default. Living the life of the rich is this man's dream as he becomes embroiled with paying off the police, politicians and other bankers, then he pays them to be his informers. It is a tale of a sheer will to power based upon deceit. A slow uncoiling curve unfurls within the film towards the end. It provides an insight into France during this era. The side story of Trotsky is perhaps forced. France was riven with tensions and the left joined together in "The Popular Front" as a result of this scandal and the far right riots which followed.
What Stavisky did was give the anti Semites a clear hate figure who ticked all of their boxes. The Jewish population were to pay dearly during the Occupation for their rise to power. The effects can be seen in another french film "The Round Up."
The women within the film are enigmatically beautiful, not just mannequins, but the real star is Stavisky, the man who bank rolls the death about to erupt in Spain through his money laundering, the man who bought his way to the top. Similar to the Great Gatsby in feel, it is a very good film. It highlights how conspiracies accrue as a matter of course and the main problem arises is when they become public knowledge, not that they exist.