Saturday, January 22, 2011


Jean-Paul Belmondo is an icon of French New Wave cinema, a kind of charismatic front man for the movement as the star of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Arthouse audiences in America and around the world probably gazed at his face on a movie poster the same way his character in Breathless dotes on a poster of Humphrey Bogart. In his homeland, however, Belmondo has never represented arthouse cinema exclusively. As I saw when I watched Le Professionnel last year, Belmondo was just as comfortable, if not more so, playing uncomplicated men of action in action movies. But while I can accustom myself to seeing Belmondo in junk, it was still jarring to see such a man of his era in period costume in Philippe de Broca's swashbuckling comedy.

Belmondo and de Broaca worked together most prominently in a later film, The Man From Rio, which historically marked the actor's emergence as a pop movie star. I know of that film but haven't seen it, but Cartouche seems to be a similar sort of movie, a genre pastiche that mocks its conventions while embracing them at the same time. Belmondo is the title character, the name being a literal nom de guerre adopted when Dominique Bourguignon enlists in the 18th century French army. Dominique is a thief by profession -- rogue might be more appropriate -- who needs an easy exit after he revolts against the bullying, extortionate ways of Malichot (Marcel Dalio), the reigning king of thieves. His co-enlistees are La Taupe ("Mole," Jean Rochefort), who looks the part, and La Doucer ("Gentle," Jess Hahn), a good-natured brute. They become heroes when they're the only survivors of a battle. The battle is the film's most cartoonish episode, climaxing as Frenchies and Redcoats shoot each other two by two until there's literally no one left but our trio, who have wisely hidden from the shooting. Honor is nice but it doesn't fill the pockets or the belly. With a senile general planning fresh slaughter, and telling his subalterns to withhold pay until after the fight, Cartouche and friends come up with a plan to hijack the payroll wagon and make off with the money.

Dominique (Jean-Paul Belmondo) doesn't bow easily or for long, whether to an off-frame aristocrat (above) or to thief-king Malichot (Marcel Dalio, below left)

Stopping at a tavern, the trio terrorizes some aristocratic diners and Cartouche himself liberates a pretty thief, Venus (Claudia Cardinale) from her military captors. After the 18th century French equivalent of a barroom brawl, everyone ends up back in the big city and Cartouche settles accounts with Malichot. As the new king of thieves, with Venus as his queen, Cartouche rules fairly, enriching everyone with a reign of rapine and leaving a big C as his Zorro-esque signature. Life is good, but Cartouche has an itch he needs to scratch. Early in the picture Dominique been made to bow before the haughty aristocrat Gaston de Ferrusac (Philippe Lemaire), the sort of lordly creep who enjoys presiding over public executions. Gaston's wife Isabelle is at least less bloodthirsty, a more delicate character and a looker as well. Cartouche wants to avenge his honor at Gaston's expense by scoring with Isabelle. He still loves Venus, but this is simply something he's got to do, and Venus respects that. She proves enviably loyal and a true leader of men in Cartouche's absence, utterly selfless in her devotion in more ways than one -- and at least one way too many.

The women in Cartouche's life: Venus (Claudia Cardinale) in peril, above;
Isabelle (Odile Versois) in thought, below.

The more I look at older movies, the more they seem inconsistent in tone by today's standards. What I mean is that many older films seem capable of sweeping shifts in mood that might seem jarring to modern audiences. If we see a comedy now, we expect it to maintain a consistent level of wit or goofiness, while comedy might seem disruptive in some of the more self-consciously profound projects. I worry that a contemporary audience might watch Cartouche and end up irked by such a boisterous, often blatantly comic film having such a downer ending. Won't that seem wrong somehow?

Maybe our grandparents were open to a greater diversity of emotional experience at the movies than we've been for a while. One proof that they were was the popularity of the concept of pathos back in the day. If the term means anything to anyone it's probably identified with a tendency of silent slapstick comedy to turn tearjerker on us. If you went to a Charlie Chaplin feature, for instance, you expected to laugh but you might also feel challenged to shed a tear or two as the Tramp again renounced a hopeless love for the solace of the road. It was his aspiration to pathos that raised Chaplin to the dignity of an artist in the eyes of his early intellectual admirers. On the other hand, you knew that something had changed in the culture when critics began to exalt Buster Keaton, the "Great Stone Face," who largely eschewed pathos in favor of coolly choreographed mayhem, at Chaplin's expense. Keaton didn't threaten our growing mistrust of "emotional manipulation." I say that not to criticize Keaton, who I happen to like better than Chaplin, but to explain that a growing preference for him over Chaplin reflected a cultural change in what we wanted, or didn't want, to see in movies.

Cartouche certainly has plenty of slapstick.

The point of this digression, in case you were wondering, is that Cartouche, while it sometimes looks like a genre parody, is also an exercise in pathos that hearkens back to an older era of film. Its ending reveals the film as a tragicomic romance, and it's actually a great example of the type. To spoil things,...

Cartouche didn't reach the U.S. until July 1964, but was considered enough of an event to open a new New York arthouse.

Venus leads the army of thieves to rescue Cartouche from his captors, he having been captured while attempting a romantic tryst with Isabelle. In the course of a general melee, Venus takes a bullet in the back, shielding her beloved. The battle won, the thief army marches on the Ferussac estate, not to take revenge, but to take the jewelry of the Ferussacs and all their lordly guests. These jewels aren't prizes for the thieves, but a funerary tribute for Venus, whom Cartouche crowns with a tiara while heaping the rest upon her stilled chest. Thus bejeweled, Venus is lovingly loaded into a coach which is itself loaded into a lake, all the plunder going to the bottom, hers for all time. Fin.

A Viking funeral, without the fire.
I think it'd be hard not to be moved by the ending, but modern viewers might resent feeling moved. They'd probably prefer a happy ending, or they might feel that, if anyone should pay at the end of the picture, it should be the reckless, rather caddish Cartouche himself. That he learns a lesson too late is probably not punishment enough for him for some people. But such feelings, if I guess them right, may tell us more about a modern audience that is actually more judgmental about such things than their presumably more moralistic predecessors than it tells us about any failings of de Broca's movie.

Maybe I'm wrong, though, and my peers would enjoy Cartouche as much as I did. It works when it's funny and it works when it's sad. Belmondo does not look out of place in a period picture and makes an engaging swashbuckling hero. Cardinale is gorgeous and a true heroine. Rochefort and Hahn are enjoyable comic relief. The cinematography, sets and location work are superb and the score by Georges Delerue matches the movie's moods moment by moment. The film is great fun, and that fun isn't compromised by the ending. I think there is a kind of fun that covers the widest range of emotions, and consists of feeling those emotions. As a New Wave icon, Belmondo embodies a kind of coolness for which the emotional manipulations of something like Cartouche are probably abhorrent. Belmondo himself probably knows better, and with his help Cartouche is a rich viewing experience with ass-kicking action, anti-war satire and, yes, perhaps a tear or two. Don't hold those against it.

Here's a French trailer that gives the name Cartouche Shazam-like significance, as long as you know French. It gives everyone some idea of the film's visual virtues, and it was uploaded to YouTube by manuel 19771

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I've liked Belmondo in most things. He was great fun in the breezy gangster movie pastiche Borsalino with Alain Delon (another New Wave icon who could do lighter stuff very successfully).