Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Voyeurism, in my opinion, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. If it were always criminal, then I imagine that virtually all of us would be in jail. Or, if not in jail, we movie critics would certainly be out of business because the film industry is largely built out of people's innate voyeuristic impulses. And I don't mean merely the pornographic segment of the industry. When film audiences aren't indulging their voyeuristic desires in relation to sex and nudity, then they're peeking in on someone's emotional life, their pains and their passions. Cinema is inherently a voyeuristic art form. For that matter, there's voyeurism involved in the appreciation of a painting of a reclining nude or even the Last Judgment. Which of you has never gazed at a shapely derriere (clothed or otherwise), admired a painting of an appealing human figure, or, for that matter, rubber-necked a roadside accident?
Maybe I'm just not that much of a gentleman! Maybe it's just me, but I'm more inclined to believe that we're all a bunch of closet voyeurs! If I happen to be standing in your hallway selling raffle tickets to your spouse and you unthinkingly scamper by in the buff on your way from the shower to your bedroom, I'm going to take as long a look as I can. Checkin' out that booty! Unless, of course, your spouse is some real scary guy! There's a fine line, in my opinion between voyeurism and exhibitionism or between acceptable voyeurism and unacceptable voyeurism. Unacceptable voyeurism, in my judgment, has to involve some invasion of a person's reasonable claims to privacy. If you do a strip tease on my front lawn outside my bay window, I'm entitled to watch, damn it! If I'm trespassing on your property, peeking into your window through a tiny gap in your curtains, you're entitled to have me carted off to jail.
Voyeurism is a major part of the story in Patrice Leconte's magnificent mystery film, Monsieur Hire (1989). Monsieur Hire is an emotionally repressed, slightly creepy, and more than a little obsessive middle-aged tailor who has discovered that the attractive young woman living in the apartment building directly across the street, one story below, has no curtains and likes to prance around in her underwear. With his lights off, he can lurk unseen in his window and get a bird's eye view of her daily activities, including the most intimate ones. It's a whole lot more interesting than his own boring life, so watch he does. I'd fault the guy for having no life of his own, but if she's going to strut around provocatively and not hang curtains and if he's merely looking out his own window, then I'd say she's got no just complaint. Yes, he's a voyeur, but only in the same way that many of us would be. In fact, Leconte is at no small pains to let us feel the parallel between our own prurient interest in this young lady in her underwear and that of the protagonist, by placing his camera directly over Monsieur Hire's shoulder, before drawing back to allow us to see him standing there beside us, watching her just as we are. Monsieur Hire is all of us, at least with respect to his voyeuristic impulses.
Historical Background: French director Patrice Leconte was born in Paris November 12th, 1947. He decided to become a filmmaker quite early in life and attended the top film school in France, I.D.H.E.C. During his first six years after graduation, up until 1975, Leconte made his living mainly as a cartoonist for the French magazine Pilote, while shooting some comic-fantasy shorts on the side. Growing restive, however, he co-wrote and directed his debut feature film The Toilets Were Locked From the Inside (1975). The bizarre humor of this film failed to connect with the sensibilities of French audiences, however. Leconte then became involved in the French theater company "Le Splendid," through which activity he made acquaintance with several actors that he would use in subsequent films, Michel Blanc, Josiane Balasko, and Thierry Lhermitte. Leconte's second effort, Les Bronzés (1978), was his first success. He continued in the same kind of comedic vein for his next five films, of which the most successful was Come to My Place, I'm Staying at My Girlfriend's (1980).
Leconte has made something of a career out of defying predictability and in 1985 he made a surprising action-comedy Les Specialistes, which was a huge box-office success, opening up new opportunities for Leconte. Leconte's next three films found him in top form: Tandem (1987), Monsieur Hire (1989), and The Hairdresser's Husband (1992). Monsieur Hire won strong critical acclaim and was shown in competition at Cannes. Among Leconte's more recent films, the two most highly regarded have been Tango (1993), a black comedy, and Ridicule (1996), a period comedy set in the 18th century court of Versailles, which was Oscar-nominated. Leconte's films typically delve into human character while pushing the boundaries of style and comedy.
The Story: The script for Monsieur Hire was based on a brilliant novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon. Following my standard policy in relation to mystery films, I'll provide no more than the set-up for the plot, since a sizable part of the joy in watching this film are the periodic surprise developments.
The film opens on the corpse of a 22-year-old woman named Pierrette, who was murdered, possibly inadvertently, and dumped in a vacant lot. The police inspector (André Wilms), after bemoaning the senselessness of the loss of life, sets his target on a chief suspect, Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc). A taxi driver had seen a short man in a dark coat running toward the apartment building where Monsieur Hire lives, shortly after the murder. Monsieur Hire is an introverted, reclusive sort of man who naturally arouses the suspicions of his neighbors, through no particular fault of his own. He dresses neatly and conservatively (he's a tailor by profession) and seldom speaks to his neighbors, other than an occasional perfunctory salutation. He is tormented by the neighborhood children, who bang on his door and drop flour on his black suit from a hiding place overhead in the stairwell. Monsieur Hire is a balding man with an inexpressive, pale face. He is an intelligent man with unusual powers of observation, being attentive to the nuances of vision, touch, and smell.
Monsieur Hire is an excellent bowler and it is perhaps only among his fellow bowlers that he is seen as other than a nonentity. At night, he hunkers down in his small apartment, puts on the same Brahms quartet, and stares out his window that overlooks a street and neighboring apartment buildings. There, he has found his primary source of evening entertainment. Across the road lives an attractive young woman, Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), whose curtainless windows readily display her meanderings about her apartment in her underwear. Alice has a boyfriend, Emile (Luc Thuillier), an insensitive lunk-head, whom she sometimes entertains in her bed under the gaze of Monsieur Hire.
The plot thickens abruptly, one evening, when a burst of lightening suddenly reveals Monsieur Hire, standing in his darkened room, to Alice, who happens to be gazing in that direction at the crucial moment. Alice realizes immediately that she has an admiring fan, a voyeur, who has been observing her daily life. Rather than putting up curtains or reporting Monsieur Hire to the police, Alice goes out of her way to meet him, while continuing her activities in her own apartment unchanged. An interesting consensual relationship begins to evolve between the two the admirer and the admired.
What is her motivation, we wonder. What does he believe her motivation to be? Who killed Pierrette? Will the killer be caught? Which lover will Alice choose? These and other questions are adroitly posed and slowly explicated as the story unfolds.
Themes: Voyeurism is a complex business. Without regarding another being, there can be no genuine love (except in those rare instances of love that emerge exclusively through letters or e-mail). It is clear that the voyeurism of Monsieur Hire serves a more profound psychological need for him than mere prurient interest in a feminine form in her underwear. Hire admires Alice's beauty and liveliness, which contrast so evidently with his own humdrum existence. Monsieur Hire is observant by nature, readily differentiating one perfume from another and able to use tactile and auditory cues to orientate himself in the bowling alley so as to throw a strike blindfolded. He says to Alice, at one point, "I love to watch people." Hire's interest in Alice probably grew initially from that simple preoccupation with detailed observation. He spotted her by accident and then became fascinated with every detail of her life. Monsieur Hire's feelings for Alice, before they had met, certainly included two of the three elements of love: knowing her (by observing her daily rituals) and cherishing her (admiring her beauty and her way of being). Even the third element had begun to emerge. He cared about her, enough to be protective of her, though I can't further explain that point without giving away one of the important plot developments. Monsieur Hire's voyeurism had grown into love, though obviously it could never be requited as long as he remained hidden in the darkness of his apartment. His love for her became so profound, in fact, that he could no longer enjoy his old habit of occasionally visiting the local brothel.
Production Values: The script for this film is utterly brilliant. Through it, the director explores feelings only half-expressed, social ostracism, the suspicion engendered by simply being different, emotional repression, love and betrayal. The nature of the two principal characters is delicately unpeeled, layer by layer, keeping viewers riveted to the unfolding revelations. Tension is built within each take, rather than primarily through editing. We are shown a situation, a question arises in our minds, and the sweep of the camera then either addresses or changes the nature of that question. There's no narrative, here, to spoon feed viewers gratuitous insights into the inner states of the characters. Instead, Leconte respects the intelligence of his audience.
The cinematography was very good throughout the film, but there were some especially effective camera angles, such as the over-the-shoulder shots putting us in the vantage point of the voyeur. Later, the same kind of shot is repeated when Alice becomes the counter-voyeur, spying on and confronting Monsieur Hire. Another clever aspect of the cinematography was the contrast in color schemes between Monsieur Hire and Alice he in black and dark browns and she in sparkling bright hues. He is drab but she shimmers with vibrant colors. There are a lot of close-ups that furnish us with the opportunity to try to read the faces of the two main characters, to extract any hint as to their inner feelings and motivations. Once again, we are turned into voyeurs.
The soundtrack for this film is another strong point. First, there's the marvelous Brahms Piano Quartet (Opus 25), as repeated accompaniment. Second is the exceptional use of environmental sounds, establishing locales and circumstances. This is also a film rich with olfactory innuendo, making us feel, for example, that we can smell the perfume that permeates the air in one segment.
There are only four named roles in this film and two of those are no more than support roles. The film is therefore almost entirely carried by the two leads but what fine lead performers they are! Michel Blanc gives a very subtle rendition as the title character, retaining his mystery but very slowly revealing his inner nature. Blanc later appeared in Prospero's Books (1991). Sandrine Bonnaire brought a lot more than mere physical beauty to her role as Alice, matching Blanc in the ambiguity of her motivations. Some of her other parts were in A Nos Amours (1984), Police (1984), Vagabond (1985), and La Cérémonie (1995).
Bottom-Line: This film is really a study of human nature, the nature of love, and the psychology of the two principal characters, under the guise of a mystery or romantic thriller. As much as I enjoy a good mystery, I love a psychological study even more, so this film was right down my alley. This film is Hitchcockian in its quality and intrigue. Had Leconte consistently matched the level of quality of this film in his others, I imagine he would rate among the great directors of all-time. As it is, he's given us a few top quality films. Monsieur Hire is in French with English subtitles and has a very quick running time of eighty-eight minutes. I'm surprised that it's rated at PG-13, since it includes more provocative, though non-graphic, sexuality than I usually associate with that rating. That rating is fine by me, however, since my personal view is that the American rating system is excessively reflective of sexuality and too little dictated by violence.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from France:
The Battle of Algiers
La Belle et la Bête
Bob le Flambeur
Boudu Saved from Drowning
A Bout de Souffle
La Cage aux Folles
Céline and Julie Go Boating
Children of Paradise
Cléo from 5 to 7
Un Coeur en Hiver
Cyrano de Bergerac
The Dinner Game
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Eyes Without a Face
La Femme Nikita
The Horseman on the Roof
Jean de Florette/Manon
The King of Hearts
Last Year at Marienbad
Life and Nothing But
A Man Escaped
The Mother and the Whore
La Nuit de Varennes
Pépé le Moko
The Rules of the Game
A Sunday in the Country
The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Wages of Fear
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Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older