Friday, September 28, 2007

9/28: Ce jour-là

Raoul Ruiz's Ce jour-là is quite possibly the most charming and funny movie ever made about a psychopathic mass murderer. The film concerns Livia (Elsa Zylberstein), the slightly crazy and unsuspecting heiress to a massive fortune, whose family is plotting to knock her off in order to keep the money for themselves. To those ends, this greedy clan sets loose the psychopathic killer Pointpoirot from the local asylum, with instructions to the effect that God wants Elsa to die. But when Pointpoirot (Bernard Giraudeau) arrives at the house, he finds himself curiously unable to kill his intended target. At first, she eludes him, hits him over the head with a hammer, and he's distracted by several other appealing targets who he duly slaughters. But the more he's around her, the more it's clear that a bond is developing between the two; in the meantime, he somewhat unwittingly winds up killing virtually the entirety of Livia's scheming family, and arranges their corpses around the dining room table for a macabre supper.

What's that, this doesn't sound like a comedy? No, you wouldn't think so, which is why it's so mystifying when the laughs keep coming, even at the most gruesome moments. Ruiz has an uncanny knack for keeping the viewer just off-balance with the steady, sweeping movement of his camera and its frequent, unexpected pauses. He turns each murder scene into a graceful absurdist ballet — in one, Pointpoirot chases an old woman around in the background as Livia absentmindedly tries to clean bloodstains off her dress in the foreground. In another, the proceedings take on the air of silent comedy as Ruiz keeps the camera basically static on a hallway, with Livia waiting at the end. Pointpoirot and his intended victim chase each other in and out of this shot through several doorways arranged around the hallway — offscreen, they scuffle, exchange weapons, and then come running out or creep along in an attempt at surprise. It has the feel of a particularly grisly Marx Brothers farce, or better yet a Bugs Bunny cartoon where the cartoonish violence actually has concrete consequences.

But what really elevates the film above simple gallows humor is the performance of Zylberstein as Livia. It is, quite simply, a radiant performance; she defines purity and innocence, and it's this quality that makes it easy to see why Pointpoirot is unable to kill her. Her facial expressions carry the film, shifting from sad-eyed puzzlement to a slowly dawning smile that lights up her slender face — and the film as a result. There are also multiple ideas and connections running through the film's subtext, also gently nudging it away from the territory of a simple farce. While the body count piles up at Livia's country villa, the police in the town, who are supposed to be tracking the escaped murderer, decide to do nothing, supposedly as a strategic gambit while they work in secret. But then they proceed to spend the whole film idly eating, playing billiards, and questioning the bartender at the local pub about the habits of the town's rich. There's a wonderful scene where Livia's father (Michel Piccoli) tries to get them to go out to the manor to investigate; he interrupts them in mid-bite during lunch, and Ruiz's camera captures a fork in the immediate foreground, a piece of food perched on the end. Ruiz is constantly interjecting such bizarre visual humor through unusual camera placement, and it adds yet another level of absurd playfulness to the film.

And in the background, as revealed by snatches of radio chatter and the military vehicles periodically glimpsed riding through town, political and economic undercurrents surge into the story. The radio informs of ridiculous mergers between insanely rich companies — one of them, we're informed, owns the water supplies of Bolivia and Brazil. In light of this backdrop of economic monopolization and political impotency, Ruiz's murderous farce takes on new socio-political overtones. The police are helpless to interfere with the machinations of the rich, and they let it all play out to the end; meanwhile, it seems even the government is trying to get in on the action and attempt to claim Livia's fortune for their own. At every turn, Ruiz allows the plot complications to keep building in this way, but the story still bounces along amiably without a hitch, and the non-stop puns, sight gags, and ridiculous situations keep flying by. It's a delirious, hilarious, constantly exhilarating film that should certainly be counted among Ruiz's (probably many) masterpieces.

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