Thursday, September 3, 2009

This Man Must Die (1969)

By Eric Jessen 9/2/09

Claude Chabrol's This Man Must Die has a mannered propriety. The actors' stiff-neck posture and drab, quiet tone are worthy of a Robert Bresson film. These kinds of films by directors like Chabrol, Bresson and others, which are usually foreign and usually French, are like a fine wine for the movie critics who snicker at the bulbous Hollywood studio productions. But for the average audience this style is an unbearable bore. And although with many of the movies with this style I'd say, “let 'em squirm.” (I absolutely love Bresson's Mouchette and Chabrol's Le Boucher and I don't care that the modern, average audience would think they were boring.) But with This Man Must Die Chabrol has practically committed highway robbery. He uses his style to bog-down an otherwise routine, guaranteed-to-be-entertaining manhunt story. He rips the fun out of shamelessly fun story.
The film begins with an elegantly photographed drive-by killing of an innocent small child. We see a man driving away in his dented car blurt with a vulgar attitude, “Shut up” to a beautiful woman crying next to him. We then see the title, “This Man Must Die,” and the opening credit: “Adapted from the novel 'The Beast Must Die.'” These titles are very self explanatory. We soon meet Charles Thenier (Michael Duchaussoy), the father of the dead child. It's very obvious what Thenier is going to try to do. Despite the fact that tracking down a man he knows nothing about seems impossible, and even after the police do an extensive search and come up with no leads, we know somehow, (through some unbelievable coincidences), Thenier will find his man. And somehow this man will die. But the ride in tracking down the wretched man who would run over a small girl and leave her for dead is a drag. And the eventual death of the drive-by killer is very unsatisfying. (By the way, the drive-by killer is played very well by Jean Yanne.) The movie gets caught in its own ambiguous twist and never fulfills us with a grab-him-at-the-color, let-him-have-it death. We know the drive-by killer dies but we never actually see it. It's a crucial let-down.
With Chabrol's This Man Must Die, the combination of the quiet French style with what is already a conventional, relatively predictable story was destined to be dull. I can only guess that the posturing of a simple manhunt thriller was intended to be ironic and funny. Maybe it was supposed to be a tame version of a Luis Buneul black comedy. But that doesn't show. Instead the movie feels like an awkward mismatch. The suspense of the tracking down and killing of a horrible man falls flat in the uncomfortable pauses, the swallowing of outbursts and the repressed emotions.

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