Francis Girod's philosophical, darkly comic "L'Elegant Criminel" (at the NuWilshire) centers on a notorious real-life French serial killer, Pierre Lacenaire, who was famed for his utter lack of repentance. Like Charlie Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," another movie about a real-life killer, the film gives us a clear picture of the society and the times that shaped the fate of these men.
Lacenaire's era was the first third of the 19th Century, and it was his fate to be born the unloved elder son of a rich, pompous silk merchant (Francois Perier) and his fatuous, much younger wife (Genevieve Casile), who favors her plump, fawning younger son, unaware that he is stealing her blind. The obligatory Jesuit schooling followed by the equally ordained military service merely compound the brilliant Lacenaire's sense of rage and injustice; it is no wonder that Lacenaire, who has become an inveterate gambler, experiences much pleasure and no remorse at all when he kills a man who cheated him at cards.
Even their duel is a gamble on Lacenaire's part: the toss of the coin might just as well have placed the single loaded pistol in the hands of the cheater instead of those of Lacenaire. But then he is fond of confounding his friends by suggesting that murder, especially repeated murder, can be a way of committing suicide in that it can eventually bring you to the guillotine. It can also bring celebrity, something Lacenaire is honest enough to admit that he relishes.
In telling Lacenaire's story, so inevitably a skewering of the soul-withering bourgeois mentality, Girod resists the obvious at every turn. "L'Elegant Criminel" has been called, with justice, a masterpiece, and it rests on the solid foundation of its bold construction. The film's "actual" time spans a few short hours (or thereabouts) before Lacenaire faces execution. Some 25 minutes into the two-hours-plus film, Girod and his co-writer Georges Conchon introduce us to their increasingly intricate flashback-within-a-flashback structure (which involves periodic cuts to the present). The film unfolds deftly, and this approach allows us to experience simultaneously Lacenaire's life and his own highly detached consideration of it.
Of course, Girod doesn't ask us to like a serial killer, but it's hard not to be charmed by the formidable wit and candor of Daniel Auteuil's superbly played Lacenaire. "L'Elegant Criminel" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes) is one of those films in which the dialogue is so beautifully written and spoken that you find yourself falling back more on your college French than on the English subtitles. It is ironic when considering that the story in fact unfolds entirely within a prison cell, albeit a luxuriously appointed one, that the film is so expansive and exhilarating, even airy.
Lacenaire is one of those great, showy parts the French cinema has traditionally loved, and Auteuil, so memorable as Yves Montand's homely, dimwitted nephew in "Jean de Florette," has all the requisite resources, starting with a rich voice, to bring it off. His Lacenaire is without apologies; his sole regret is that he discovered a passion for writing so late. He leaves us, not with the feelings of pity, but rather a tragic sense of waste. As he realizes himself, a little love might have made all the difference.
Daniel Auteuil: Pierre Lacenaire
Jean Poiret: Allard
Marie-Armelle Deguy: Princess Ida
Maiwenn Le Besco: Hermine
An RKO Pictures release. Director Francis Girod. Producer Ariel Zeitoun. Screenplay by Georges Conchon, Girod. Cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer. Costumes Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle. MusicLaurent Petitgirard. Sound Andre Hervee. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
Times-rated Mature (for adult themes).