Monsieur Hire

(France - 1989)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Michel Blanc, Sandrine Bonnaire, Luc Thuillier, Andre Wilms
Genre: Film-Noir/Mystery/Thriller
Director: Patrice Leconte
Screenplay: Patrice Leconte & Patrick Dewolf based on the George Simenon novel Les Fiancailles de M. Hire
Cinematography: Denis Lenoir
Composer: Michael Nyman
Runtime: 79 minutes

"All I do is look, that's all" - Monsieur Hire

Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is a creature of habit with a cyclically ordered empty and boring life. He follows his routine with such rigorous, ridiculous precision because it's all he has, all he believes he's allowed to have, all he's made for.

One might think Hire is all about appearance, for he's an elegantly dressed tailor with perfect hygiene and a rigid upright posture that must have made one of his stringent teachers proud. However, the enigmatic loner rarely has any association with the human race. Words may come out of his mouth once in a while, but he only talks to people because he feels there are a few meaningless pleasantries like "good morning" that must be honored to maintain the order of things. So important is this order and so shunning is he of human contact and anything that could remotely be construed as intimacy that he explosively screams at people when they ask him to do something - anything - that breaks his routine even if the request is as minor coming a little closer to them.

Our reclusive hero passes most of his time through voyeurism. In his perpetually darkened room, Peeping Hire stands at the window - the yearnfully haunting Brahms Piano Quartet, Opus 25 playing repeatedly on his record player - statuesquely watching his much younger (in real life there's 15 years difference between the stars, but Blanc looks older because he's bald and given an unhealthy look) neighbor. Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) didn't bother getting curtains because she never saw any signs of life across the way. Even though she doesn't know he's there, one wonders if she's made the proper observation nonetheless.

Hire is nothing like my vision of a voyeur. He's not waiting for the sex or nudity; his posture is erect, but that's probably the only thing. He sees her entire life, essentially reacting the same whether Alice is changing or reading - he doesn't. We can only imagine what Hire is thinking as he looks on solemnly, so absorbed in his thoughts. Blanc brings a very hollow stare, an empty otherworldly gaze. He is perfectly unexpressive, almost robotic. We almost wonder if he can be paying attention to Alice all this time. Hire is apart from the world. We don't know if he's a good tailor, but his real calling seems to be detective work for he obviously has the patience and is an excellent observer. He is totally detached from the material he sees. Or is he?

Although none of the above sounds flattering, the film is a somewhat sympathetic portrait of this antisocial man whose look, stare, odd tendencies, and most importantly aloofness make him stand apart from the crowd. Hire is subjected to much scorn and ridicule from his neighbors, who not only whisper about him as he walks by, but also humiliate him by throwing flour at him and tripping him. One of the best observations the film makes is the reason behind his shunning and torment. He seems innocent and harmless enough, and none of his neighbors have any idea how he spends his time. They just know he's an odd looking man who is usually home alone with the lights off.

Inspector: I have some questions for you. But first I'd like to know why people don't like you.
Hire: You're right, people don't like me. But I don't like people, either.
Inspector: That's not enough of a reason. What did you do to make people loathe you so?
Hire: Nothing…that's just it. I'm not sociable or outgoing. No one likes that. They stop talking until I've passed by. That doesn't bother me. I like silence. I don't talk much.
Inspector: You're strange.
Hire: I don't think so. You see? You think the way they think.

The Inspector (Andre Wilms) is talking to Hire because he suspects him of murder. The film grips us immediately with an opening scene showing a 22-year-old girl found dead in the woods, and never lets go. This scene has that unique Andrei Tarkovsky look where the vegetation lacks vibrancy, instead having an unhealthy shade of green and high ratio of grays and browns. The highly underrated score by Michael Nyman (several Peter Greenaway films, The Piano, Gattaca, Ravenous) establishes a solemn tone for this scene, and keeps hitting the mood perfectly throughout the rest of the film.

Hire doesn't look like he's capable of murder. Although Pierrette's assailant panicked and killed her by accident, in order for Hire to be a legitimate suspect one would have to find a solitary reason for them to be together. It's more than a fair guess that Hire is a suspect because he's been marked by his neighbors who don't like him because he's different. There's also a possibility that they don't like him because he's Jewish. His last name Hirowitz was changed to Hire a few generations ago, but is anti-Semitism still ingrained into his neighbors' heads? Although everyone doesn't wish him ill, no one cares about him or the loner Pierrette enough to go against the grain and stick up for this peculiar fellow.

There is one place where Hire is admired. Aside from staring at Alice, bowling is the only activity Hire seems to derive pleasure from. He's one hell of a bowler, awing the patrons by bowling strikes through his legs while facing them. He almost shows signs of possessing a personality, but then we realize that, while he may enjoy not be reviled for once, he's just smiling at his cheering crowd to be polite.

The inspector, badly in need of evidence, begins watching Hire watch Alice. The real turn in the movie though comes on a stormy night when a lightning bolt illuminates Hire's window enough that she's frightened by the ghostly appearance of a man she doesn't know invading her privacy.

One wouldn't expect Alice to take an interest in Hire. He's too old and uninteresting, and that's before she'd find out that his life could be construed as admiring that she has one. Alice is engaged to a good-looking man that's her age named Emile (Luc Thuillier), but he is hardly the ideal match for her. Emile is distant and does not commit to her, which is actually lucky for her since he doesn't do anything tangible to make her happy. He tells her he loves her and always tries to say the right thing, but we are more than skeptical. At one point Emile asks, "You don't believe me?" Alice's reply, "No. But I love you anyway." sums up their relationship.

Alice: What do you do when I go to bed?
Hire: Nothing…I wait.

Alice arrived in this town a few months ago. She's a country who doesn't seem to know anyone other than Emile, who doesn't take her anywhere and at best doesn't pay enough attention to her. In Hire, she has someone that is willing to devote every second of his life to her. In a way, he knows everything about her and is still completely entranced. His obsession may be bizarre and unhealthy, but that kind of devotion, adulation, and worship is hard to find. Does she owe him something for, in his own twisted and demented way, giving her everything her uncaring boyfriend does not? With these two men, perhaps she can love both and get enough back to account for one? Or is she only interested in finding out if Hire was watching that fateful night, the one where her boyfriend returned in possession of a piece of evidence that could (because she didn't report it to protect him) get them both incarcerated for Pierrette's murder?

Alice, also a cold lonely non-conformist, forces her way into Hire's life, trying to seduce him by "spilling" a bag of tomatoes down the stairs right in front of them so he can watch her from inches away as she seductively gets down on all fours and picks them up. Hire has a hard time dealing with "intimate" moments between Alice and Emile, much less ones he's involved in.

The film is disturbingly subtle. One way it achieves this is to heighten focus on movement by telegraphing it then edging toward it cautiously, often with an excruciatingly unnatural lack of speed. A perfect example of this is a later scene at the boxing match where Hire, having got some confidence up, puts his fingers onto Alice's crossed arms as a prelude to putting it inside her button up shirt and down her pants. Every movement by Hire and Alice (from the point she's aware he's watching her all the time) seems calculated, for what purpose is the question.

Similarly, (although I doubt they were done this way) the zooms achieve the look of being done by a decent cameraman who was using a handheld without Steadicam. They match the aforementioned slowness and deliberateness, adding in just a touch of unstableness to their movements to bother the audience. A prime example can be seen the first time we see Hire peeping. Hire is on the right side of the frame, which has the entire width of the window. The camera starts out very low, so Alice's window (a story lower than Hire's) isn't revealed until later in the shot. The real effect of the shot though is that it makes us the voyeurs. We feel like we are creeping up behind him, looking over his shoulder and joining him in watching Alice in her underwear. However, we are surprised by a cut to a side angle of Hire looking out the window. He's not the drooling type; he actually puts his head down and closes his eyes. Then he has a spoonful of yogurt. When he puts it down, he accidentally knocks a jar of pickles or something off his counter, but he doesn't move a muscle as if he is too distracted or simply unable to notice the mess he just made. When she shuts her light off after she's dressed (we assume she's going out), he continues to stare out the window, staring expressionlessly. As the film progresses we begin to realize there's something sexual to him closing his eyes. We never know his fantasies for sure, but it's like he closes them so he can better concentrate on using all his senses to conjure up his essence of femininity. Alice forces a meeting that results in Hire chasing her out of his house for breaking his routing by asking him to sit next to her on the bed and talk to her. However, as soon as she leaves he lies down on the bed, sniffing and putting his head against the spot where she sat. A little later he goes to a perfume store and tests all the bottles until he can match her fragrance. At home, he closes his eyes and smells it. We wonder if he thinks it's almost as good as the real thing?

There's an erotic scene where she takes her sweater off for him (the film succeeds in being erotic even though Bonnaire doesn't show anything), causing him to retreat out of view. Why does he react this way? I think it's the look on her face. She turns the tables by staring at him, trying to seduce him. It breaks his habit, makes him aware of his actions and forces him to make eye contact with his object. He peeks around the corner of the window wondering if it's safe to resume, but she's still staring at him in a way that seems to announce her interest and availability. Although Alice does force another meeting and they wind up going out a few times during the course of the film, it's mainly an unspoken agreement that is forged between Hire and Alice. He likes to watch, and she seems to like that attention.

Blanc always seems to be in his own world, lost in his thoughts. He prefers not to look at people he's "interacting" with, and if he is facing their direction he rarely makes eye contact with them. Blanc is taller than Bonnaire, but makes it seem like his Hire doesn't notice it by talking to her forehead rather than tilting his head down.

Hire no longer has interest in whores once he discovers Alice. He tells one of them, "I'm sick of screwing you! You're just holes!" He starts following Alice around in public, a possible breach of their unspoken agreement. There's a wonderfully filmed ice skating sequence where clips of Alice & Emile having a ball are interspersed with dizzying, off balance point of view shots of a heavy breather. Eventually, Hire's new method of spying is revealed when he crashes to the ice, leaving a puddle of blood where he cracked his nose. What I love about the scene is it's filmed so we don't know it's Hire. We are put into Alice's shoes for once. When he's down we see him from behind, like her assuming it's him but not being able to tell because we can only see the back of his head.

Bonnaire's whole performance, wonderful as always, hinges on maintaining Alice's mystique while seemingly regularly expressing herself through her eyes and face. I'm tempted to say her real intentions aren't revealed until the end of the film, but even then there is that look. The film turns us into voyeurs so we can understand Hire. The difficulty lies not only in figuring out what Hire believes Alice thinks of him, but also Alice's actual opinion of him. Even in the end we aren't sure what percentage of her actions were sincere or insincere, which makes the film have more lasting value and her work all the more interesting. One reason we are allowed to feel this way is, while there are certain scenes with Emile where we know she's playing to Hire, there are others where he disappoints her that we don't know if Hire sees.

The crime introduces the dark side, but is simply the backdrop for an affecting look at obsession that (most likely) stemmed from group oppression and a dual character study on loneliness. While the voyeurism is the trigger, the key is the relationship that forms out of want and need, but can only exist due to misguided loyalty. The film deals in near opposites like passion and detachment, trust and suspicion. It ponders what love is, the idea that we all need to love and be love as well as the idea that some people are better off without it because they are doomed to lose.

The kind of movie that would be a world re-known masterpiece if Alfred Hitchcock had directed it, but is never shown in the US (I suppose I should be happy that it made it here, unlike so many films of the "French Hitchcock" Claude Chabrol) because it's one of those foreign movies with the evil subtitles. It is kind of a reverse Rear Window, as we focus on the spy who knows something about the murder rather than the person who is trying to solve it.

Filmed with an artistic visual style and lack of narrative, Monsieur Hire is at it's best when it's simply images put to music. Many of the best scenes are what I envisioned when I read the concept behind Aria, but unfortunately aside from Jean-Luc Godard's there aren't many segments which rise to this level of matching images with Nyman's moving score that runs the gamut of emotions and lack thereof. The background music is just that though. It's subtle like the rest of the film, quietly establishing the somber tone and only becoming intrusive during tense moments.

The visual and aural presentation makes sense because the most important things are never said or even expressed. They live only in the minds of Hire and Alice. It builds slowly and delicately - sometimes poetically and lyrically but other times harshly and disturbingly - through snippets and fragments that eventually allow us to understand Hire like he understands Alice, externally but not entirely internally.

The film is based on understatement, but the cinematography of Denis Lenoir does a great job of developing the atmosphere of the piece by putting the images right in our face without being too obvious about what he wants us to take from them. Although my tape isn't letterbox and the film is loaded with close-ups, they have this extraordinary widescreen feel to them. Us voyeurs are not obscured by this lack of distance; we get the entire breadth of the vision, but are left with feeling of claustrophobia. In order to attain this effect, director Patrice Leconte had the film shot in extremely wide 'Scope. What's fascinating about the technique is that we can see the slightest detail, and Blanc & Bonnaire's performances are totally about subtle expression, yet we still don't know what to make of much of it because what's important is what we can't see because it remains locked up inside their heads. Or do we because the eyes, which Blanc & Bonnaire are perpetually concentrating on in their performance that is also steeped in repressing their true self, are the mirrors to the soul?

Although done with cutting, at times the film reminds me of Atom Egoyan's work such as The Adjuster. The beginning of the shot puts an idea in our head, but by the time the camera is done tracking or with the next angle, the real meaning of the scene is revealed. In doing so, the explanation puts a different spin on what we were just wondering about or thought we understood.

At times Hire, whose skin tone looks as if he's seen an equal amount of sun, is shot almost like Nosferatu. The bushy eyebrows, the way he's framed when Alice catches him looking at her through his window the first time, the way he creeps up from behind or looks over Alice's shoulder are all trademarks of F.W. Murnau's creation. The film is very much brightened and enlivened though by the power that Alice has over him. What she gives him might not be happiness by our definition, but it's as close as Hire can come. She gives him a reason to live.

Leconte, who was considered a comedy director prior to this film, does a tremendous job here. His honest film not only evokes so many feelings, but they resonate. It consistently maintains the tricky balance of pushing us to associate and dissociate with the same character and find artistic beauty in haunting and troublesome material. Monsieur is most of all a film of nuances, and Leconte has surrounded himself with all the right people. He's made a shorter film, but what's important is that not a frame has been wasted. He's able to constantly build character without losing the ability to surprise or having to resort to illogical turns.

Although I'm not going to ruin the movie (I hope), I must say that the final minutes are tremendous. The actions of one character might not be rational or make sense on face value, but the aspects this character that were built up throughout the film make it perfectly believable that they'd act in this manner. It's a tour de force of filmmaking, highlighted by a long dissolve between the inspector reading a note and prior scene of Hire and Alice kissing in the wind as well as a momentary pause during fast action for a look that will haunt you for a long time. What makes this ending have so much lasting value is that Leconte has the guts to not explain the look. This is not some Hollywood dreck like The Yards that essentially ends not once, not twice, but three times because it feels the overwhelming need to try to knot every possible thread it introduced. The fun of Monsieur Hire lies in hoping to catch the right glimpse that allows you to properly interpret the glances, to speak for those who will not.




* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *