Monday, August 1, 2011

La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)

La Nuit du Carrefour is so atmospheric and vague that the absence of an entire reel is scarcely noticeable unless you've been alerted to the fact. Given how much is already left out in the impenetrable fog hanging over the titular crossroads, an inadvertently excised 11 minutes of footage likely would not have cleared things up much. As a noir, Renoir's adaptation of pulp author Georges Simenon's novel appropriately occurs mostly at night, but even in daylight the cramped area where the director situates his film is bleak and misty. Like the air station in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, the three houses and filling station that make up the crossroads are isolated to the point of solipsism, where even the sound of cars buzzing and humming all around seems merely a projection of the night and fog.

Made in the infancy of film noir, La Nuit du Carrefour preemptively deconstructs the genre to its most atmospheric tropes, beating the analytical takes of some pop-minded New Wavers of various nationalities by a good three decades. This is not an insensible film, certainly not on the level that, say, The Big Sleep is one long shaggy dog story, but Renoir turns each element of the genre into expressive abstraction. That fog turns straight, level roads leading out to other towns into ominous, finite stretches, paths leading off a world that seems flat. The detective can piece together everything solely through a few words and a quick survey of a room. And everyone, to some extent, is guilty of the whodunit. And as for Else (Winna Winifried), Renoir seems to have taken apart the femme fatale and ice queen before it got properly established by the likes of Hitchcock. Winifried digs into the image of female innocence, speaking in light chirps and flirting with ostensible clumsiness; her face even has a roundness to it that suggests the baby fat hasn't melted off yet. But under that amusingly cherubic facade is a steely glare filled with Teutonic sturm und drang that betrays darker intent, a giveaway not lost on the genius detective who cannot help but court her anyway.

Renoir's sense of satire is evident even within this genre exercise: a patrolling police sergeant stops by the filling station to get his motorcycle repaired, and when news comes through that a car has been stolen and that a local gang of thieves is suspected, the local constabulary is baffled at the existence of thieves in the area despite how freely everyone talks about them. And when a local discovers his car has been stolen, blame immediately falls upon the "Danes," the Andersen siblings who live in one of the crossroads' three houses. Even when the car (complete with corpse) is found in Carl Andersen's garage, his arrest seems more a matter of xenophobic convenience than proper procedure.

From there, things get murkier, not particularly as a result of plot mechanics but by Renoir's loose, suggestive camerawork. When the famed Maigret (Renoir's brother Pierre) arrives, Renoir switches to a use of gentle zooms and close-ups to show how the inspector picks up on details as he casually moves around a room. Rather than wait for the Sherlock Holmes-esque expository explanation at the end, Renoir pieces together clues even as he leaves the ultimate connections hanging in the air mysteriously. Elsewhere, Renoir employs cheeky methods of figuring out the movie's skewed sense of spatial and temporal relations. The police hold Carl for questioning for 17 hours, the static vacuum of the windowless room punctuated by cutaways to low-angle shots of a newsstand as the day's papers change from morning editions to afternoon versions, finally settling on a crumpled, waterlogged evening edition being swept up at night by a cleaner. And the hazy yet skillfully plotted geography of the area is central to the climactic car chase, a murky POV rumble through the streets illuminated only by headlights and muzzle flashes even as is moves in a clear trajectory around town.

"I tried to give you the feeling of mud sticking to your feet, and of fog obscuring your sight," Renoir later said of the picture. La Nuit du Carrefour certainly feels mucky and grim, and more than a little absurd; it's no wonder that the one song that the local, accordion-toting musician can play is a tune he learned at the circus. "It's not safe anywhere," says the mechanic Oscar near the start of the film, a preemptive rejoinder to the xenophobia about to set upon the desolate area. By the end of the film, the sense of doom that confirms that assessment stems less from the revelation of mass culpability than the suffocating fog closing in on the crossroads. By that point, the rolling mist seems less condensed humidity than mustard gas fumes. Even the final show of humanity and love only truly serves to lock these people within this poison cloud.

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