Lift to The Scaffold (1959) L’Ascenseur a L’Echafaud | Jeanne Moreau Tribute
Dir.: Louis Malle Writers: Louis Malle/Roger Nimier | From the novel by Noel Calef | Score: Miles Davis | Cinematography: Henri Decae | Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Lino Ventura, Georges Poujourly, Yori Bertin | France 1958, 92 min Drama
Unlike the rest of the Nouvelle Vague directors, Louis Malle had already experience as a documentary filmmaker (The Silent World, co-directed by Jacques Costeau), before embarking on his first feature film LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD. It seems ironic that Malle should pick up the novel of the same name by Noel Calef purely by accident at a railway station in Paris – considering how much the narrative of film and novel rely on chance.
The historical connections are important: In 1957 the Indochina war had ended just three years previously, and the Algerian War of Independence was entering its third year. There was, as usual, a great amount of money to be made from wars and arms dealing was a major factor in the French economy. Both the murderer Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet/Plein Soleil) and his victim and boss Simon Carala knew each other from their time in the army. It is very clear that both men are unscrupulous in their past and present dealings. Whilst the company Carala runs has all the trappings of a traditional business, the shadiness of the business is particularly underlined in a conversation just before Tavernier kills Carala.
But the true star (in every sense) of the film is Jeanne Moreau’s Florence Carala, Tavernier’s mistress, who has incited her lover to kill the husband. Florence sums up the passionate motto of the well-planned murder, whispering into the ear of her lover “We will be free, it has to be” before Julien enters the company building, giving himself a perfect alibi, before shooting Simon Carala with the man’s own revolver, given to him by Florence. Having staged the crime as a suicide, Tavernier than forgets the rope he used to get into the penthouse suite of his boss hanging from the window, only seeing his mistake at the last second. He goes back into the building to retrieve it, but is caught in the elevator cabin between floors on his way down, when the caretaker turns off the electricity.
Whilst Florence, haunted by contradictory fears, spends the whole night wandering, intoxicated by despair, through a very anonymous Paris, ruled by indifference and apathy, before being falsely arrested at dawn as a prostitute; a second, much younger couple enters the scene: Veronique (Bertin), assistant in a flower shop, and a great admirer of Tavernier and her immature boyfriend Louis (Poujourly) who wants nothing more than to emulate the “war hero” Tavernier. He epitomises the Nouvelle Vague antihero: young, feckless, aimlessly sliding into criminality with his poor choices and Whilst Tavernier is stuck in the lift, he steals his car and sets out with Veronique to a motel near Paris (in Normandy), where the meet a middle-aged German couple. After a champagne-fuelled evening, Louis shoots the husband dead, stealing his Mercedes to return to Paris where the two “commit” suicide with sleeping pills. But the romantic gesture leads only to a few hours sleep before Florence turns up, having tracked them down in an attempt to clear Tavernier’s name. He, meanwhile, has been arrested for the murder of the German – the second false arrest of the film.
Henry Decae’s grainy black and white photography is always underscoring, intimate and the scene where Tavernier is cross-examined by Lino Ventura (Class Tous Risques), as the detective in charge of the case, is hauntingly brilliant and set on a completely black-background, evoking a prescient doom.
When Florence drifts aimlessly through the Paris night, he puts the camera into a pram and follows her. His ‘Paris’ must have been the Godard’s inspiration for Alphaville. Tavernier’s ‘prison’ in the lift is rendered with shades of Bresson. And in the way Decae pictures cars he makes it obvious why they are the phallic extensions of men: caverns of desire, gleaming and ready to transport them wherever they want to go to get away from reality. Miles Davis music score is the most resonant part of this melancholic film – it underscores the loneliness of the two women, and the macho materialism of the males. And to top it all, there is Lino Ventura’s detective, calculating, heartless – an extreme misogynist, who loves trapping people, using modern technology with sadistic glee.
What sets out as a love story with a murder, ends in a bloodbath of a treble murder, shattering illusions, leaving us with very little love, only regrets. The portrait of a very cold place, full of mercenaries of all kind: men who are little boys who have not grown up, playing war on different levels, and the women displaced whether they take their fate in their hands like Florence, or follow simperingly like Veronique – there is no place for them in this cruel and hapless Brave, New World.