Tuesday, October 16, 2007
During a recent look at EL TOPO (1971), Roger Ebert lamented the fact that the film, although clearly a masterpiece, was nearly impossible to write about. I think the same can be said of THE MOON IN THE GUTTER. The reason for this is that Beineix's film is a celebration of the visual, so attempting to write on it is a bit like writing on a Egon Schiele or Francis Bacon painting. I can describe the colors, textures and lines but the menace, eroticism and rather mournful nostalgic nature can't be hit upon without seeing it.
THE MOON IN THE GUTTER began life as a novel by American writer David Goodis. It was published in 1953 and Beineix, along with collaborator Olivier Mergeault, spent over half a year working on the script for the film. The story for THE MOON IN THE GUTTER is fairly simple. A lonely and bitter dockworker's sister is raped and murdered. He is mad with rage and anger, and wants revenge. He views everyone with a suspicious eye and he comes to hate everyone in his life, including his finance Bella. He meets a mysterious young woman named Loretta, who literally promises him another world. He then has a decision to make, stay in the life he has for himself, no matter how miserable, or brave the unknown.
Beineix cast famed French actor Gerard Depardieu in the lead role of Gerard. Their relationship would be fairly solid on the set of the film but shortly after the disastrous Cannes reception, Depardieu turned on Beineix and joined in with the critics and savaged the film and director. I suppose in a way you can't blame Depardieu, although his behaviour was still in poor taste. He signed on to make a modern noir, but instead of a classic character study Beineix delivered a mesmerizing new cinema that seemed at times only interested in characters as extensions of his striking visual ideas.
For Bella, Beineix cast a fiery young Spanish actress named Victoria Abril. She would of course later become an international icon with her work for director Pedro Almodovar, but in 1983 she was probably best known for the strange Spanish 3-D picture COMIN AT YA (1981) than anything else. She gives THE MOON IN THE GUTTER perhaps its sharpest classic characterization, which is a major tribute to her as an artist. One scene with her that is particularly memorable has her near manic character alternating rapidly between rage and unadulterated love for Gerard, while she is literally going back and forth seductively on a swing. It is just one of the many deliberately self defacing moments in Beineix's film, and under any other directors eye it probably just would have collapsed.
The key to the film though is Kinski's Loretta. She is the symbolic pull that leads everything that is happening to its natural end. She is the embodiment of every dream, and nightmare, that is plaguing Gerard...and finally his reminder that the idea of getting out can only be a very distant dream, or in the case of THE MOON IN THE GUTTER, another world entirely.
THE MOON IN THE GUTTER is crammed with cinematic allusions, everything from 1950's American melodramas to 1970's Italian giallo's are referenced, but it feels entirely new. If one was to describe THE MOON IN TNE GUTTER as the equivalent of a dream, then it is one very much from an imagination we haven't seen before or since.
One thing Beineix does so well in all of his films is correlate the most mundane aspects of every day life with the electric near surreal possibilities of fantasy (or perhaps more importantly cinema itself). Whether it is the strange fight sequence in the warehouse in THE MOON IN THE GUTTER, which may or may not be part of a nightmare Depardieu is having, or the spiritual solice Jean Hughes Anglande literally finds while inside Beatrice Dalle in BETTY BLUE. Beineix is extraordinary at capturing nighttime dreams in daytime situations, and it is something he has successfully done in all of his films.
Speaking on dreams, I suppose it could be argued that the entire running time of THE MOON IN THE GUTTER might be the fevered vengeful dream of Depardieu. I like to think of it more as the fevered dream of cinema itself by Beineix. As in any dream state, certain rationalities will fall to the side, but Beineix relishes these lapses and it is this relishing that probably most alienated the critics who bothered to watch it back in 1983.
Despite the dreamlike trance the work is told in, and finally induces, it is still very much a film. One that was planned, scripted, budgeted, filmed, edited, and finally projected. The critics' merciless attack on this film back in 1983 seemed to forget that actual people were involved in it and I think its reception hurt both Beineix and Kinksi. Not that I am arguing against the right to hate this film, but the fact that walk outs began happening just a few minutes into the film at Cannes is unacceptable. To this day, this film has never gotten the proper critical attention it deserves.
Everyone involved in THE MOON IN THE GUTTER delivers fine, if not career best, work. Yared has called it his best music score and I agree, as it adds an incredible extra layer to an already multi-faceted film. Everything from the photography to the set designs to the performances is exceptional. No matter how much Depardieu went out of his way to criticize the film and Beineix after the Cannes reception, it doesn't take away from the fact that this is one of his greatest performances. He is totally grounded and believable, even in the film's most extreme and over the top moments. I have already noted how extraordinary Abril is which brings us to Kinski, in what is one of the key roles in her career.
Playing the embodiment of an artists dream is a near impossible task, and I am not sure if anyone besides Nastassja Kinski could have played Loretta with so much dreamy dignity and calm. She delivers a surprisingly human performance in what probably could have been her coldest role. I have no doubts that it was a performance that she was very proud of, and the lynching of the film probably started the wheels in motion that would move her to drop out of high profile films almost completely after 1985. The ironic and tragic thing is that Kinski lives up to every legendary actress that she had been compared to throughout her career in THE MOON IN THE GUTTER. It's one of the great unheralded performances of the eighties, and THE MOON IN THE GUTTER might be the lost film of the decade.
The European Art Film didn't totally die after THE MOON IN THE GUTTER was gutted by the critical establishment, but it took a heavy beating. In much the same way Michael Cimino's brilliant and misunderstood HEAVEN'S GATE pretty much closed the open door to so many young American directors in the seventies, THE MOON IN THE GUTTER'S reception hit every young director willing to push the form away from the standard square in the jaw. The next time anyone in France quite so innovative was given the budget to do what he wanted to do was Leos Carax with his astonishing LES AMANTS DES PONT NEUF. Ironically that film would be greeted initially with the same kind of derision that THE MOON IN THE GUTTER was, although it has since undergone a critical reconsidering.
THE MOON IN THE GUTTER is one of the great forgotten films. It is also one that influenced many other films, directors, artists, fashion designers, advertisers, musicians and yet it usually goes un-mentioned. Since its release it has been like a very vivid, wonderful dream that you have at night, but the morning sun and day's problems quickly take it away...
So close your eyes again and try that other world...