Monday, November 03, 2008

Monsieur Verdoux

Dean and I watched 'Monsieur Verdoux' last night. My sister had recommended it, and I'd always had the intention of seeing it, so when I saw it on the shelves in the public library, I thought we should give it a try.

As Dean said, 'There were some funny tricks in it,' but overall, I didn't think it was that great. I'm afraid I'm just not a Chaplin fan. I tried 'City Lights' several months ago and had the same reaction - a few good moments, but overall rather blah. He must be one of those artists you either fall head over heels in love with, or else you just can't quite figure out what all the fuss is about. I have a similar reaction to Gene Kelly: great moments, but there's something rather too self-satisfied and artificial about him, which prevents me from really falling for him.

I thought the best part of the movie was Martha Raye, as the indestructible Annabelle. I really enjoyed the scene where Chaplin is staring at her broodingly, as she rattles on about how she didn't listen to him when he told her that she should withdraw all her money in cash because the banks were about to fail - the very ruse he'd pulled on an earlier wife, whom he'd subsequently killed. It was so obvious he was wondering why his tricks worked on everyone else, but not on her, and I felt a sneaking sense of identification with her: "Haha! You're not pulling the wool over MY eyes, either, Charlie! I haven't fallen under your spell!"

What killed the movie for me was the scene where he returns home to his REAL wife and child. The moment I saw she was in a wheelchair I felt the manipulation and was never won back. Awww, he's doing it for the children! He's really a saint! And after all, he only killed ugly, mean women that nobody cared about.

I think this sort of sentimentality runs through Chaplin's movies, what I've seen of them, and they ruin the experience for me every time. 'The Great Dictator' is the only one that I want to watch repeatedly, and I think it's because he divides himself into two roles, so the sentimentality is successfully isolated in the barber character, and I can enjoy the dictator without having to believe in any mawkish emotionalism.

But in 'Monsieur Verdoux' he lays it on really thick - he's not really a murderer, he's a victim! He lost his job, so what else could he do but become a murderer? And then the moralizing at the end - obviously the heavy-handed moral lesson at the end, drowning out the comedy, didn't start with M*A*S*H*. Now, TGD has a big dollop of moralizing right at the end, too, but at least it's confined to the final 5 minutes, and it's delivered with some kind of drama and energy. I think Chaplin saw himself as some sort of "holy fool" in the trial and condemned cell speeches, but they just come across as supercilious and sneering. Once again, it's that artificial persona that just turns me off. I never feel I'm connecting with a real character, just a Chaplin character.

Later on, I began to wonder about the timeline in the movie. There were some things that just seemed off. First of all, why set it in France? Everyone was so brutally American, I had real trouble suspending my disbelief; 'Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo' did a better job of portraying the French, not least because they hired real French actors for the supporting and minor roles. The story seemed to take place in 1932, 3 years after the great stock market crash, which was the reason Verdoux lost his bank job. Once again, I was left wondering why this story wasn't taking place in America - not that France was not affected by the '29 crash, but Europe had its own quite different problems, stemming from the First World War. It felt as if American history was being imported and plunked down on the Continent. Then we get Verdoux's 3-year criminal career, which ends around 1932 because of...another stock market crash! Now I was really getting whiplash. All those scenes of people jumping out of skyscraper windows - that's straight out of 1929. So Chaplin really wanted to make a movie about the dislocation of the financial crisis of 1929, only he couldn't because he'd already used it offscreen as the catalyst for his main character's criminal acts. Solution: invent another crisis, exactly the same as the first one, just set it 3 years later.

Then I realized why he set the story in 1932, and in France: he wanted to make ANOTHER movie, about the rise of fascism in Europe, so he could use scary headlines newsreel footage of Mussolini and Hitler. This would lead nicely to his sermonizing about the military-industrial complex, and the weapons manufacturers who were the REAL criminals. But this led me down a path Chaplin couldn't have intended: the real Crash occurred in the U.S. in 1929, so why didn't Hitler and Mussolini come to power THERE? Why transplant American history to Europe, to explain the rise of fascism, when it didn't produce fascism where it really happened? Maybe the rise of fascism in Europe was a little more complicated than just the machinations of greedy bankers and weapons dealers.

On the whole, the movie wasn't able to support the pretensions that Chaplin tried to load it with. I felt that he saw himself as some sort of visionary with Something To Say, and this overwhelmed the final half hour of the film.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I vaguely remembered, "Monsieur Verdoux" was based on an actual French murder case from the 1920's. Didn't know Orson Welles wrote the script though Chaplin didn't give him much credit.

10:52 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes, the Landru case. In 1946, the year before this movie was made, the papers would have also been full of the trial of another French mass-murderer, Dr Petiot, who lured Jews in occupied Paris to their deaths with the promise that he could help them escape to South America. So that might have triggered Chaplin's interest in the earlier case. But he did such a terrible job portraying France and the French that I wonder why even bothered to hold on to the historical thread.

11:09 am  

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