18 June 2009

"A do-it-yourself kind of thing!"

In this post, I will be discussing the plots of Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. There will be copious amounts of spoilers spewing forth like Peckinpah squibs. If you haven't seen these films, then go home and get watching.

For the rest of you...

As far as tone, plot, and themes, Vertigo and Les Diaboliques (I will not say its name without the definite article) are very similar, and there's a good reason for that: They're both based on novels by Boileau-Narcejac, a French team that cranked out mid-century detective novels. These two guys are a big reason why those films are so good, but they're also the reason why the films are, in my opinion, flawed.

Many critics consider Vertigo to be Hitchcock's masterpiece, the film that best captures what made him an auteur. I agree that it is a great movie, stuffed full of moments that make me grin and chuckle (in a good way); that being said, let me tell you about my main problem with the film, the one that prevents it from going on any list of my absolute favorites. Namely, the actual plot. Every time I watch Vertigo, and the revelations emerge, I think, "Surely there's an easier way to murder your wife." I watched Les Diaboliques recently for the first time, and, once again, as the ending was revealed, I had the exact same thought. (Perhaps foolishly, I just realized that both films center around murdering wives. I think Boileau-Narcejac had some issues, as do we all.)

In Vertigo, Tom Helmore seeks out old friend Jimmy Stewart to check up on his oddly-acting wife. As we later find out, Helmore has already killed his wife and hired Kim Novak to impersonate her, and this is who Stewart follows around. She tells him she may be possessed by the reincarnated spirit of the long-dead Carlotta Valdes (I didn't even have to look that name up, that's how many times I've seen this movie in film classes), and Stewart falls for her faux-crazy ass. Eventually, Novak flees up a bell tower, and Stewart is unable to chase after her due to his vertigo (the reason he was hired in the first place), and so does not witness Helmore chucking his wife's corpse off the top.

In Les Diaboliques, Paul Meurisse is banging both his wife (Vera Clouzot) and his mistress (Simone Signoret), and being a general dick to them and everybody else at their boarding school. Clouzot and Signoret team-up to drown the bastard in a tub and dump him in the school's pool, but when the water is drained, the body is missing. Signs suggesting Meurisse is still alive begin to appear, and Signoret flees. At the end, Clouzot freaks out when she hears her husband approaching, then sees evidence of his return. The scene culminates with her finding his corpse in a tub, which rises up out of the water. Her heart condition (noted throughout the film) kicks in, and she pitches down dead. Then Signoret reappears, and it turns out that the whole thing was a scheme by her and Meurisse to scare Clouzot to death.

In both of these movies, the bad guys seem to be going out of their way to make their schemes as complicated as possible. If I wanted to kill my-wife-with-the-bad-heart, I wouldn't go to ridiculous means to fake my death and return from the dead. I'd just encourage her to jog, or constantly reveal shocking things, or jump out of the dark and say "Boo!" And if my wife didn't have a bad heart, I wouldn't hire a completely different person to impersonate her on the off chance that that person would never feel guilty and would never confess to the crime, and I wouldn't get an acrophobic detective on the case just on the off chance that he would, eventually, be led to the exact place where I'm planning to pitch my wife's corpse off a bell tower and be prevented by his fears from reaching the top and ruining my entire intricate plan.

I would just clock her on the head and push her off a tall building. Especially if it was the 1950s, and forensics wasn't as advanced as it is now.

Yes, yes, yes - the coherence of the plots are not ultimately the point. They're meant to set up thrilling moments and scare the hell out of audiences. And they do certainly work for that purpose. And I will also acknowledge that part of the fun is trying to figure out the wickedly complex plot (this is not so much the case with Vertigo, as they spill the beans halfway through). But by the end, when you realize just how illogical it all is, and how there wouldn't be a movie if the characters weren't incredibly stupid and lucky, it sort of leaves you with a sour feeling. As much as you enjoy the ride, there's some part that says "Yeah, but..."

The best movies can take you a thrill ride and not have you questioning everything at the end. To do this, I think the plot should be propelled by characters who think like actual human beings who do not, for example make things more challenging than they would normally be (an exception might be made for mad, mad I tell you! geniuses), and it should be clear yet deep, in terms of motivation and character development. Two examples of this that immediately spring to mind are L.A Confidential and Chinatown. Both have complex plots, but they're easy enough to follow, and they wrap up neatly in the end - we know who did what and why, and their reasons are not ridiculous ("The future, Mr. Gitts, the future").

There is another tangent you could take that I wholeheartedly approve of, and that, ironically enough, goes in the opposite direction, and leaves the audience full of questions. You could leave things ambiguous, and only offer hints of what is actually going on, and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. This riles people up to no end, some in a loving way, some in a hating way, but when it's done well (Mulholland Drive, American Psycho), it can be much more satisfying than any concrete answers. That way, at least, you're not looking for any shallow excuses as to why you took your audience on a thrill ride ("It was all about murdering my wife! Yeah, that's the ticket!"), and you can just let them enjoy it the whole way through.

They might even get a chance to use their brains. They may not want to, but they will.

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