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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Lift to the scaffold #3

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Just watched Ascenseur pour l’échafaud again. I liked it even more than the last time.

Poster: Elevator to the Gallows

Poster: Elevator to the Gallows

It is probably all but impossible with today’s technology to recapture that particular monochromatic quality. Like trying to revive vinyl sound on a CD. It’s not just a matter of draining the image of colour. It is also as if the black and white double up as words on a page – making statements at the same time as observing and recording.

The statements are not exactly bizarre in content, but the choices as to what is said and what is not said have a surreal kind of logic. The choices are perhaps best highlighted when compared to other – far inferior – ways the story could have been told.

The theme is a familiar one. Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover, ex-paratrooper Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), plot to kill Florence’s husband Simon Carala (Jean Wall), who is also Julien Tavernier’s employer.

But there is not a single shot of Julien and Florence together, apart from in a few (highly significant) photographs in the closing frames. The only communication between them is a phone call over the opening credits.

The killers therefore enjoy no sexual contact. As if to compensate there is some inventive deployment of office equipment. As soon as Julien puts the phone down he picks up a card-index drawer which happens to be on his desk and slides it back where it belongs. He goes out, stops the receptionist/switchboard operator who is just about to leave, and asks her if she would mind staying behind. She is delighted to, and immediately plunges a pencil into an automatic pencil sharpener. Of course: why not?

There is then the build up to the central icon which the film as a whole hangs on. Julien climbs out of his window onto a ledge and throws a grappling hook up to the floor above. He pulls himself up and climbs through a window to get to near Simon Carala’s office suite. He presses Carala’s buzzer and is invited in. He hands over plans for a pipeline in Algeria, and then shoots Carala with Carala’s own gun. He puts the gun into Carala’s hand to make it look like a suicide. He then locks all the doors and lets himself out, managing to lock the last door from the inside by the cunning use of a flick-knife. He returns to his own floor by rope and hurries in through the window because his telephone is ringing. It is the receptionist, and he manages to get to it just before she puts the phone down. He answers, and soon after he and the receptionist leave and go their separate ways.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud: Jeanne Moreau

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud: Jeanne Moreau

When he gets to his car on the other side of the road he looks up and sees the rope dangling from the grappling hook. Curses! He forgot it in his haste to answer the phone. So, leaving the engine running,  he dashes back to the office building and goes up in the lift. But now the security guard (who had earlier joked with the receptionist asking her what would happen if he put his finger in her pencil sharpener…) is doing his final rounds, and he switches the power off and unwittingly traps Julien in the lift. Despite all the paratrooper ingenuity and prowess Julien can throw at his predicament, he has to stay there all night, and so for much of the rest of the film. I was going to call it an image of coitius interruptus but, thinking about it, it is more the exact opposite – coitus uninterruptus?

While he is stuck there a thuggish young dreamer – the boyfriend of the girl who sold Julien the flowers he bought for Florence – steals his car and his identity, chases a random German couple up the motorway and then kills them in a motel with Julien’s gun. Meanwhile Florence – who happened to see the young flower seller in the passenger seat of Julien’s car as it sped by – wanders the wet streets of Paris in search of reasons why Julien would have deserted her on the night their new life of bliss was to start, oblivious to the haunting beauty of Miles Davis on the soundtrack.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Ascenseur pour l’échafaud: Maurice Ronet

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud: Maurice Ronet


Written by Chris Lawrence

29 September 2009 at 11:06 pm

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