Lift to the Scaffold (L'Ascenseur pour l'Echafaux) Louis Malle (1958 Fr) Jeanne Moreau; Maurice Ronet
Viewed: NFT London; 7 Feb 2014; ticket: £7.50
Change in the Rules of the Game.Nineteen years on from Renoir's The Rules of the Game, after a world war the German Occupation and the infiltration of Coca-Cola culture, Louis Malle makes The Lift to the Scaffold. At it's simplest his film states simply and objectively that the rules of the game have changed: it's a new game, with shifting ambiguous rules.
Lift to the Scaffold is a shock wave that jolts us out of the cosy world of traditional social hierarchies and the striated conventions that define them. It shakes us out of class bound notions of ownership and personal relations into the post war world of the 1950's which is already being shaped by contemporary modernism. A world always on edge where money defines identity; a world with fluid boundaries defined by personal desire accelerations separations and object fetishism. A world that at that time of the film's production was in embryo but projected by Malle into its maturity.
And like Renoir's movie, Lift to the Scaffold is also a satire on social relations.
Renoir's satire in keeping with the times is a gentle probing. He puts into relief the strange, sometimes hypocritical amusing contradictions that result from the different behaviour codes followed by two classes of people living in close proximity as masters and servants. Malle's satire is more savage and pitiless. Renoir's protagonists, in particular the ruling class, are able to control events by containing them within their world. Malle's protagonists have no such power and the satire derives from the manner in which actions by the protagonists veer completely out of their control resulting in exaggerated unintended effects that overwhelm them. Effects enlarged and given greater visibility by the cool detached acting style that gesturally characterises the playing out of the scenario.
This difference between the two films is highlighted by the killings that are important but not necessarily defining events in the two scripts. In Rules of the Game the murder is a crime passionel, motivated by jealousy: an old fashioned sort of provocation. It is viewed in the film as an embarrassment rather than a crime, a mistake that can be justified contained and explained away. The killing in 'Rules' is done from a distance without the killer and victim being in close contact: Andre will have had no idea who shot him. Contrast with Malle's script. Here the two murders are close up and personal, with eye contact between the two parties. As if Malle understands that within the new social matrix sexual and murderous relations will be two unpredictable sides of the same coin: power. Malle's killings are in complete opposition to the bungled events of 'Rules': political assassination (perhaps mediated by passion) and kicks. In Lift to the Scaffold the killings are acts of individuated will. And both murders satirically spin out of control of the perpetrators exposing them to the capricious forces of fate and satiric irony.
Renoir's script is devised using the classical unities of time and place: events unfold at a leisurely pace building up to the climax. In Malle's script the lack of unities gives brilliant defining form to the movie. The protagonists although fatefully entangled are physically separated in time and space. Two of the main characters Florence and Julien, never meet face to face. Their unseen actions effect each other from a distance. Just as today the wild interplay of separated individuals on social networking sites can set into motion accelerated forces moulding possibility into certainty, so the actions of Malle's protagonists just as certainly accelerate them into the precipitation of the events that eventually consume them.
Of course Malle works with new social types: arms dealers, disaffected rebellious kids, veterans with a grudge and sets them against a new emerging milieu of incessant motion and transience: highways, motels, modernist office blocks, the city streets (Moreau's endless mythic walk through night time Paris)or any place whatever. Malle locates his characters in a world not only in relation to their social strata, but more in relation to objects (or absence of objects as in the interrogation scene). Objects burrow into the course of the action, not just the cars, which are caressed and admired like a lover, but pencil sharpeners, cameras, card filing systems, revolvers. Louis Malle directs out attention to object fetishism and the world of Vuitton, BMW, Apple etc waits in the wings.
In filming Lift the the Scaffold Malle used his camera in a way that builds on the expressive ideas of Rossellini de Sica Visconti and other Europeans. The Camera as directed by these film makers doesn't only work to create affect perception or movement; it is not a slave to story or the manipulated affects of emotion. It might do some of these things but its principle function to enable the audience to see, to be invested as a seer. The audience is not asked to invest in fake emotional symbolism. The cars the guns the bars the highways the clothes the office blocks can all be read as signs, not so much part of the narrative but signifiers connecting the film to the world we live in.
Before 'Lift' Malle had worked with Bresson on 'A man escaped' ( Un condamne a mort s' est echappe; 1956) . And one of Bresson's formal concerns carries over into this film, his determination of a specific type of acting style needed to make films that were about seeing. The role of the actor is to reveal something to the audience. This cannot be achieved by the actor flooding out the audience's emotional channels, overwhelming them by manipulations. It is achieved by the actor building a certain type of relation to their role which is not a becoming. The actor's task is to show, in one way or another, how their character is a construct in a particular situation. The scenario the script and the structure of a film are an apparatus which allows the actor to take up varying positions in relation to the material allowing the viewer the spac to be a key interpretor of the material.