BluRay/DVD Reviews

CLASSE TOUS RISQUES

By • Aug 2nd, 2008 •

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Although the folks at Criterion describe Claude Sautet’s CLASSE TOUS RISQUES as a French noir, this is a one of a kind film, stunning and surprising, that transcends all genres. It was shot in 1959, the year THE 400 BLOWS won the Grand Prix at Cannes. If there’s anything CLASSE TOUS RISQUES reminds me of, though, it’s the early work of Pasolini (ACCATTONE especially), blending an almost cinema verite quality with a grim, yet passionate poetry that springs from the geometry of the streets and the second breath of living on the edge.

You might call me a victim of false expectations. I first became aware of CLASSE TOUS RISQUES in 2005, when it played New York’s Film Forum with a rave by John Woo plastered over the box office in 12-inch type. Along with stills of gangsters and big guns, this implied something tough, stylish and ritualistically engaging. Except this movie, which turns out to be one of the best French films of its era, is nothing of the kind. Expecting something different, I was sorely disappointed. Recently a friend, knowing my tastes in movies, gave me the DVD as a gift. I was going to sell it on ebay, but decided at the last minute to give the film another look. Now it’s one of my favorites.

CLASSE TOUS RISQUES’s tense opening is set at the Milan train station during rush hour. If you ask me, it’s a perfect place to begin, expressing the film’s themes of transportation and transformation. A voice from a loudspeaker announces a departure, and everyone stirs slightly. Aided by the amazing photography of Ghislain Cloquet, the northern Italian sun shines down unremittingly, turning the slowly moving passengers into patches of dully gleaming grey, as if the entire population had taken on mineral form. All these faces are grave, like churchgoers or sleepwalkers, which, along with the blinding sun outside, invokes a Sisyphean-like labor, reminding me of Camus.

Two faces, though, are different. While seemingly lethargic, they notice every detail, like a gourmet examining a vintage wine. For these two men, though, it’s the amount of money in cash registers, along with a cursory glance towards a solitary cop on the beat. Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), once head of the Parisian underworld, is on the run in Milan from a murder rap. Down on his luck with his wife and two children in tow, Abel and his partner Raymond (Stan Kroll) are forced to pick pockets and rob newsstands for small change in order to survive. Their elongated shadows cross the path of a bank courier with a satchel of cash, but soon the Italian police have them outnumbered and outgunned.

What we have here is a road movie in reverse, one that goes back to the beginning, both in terms of the main character’s chronology and our own perceptions. With both his wife and Raymond dead, Abel asks for help from his former gangland associates, who send Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo in his first starring role) to transport Abel and his children in an ambulance back to Paris. While avoiding police traps, Eric manages to pick up Liliane (Fellini regular Sandra Milo), who happens to be a registered nurse, lending an air of authenticity to their ruse. Back in Paris, however, Eric discovers Abel’s old friends have made a deal with the police. He is forced to help Abel and his children escape again, in a city where there is ultimately no escape.

CLASSE TOUS RISQUES is a film that fell between the cracks caused by the aesthetic conflict in the late ‘50’s between the French New Wave and the Old Guard (directors such as Julien Duvivier & Marcel Carne). Here is a film that occupies a unique place, without precursors or protegees, in that moment when everything in French cinema was about to change. It stands alone, in much the same way that Abel Dalvos, the main character, stands alone.

In this, Claude Sautet’s first film (and I’ll say it again, his first film!), he manages to trump even Jean-Pierre Melville in his mortality-laden imagery, where every breath the characters take seems simultaneously their first as well as the last. CLASSE TOUS RISQUES is filled with incredible grit, subtlety and soul, not to mention a prodigious cinematic sensibility and a heart as big as the Champs Elysees.

I can’t say enough about Lino Ventura’s performance here, which I think may be, along with perhaps his role in Melville’s ARMY OF SHADOWS, his very best. It’s amazing the way Mr. Ventura combines a sense of menace with an overwhelming humanity (like the way he goes from being a loving father in the winking of an eye to an avenging angel with a snub-nosed .45). Thanks to Mr. Ventura’s specificity, Abel Davos becomes a man like any other.

Belmondo has always been considered one of the great actors of ‘60’s French cinema, able to bridge the worlds of both Jean-Luc Godard and Fernadel, but in this film he’s a revelation, possibly because it’s his first time out. (This was filmed before BREATHLESS, but released afterwards.) Unlike his highly theatrical hipster persona in BREATHLESS, Belmondo’s acting here seems tender and fresh as if he just stepped out of a rain-soaked street, looking at us with a gaze that’s surprisingly intimate. He uses silence the way a jazz pianist does, catching us off guard, in order to keep things in the moment.

This being a Criterion release, the quality of the black & white1:66 widescreen enhanced image will knock you off your feet. The contrast between light and shadow is so pristine and beautifully modulated that many of the shots look three-dimensional. The only problem was a patch of about fifteen seconds where Belmondo’s herringbone tweed threatened to turn into the biblical Joseph’s coat of many colors. There’s also lots of extra features that will extend the aura of this film in one’s consciousness. In particular, Jose Giovanni, the author, speaks about his time on death row and meeting the person who became the prototype for Abel Davos, empathizing the utter simplicity, not to mention the starkly human underpinnings, of what we have just seen.

Although it’s certainly a gangster film, this is unlike any other, breaking all forms, not to mention formulas, until we are faced with the simple continuity of the everyday, revealing everything and nothing simultaneously. (If you don’t know what that last sentence means, you’ll have to see the movie.) Highly original as well as edge-of-your-seat entertainment, this is a must see for those interested in modern French cinema, as well as film noir. Highly recommended.

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