Screen Gems Panique
PANIQUE, drama, not rated, in French with subtitles, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
More than 70 years after its original release in France in 1946, Julien Duvivier’s thriller Panique is finally receiving a wide theatrical exhibition across the United States. The film might have been delayed, but its relevance, if anything, is all the more timely.
This was the first movie Duvivier made upon returning to France from Hollywood, where he worked throughout much of World War II. In the States, he specialized in fantasies, making a pair of brilliant anthology pictures — Tales of Manhattan and Flesh and Fantasy — starring another dislocated Frenchman, Charles Boyer. Panique also delves into fantasy and the occult, borrowing from the portmanteau structure of Duvivier’s Hollywood successes, but it’s a much darker film, an allegory of sorts, in which he warns about a few of the most burning social dangers posed by WWII. Here, we confront the scapegoating and persecution of Jews, the rise of mob violence, the dissemination of fake news — all elements central to this story that are, once again, problems across much of the world.
Panique is one of the earliest film adaptations of a novel by Georges Simenon, the mystery writer best known for his Inspector Maigret novels. Simenon is one of the most frequently translated writers of modern times, and more than 150 movies have been based on his stories. The novel adapted for Panique later served as the basis for Monsieur Hire, Patrice Leconte’s 1989 film starring Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire.
Here, Michel Simon from L’Atalante stars as Monsieur Hire, a Jewish outcast and loner who lives in a suburb on the northern outskirts of Paris. He not only keeps to himself, but he’s also a bit eccentric, so his neighbors grow quite suspicious when the corpse of a middle-aged woman is found partially buried in a deserted lot near his hotel. The suspicions are fueled by a conniving pair of lovers. The beautiful Alice, a newly released convict played by Viviane Romance, has become a lodger near Hire’s room. She gets creeped out when she catches him spying on her. Her boyfriend Alfred (Paul Bernard) laughs it off, and persuades Alice to seduce Monsieur Hire. It seems Alfred has his reasons to frame the lonely old man, thereby taking the heat off himself as a possible suspect in the old maid’s murder.
Panique isn’t a whodunit, as Duvivier quickly pinpoints the actual killer. The story is much more a warning tale about how easy it can be to incite mob violence, and to prey upon people’s biases and prejudices. Duvivier’s stay in Hollywood served him well — the story unfolds swiftly, with plenty of stylistic flourishes but also some brilliant crescendos of action. Most notable is a cascade of bumper cars at a fairground amusement park, where all of the riders, one after the other, hit upon the idea to slam the delinquent Monsieur Hire.
The re-emergence of the long-lost Panique stands as the undisputed highlight of the monthlong Summer in Paris film series at the Violet Crown Cinema. But with eight films in the series, there are plenty of other choices for viewers who want a different approach to sampling French cinema. Sharing the spotlight this week is Diva, the cheeky 1981 Watergate parody that is not just a grand thriller but also a madcap romance with operatic flourishes. Frédéric Andréi stars as a young Parisian postal messenger whose obsession with an opera singer played by the ravishing Wilhelmenia Fernandez drives the plot. And what an amazing plot it is, involving rival gangsters, corrupt cops, and an art student who doubles as a shoplifter. All of their paths collide in strange and unpredictable ways across a dreamlike Paris in what’s one of the most delicious, delirious exercises in Pop Art ever recorded on film.
This was the debut feature by Jean-Jacques Beineix, who abandoned a medical career to make unorthodox, visually stunning works including Betty Blue and Moon in the Gutter. Even more than Beineix, Diva brought attention to the eye-popping cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, who has since been recruited by Hollywood to shoot its biggest fantasies — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sherlock Holmes (2009) and, only last year, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Of special note in Diva is the appearance of a dwarfish villain, Le Curé, played by Dominique Pinon. The same actor later starred in the 1991 black comedy Delicatessen, an absurd, futuristic soufflé on cannibalism that closes out the Summer of Paris series. Delicatessen also has gone unseen for many years, but the debut feature co-directed and cowritten by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet has been newly restored and placed onto DCP to allow screenings in American movie houses.
The first Summer in Paris titles all consist of crime stories and gangster movies, but Delicatessen is part of a second wave of titles, called Into the Macabre, focusing on the supernatural and the surreal. Also coming up:
▼ Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, starring Hollywood expatriate Eddie Constantine in a fight against an evil computer terrorizing a futuristic city.
▼ Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju’s frightening tale of a bold scientist who cravenly experiments on his own daughter to restore her beauty after a horrific accident.
▼ That Obscure Object of Desire, the last film by the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, which uses a series of flashbacks to follow middle-aged Fernando Rey as he falls for a chambermaid.
Michel Simon and Viviane Romance