Lift to the Scaffold (L’Ascenseur pour l’Echafaux) Louis Malle (1958 Fr)

Lift to the Scaffold (L’Ascenseur pour l’Echafaux) Louis Malle (1958 Fr)

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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.

Adrin Neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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