The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents April 2012 Return to Table of Contents
The Borgias
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Moon in the Gutter
Scarlet Street
ASC Close-Up
The Moon in the Gutter (1983)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Cinema Libre Studio, $29.95

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, France’s contribution to world cinema was largely based on a new form of authenticity facilitated by lightweight cameras and location shooting; New Wave classics such as The 400 Blows, Breathless and Le Beau Serge reflected very different sensibilities, but they were all marked by a physical reality that broke with Hollywood (and, largely, international) tradition. Realism remained the dominant mode in France for several decades, until a filmmaker no less brash than the young Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut altered the landscape in 1981 with Diva. That aggressively artificial thriller, which was initially trashed by critics but ultimately found worldwide commercial success, announced its director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, as a consummate stylist who was wholly unconcerned with literal “reality.” It also marked the first collaboration between Beineix and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC, who shared the director’s dream of creating a visceral, purely visual cinema and whose work with Beineix would influence a generation of French filmmakers, including Luc Besson and Leos Carax.

Beineix and Rousselot took their experiments with abstract, stylized storytelling to a whole new level with their follow-up feature, The Moon in the Gutter, a one-of-a-kind film noir that eschewed conventional plotting and narrative structure in favor of emotions conveyed by light, color and set design. The film’s story — and that term is used loosely in this case — is derived from a novel by crime-writer David Goodis, an American who also provided source material for Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Samuel Fuller’s Street of No Return. The Moon in the Gutter follows Gerard (Gerard Depardieu), a working-class dockworker who becomes obsessed with finding his sister’s rapist after she commits suicide. Gerard spends most of his time in seedy bars and on trash-strewn streets, falling in love along the way with the gorgeous Loretta (Nastassja Kinski), a mystery woman who might or might not know something about his sister’s assailant.

To say The Moon in the Gutter is a study in melodramatic artifice is putting it mildly. Shot entirely on the stages at Cinecitta, the film is all mood — Rousselot’s palette of saturated, often garish colors creates textures completely unrecognizable from real life, and Beineix’s insistence on constantly interrupting the narrative flow for visual flights of fancy (such as weirdly animated puddles of blood that come to life) only adds to the movie’s surreal quality. The characters and their behavior are utterly squalid and perverse, yet Rousselot bathes them in vivid colors and hallucinatory lighting effects more appropriate to a Vincente Minnelli musical than a film noir. The picture’s bizarre combination of elements is best witnessed in a scene in which Gerard has a nightmare set in a morgue, where a nude corpse that initially appears to be his sister turns out to be Loretta, whose body he caresses to the tune of the movie’s synthesized love theme. Necrophilia and incest are presented with both a visceral immediacy and a heightened sense of romantic melodrama. Is it any wonder The Moon in the Gutter met with derision when it premiered at Cannes?     

The fact many of the characters are stereotypes probably did not help the movie in terms of critical acceptance although, like everything else in the film, the artificiality of the characterizations is so heightened that at some points they transcend cliché and rise to the level of myth. The odd “wedding” sequence of Gerard and Loretta takes place in a cliff-side cathedral so far above the water it resembles a castle from a children’s story, and throughout the movie, the self-conscious use of light and color by Rousselot and Beineix exacerbates the film’s dreamlike, fairy-tale quality like an NC-17 version of a classic Disney movie. While this alternately hypnotic and distancing method of storytelling might not be to everyone’s taste, the film’s cinematography is beyond criticism: just about any frame could be extracted as a still and hung in a gallery; Rousselot’s elegant compositions and dynamic use of color generate consistently beautiful images.

Unfortunately, while Rousselot’s frames are frequently stunning on the film’s new Blu-ray edition, the transfer is far from definitive. In fact, there is little discernible difference between this high-definition “upgrade” and the standard-def DVD released in 2009. Although the disc does a decent job of reproducing the bold colors and deep blacks, there is little of the sharpness and detail one expects from Blu-ray, and the contrast levels seem inconsistent. The audio is clean and clear but unremarkable — one wishes for a more robust presentation of Gabriel Yared’s over-the-top romantic score. The disc does have a few engaging bonus features though, including a 16-minute interview with Beineix by Tim Rhys of Moviemaker magazine and a gallery of production stills. Best of all (although the transfer leaves a lot to be desired) is “Mr. Michel’s Dog,” the early, (15-minute) short film of Beineix that predates Diva and The Moon in the Gutter and is more realistic; it establishes many of the director’s recurring preoccupations and motifs, from an attention to working-class characters to a deep undercurrent of irony. It is a fascinating early work by an always fascinating — if often maddening — voice in French cinema. 

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