Daniel Auteuil gives a wonderfully deranged performance in L'ELEGANT CRIMINEL, the otherwise uneven biography of a notorious 19th-Century French thief and murderer.
Auteuil plays Pierre Lacenaire, who was also portrayed in the Marcel Carne classic, CHILDREN OF PARADISE. As this film begins, Lacenaire is about to face the guillotine together with his accomplice, Avril (Patrick Pineau). A flamboyant figure (imagine, if you can, equal parts Quentin Crisp and
Charlie Manson), Lacenaire has turned aside the court's offer of mercy, describing his criminal career as a form of slow suicide he hopes will reach fruition with his beheading. He has also written an autobiography describing his gruesome exploits in detail that he has turned over to state
security official Allard (Jean Poiret) to edit and have published after his death. As Allard works on the manuscript--his editing mostly consisting of censorship--the past life of Lacenaire unfolds.
The product of a smothering, sexually provocative mother and a distant, disdainful father, Lacenaire went on to a Jesuit education under a bullying, pedophilic cleric. He begins his career by stealing from his parents, first outright, then by deception when he cons his father out of a sizable sum
to pay a gambling debt. He then enlists in the military to pass the time until his father dies and he can come into his inheritance. Upon leaving the military, however, he finds that his father has died bankrupt, causing Lacenaire to begin his criminal career in earnest. He teams up with a street
urchin, Hermine, to commit street robberies. This same urchin reappears as a comely, amoral teen (Maiwenn LeBesco) after Lacenaire's death to seduce and move in with Allard, largely to have access to Lacenaire's memoir.
Moving on to bigger and better things, Lacenaire gets himself arrested and put into prison so he can make contact with the criminal underworld and recruit "professional accomplices," including Avril. Lacenaire is finally caught after one particularly bloody rampage in which he and a cohort with a
fondness for ice-picks murder an old couple in their sleep to rob their silver shop. As a prisoner, Lacenaire becomes a major celebrity, which is also in keeping with his ambitions. At long last, Lacenaire goes to the guillotine, unrepentant and impeccably dressed.
To say the least, Lacenaire's story is hardly the stuff of a dry French costume drama. But that is precisely what L'ELEGANT CRIMINEL keeps threatening to become under co-writer Francis Girod's self-defeating direction. His method here, which backfires badly, is to have the movie jump freely, at
times haphazardly, from the past to the present, revolving around Lacenaire's incarceration leading up to his execution in 1836, the editing of his manuscript by Allard and Arago (Jacques Weber), whom Lacenaire has asked to write an introduction, and Hermine, who herself jumps freely between
Allard and Arago. The past, one must assume, is drawn from Lacenaire's actual memoir, which progresses in tone from colorful roguishness to dark, obsessive violence, along the way draining itself of any possible sympathy for its protagonist, as it should. Presumably, the idea is to distance the
audience from either the allure of Lacenaire's outlaw life or the hypocritical bourgeois society that tracked him down and put him down. But it's finally difficult to deduce what Girod's intentions might have been.
There are a lot of strong ideas and powerful scenes floating around in L'ELEGANT CRIMINEL, perhaps too many. Girod can't stick with any single subplot or idea long enough for it to make its point. In fact, his pattern seems to be to cut away the moment a scene, character or theme threatens to
engage either the intellect or emotions, which has the effect of upending the film and setting it back to square one every few minutes. The result is more irritating than enlightening and finally outright boring with a screenplay that is as overrun with dialogue as it is fragmented. If Lacenaire
hadn't employed more conventional weapons, he almost certainly could have talked his victims to death.
Despite that, Auteuil's (best known to American audiences for JEAN DE FLORETTE and its sequel, MANON OF THE SPRING) audacious performance keeps the film from sinking irrevocably into some highbrow movie netherworld between anti-Chabrol and sub-Godard. In fact, the entire cast is generally strong,
from the durable Poiret to the beguiling LeBesco. Girod's direction, in bits and pieces, suggests a major talent at work, which makes it all the more exasperating that L'ELEGANT CRIMINEL isn't a better film. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: Daniel Auteuil gives a wonderfully deranged performance in L'ELEGANT CRIMINEL, the otherwise uneven biography of a notorious 19th-Century French thief and murderer. Auteuil plays Pierre Lacenaire, who was also portrayed in the Marcel Carne classic, CHILDR… (more)