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Mortelle Randonnée (Deadly Circuit – 1983)

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Capital in Czechoslovakia, four letters.

The closest you can get to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in French is by watching Mortelle Randonnée. It’s a haunted classic a stellar noir and a fatherhood fable rolled into one. You thought you got that one right, Hollywood? Let’s take a trip down memory lane, thirty three years ago.

The movie is Shakespearian but mundane. It includes the best giallo murder not filmed by Argento. It does not end well. It is devastating, devastatingly so.

The original material is a pulp novel by Marc Boehm, titled The Ice Maiden. Hollywood remade it with Ashley Judd and Ewan McGregor as The Eye of the Beholder (1999, obviously losing the paternal dimension. The movie is about what you see and what to refuse to see; what you chose to see instead. Scopophilia and fantasy, spectacle and dream.

Main character The Eye (Michel Serrault, formidable), is tasked by his bitchy boss, the fantastically named Mme Schmidt-Boulanger (Genevieve Page, a monument to French diction) to follow and report on the heir of a Belgian shoe-making dynasty. He soon discovers said heir has been victim of a praying mantis (Isabelle Adjani), whose neuroses reflect his: she’s lost her father and him his daughter. Only at the end of the movie those two will come across and both will die, one symbolically. A feel-good movie it is not, even though it ends on a soothing note.

The Eye is jaded by a job too easy for his capacities. One look, just one look, case closed. But the Ice Maiden proves to be a tough nut to crack, leading him off track, across Europe and within himself. His opening monologue is anything but a conventional voice-over. It deceptively sets The Eye as a man in need. He’s not. It’s all crosswords for him, enigmas piled on riddles. He’s looking for meaning. He won’t find any, or only of the darkest kind. A quantum of solace, too.

It starts in Paris by a carousel and drifts from there, under the pretense of PI work. If you speak French, the movie is delectable from start to finish : it was the last one to benefit from the work of dialog-writer Michel Audiard, father of director Jacques Audiard and author of some of the most cultish sentences in French cinema. It’s the French version of screwball comedy, both elegantly written and playfully delivered. Actors here do not miss a syllable or a comma for effect. It’s clockwork, respectfully served by director Claude Miller.

The Virgo, symbol of the sweetness of things is revealed as a Capricorn, symbol of winter. In the novel horoscopes played an important role and so do they in the movie. Lucie (the light), as she is first introduced, bumping on The Eye by a carrousel, has no plan. She is adrift, as he is. The eye has to travel, so he will follow her, fuming but enthralled.

She fucks men and kill them singing La Paloma (the dove), another virginal deceit from a witch. There is a lot of blood on the first murder scene. The Eye decides to let it slide and they embark on a not-so-merry-go-round. She’s now Eve, another maiden. She reaches the peak of her trade: “A mink! Emeralds! What a nice companion you are!” she enthused before killing a second guy she was engaged under a third name. She’s a child, she has no ethics or guilt. She’s a go-getter, whatever it takes.

Guilt is on The Eye’s side after he kills a blind man (ha!), the Ice Maiden’s true love (Sami Frey, dashing). It’s a sacrifice he will regret to exert and try to cope with, to no avail. It’s a zero sum game, a lost-lost. But still they go, relentlessly, from a daylight version of Malcom McLaren’s Madam Butterfly video set in Baden Baden to Rome, where the sacrifice takes place.

The way it spirals downward from there is too painful to tell. A very dark comedy, Mortelle Randonnée is as venomously funny as it is tragic. It leaves a strong, bitter after-taste. One has watched this movie repeatedly and can’t get tired of it. It’s a tantalising object, much too dark to be watched but through the looking glass, and it’s impossible to forget. Impossible to un-see.

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