Mercy II

film 2 of 4

Quai des Orfevres

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Children of Paradise gets all the credit, but why isn’t this considered the great celebration of the substance and insights and glorious consolations of French theatre? Henri-Georges Clouzot’s evocation of these spaces, this milieu, of the various stages and levels and theatrical crafts, is positively miraculous. That goes for the titular police address too, as well as all of the seeming peripherals (Jouvet’s Franco-African son!). Everything is so convincingly and authoritatively rendered! You’d expect that from France, of course, given Zola and naturalism and all. But just because it comes naturally, doesn’t mean it comes effortlessly. Really impressive, really admirable. (Same with the no end of crafty/artful cinematics going on.)

Everyone knows that Clouzot is cinema’s arch-misanthropist. (Watch the interview in Criterion’s supplemental feature strain to make him admit it.) And it may be there was some hanky panky on the set, in the cruel-and-unusual sense. But the actual fruits of his labours here are all and only luminous, loving, charity-ridden. With the exception of the eye-popping Charles Dullin/Georges Brignon—sometimes you need a villain to get things going, or so characters can enter into plot and reveal themselves (cf. Jules Barry in Renoir’s Crime of M. Lange)—there’s no end of affection and pity for these characters. They aren’t indulged, nor are they condemned, though they’re very often in the wrong. They’re who and where they are, and the film just accepts it.

Why and how does this work? Inspector Antoine, as played by the furiously admirable Louis Jouvet, is the film’s moral compass. That means that he’s surrounded by/in the midst of a whole catalogue of good and bad and worse behaviour. France—he lives here. This also means that, a la Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones, the Inspector can punish the wrongdoing at the same time that he maintains a practically bottomless regard for the wrongdoer. His superb poverty-themed exchange with Jenny/Suzy suggests the sociological reasons for the wrong that people do. It’s France again—heredity and milieu, and which of us are above blame, or which of us could help it? But there’s more. Sorrow and loss have made this character compassionate. Sorrow and loss have proven that he won’t win, but also that he can’t quit. Whether this comes from Christ or Camus, it’s intensely and real-worldedly ethical.

Let’s also add that Jouvet has a similarly, though complicatedly—kicking dead bodies and all—moral counterpart in all this, which is the insistently uncaricatured homosexual photographer Dora Monier. More French crassness? Not if you follow through on your activist or religious impulses, or have friends who have transgressed, or parent attentively. The Inspector’s tender farewell to this woman makes a connection across what would seem an unbridgeable gulf. “When it comes to women, we’ll never have a chance.” When you think of it this little theatrical homage, this gallic policier is also quite legitimately a Pilgrim’s Progress. In a Clouzot film? Well, it seems that God makes wine for weddings too, and just generally works in mysterious ways.