December is Jeanne Moreau Month!

Elevator to the Gallows (dir. Louis Malle, 1958)

Modernity has come to Paris in Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle’s sleek, cool classic about a young business cog, Julien Tavernier, who murders his boss and then foolishly bungles the getaway when he becomes stuck in the elevator of his office building.  The elevator in question is key, not only because it’s the site of the slow, cruelly humorous unraveling of a seamless crime, but also because it defies the quaint, slatted European lifts of romantic imagination (and, indeed, of many French crime films).  Steel, ugly and imposing, the elevator of Julien’s undoing echoes the cold, lifeless architecture Malle places in his mise-en-scene: the harsh geometric lines of an office window cutting across a classic Parisian skyline, and a motel of garage-like pods insist that the cinematic City of Lights has been replaced and upgraded to severe, neon-blinking functionality.

Jeanne Moreau, aching with sensuous desire as Julien’s girlfriend Florence, is the film’s only source of warmth, which proves devastating as it becomes clear that she is as isolated as her lover.  In a melancholic reverie-like state, Florence wanders the sparsely lit streets of midnight Paris, looking desperately for any sign of Julien, who she mistakenly believes has stood her up for another woman.  Close hand-held shots of her trembling, perversely cherubic face reveal the pain of lost love and certain alienation, while the hip, mournful notes of Miles Davis, whose improvisational trumpeting accents the entire film, follow Florence on her walk to nowhere.  It is in the final images of Elevator to the Gallows that we realize Julien and Florence will never meet again.  The brief, arresting few moments of the film’s opening reveal them speaking on the telephone, but it is only ever the distancing medium of technology that unites the couple before they are sentenced to their separate fates, she to endless wandering and he to his mechanical purgatory.

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