Aux Abois

February 7, 2010By Stéphane PiatzszekArchive

The Everyday Life of a Killer

The lady (Ludmila Mikael) and the murderer (Elie Semoun).

The great French humorist Tristan Bernard (1866-1947) knew what he was talking about when he said, “Never count on anyone except yourself, and even then not much.” Director Philippe Collin’s latest film, Aux Abois, is an insipid version of Bernard’s novel of the same name, written some 70 years ago.

It tells the story of Paul Duméry (Elie Semoun), a former insurance agent desperate for money to pay the alimony he owes his ex-wife. To help him get back on his feet, he kills an elderly moneylender with a few well-aimed hammer blows. Once the dirty deed is done, Duméry takes off for the provinces, his pockets full of cash, feeling slightly guilty about letting a childhood friend take the rap for him.

During his wanderings, he meets up with a not-very-bright policeman, who happens to be an old Army buddy, and falls into the arms of an attractive upper-class woman of a certain age (Ludmila Mikael, in an appealing performance). After enjoying a romantic idyll with her, Duméry grows tired of being on the lam. He returns to Paris and gets himself arrested, tried and condemned to death.

With this film, Collin has once again taken on an extremely ambitious project. Ten years after he made Les Derniers jours d’Emmanuel Kant (The Last Days of Emmanuel Kant), he now looks at the last days of an ordinary murderer, but with much less success. The novel Aux Abois was droll and disturbing, but Collin’s film never manages to accomplish what he seems to

have set out to do: depict the “strange strangeness” of a killer’s daily life.

One problem is the casting of Elie Semoun as the main character. Did the producer insist on hiring Semoun because of his popularity as a comedian? He weighs down every image with his dullness. His lightweight acting is fit for a first-year drama student.

The first risk Collin took was to adapt this novel, which he sets in the 1950s (some nice period details in the film include the arm of a turntable floating over a record, and a blown fuse being replaced by a piece of aluminum foil). Bernard may have been a talented writer, but his novel is dated. The boulevardier humor of the plays by Feydeau, Jules Renard or Bernard, which was so pleasing to middle-class Parisians in the late 19th-century, has lost its appeal today. Aristotle believed that laughter was peculiar to Man; perhaps he should have added “a man of a certain time and a certain place.”

Stéphane Piatzszek

© 2005 Paris Update

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