[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
Vivid reds dominate this Quebec-made study of corruption, from its cruising opening night shot of a sleek black car, taillights aglow, arriving at contractor Vincent Padovani’s chic Montreal home, to the grayish morning-after tableau, wide-angle, in which bored dignitaries wait in the rain, under black umbrellas, for their infantile mayor to cut a long red ribbon spanning the expanse of Padovani’s brand-new slate-grey superhighway. The police-sergeant/chauffeur who jumps out of the sleek black car and scurries around to open the passenger door for his boss (a minister of transportation) wears French cuffs and a hood-y maroon shirt. The minister is ushered into Padovani’s tasteful diningroom where a small, genteel dinner party is underway to celebrate the completion of the highway, with its lucrative, business-as-usual “spreading of contracts.” Outside, the red-shirted cop leans on the limo, lights a cigarette, and prepares to wait it out. After a few moments, he too is ushered into the house, by Padovani’s righthand man Dominique—but his place is belowstairs. Here he meets a couple of other garishly attired policemen, attendant on other Padovani cronies, and an impassively babyfaced gunman apparently attached to the household, and two drinks-serving young women engaged for the evening to seryice one of the upstairs party guests: the mayor. The basement quarters where these flunkies congregate and await various summonses from upstairs are irregularly lit with patches of Mean Streets neon poolhall red. This opening sequence is absorbing, and the counterpoint between below- and abovestairs generates some suspense. But subsequent spurts of away-from-the-dinner-party action—an intimidating visit to a rival gangster’s lair, a vicious attack on militant students planning a protest demonstration against the highway, the roughing-up of two inquiring reporters—somehow fail to satisfy.
The main storyline, involving Padovani’s troublesome ex-wife Réjeanne, culminates in melodrama which is made worse by heavy symbolism. Réjeanne is executed by the household gunsel; along comes a Padovani cement truck, in the dead of night, and covers her body over in its deep pit. Meanwhile, the painfully slow pacing of scenes inside the house dissipates the tension built up by the opening. Padovani, especially, seems to be taking himself with portentous Godfatherly seriousness, brooding away in his dimly lit inner sanctum, pausing a long time after every sentence. Wives of the power brokers prowl the Padovani premises licking their lips and throwing themselves at the suave, indifferent, well-tailored men. The red-décor motif, too, begins to pall: you’ve seen one plush red sofa, one huge russet abstract painting, you’ve seen ’em all. And the nadir is reached, after about 40 minutes of painstaking dramatic preparation, with a long tracking shot toward this mysterious figure standing in the greenhouse with its back to the camera. Dominique has been sent to investigate. Subjective camera. We move toward the figure as Nick approaches. Closer, closer … why, it has a head of flaming red hair, see? … closer, closer … and in a sudden movement of crashing theatrical familiarity she wheels around, just as Nick is about to reach her, this carrot-top … and it is … surprise! … Réjeanne Padovani!
Well, that entire opening sequence does linger in the mind, and there’s a good passage where Padovani’s former mistress attempts to sing some Gluck for the guests; followed by an even better, Milos Forman–like passage in which the quartet that accompanied her, three sheets to the wind by this time, tries disorganizedly to negotiate some light music. The film ends, as it began, exceptionally well. As soon as the red highway ribbon is cut, Padovani climbs into the back seal of his limousine, alongside a new mistress, and the car purrs off down the middle of the desolate wide concrete swath he and his political pals have cut through the city. He turns his head and looks out the window; she turns her head and looks out the window on her side. The screen fills with the brown and grey tones of gutted, abandoned, battered habitations, sliding by in the smooth motion imparted by a passing vehicle. And on the soundtrack, to stunning effect, Arcand deploys the voice of Padovani’s sexy, “cultured,” blond ex-mistress, heard again struggling with the pure tones of an aria from Orfeo ed Euridice.
Direction: Denys Arcand. Screenplay: Arcand, Jacques Benoit. Cinematography: Alain Dostie. Editing: Arcand, Marguerite Duparc. Music: Gluck; Walter Boudreau.
The Players: Jean Lajeunesse, Pierre Theriault, Luce Guilbeault, Roger Lebel, Frédérique Colin.
Copyright © 1975 by Ken Eisler