[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
A despicable type, this M. Alfred Lamel, un vrai p’tit prick. Lamel (Jean Champion) is assistant manager of the small office whose members are invited to a housewarming party by one of their coworkers. A prissily mustachioed, self-important, touchy, puritanical little man, he’s also efficiently sealed off from any threat of real human contact. What finally surprised me about Claude Goretta’s L’Invitation—and a few more surprises along the way wouldn’t have hurt this rather slow-moving Franco-Swiss movie at all—was that Lamel, le salaud, came closer to engaging my interest, my sympathy, even, than any of the other carefully assorted characters “unmasked” during the escalating anarchy of the party. Since even Lamel is something of a stick figure, I’m a bit puzzled by the critics’ fondness for the adjective “Renoiresque” in describing Goretta’s rather too neat little film. In Lamel’s character, as in none of the others, I found a trace of that Renoiresque freshness and unpredictability otherwise drained off almost entirely by Goretta into the admittedly fetching star turn delivered by François Simon (Michel’s richly talented son) as a mysteriously smiling, omniscient barman hired specially for the occasion.
Maybe Renoir sprang to mind because Goretta’s movie, like Renoir’s great medium-length film, concerns a “party in the country” and features an oversexed life-of-the-party figure (Maurice, played by Jean-Luc Bideau). Goretta begins, behind the credits, in the office. Here we meet all the main characters, including the middleaged Milquetoast bachelor, Rémy Placet (Michel Robin), who is given two months’ leave when stricken by the death of his beloved mother, sells his house at a great profit and issues the invitation of the title for his coworkers to visit his new villa in the countryside. The bouncy redheaded office ingénue Aline (Cécile Vassort), who later precipitates a crisis by tipsily stripping to her panties, goes from desk to desk distributing Rémy’s formally phrased invitation. “Pretentious!” Lamel exclaims, and tears it into small pieces. But he shows up at the villa along with the rest of the curious office crew. The redhead zooms up on the back of her brother’s motorcycle and goes right in, apparently the first to arrive. Lamel, however, is already skulking around outside the gate, scrutinizing things and … well, I don’t know, actually, what he seems to be doing is burning cigarette holes in leaves and, uh, blowing smoke through them. A terrifically heavy Thunk!—a VIP car door closing, unmistakably—the Boss arrives, hails little Lamel. Paternally benign, worldly employer and ferrety little self-made second-in-command take side-by-side leaks into the foliage outside the gate and then proceed in. Others arrive, and lackluster Rémy’s “party” falters into some semblance of life.
In the course of it, Maurice, the office cut-up, starts off obnoxious and becomes more so; Pierre (Pierre Collard), the office family man par excellence, starts off boring and becomes intensely more so; various small incidents and mini-crises take place; people group, regroup; action ebbs and flows; the high-pressure sprinkler pumps, whirls, pumps, whirls great quantities of spray over Rémy’s big lawn. And tension builds, predictably, between the loudmouthed Maurice and the angry repressed Lamel. Less predictably, the shy aging lady from the office who approaches Lamel with a quizzical look when the others start dancing is suddenly seized by this prim little man and whirled off in an extremely vigorous and curiously courtly waltz. Though irritated and discomforted by Maurice’s clownish suggestion that he kiss the same lady as a “forfeit” in a party game, Lamel just as suddenly, and with the same surprising vigor, complies. But it is Maurice’s callously opportunistic use of a subsequent forfeit to extort a large sum of money from the embarrassed Rémy that agitates the bottled-up Lamel most profoundly. And another surprise—it’s not the crass Maurice, but Rémy himself, soft, ingratiating Rémy, who incurs Lamel’s wrath. Because to give away as a casual “forfeit” in a game what the Lamels have forfeited their lives, week by week, to earn, strikes the assistant manager as unutterably arrogant, and, it’s clear, unutterably sad too.
Sadness, in fact, permeates the dénouement, despite the presence of the movie’s one truly funny sequence, near the end, when a thief nicks narcissistic Maurice’s expensive blazer and the blazer is recovered. After hovering on the edge of boredom for close to an hour (do we really have to endure fully five real-time minutes of the uxorious Pierre’s paralyzingly dull telephone conversation with his wife?), I found myself quite moved by the elegiac tone of the conclusion: Rémy’s despair, triggered by a chance blow, finally penetrating his pathetic, tepid defenses; the gentle coda in which he asks Emile the barman to stay on (in vain); and the brief final sequence, full circle, back in the office, Rémy at his desk again. None of that seems particularly potent in itself, so my emotion must have been generated, despite L’Invitation‘s longueurs, by what had gone before. Goretta certainly isn’t, critics notwithstanding, another Renoir; and his work here is neither so joyously insightful as, say, Ivan Passer’s nor as funny as Tati’s. Still, this movie lingers in the mind.
Direction: Claude Goretta. Screenplay: Goretta, Michel Viala. Cinematography: Jean Zeller. Editing: Joelle van Effenterre. Music: Patrick Moraz.
Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler