[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Jacques Rouffio has managed this cautionary account of the non-paying aspects of petty crime very slickly indeed. Violette (Isabelle Adjani) and François (Jacques Dutronc) are two highly irresponsible, lazy, unthinking, shallow and immoral young people, but following their adventures doesn’t overdistance us from them. It’s not that we like them: for all the charm of Adjani and Dutronc, their sheer silliness is, from the outset, mildly repellent, and Rouffio doesn’t cheat to win our sympathy. But they are convincing, they’re like people we all know sometime or other, maybe even like (hush!) ourselves now and then, and Rouffio never ever gets self-righteous about their outrageous and generally deplorable conduct. Which in turn means that he never gets patronising, and this in turn has the useful effect of preventing us from getting too far removed. We don’t feel that we could be doing something more useful than spending a hundred minutes watching these unpleasant wretches, and thus we don’t feel that maybe Rouffio could be doing something more useful than making a film about them, either. Further, his technique is very assured, the film is good-looking, and there are some invigorating presences in the supporting cast: it’s really nice to see Serge Reggiani again, and there’s a particularly good cameo by Lea Massari (ageing gracefully). Thus, Violette et Francois is an entertaining movie, and a moving one, too, with considerable moral shrewdness.
At the film’s commencement, Violette has just gotten herself fired from a boring bank job (the latest, one senses, in a long line) and François is dithering over an equally dull situation in an estate agent’s firm. When Violette, for a joke, loses him a commission and he gets the push as well, he has no regrets and no anger. We realise that if these two penniless young people are absolutely on their uppers, so that they are forced to share the babyfood of their infant son (born out of wedlock), it’s no-one’s fault but their own. Certainly there’s no question of their being “the victims of society”. François has some vague ideas about being a musician, and vaguer ones about starting some sort of underground paper with friends, but essentially he’s got no great interest in plotting his life beyond the immediate gratifications of the moment and neither has Violette. They wander to and fro, as uncommitted to each other as to anything else, taking no note of the usual responsibilities of parenthood, sleeping with other people and trying to convince themselves (as they succeed in doing, most of the time) that they’re having fun. When they marry, there’s a hint of a yearning for some sort of emotional truth; but there’s also the fact that it’s a good excuse for a party.
Their casual shoplifting, begun as a lark, continued as a way to keep eating when funds run out, soon turns into a way of life, with large sections of each day devoted to plotting thefts and executing them. The film becomes a kind of shoplifter’s Days of Wine and Roses, and the gradual, hard-to-perceive changes in these frivolous charmers are unnervingly convincing. François becomes a kind of virtuoso of petty pilfering, enjoying his skill fiercely as something, at last, that he’s really good at. The escalation of irresponsibility into overt immorality and thence, just possibly, to evil was tackled as a theme for suspense melodrama by Hitchcock in Suspicion, but there have been few other endeavors along these lines. Like Johnny Aysgarth, the protagonist of the earlier film, Violette and François have nothing going for them at all in the everyday world beyond a lot of roguish charm: how easy to turn crooked when one has no interests outside of the sensations of sensual satisfaction. How many people live like this at least some of the time, and how many more would, most or all of the time, if they weren’t so bogged down by life’s banalities? The small scale of their criminality makes it hard for Violette and François to break the drug of thieving; the worst that’s likely to happen to them is a fine and a news report, and, at film’s end, it’s clear that François will be a crook for life, just as he’ll always be a child, aware that something’s missing from his way of living but not too bothered at finding out what.
For Violette, going straight involves straightening out her life at the most fundamental level, and the pain forces her into a belated acceptance of adulthood. Isabelle Adjani’s lovely face charts the changes in Violette’s character with aching subtlety; the scene wherein she finds she’s just too nervous to perform a simple theft is quite horribly intense. Small as the crime is, we feel we’re watching the disintegration of a soul, so that her abandonment of François is a vital necessity for continued survival. At the end she has, as she says, grown as a person, but at great cost. François, we fear, will never quite know what she means, and won’t ever be more than mildly bothered by this failure. He feels the personal loss of his wife and child acutely, but not the emotional loss. Violette gives him his things as he clears out forever, but notes, with thankfully unstressed irony, that she can’t seem to find his identity card anywhere. Violette et François is a glossy, commercial entertainment, but it cuts pretty deep, its very surface gloss emphasizing how far its two protagonists are controlled by mere surfaces, how far their very bohemianism is merely another form of bourgeois consumerism.
© 1981 Pierre Greenfield
VIOLETTE ET FRANÇOIS
Direction: Jacques Rouffio. Screenplay: Jean-Loup Dabadie. Cinematography: Andreas Winding. Art direction: Jean Andre. Music: Philippe Sarde.
The players: Isabelle Adjani, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Reggiani, Lea Massari, Francoise Arnoul, Catherine Lachens, Sophie Daumier, Bernard Allouf.
A pdf of the original issue can be found here.