It was sometime in the early 1980s when I first started to realize there was far more to film than what was produced in North America. One of the first foreign films I saw was by the great French film director Jean-Luc Godard. I could probably figure out the title of the movie through a process of elimination by looking him and his movies up on the web, but that's not the point. The point is that after watching it my whole perspective on what constituted a movie changed. This wasn't some great intellectual epiphany or any such bullshit, it was just a matter of my eyes being opened to the fact there were more ways to tell a story cinematically than I had been aware of.
After that I started seeking out other movies by European directors. Now, I wasn't a movie snob like some people I knew who would refuse to see anything made in North America — that was as bigoted and close-minded as refusing to see a movie because it had sub-titles — but I did make an effort to seek out movies by Europeans over North Americans. It was sort of a personal affirmative action plan — if there was a choice between two movies on a certain night I would watch the European one instead of the North American. In the process I discovered that European directors could make crap movies the same as anyone else, if not worse for the intellectual pretensions they carried with them. However, when they were good, they were really good and far better than anything I had seen before.
At the time a trio of German filmmakers — Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — were making the biggest impression on most people. However there was also a French director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose name was being mentioned in the same breath as those others, primarily as a result of his first feature length movie, Diva, released in 1981. Two years later he released La Lune Dans Le Caniveau (The Moon In The Gutter), which will be available for the first time on DVD in North America October 20 thanks to Cinema Libre studios.
Staring Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski, The Moon In The Gutter is set in a French port town with most of the action taking place in a seedy neighbourhood full of tired whores, failures, and petty criminals. Depardieu's character, Gerard, is an emotional wreck following the rape and subsequent suicide of his sister.
We discover as the movie opens that he is obsessed with catching the man who raped her and spends a great deal of time haunting the spot where she took her own life with his razor. Although he makes decent money working as a stevedore, loading and unloading ships, he hangs out in the rundown bars of his neighbourhood in the hopes of finding the culprit. It's in that bar he meets an elegant and jaded young man who has traveled from the wealthy parts of the city looking for thrills, and through him his beautiful and enigmatic sister, Loretta, played by Kinski.
From their first meeting it's obvious that Loretta is attracted to Gerard, but is the attraction her merely looking for "a bit of rough" before returning to her real life and her own kind, or does she genuinely love him? As for Gerard, could Loretta be his way out of his obsession over the death of his sister as well as his way out of the sordid world of the dockyards? As the movie unfolds we're never quite sure as to either of their intentions, and even when it looks like they have committed to each other, Gerard wakes up alone back in his old house in the slums.
Depardieu and Kinski both give superlative performances, with Depardieu's being the most surprising. In North America we've not seen him when he was in his prime, a young man with enormous physical presence on the screen. However it's how he undercuts that, how he shows how his character's fear and insecurities turn him into a small boy afraid that the gift he's being offered will be snatched away because he's done something wrong that makes his performance so compelling. Kinski could have done nothing but stand there for her scenes and Loretta would have been alluring enough for most men. However she takes her character much further than that and we not only see what attracts Gerard to her, but what's in her that causes so much confusion for him.
In North America it seems like movies are all about the actors – the stars – while the director and whatever vision he may or may not have had is lost in the background. That's not the case in a Beineix movie as the actor's performance is merely one part of the production, just as the script and the camera work are. In The Moon In The Gutter Beineix has created an almost surreal world that exists after dark on the coast of France. Colours – like the red of the bloodstain on the sidewalk where Gerard's sister was murdered, glow from the inside as well as reflecting the light of the overlarge moon. The moon is much lower in the sky here than it ever is in real life. It's so low you half expect one of the characters to reach up and pluck it from the sky like an apple.
That's not all that gives the movie an unrealistic cast, the street where most of the exterior action in the slums takes place looks a little bit off – something about it looks wrong. For when the camera shoots down the street we can tell its obviously a set, which gives you an odd sense of displacement. For while the action and the emotional intensity between the characters is very real, this doesn't let us forget that we are watching a movie.
The Moon In The Gutter is not a realistic movie, and if you watch it expecting to see something along the lines of what you see every day in the cinema or on a DVD, you'll probably come away disappointed. It doesn't really have a plot per se, but it does tell a story, the story of the emotional turmoil one man suffers through because of the death of his sister. The director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, has used everything at his disposal to tell us this story — actors, sets, lighting, and sound — much like a painter uses paint on a canvas to elicit a response from the viewer.
The original movie was made in 1983 so don't expect anything like 5.1 surround sound, but the picture and the sound are surprisingly clean and clear in spite of its age. The DVD also includes a very interesting interview with the director in which they discuss the movie in detail, and he explains a little bit about his approach to filmmaking. Although there are some spoilers in it, watching the interview prior to viewing might actually help you understand and appreciate the movie.
The Moon In The Gutter may not be to everyone's liking, but if you have an eye for something a little different from the norm, this is definitely not to be missed. Not only are you going to be able to buy the DVD when it comes out on October 20, Cinema Libre are going to be releasing a box set, The Jean-Jaques Beineix Collection, of Beineix's work on December 1 that will include The Moon In The Gutter and more of his best works, some of which have never been released in the United States before. This is a great chance to own some of the most provocative and compelling films made by one of the more extraordinary directors of the 1980s. It may not be what you're used to, but that doesn't mean it's not worth watching. Take a chance on something different. You won't regret it.