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DVD Review: The Moon in the Gutter

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Director Jean-Jacques Beineix had an international smash with his first feature film, the stylish thriller Diva (1981). His big budget sophomore effort, The Moon in the Gutter (1983), got him booed at all the major film festivals. It flopped in the US, and has been unavailable for years. Cinema Libre has finally given this cinematic folly the DVD treatment as part of the Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection. Is it as bad as its reputation?

It's not very good. The Moon in the Gutter is based on the book by David Goodis (1917-1967), one of the less heralded of the hard-boiled crime novelists. Goodis's books, with their taut prose and doomed characters, had previously been well-served by the cinema. Dark Passage, with Bogie and Bacall, and Shoot the Piano Player, Francois Truffaut's adaptation of Goodis's terribly bleak Down There, are well-regarded models of noir and neo-noir, respectively. Hollywood melodrama and New Wave austerity are both reasonable approaches to Goodis's lean, bloody text. Beineix's take doesn't necessarily seem wrong — he makes a gorgeous-looking film, stylish and bloody. And it makes sense on paper to cast Nastassja Kinski as Loretta, the femme fatale, and Gerard Depardieu as Gerard, the schlubby stevedore who falls for her feminine wiles.

Alas, the film is overblown, its saturated colors and over-the-top performances contributing to an atmosphere more kitsch than noir.  It's surreal and too literal at the same time: the titular moon is of course reflected in the titular gutter … in BLOOD! Character and motivation is over-telegraphed by orchestral fanfare and stylish lighting – Kinski's entrance plays like a parody of the film noir dame, the soundtrack welling as she moves in slow motion. The script is more or less true to the letter of the book (not one of Goodis's best), but for all the money and effort put into the mise-en-scene, Beineix fails to make a compelling fantasy world — and fails even worse at realism, as scenes of dockworkers on the job are particularly unconvincing.

Admirers of the actors, the director, the author may well be curious about The Moon in the Gutter, but the cat will not be rewarded with cream.


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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.
  • John Grant

    Yes, the film is very over-saturated “kitchy” noir. But it has a very interesting cinema political history. It seems director Jean-Jacques Beineix filmed lots of footage on the Marseilles docks, all meant to augment the story in a more documentary fashion heavy with leftist intentions focusing on the labor/capitalist issues. He was forced to studio moguls to severely cut the film from the lengthy version he wanted to make. He claims they eviscerate his film, which leads to it being confusing. He meant it to be longer, more epic experience. At this point, the story of the film becomes interesting. When Beineix later found the money to make an extended “directors cut” of Moon In the Gutter for DVD (ie. to finally manifest his artistic vision on film) he learned that the studio moguls in a binge of cost-cutting had closed a warehouse and taken all his film of the docks etc and, without informing him, destroyed it all forever. Personally, I would love to have been able to see what he had intended to make before the capitalist moguls cut his vision out from under him.

    As for Dark Passage, it’s OK, but the first-person stuff seems tedious. Shoot the Piano Player is a great Truffaut film. But my favorite Goodis film is The Burglar with Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea. Filmed in Philly, it’s great 50s B-movie noir and feels like a Goodis lowlife story.