Modernity and the legacy of war in Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

One of my most favorite Louis Malle films, Ascenseur is, for me, a nice companion piece to films like L’Eclisse, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour in its depiction of the perils and questions of modern life after World War II. Louise Malle, only 25 when the film was released, quickly established himself as one of the greats of the French nouvelle vague, and concisely captured post-war bourgeois ennui and existential crises of Sartrean proportions while contributing a key film to the body of French film noir.

L'Ascenseur pour L'échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

L’Ascenseur pour L’échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

Released in 1958, World War II and the French colonial past in Vietnam and Algeria are alluded to frequently, both as a source of inter-generational conflict (specifically between the men) and as a source of post-war and post-colonial existential crisis (i.e. are Frenchmen to be defined by wars and occupations?). On one side are the veterans, including Mr. Carala, the shady industrialist who makes blood money off former French colonies; Julien Tavernier, his second-in-command, a decorated paratrooper in Vietnam; and Horst Bencker, a German businessman (with possibly shady dealings as well), who is glad the war is over so he can again enjoy formerly rationed bourgeois commodities. Representing the next generation is the young Louis, who despises everything these men stand for (particularly the war) and yet covets the men’s bourgeois virility.  Carala’s murder by Tavernier, while immoral, can be seen as a sort of payback for his capitalist role in colonial occupation and its aftermath (there’s a great scene between the two men that connects the business of business and the business of war). The specter of World War II also hovers in the murder of the two Germans; before Louis kills them, he spends the evening smoking cigars and drinking champagne (which no-one could get “during the occupation”) while all the while reminding the Benckers that his generation disapproves of colonial occupation and refusing to celebrate the new Europe. The murder is very quick and not premeditated, but in that move, the Frenchman defeats the Germans and the working class young man eradicates the bourgeois older man. Finally, Julien Tavernier, who kills Carala but is incorrectly accused of murdering the Germans, is repeatedly called “capitain.” His military record is honored in the beginning of the film but is used against him in the end, as evidence of his capacity for violence.

L'Ascenseur pour L'échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

L’Ascenseur pour L’échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

Modernity’s dark side is illustrated by the new technology which accompanies and burdens each character. Thrilled with the new devices and drugs that the post-war boom produces and the lifestyle they represent, they play with adult toys whose consequences they are unprepared for. Let’s begin with Louis, who is taunted by his girlfriend Véronique, who admires the older, richer war veteran Julien Tavernier. Louis’ downfall begins with a material desire: he petulantly steals Julien’s slick Chevrolet convertible to show Véronique he is man enough to drive it. Later, still incensed by Bencker’s patronizing attitude and eager to remind Bencker that the Allied powers won, he tries to steal the German’s new Mercedes-Benz sports car. Both crimes, which bookend the more serious crime of murder, clearly illustrate his generation’s fascination for the new, the foreign, the fast, and the technologically advanced, while at the same time pit his generation’s collective masculinity against an older one which has more (read: war) experience. This mix of macho heroics, bourgeois aspirations, cross-generational tension, and technological innocence is one of the strongest aspects of Malle’s creation and can be seen as an exploration into his generation’s existential questions and insecurities.

L'Ascenseur pour L'échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

L’Ascenseur pour L’échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

The women also face the consequences of using a brand-new and small “spy” camera (this camera angle is eerily prescient of contemporary debates on camera phones and privacy). Mrs. Florence Carala takes pictures of her and her lover Julien with this spy camera—from the later developed images it is apparent that these pictures were absolutely for private consumption, discretion supported by the camera’s size. However, even a spy camera cannot hide their affair, no matter how small it is. The pictures, developed later by the police, is used as proof that she helped orchestrate her husband’s murder; the police officer chides her for being careless with new technology. Concurrently, and on the same roll of film, Véronique snaps incriminating photos of her, Louis and the Germans enjoying themselves in a hotel room—thus proving Louis’ guilt. Like in any good example of film noir, the characters have strong motivations, grand plans, and moral convictions, but they ultimately lose control over their destinies, and in this case, use technology to their disadvantage.

L'Ascenseur pour L'échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

L’Ascenseur pour L’échafaud (1958) dir. Louis Malle

Of course the central technological metaphor is the Elevator of the title, which as an ultra-modern contraption indirectly contributes to Julien’s downfall, but also literally and existentially traps him. He is trapped in his own fate; we already know from the beginning that it will not end well. There is a delicious tense irony in his not knowing that his destiny is being played and determined without him.  His romantic counterpart, Florence (played by Jeanne Moreau, who makes staying up all night look glamorous) may be free physically, roaming the streets of Paris in the dead of night, but she is not free of her destiny, either. Her love of Julien and her class privilege do not save her from the gallows.

As in many noir films, the root of all action is love— or, at least, what their characters perceive to be love. Julien and Florence plot a murder to be together; Louis commits a crime to prove himself worthy of his girlfriend’s love (or at least respect); Véronique romantically envisions a Romeo and Juliet-style double suicide (incidentally, using new drugs which are unsuccessful), in the name of love conquers all. Bur forces stronger than love—war, modernity, technology, generational malaise – effectively taint that love and make for a compelling and timeless film.

Based on the novel by Noël Calef, and with an extraordinary soundtrack by Miles Davis.

Screens October 28, 2014 at Landmark Theater’s Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, GA.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), dir. Louis Malle, 91 min. Rialto Pictures, Janus Films, et al., 1958.

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