From the Videotheque Vault: Le Voyou (The Crook) (1970)

“That sort of thing only happens in novels!” exclaims the main character of the novel just as that very thing is happening to them. Is the intended effect to give us a sensation of sudden closeness with the character or of distance? Is it supposed to make us feel as if some joke is being played on us, pulling us out of the novel and forcing us to look back at our own lives?

I believe that this kind of device serves to not only make us aware of how we view fiction (whether a book or movie) as life, but also how we sometimes view life as fiction. A movie is just a movie, as the audience is constantly reminded in French New Wave films. Remember that you are the viewer, you are not omniscient or participating in the film, you are seeing a carefully structured work of art. What better way to stress the cinematic nature of a film than a movie within a movie? Who can resist comparing what is onscreen to life twice over? Le Voyou opens with a garish, perfectly symmetrical, mathematically precise musical sequence (“Le Voyou”) in which a handsome crook surrounded by beautiful showgirls shoots his enemies, wooes the women, and is killed by the police. Then the real movie starts. We at first do not know that the first sequence was a movie within a movie, perhaps it is supposed to be merely a humorous title sequence. The next sequence is of a woman bringing a man to her apartment, there is no symmetry in the structure of the shots, no music, no dramatic camera movements. There is little conversation. This, by contrast with the first sequence, is reality, this is life. But of course, it’s still a movie, and life isn’t like that at all.

Opening dance sequence; symmetry, dramatic shot, stage-like, vivid color
First scene of the action; asymmetrical, muted colors, woman with her back to audience, “realism”
Le Voyou tells how a criminal named Simon the Swiss stole a million dollars from a bank through an elaborate kidnapping scheme, was captured and sentenced to serve twenty years in jail, escaped five years later, and made off with the money that he had hidden in his girlfriend’s apartment five years previously. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how incredibly difficult the very simple storyline is to follow. The plot is not merely presented non-linearly; there is no indication of what the time frame of the events shown with each change of scene is. Just as we do not know upon seeing the title sequence that it is in fact from a movie that Simon is watching, it takes time to figure out if what is being shown is occurring is in the present or the past, how much time has elapsed between scenes, or if something important has happened of which we are not aware. How much time this takes can vary between several disorienting seconds and somewhere around half an hour or more. The appearance of the characters is absolutely unchanged between the present and the past of five years.
Ironically, considering the convoluted nature of the storyline, Simon’s nickname comes from the purported fact that he works with “clockwork precision” and that he always works alone. The latter is certainly not true; he has many accomplices but always protects them and conceals their identities. He is presented as straightforward and direct, but the structure of the movie serves to call attention to the complexities of his character. We as the audience never really know or understand Simon. Simon might easily be taken for the Man With No Name type; silent, never showing any emotion, stoical, but with a heart of gold. He is never shown killing anyone, as a matter of fact, he takes care that the child he kidnaps has a great time and remembers him with affection. He is Robin Hood-like in his crimes; when he is holding the child for ransom he blackmails not the parents but the bank where the father works. There are, however, aspects of his character that radically undermine this stereotype. He has a daughter whom he tells his former fiancé he wants to see, but at the end of the film he has no problem leaving the country, presumably prepared to never seen his daughter again. He lies effortlessly and seamlessly to almost everyone who helps him, suspecting them of betraying him to the police (several times rightly). It is at times never revealed whether or not he is lying or how much of what he is saying and doing is planned. His girlfriend hides the money behind a dresser, as they agreed. Later, he moves it to a new hiding place under the stairs, showing that he does not trust her. Just as the narrative winds through time and space in unexpected and disorienting ways, the deceptively straightforward, methodical Simon eludes the traditional stereotypes.
Simon and ex-girlfriend with their daughter between them. Emotionally vulnerable parent or expert manipulator?
Despite the fact that we follow Simon’s story closely, we never enter into his world. The camera shows him but never reveals him. We do not see through his eyes or gain any access to his thoughts, the events of the past are depicted not as flashbacks but in the exact same way as the present events. Parts of the film are told through radio news broadcasts or newspaper headlines, and the audience is kept at the same distance from the character as the people who hear the impersonal news report. We never know what his intentions or emotions are. Does he truly care for his daughter or was he using her as a pretext to see his former girlfriend and get her car? Is he lying to people assuming that they will go to the police? In every way, we are reminded of the boundary between reality and the film. We cannot participate in the world we see onscreen; it is as far from us as the outrageous musical sequence was from the main narrative. And after all, how different are the two films? How much more do we know about Simon than about the hero of the musical? Is the main narrative itself any less of a fairy tale than the musical? Is the life of crime any less romanticized?
The film is shot beautifully, in saturated colors and with a satisfying amount of changes in focus and lighting. Despite its initial pretension of realism (the change from the ridiculous musical sequence to the unembellished encounter between Simon and Janine), the film is very romantic. The presence of music is very important in the film; it is one of the only indications of positive emotion in Simon. As he, his girlfriend Martine, and his old friend Charlie drive away after having successfully gotten the ransom money from the kidnapping, a variation on the theme from the opening sequence starts playing, and everyone in the car is smiling, kissing each other, winking, and the scene is drowned in a euphoric wash of blurred lights and blissful faces. The same music recurs when Simon sees his daughter and Martine for the first time in five years, when he successfully orchestrates his escape from prison, and when he and Charlie are fleeing the country at the very end. The same film that Simon saw earlier is playing on the transatlantic plane they are on, bringing us full circle.
Romanticized outlaw: Simon after the successful kidnapping/blackmailing scheme.
The reappearance of the musical reminds us of the extent to which the film romanticizes and embellishes the life of crime. It is acknowledged from the first that in real life, a crook does not have a glamorous life full of symmetrical dance sequences and vapid showgirls, but does a real criminal drive away from the scene of a crime with his accomplices smiling like a family who have just welcomed a new child? Would a real criminal kidnap a child and entertain him with presents and sweets? Despite its claims to realism, Le Voyou indulges in glamorizing almost as shameless as the opening sequence. This romantic realism somehow makes the fairytale it tells more satisfying, perhaps because it so transparently acknowledges its fictitious nature. The film encourages the viewer to examine the differences between the main narrative and the movie-within-the-movie, and then examine the difference between Le Voyou and reality, and confront how much we tend to simplify life and people to fit our ideas, when they can be as disconcertingly complex as the dizzying jumps in time and space and the unknown motives and reasons of Simon the Swiss.
Simon and his friend Charlie blissfully fleeing the country.
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