22 septembre 2005

Dossier 51 (1978/Deville)

Dossier 51 (1978/Michel Deville/France/Germany) ++++

Adaptated from Gilles Perrault's most original spy novel (eponymous, 1969), which discontinuous storyline unfolds in a serie of classified administrative memos from various departments of an anonymous foreign intelligence agency. This alone is a groundbreaking narrative development and remarkably transcripted on film with extensive use of anonymous voiceover and subjective camera. An "anti-James Bond movie" as Deville puts it, more like the real thing, a boring, meticulous, chancy, speculative job of a gang of little bureaucrats who research in the shadow like tireless ants. An investigation spanning across half a dozen years.

On a computer screen, a news telex announces the iminent replacement of a diplomat in an international economy organisation linking Europe and Africa. Dominique Auphal, will be refered as File #51, a small politician freshly promoted to this minor position at the bottom of the ladder. Not a very exciting information. Although the first incoming memo from the powers-that-be orders a complete investigation on this individual, scanning his personal life and past inside out to find the weakness allowing for political manipulation later in case 51 reaches an important position in this key organisation. The espionnage atmosphere is catchy right away.

Given access to the confidential correspondance between resourceful agents, the audience is introduced to the forbidden sancturary of this invisible shapeless branch of the government, without ever knowing who they are. Mars is the codename of the field agents tailing the target. Minerve is the brainstorming dispatcher. Esculape is the psychology unit. Venus the seduction unit. 52 will be 51's wife, 53 and 54 his children. Following a scientific and clinical procedure we are fed with each step of the process, for eyes only. Evidences are laid in full display under many forms, with highlighting and comments, suggestions of new angles of attack and closure of dead-end tracks. Agents remain hidden in subjective camera, only identified by their codename and a familiar tone of voice. Their personality and personal agenda surface in the way they file their reports.
First unknown and faceless, this character-target will become our obsession. Old archive photographs, then grainy tele lens snapshots, and eventually film footage of a distant sighting. But the man's whereabout are the least of their concerns. This service deals with information retrieval, not political influence yet. The objective is to gather compromising datas without him or the french counter-espionnage to suspect anything. Instead anybody in his entourage is a potential source for intelligence. From moving in with his maid to interviewing his mother on false pretense, tailing his wife's adultary lover, tracking down his former classmates, and of course bugging and searching his appartment. Each note is a cynical mockery, perversly abusing their power knowing no limits, defying legality, privacy and decency. This mercyless investigation shockingly scrutinizes every aspect of a man's life to his most intimate psychology, analyzed like a guinea pig by a conference of amoral administratives.Revealing as much the wrong leads than the successful hits makes it all real and compelling. Instead of the one-man-show in most spy movies, where the hero is a multitalented superman, here each tasked is assigned to the competent service, uncovering an unsuspected network of anonymous dormant part-time agents living as normal french citizens, with a regular job, and many intimate connections. A realistic depiction developped also in Coppola's The Conversation, althougth without any case of conscience of a subordinate questioning the ethics of his job. Almost no wellknown actors, or at least were unseen on teh big screen at the time, to save this impression of inconspicuousness.

The victim is a nobody, like you and me, only picked out of the crowd because it fits a profile that might be proved useful if speculation plays out well. This perspective somehow relativizes all the energy and resources wasted on one hypothetical pawn for a giant political chessboard. How many files out there? The film denounces the objectionable methods of contemporean secret services. Cruising through many aspects of french politics, abroad and at home, refering to political events and institutions in the backdrop of this very focused examination creates a powerful sense of proximity with real life. Whoever is behind this, and this type of surveillance is probably duplicated by as many world intelligence agency, they are paying attention to everything we are and thinking too much about it could get us really paranoid!
Won the French Critics Award for Best Picture.

(s) +++ (w) ++++ (M) +++ (i) +++ (c) +++

3 commentaires:

Dave Cheung a dit…

Thank you for your continuing coverage on obscurities. It's sad that this movie is not well-remembered. I saw this 2 years at the New York Alliance française as part of a series of forgotten French movies (which included NOUS NE VIEILLIRONS PAS ENSEMBLE) and it stuck with me ever since. The scene where the agent gives the briefing on 51's psychological profile is both darkly hilarious and chilling.

How did you see this? Is this on DVD by any chance?

HarryTuttle a dit…

I saw it on film at the previously mentionned retrospective on Big Brother, in Paris. Though, this gem is rare in theatre or on TV even in France!

The scene you mention is indeed striking. We thought the secret service investigation was amazing until the psychology unit debunks it and flips the assumption on its head with a new hunch, taking us into the twilight zone of a Daliesque collage of freudian free association. Grandiose.

Michel Deville was in attendance to introduce the screening. I don't think the DVD exists yet.

Anonyme a dit…

A spanish DVD edition does exist for 10 euros (elcorteingles.es) french speaking and unremovable spanish undertitling.