As so often happens, the death of French director Paul Vecchiali last January has raised his profile considerably. Never well known in the U.S., he began making shorts in the wake of the Nouvelle Vague, and kept going: his final film, Bonjour la langue, premiered at Locarno a few months ago. He supported some of the best French-language films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Jeanne Dielman, through his Diagonale production company. (His 1988 Encore was the first French film about an HIV-positive gay man.) A novelist and the author of a book on ‘30s French cinema, he wound up pushed to the margins, making micro-budget features (often starring himself as a paternal figure) on digital video. His films drew on poetic realism, film noir and Hollywood melodrama, but even at their slickest, their glamour barely conceals delusion and danger. New York’s Metrograph theater put on a Diagonale retrospective in September and October, and it’s being followed by the first American release of his 1970 The Strangler.
It lays out a network of contact points and strange encounters between four lonely, isolated people. As a young boy, Emile (Jacques Perrin) witnessed a woman being murdered with a scarf by a friendly man he met at a train station. This event seems to have set him on the path towards a lifetime of copycat crimes, although he insists he’s merely carrying out the wishes of suicidally depressed women. A sensitive, boyish-looking man, he prowls his neighborhood and strangles women with the scarves he always carries about. Posing as a journalist, Simon (Julien Guiomar), a cop investigating these murders, appears on TV and gives out his home address and phone number. Emile breaks into his apartment and leaves a note, but the TV engagement attracts a more benign stalker, Anna (Eva Simonet). After she suggests using herself as bait to catch Emile, they sleep together. Meanwhile, a thief follows Emile around, turning up immediately afterward at the scenes of his crimes to rob his victims posthumously.
The Strangler bears a superficial resemblance to the very early stages of the giallo, but its differences stand out more, to the point where it almost feels like a critique of a genre that barely existed in 1970. It’s not a whodunnit: Emile’s identity is revealed very quickly. It has little interest in the typical rules of motivation and psychology, but is still far more concerned with fleshing out its characters than a Dario Argento or Mario Bava film. Despite the subject matter, The Strangler doesn’t incorporate any loving close-ups of women being carved up with razor blades.
Emile’s crimes are one link in a chain of urban loneliness. He doesn’t even seem like the worst person in the film; the thief dehumanizes women more thoroughly by rummaging through their pockets and apartments just after their murders. An image used as repeated punctuation shows a car circling a park, shot as though it were passing through a tunnel of glowing blue lights. The neighborhood, especially its gathering places for sex workers and gay men cruising for quickies, is as much a character as the four principals.
Simon is a sad sack whose behavior parallels Emile. Only 42, he yearns for his youth in the Resistance, connecting to the images of wartime France in the opening sequence. He looks older than his age, while it’s hard to believe Emile is really 36. His behavior becomes unhinged, driven by desires he doesn’t fully understand; He manages to track down Emile by following a deliberately laid trail of clues, but solving the crime doesn’t matter that much to him. His own loneliness hints at a desire for men that he can only express violently. Giving out his address on TV is a symptom of a longing for connection more than a piece of detective work.
Indeed, each person’s most desperate, dangerous gestures are perverse ways to find some way to transcend the voyeurism that permeates The Strangler. (One scene elides a murder by showing a dog witnessing it.) Emile’s claims are a way of justifying his behavior. He’s fooling himself, as the scene where he attacks a woman who screams “I want to live” demonstrates. Nevertheless, the film’s centerpiece, in which an actress lets him into her apartment and holds down a dejected conversation about her desire for a return to stardom, suggests what he thinks he’s doing. Her invitation recalls the mythology that vampires need to be allowed inside.
The Strangler stands out among Vecchiali’s filmography, although he was so prolific, from made-for-TV movies to his late improvisations shot around his house, that it’s hard to generalize about his work. If it suggests a path forward as a horror director that Vecchiali did not follow, its differences from standard genre fare are precisely what makes it so fascinating.
The 2K restoration of “The Strangler” opens today at Anthology Film Archives in New York before expanding on Friday to Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and more. More information here.