Friday, April 2, 2010

Monsieur Hire -- jumping to conclusions

Director: Patrice Leconte, 1989. (PG-13)

Although his ninth feature, this was the one which brought Leconte international attention after it was shown at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. Slow and short, this French psychological drama is part twisted love story, part suspense enigma, part sexual obsession.

Pigeons, mice and people. Together they form a metaphoric picture of the solitary Monsieur Hire (Michel Blane). Middle-aged and balding he lives alone in a small provincial apartment. He dislikes people, but he keeps mice in a cage in his tailoring workshop. These are his only companions. He stops to feed the pigeons in the park. The birds that most people find a pesky nuisance he finds friendly.

His main form of entertainment is watching Alice (Sondrine Bonnaire), the pretty young woman who lives opposite his apartment. His window overlooks hers, and she never closes her curtains. So he has a voyeuristic view of her, waking and sleeping, eating and dressing. And he sees her passionate affair with her boyfriend Emile (Luc Thuillier). All the time M. Hire barely moves, remains in the shadows, hardly living.

Almost 15 years later Leconte directed a very similar film, Intimate Strangers, that also starred Sandrine Bonnaire. He had certainly developed as a director and his later film is more engaging. In that movie her loneliness intersected with that of a financial adviser, and he explored the themes of loneliness and voyeurism. These are clearly common themes in his films. Here, though, M. Hire and Alice don't interact for a good part of the film.

M. Hire is not so much lonely as reclusive and maladjusted. He seems resigned to his situation. His voyeuristic spying on his neighbor, creepy as it is, seems harmless. He has no malicious intent. He just wants to watch her. (She should have invested in heavy drapes, but that would have pulled the curtain down on the movie.) Yet, he is certainly not living life to its fullest. He is on the sidelines looking in. He is a spectator rather than a player. Life is meant to be lived. God gave us life, and we can only experience it fully and freshly if we come to Jesus: "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly!" (Jn. 10:10)

Apart from his interactions with people at his work as a tailor, his only other social interplay is when he goes bowling. He is something of a star bowler, but seems to go to put on a show, not to engage other people. Here he is player not spectator, but it is once again a solo act. He is still hiding in his shell, not letting anyone see who he is, not living the kind of life the gospel calls us into.

When a young woman is found naked and murdered nearby, M. Hire becomes the prime suspect. The police inspector (Andre Wilms), the fourth and final main character in this claustrophobic movie, descends on M. Hire and seems bent on bringing him to justice rather than solving the case. Why is this? It is due to his behavior. Maladjusted with no friends, he must be a middle-age murderer.

M. Hire's neighbors pour vitriolic scorn on him and find him guilty in the court of public opinion. Because he is different, he is seen as guilty They, and the detective, jump to conclusions based on personal dislike and distrust. Yet there is nothing objective to warrant this, nothing factual. It is subjective and unsupportable.

As M. Hire comes under more and more suspicion, Alice sees him and comes to meet him. In the second half of the film, their interaction develops in surprising ways. In some sense, she is as strange and lonely as he, though in different ways. And Leconte slowly brings the narrative along to an unexpected conclusion.

It is true that M. Hire is unlikable. He more or less says so himself. He does not like people, they don't like him. As the major protaganist, Leconte takes a risk with this. But just because someone is strange and different does not mean they are pariahs, to be shunned. Leconte forces us to consider how we deal with people we may not like. Jesus came across many people he probably did not like. Some scorned him, some were lepers, unclean and diseased. Others were social pariahs, like tax-collectors who were ostracized by their fellow countrymen.

Zacchaeus was one such person. A chief tax collector, he had ripped off the local Israelites and become wealthy. Unliked, despised, rejected, yet when Jesus entered Jericho Zacchaeus determined to see him and climbed a sycamore tree to make sure he did. Instead of rebuking him when he saw him in the tree, Jesus accepted him and even invited himself over for tea! (Lk. 19:1-9) And Jesus declared, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Jesus was concerned about all people, not just the likeable. We should put aside our petty prejudices and seek to love our neighbors, even when we don't like them.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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