Stephen Hopkins’ Under Suspicion , starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, from a screenplay by W. Peter Iliff and Tom Provost, was adapted from a French film– Garde à vue (1981) by Claude Miller, Jean Herman and Michel Audiard–that was based in turn on the British novel Brainwash , by John Wainwright. As the story goes, making an English version of Garde à vue has been a “pet project” of Mr. Hackman’s since the original was released. After working with Mr. Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven , Mr. Hackman showed him Garde à vue , and as a result the two collaborated on Under Suspicion , which was made through Mr. Freeman’s production company Revelations Entertainment and had Mr. Hackman as executive producer.
In this context, Under Suspicion emerges as a double vehicle for two aging character actors in roles originated by Lino Ventura and Michel Serrault. (Mr. Serrault is best known in America as the effeminate partner of the more butch Ugo Tognazzi in the 1978 La Cage Aux Folles .) As might be expected, Mr. Freeman plays the crafty detective (the Ventura role), while Mr. Hackman plays the guilt-ridden tax lawyer (the Serrault part). The problem with what amounts to a two-character confrontation is its essential theatricality. The action takes place over the course of one night, as Captain Victor Benezet (Mr. Freeman) attempts to verify the alibi of Henry Hearst (Mr. Hackman), a prominent tax lawyer, during the time of the rape and murder of two 13-year-old girls. From all accounts, Under Suspicion is faithful to the double-twist plot of the original, though the locale has been shifted from a small French provincial police station to that of a Caribbean island very much like Puerto Rico during the colorful festival of San Sebastian.
Benezet and Hearst are both members of the island’s social elite, and when the captain asks Henry to “drop by” the police station before attending the Hurricane Relief Banquet at the hotel across the street, Henry has no idea that he is going to be grilled all night by Benezet and his fierce subordinate, Detective Felix Owens (Thomas Jane). Both are convinced that Henry is guilty of the two rape-murders, but to prove it they have to pry into Henry’s troubled marriage with the much younger and beautiful Chantal (Monica Bellucci).
The trick of the movie is to use the interrogation as an excuse for the humiliating exposure of every quirk in Henry’s sex life, and there are quirks aplenty. In the end, Henry frankly confesses his addiction to young girls, with their smooth flesh and their gift of perpetual laughter. When Chantal is interrogated, she reveals that she was Henry’s mistress from age 11, but when she discovered Henry in a slightly compromising position with her nymphet-like niece, she locked her bedroom door to him and has kept it locked. After Henry denies that he knew the two victims at all, the police discover a stash of pictures he has taken of them, and the noose tightens around his neck. In the meantime, Henry has scored some points against the captain for his pathetic political ambitions and his shattered domestic life.
Yet it is Henry who is the most ravaged, particularly in the shockingly metaphorical loss of his hairpiece in an unruly struggle with Detective Owens. From that point on, Henry discards this last shred of his vanity (and Mr. Hackman reveals the ultimate erosion of his hairline at the age of 70), though he insists that he is only 57 when the captain suggests that he is 67. It seems a bit of old Hollywood to suggest that the marriage of Henry and Chantal is at all unnatural.
In any event, Mr. Hackman and Mr. Freeman have taken charge of their own careers with admirable audacity, and the result is not at all uninteresting. At the same time, I don’t remember Garde à vue ever coming out in New York, but I’m sure it did, and I hope it won’t disappear into the limbo of English-language remakes.
School Reform in France, a Poet-Teacher’s Story
Bertrand Tavernier’s It All Starts Today ( Ça Commence Aujourd’hui ), from a screenplay by Dominique Sampiero, Tiffany Tavernier and Mr. Tavernier, simply glows as the kind of exhilaratingly humanist entertainment that what is left of Hollywood never even considers making anymore. The hero of this new French film is a miner’s son named Daniel Lefevre (Philippe Torreton), who is the director of an under-funded kindergarten in Hernaing, near Valenciennes, in the north of France. Far from the tourist’s path, this once-prosperous region is now afflicted with high unemployment and all its attendant ills.
Lest the reader suffering from compassion fatigue be frightened away by the very subject of the film, let me hasten to add that Mr. Tavernier’s lyrical camera movements, sweeping back and forth against a landscape of little children for whom life literally and poetically starts anew each day, are nothing short of sublime. But it is never easy for Daniel and his dedicated and resourceful staff to get through each day, with its endless crises arising from budget-driven deficiencies and shortages.
Like Mr. Sampiero, one of the screenwriters, Daniel is a poet who teaches kindergarten. The film is festooned with poetry, thus giving it an added dimension beyond the nakedly naturalistic. There are no easy villains in the narrative. Even an abusive stepparent is seen as being overwhelmed by forces he cannot control. Yet Daniel has to report the situation to the authorities, and another neglectful mother loses custody of her child.
One evening, Daniel is confronted with a more complicated parental issue when a mother (Betty Teboulle) arrives late to pick up her daughter, Laetitia. When she bends over to kiss her child, she collapses, dead drunk, in the school yard. Overcome with shame, she flees, leaving Laetitia and her baby brother behind. Daniel phones the child welfare service, only to have them hang up on him when he declines their advice to dump the children with the police. Daniel personally assumes the responsibility of taking the children home, thus crossing the Rubicon of school regulations and becoming radicalized in the process. Daniel’s only ally in the child welfare service is the articulate and outspoken Samia (Nadia Kaci), a case worker and pediatric nurse who shares Daniel’s exasperation with red tape. She also shares Daniel’s hot temper, and this causes an explosion at their first meeting, after which they calm down and learn to appreciate each other’s commitment to change and improvement.
Daniel’s actions, however, pit the educational establishment against him and cost him any chance of professional advancement. In the midst of all his travails, the school is vandalized by unemployed juvenile delinquents, and Daniel’s precious camcorder is stolen along with an assortment of electronic devices. The police are of little help, except for breaking a window to help the school collect on the insurance. Daniel later discovers that the young felons were assisted in their crime with a key provided by his disgruntled stepson.
Mr. Tavernier comes steadily closer to facile caricature the higher up he goes on the political ladder of responsibility. But a confrontation between the Mayor (Gérard Giroudon) and Daniel pits one member of the Comédie Française against another, and for once the rhetoric is even-handed enough to give both sides a fair hearing. This only makes the situation more depressing, since it is really no one’s fault that a whole region has lost its tax base at the same time that more expenditures are required for the social sector. All Daniel knows is that his little charges are hungry, and there is no money to even give them school lunches when many of them come to school without having gotten a decent breakfast at home.
Daniel comes close to the breaking point when a despairing mother commits suicide after he has brusquely dismissed her complaints on a day when everything at the school seemed to be going wrong. Aside from his own guilt, Daniel has to endure a smug inspection of his classroom methods by the worst kind of pedantic bureaucrat. Taking all the blame on his shoulders, as always, Daniel decides he must quit to save his own sanity.
With all these provocations, Daniel does not, of course, quit. Suddenly the tide begins going in the right direction. His stepson becomes reconciled to him as a father after he is told that his “real” father, whom he has been idealizing, insisted that his mother abort him. Daniel’s sculptress girlfriend, Valeria (Maria Pitarresi), also contributes her artistic expertise to the school by guiding the children into a massive and colorful reshaping of their environment. But it is not simply a few positive incidents that keep Daniel in the educational harness. Like all good teachers, he has fallen in love with his students, and he realizes, even if his society does not, that he is engaged in the most awesome activity there is. Each day a child is in kindergarten is a down payment on the future of our civilization. Mr. Tavernier and Mr. Torreton have collaborated on a brilliant portrait of a teacher, one that never dissolves into the gooey sentimentality usually prescribed for the genre. In the faces of the real children of the region, Mr. Tavernier has found a stream of images to redeem us all.