Monsieur Hire Review
Monsieur Hire is based on Georges Simenon's novel, Les Fiançailles de Monsieur Hire - not one of the writer’s greatest books, but it is certainly closely related in style and theme to some of his best work - Les Fantômes du Chapelier, Tante Jeanne, L’Assassin - where small town gossip points the finger of suspicion at solitary individuals, often quiet little tradesmen employed in simple traditional professions, whose regulated, simple lives become embroiled in murder and crime. Simenon was of course a crime thriller writer – and a particularly productive one - but rather than the focus of these stories being on murder and mystery, the writer takes pains to depict a particular provincial attitude of narrow-mindedness and a mistrust of outsiders and foreigners. Monsieur Hire is one such character study and it’s an intriguing one that is fully appreciated and given an effective treatment by Patrice Leconte.
The body of a young woman is found dead on the wasteland close to a group of apartment blocks, apparently the victim of an attempted robbery. As a figure was seen running towards one of the buildings, suspicion for the crime naturally falls on Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc), a strange little man, a tailor by profession, who lives a solitary, reclusive life and is shunned by his neighbours. They and the detective in charge of the investigation have every right to be suspicious, because M. Hire is a strange and disturbing character. Every evening he ritualistically takes up position at the window in his permanently darkened room and voyeuristically watches the beautiful young woman, Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), in the apartment block opposite. One day however, Alice is shocked when she catches sight of his pale, impassive countenance spying on her, but her curiosity leads her to try to make contact with him. The unusual and mismatched relationship that subsequently follows drags secrets out into the open.
It’s easy in hindsight to see how the subject of Simenon’s novel would appeal to Patrice Leconte, who has subsequently used the same tragic romantic mismatch of characters in films like The Hairdresser’s Husband, The Girl On The Bridge, Félix et Lola, Rue des Plaisirs (Love Street) and Confidences Trop Intimes. Even in a non-romantic context, it is the meeting of two different worlds that is also the driving force behind L’Homme du Train. Leconte’s treatment of these themes and character strengths in Simenon’s book is masterful here, aligning a classical Beauty and the Beast storyline with a mise en scène that owes something to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the film benefits from both these strong references.
Which is not to say that Leconte’s own contribution and style doesn’t contribute greatly to the success of the film. The director takes pleasure in making the film a deeply sensuous experience, relying on less obvious means to bring out the true nature of Monsieur Hire and revelling in capturing the unspoken elements of his character - the atmosphere of a bowling alley, a misty river bank, the steam of a sauna, or a garish tattoo parlour. Into these colourful locations and situations he places the incongruous element of Monsieur Hire, an odd figure paled by the coldness of blue and purple lighting. M. Hire himself is a character who speaks more through gestures than words, from the ritual of his playing Brahms while spying on Alice, to the way he sniffs the air for her scent, nose pointed upwards like one of the little white mice he keeps as pets in his workshop. The meticulous and sensuous attention he applies to little details can be seen in the way he wraps up a dead mouse in a piece of cloth and the parallel this runs with the key he similarly and significantly wraps carefully in a letter at the end of the film. Michael Nyman’s score also contributes greatly to the melancholic loneliness and yearning of the character, but Leconte is open to all such uses of textures and details to establish and define Hire’s character, and the overall effect is powerful.
Monsieur Hire is released in the UK by Second Sight. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
After less than stellar editions of some other recent French classics - The Horseman On The Roof, Cyrano de Bergerac and the damage inflicted upon another of Leconte’s finest films, The Hairdresser’s Husband - there was certainly every reason to be apprehensive about another long-awaited film making its way to DVD under the Second Sight label, but thankfully those fears, in the case of Monsieur Hire can largely be allayed. The picture quality here is excellent, but frustratingly not quite perfect. Nevertheless, it manages to capture the warm and cold tones that Leconte employs to enhance the particular moods of certain sequences and is blessed with a clear, sharp image that shows no significant marks or scratches whatsoever. The aspect ratio is closer to 2.30:1 than the 2.35:1 is should be, which shouldn’t be significant and indeed it causes few problems, but with Leconte’s careful and full use of the scope ratio in the framing, it is noticeable in one or two scenes. The only real issue here that is somewhat distracting is the encoding of the transfer, which allows compression artefacts to show up in a kind of flickering and rippling effect. This is particularly evident in dark scenes, where the level of shadow detail is significantly reduced, flattening out blacks. It’s frustrating because, running to only 76 minutes due to PAL speedup and with no other features on the barebones DVD, compression artefacts really should not be a problem - even on a single-layer disc. In the main however, this is an excellent transfer that allows an exceptionally beautifully composed and photographed film to be seen at close to its best.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, retaining the original mono mix of the film. It’s not a particularly great audio track, the volume is quite low and there is no great dynamic range, with bass tones in particular, reverberating and distorting at louder volumes. However, it is certainly more than adequate and is at least lacking any technical problems.
English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font of an appropriate size. They are however slightly high in the frame, wholly inside the picture area. Rather pleasingly though, they are optional – which is wonderful.
There are no extras on the DVD, not even a trailer. You get scene selection, and that’s it.
Monsieur Hire is a key work for director Patrice Leconte, who up until that point had been seen as a director of broad farces and comedies like Les Bronzés. In this short, perfectly compact and complete film he demonstrated himself to be a skilful visual storyteller, with a fine sense for nuance in character, situation and mood. Monsieur Hire would also go on to influence the theme, structure and character of many of his best films. But, as ever with Leconte - with recent films as diverse as a musical documentary on Cambodia, Dogora, and a return after twenty-five years to comedy-farce with a third hugely successful Bronzés instalment Bronzés 3 – Amis Pour La Vie - this prolific director will always confound expectations.
Monsieur Hire is finally out on DVD with English subtitles. It’s been a long wait and Second Sight have rewarded that patience with a DVD release that exceeds expectations, but unfortunately doesn’t go quite far enough. This is particularly frustrating when it is clear that the elements that make this film so good are all here and a better transfer could certainly have been made from them. Personally, I’ll be holding out for a French edition that hopefully will have all the usual extra features and commentaries that make Patrice Leconte DVDs so entertaining – but if you want English subtitles, this is at present your only option, and it’s not a bad one.