Death in a French Garden

In a review for Carol Reed’s The Third Man, I stated that perfect films aren’t all that rare; to be perfect merely required following the known recipes to make something great. I ultimately concluded The Third Man was better than a perfect film because it creatively knew when to follow the recipe, but when to change it to improve on it, and make it taste completely new. Death in a French Garden is like the opposite; it’s proof positive that a film can follow the recipe perfectly, on the surface, but then end up with a dish that tastes nothing like the intended meal is supposed to taste like. In such cases, it’s often frustrating to analyze and determine exactly what went wrong, since it can’t be the recipe: was it the ingredients? The mixing? The cooking? In this case, it may be all of the above.

The film can simply be described as an erotic thriller in the mode of the classic noirs. Christophe Malavoy is David Aurphet, a young guitar teacher who has just moved into a new neighborhood in which he’s been hired to teach the young Vivianne Tombsthay (Anais Jeanneret), the daughter of Julia (Nicole Garcia) and Graham (Michel Piccoli). Meanwhile, Anémone plays Edwige Ledieu, the neighbor of the Tombsthays who is constantly photographing people and has just moved in themselves. David and Julia soon become lovers, while David and Edwige become fast friends. When David is saved from an assailant by the mysterious Daniel (Richard Bohringer) who reveals he’s a hired killer, David becomes suspicious that Graham knows about the affair between him and Julia.

Alfred Hitchcock once coined the term “Refrigerator Moments” for those moments in films that, if you were consciously analyzing them while you were watching them, wouldn’t make sense, but that you don’t realize they don’t make sense until you got up for a midnight snack, went to the fridge, and suddenly thought about it. If Death in a French Garden fails, it’s because it’s stuffed with refrigerator moments that we recognize instantly rather than much later. The coincidences pile onto coincidences to the point of absurdity, and when you combine this with characters who never act realistically, and who are so scantly developed anyway, the moments are magnified a thousand times what they would be in an otherwise skillfully crafted noir thriller.

One isn’t hurting in naming such instances; immediately after meeting, Julia comes to David’s place to meet him and “return” the tuning fork he left behind, but it’s mere seconds before she’s fawning over him and looking to start an affair. The biggest problem is that the film gives us nothing to indicate why she would be the least interested in him, or why she would want to cheat on her husband. David’s friendship with Edwige isn’t any better; he invites her for a drink, she accepts, and when he looks down the cleavage of a waitress, she replies “I bet you could count every hair on her pussy.” Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never found any woman who would say such a thing to a man she just met.

But even if we get past the rushed romance and unlikely friendship, writer/director Michel Deville really begins to shovel the crap during the scene in which David is attacked by a mysterious assailant, but is saved by Daniel. Daniel invites David for a dinner and reveals to him that he’s a contract killer—because revealing one is a contract killer is just what contract killers do; it’s good to pass the word around—and warns David that his assailant was “aiming for his hand, rather than his head” because David plays and teaches guitar, and damaging his hand would ruin him, and this was surely the mark of a jealous husband. A moment like this is so absurd that it would probably have been less offensive if the director himself had stepped in front of the camera and simply explained all of this to David.

But an absurdity is followed by a cliché when David and Julia are sent video tapes of them making love. Is it Edwige? David asks her and she seems to equivocate on the question, first saying no but then saying yes. If it’s Julia’s husband, he certainly doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of harboring any ill will towards David, as David continues to teach his daughter, Vivianne, on guitar. But the plot thickens (oh, if only my skull could thicken to such a degree while watching this laughable dreck) when Daniel reveals that he’s been contracted to kill Julia’s husband, Graham, and that David should “get out while he can”. But Daniel also utters the prophetic lines that he felt he would die in this city.

It’s certainly not impossible for a flawed script to be transcended by great acting or directing, but Death in a French Garden contains a dearth of both. While the cast is stuffed with veterans, none of them can seem to ring any substance or coherency out of the script. Malavoy is particularly bland as the protagonist, David, who seems to be in search of any smidgen of personality. The usually superb Michel Piccoli isn’t given enough to do here to make anything out of the “jealous husband” archetype, and it’s almost as if you can feel him going through the motions during his few scenes. The only actor who saves the film from complete disaster is the mysterious Anémone, who at least is able to throw a spark of life into an otherwise dead movie.

If the film is an erotic thriller noir in story, it isn’t in direction, and Michel Deville’s dull direction matches the lifelessness of the story and the cast. There’s very little evocation here, and even the sex scenes are lacking in sensuality or anything that would make them unique. The overriding mode of the film seems to be to shoot every scene as by-the-books as possible, and while one couldn’t say the direction is amateurish, it’s certainly lacking in imagination or creativity. It’s often the case that when a film has all the pieces necessary to be good, but ends up being quite bad, it’s the direction that fails to galvanize the pieces and give live to the Frankenstein monster that is any film.

Ultimately, this is an erotic thriller that doesn’t thrill, and certainly doesn’t arouse, and a mystery that annoys rather and intrigues. It’s marred by a listlessness from every conceivable angle with the exception of one actress and one character. If there’s anything that saves the film from being a complete waste it’s merely that it never provoked me to shut it off. I still wanted to see it through to the end, hoping for some brilliant twist that would make all the badness pay off. No such twist ever came; there is no revelation, just a bad, dull, bad, bad, film.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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