Movie Review
The Scene of the Crime
1986
Director: André Téchiné
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nicolas Giraudi, Wadeck Stanczak
A


a mysterious criminal accosts a young boy and demands that the boy bring him some money, backing it up with some vague threats. The boy, Thomas, doesn’t know where to get money; the criminal, Martin, tells him to ask his parents. “My parents are dead,” the boy says. Soon afterwards, we find out that his parents are not, in fact, dead; they’re very much alive, in the middle of a sloppy divorce, and with no idea how to deal with their suddenly difficult child. It is an indication of just how much this family is crumbling that, even in the midst of threats against his life, Thomas remembers to tell sullen, half-wishful lies about it.

Thomas steals money from Lili, his mother, but then sees her sad and, in a moment of love, gives it back to her, admitting what he’s done. He goes through a series of increasingly desperate attempts to get money, and eventually scrounges some out of his grandfather. When he returns to give Martin the money, Martin’s accomplice decides that the boy is too much of a liability and tries to kill him. Instead, Martin kills his accomplice, saving Thomas’s life. Later on, when Lili and Martin begin to slowly circle one another in an increasingly sexual courtship, at first ignorant of the relationship they already share, we realize that Thomas and Martin have something in common: we’ve seen both of them return something to Lili that she didn’t even know they took.

The Scene of the Crime works on that kind of fractal structure. Everywhere you look, there are things taken away and returned until, sometimes, they can no longer be returned. Over and over, there are people unable to say things to the people who should be closest to them until, sometimes, they can’t be left unsaid. Sexual attraction is mistaken for love, and vice versa, and both mistaken in turn for hate, in endless iteration. (Even the lie Thomas tells about his parents being dead is repeated soon enough by the movie lying to us about Thomas being dead.) There are an awful lot of coincidences in The Scene of the Crime—indeed, the basics of the plot would be impossible without them—and it would be easy to see them as irritating contrivances, but to my mind the structure of the movie as a whole frames them almost as mathematical inevitabilities.


Not that The Scene of the Crime feels mathematical. It deals with a kind of harsh emotionality that borders at times on sentimentality, at times on sadism. It’s Blood Simple as a quietly French coming-of-age story, or Hitchcock as classic opera without the singing. Even the score knows this; there is only one musical theme that runs through the whole movie, but with changes so subtle that they make me wonder if I’m imagining them, it can shift easily between naked pastiche of Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho and of the Strauss opera the family listens to at dinner.

And oh, that dinner. There are three or four great meal scenes in film that stand out to me as being thematic siblings—those in Eraserhead, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and perhaps the one at the end of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and while the pivotal dinner scene in The Scene of the Crime contains none of the morbid surreality of those, it is at least a first cousin. The tension, resentment, and sheer bloody-minded awkwardness of it feels almost as horrific (and, even worse, almost as funny) as tiny bleeding animated chickens or cannibalism. And again, this thematic semblance is a smaller version of the way the whole movie, with only two real acts of violence, one off-screen and one at a bloodless distance, and its resolutely restrained tone, can remind me so powerfully of Blood Simple.

This is a movie about a whole bunch of foolish people doing foolish things to one another for foolish reasons, and yet it is not at all a foolish movie. I can easily see myself watching it over and over again, living with it, looking ever closer, always uncovering more of the structure without ever getting closer to its central mysteries. I look forward to it.

The Scene of the Crime is now available on DVD.



By: Ethan Robinson
Published on: 2007-09-27
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