Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie: Le Professionel (1981)

One of Ennio Morricone’s most famous compositions is Chi Mai. I’ve listened to it for years without seeing Le Professionel, the film for which it was composed. (The same music turned up as the title theme for a BBC series about David Lloyd George, but Le Professionel used it first.) Then I learned that the film was an early writing credit for Jacques Audiard, who made this year’s brilliant A Prophet. To the top of the queue it went.

I was in love before this title sequence was over. But don’t expect vintage fromage. Something much stranger is at work here.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, of the easy, insincere smile and the face that hangs on his skull like a poorly-sized Mission: Impossible mask, plays a French secret agent sent to assassinate an African despot. But the situation on the ground is, how you say, fluid, and the French government not only calls off the hit but offers up Belmondo to stay in the dictator’s good graces. After years in captivity, Belmondo escapes and alerts his former superiors that he’s going to complete his assignment – and on French soil.

Think of it as The Bourne Identity without the amnesia. Or, considering the incompetence and rampant political incorrectness on display, a po-faced OSS 117 movie. But it’s also about a disgruntled intelligence operative having fun at his agency’s expense, so maybe it’s Hopscotch with a body count.

Le Professionel is also a demented parody of star vehicles. Belmondo is not just, as they say, the guy men want to be and women want to be with. He is infallible, outthinking, outplaying and outlasting all comers. He is somehow always one step ahead and forever looking over his adversary’s shoulder.

It’s a sign of how nuts the movie is that we’re tipped to Belmondo’s unfettered awesomeness by a racist wheelchair-bound crank. There’s an edge of unpredictability throughout, along with healthy deposits of sleaze. (Exhibit A: the interrogation that wandered in from an Ilsa movie.) The Foley work is a bit heavy; when Belmondo punches a guy it sounds like a Fiat sideswiping a cow. A rough-and-tumble high-speed pursuit through the streets of Paris teases us with a car carrier that’s never a factor, in clear violation of everything Chekhov taught us about car chases.

The writing is sharp – I loved Belmondo’s manipulation of the press as a way out of a jam – and darkly comic, paying off in an ending so cynical that only the French could get away with it. And, of course, there’s Morricone’s music. The perfect thing if you’re after a different, wider-lapelled kind of spy movie.