Paul Vecchiali’s beguiling 1970 oddity The Strangler is so steeped in cinephilia that it seems to compel reviewers to cite the references it’s brought to mind. For Clayton Dillard at Slant, the film “suggests the visual style of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop coupled with the psychosexual fervor of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s a queer version of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï by way of the story machinations of Claude Chabrol’s The Champagne Murders.” Beatrice Loayza, writing for the New York Times, finds that The Strangler is “like Peeping Tom meets one of Dario Argento’s giallo joints, but slathered in a coat of melancholic malaise.”
The late Jacques Perrin, best known at the time for appearing in Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and for producing Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), plays Émile, a fragile serial killer haunted by a childhood memory of a man using the young boy’s white crocheted scarf to strangle a woman. Émile’s murders are quietly bloodless reenactments, slow dances with seemingly half-willing victims. A self-appointed angel of mercy, he tells Simon (Julien Guiomar), an inspector posing as an investigative reporter, that he only kills women on the verge of suicide—and that he’s infuriated to discover that a thief (Paul Barge) has been following him and robbing the women he’s left in their deathly repose.
The oddball in what becomes an ad hoc quartet is Anna (Eva Simonet, Perrin’s real-life sister), who may be seducing Simon in order to get close to Émile. The motivations behind each character in The Strangler pull intriguingly in and out of focus, as do time and space. One conversation between Simon and another officer flows steadily but in two clearly separate locations. “Suspense isn’t eradicated from the movie,” writes Elissa Suh at Screen Slate, “so much as it is sublimated into troubled melancholy—O night conceal my pain caused by being nothing and being alive, read the film’s intertitles—and our attention is redirected to the bizarre quadrangle developing between Émile and his devoted observers, each nurturing a subconscious, and for some possibly queer, obsession.”
Like Jean-Luc Godard, Vecchiali, who passed away in January, was born in 1930, and as a contributor to Cahiers du cinéma in the mid-1960s, he was on familiar terms with the major figures of the French New Wave. His career, though, as a critic and champion of the French films of the 1930s—at the age of six, he knew he’d devote his life to cinema when he fell hard for Danielle Darrieux in Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (1936)—and as a filmmaker, took a different course. Vecchiali “delivered some tormented, dark, painful, and raunchy jewels,” wrote Mathieu Macheret in his remembrance for Le Monde.
Filmmaker Axelle Ropert (Petite Solange), writing for Screen Slate when New York’s Metrograph presented Paul Vecchiali, Producer: From Jeanne Dielman to Diagonale in September, noted that Vecchiali “placed himself at the very heart of the French cinema of the 1970s with one film that rocked Pasolini (Femmes femmes), another one that gave a devastatingly intelligent view of society (La machine), and an unforgettable story of passion (Corps à coeurs).” In a 2018 overview of the life and work for Senses of Cinema, Daniel Fairfax noted that Vecchiali was the driving force behind the creative collective Diagonale, which focused especially on work by female and queer directors and “helped to produce the work of kindred spirits such as Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Marie-Claude Treilhou and Gérard Frot-Coutaz.”
Vecchiali’s late feature Le cancre premiered at Cannes in 2016 and features a cast of admirers, including Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Edith Scob, and Françoise Lebrun. Overall, Vecchiali’s oeuvre is ripe for further exploration in the States, and it was made possible in part by the commercial success of The Strangler. Altered Innocence is putting a dazzling new restoration bursting with seventies-era color in theaters in New York,Los Angeles,Austin,Chicago, and other cities starting tomorrow.
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