Review by Glenn Heath Jr.
Posted on 20 June 2011
Source Cinematek Belgium 35mm print
Antoine Doinel escapes a boy’s reformatory for the seaside, stares deep into the camera, and suddenly solidifies in cinematic time. The iconic freeze-frame drew the curtains on The 400 Blows but opened up a whole new can of ideological worms, allowing a by-product of post-war apathy to look back at his creators and ask, “What now?” Here was a confrontational and dynamic discourse showing a revolting youth submerged by indifference, and it must have been something incendiary for viewers to consider in 1959. While François Truffaut’s debut solidified a new movement, essentially making the French New Wave a self-aware cinematic manifesto, other filmmakers inevitably spun themes of institutional distrust, generational conflict, and emotional detachment in fresh ways during the decade that followed.
Leave it to Jerzy Skolimowski, an evocative young Polish outsider at the time, to royally skewer and subvert Truffaut’s aesthetic while also celebrating its lasting impact on cinema. Skolimowski’s masterful absurdist comedy Le Départ utilizes the manic hysteria and volatile outbursts of Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel himself) to burn down the formal artifice of a contradictory social system. Léaud plays Mark, a hyperactive automobile nut working at a high-end hair-salon to make ends meet, flirting with wealthy older women so he can drive their luxury cars. When Mark isn’t committing petty crimes to raise money for a high-profile racing competition, a process that often falls short because of chance or incompetence, he’s driving wildly down the Parisian streets like a man escaped. But what exactly is he so relentlessly seeking?
Mark’s seemingly endless energy and stamina stem from an unsettled place and has nothing to do with joy or passion. Skolimowski immediately establishes his character’s unpredictable character traits and forward momentum when Mark rushes through the opening credits trying to steal and then return his boss’s Porsche 911. He and a friend hotwire the posh vehicle, take it for a quick spin down the highway, and then return it hastily, readjusting the odometer and checking the oil. At first we think Mark is out to steal just for criminal means, but later it becomes clear he wants to practice his sport with the car of his dreams. The driving scenes are infused with jump cuts and paced to a frenetic jazz score that perforates every moment with improvisation, as if Mark’s world could spin off its axis with a slight turn of the wheel. Most of Le Départ is made up of similarly toned vignettes, highlighting Mark’s hot pursuit of ultimately trivial things.
During one of his tangential journeys delivering a wig to an apartment building, Mark meets Michelle, a beautiful young model trying to reinvent her identity after a failed career in show business. Initially, Mark yearns for Michelle in much the same way he does a driving career, courting her with the same reckless abandon. When she ignores his early advances and boards a trolley, Mark follows on a motorbike, flirtatiously calling out to her. When this doesn’t work, he races ahead and lies down on the tracks so the train will stop. At the last second, the trolley veers to the right, following another predetermined path. Physical zigzags like this brilliantly define Mark and Michelle’s fluid relationship, giving a surface platform for volcanic emotional eruptions that appear suddenly and often.
The apex of this trend comes during Le Départ’s most important sequence, a masterful set piece constructed within a lavish car show. Mark and Michelle wander around the warehouse space while Skolimowski’s camera drifts to other onlookers. An elderly man sits down in the driver’s seat of a Porsche and promptly dies without anyone noticing. When a crowd finally gathers, Mark is front and center to watch medics cart off the body. Skolimowski sees this as just another in a long string of failed attempts to convince Mark of his mortality. A few moments later, Mark and Michelle hide out in the trunk of a car while the security guard closes up shop. Is this a setup for confined romance? Not quite. Frustrated at their predicament, the couple takes turns slapping each other in the tiny space. The physical violence is reactionary and playful, and Skolimowski uses it to segue into the film’s lasting cinematic image: the two sitting opposite one another in a spinning display of an Austin model dissected down the middle to reveal the inner workings of its engine. As the car poetically revolves, slowly separating and then conjoining to a melodic love song, Mark reaches out for Michelle’s hand, taking it momentarily.
If this key moment projects an emotional X-ray of both Mark’s vulnerability and Skolimowski’s tenderness, it doesn’t last very long. Le Départ quickly moves forward, cutting to the next kinetic movement with effortless glee. At this point, its evident love and honesty will always play second fiddle to physical anarchy, absurd imagery, and juvenile attractions. Whether it’s a random ball bouncing down an empty flight of stairs, a hotdog plugging a car’s tailpipe, or a wrench used to crack a small walnut, symbols in Le Départ are contradictory in nature. Mark inevitably personifies this collective paradox through his thoughtless actions. Even though he desires to break into a sport based on efficiency and dexterity, Mark often signifies just the opposite, getting into one brawl after another with other drivers and passers-by. There’s a hilarious sequence on a curbside where Mark and a motorcyclist are involved in an accident, then have a prolonged argument that descends into chaos. During the scuffle, Skolimowski inserts cutaways of the print advertisements on the wall behind the madness, close-ups of grinning car owners hamming it up for the camera. Le Départ sees violence, media, and confrontation as different types of absurd performance art. It’s fitting that at the end of one take, you can catch Léaud’s self-aware smile at his own silliness.
Le Départ is stuffed with other fascinating cinematic experiments, like when Mark and Michelle carry a huge mirror down the street, their reflections switching and morphing through the power of editing. When the mirror finally breaks, the image rewinds and makes it whole again, one of the few hopeful moments in Skolimowski’s darkly comic analysis of disjointed youth. There is no narrative culmination of Mark’s pursuits, but there is a potential emotional awakening by the end. As Michelle projects images of her childhood on a white hotel wall, Mark starts to see her as something more than an object to chase. Her experiences, history, and needs are real, not intrinsically linked to cinema, or farce. Just as The 400 Blows ends with a freeze frame of Léaud in distress, so does Le Départ, except this still-life image literally goes up in flames, hopeful prospects be damned.
Skolimowski is a filmmaker obsessed with extremes, and Le Départ initiates a heightened trajectory of opposing forces still evident in his latest film Essential Killing some four decades later. Mark’s need to continually depart situations for seemingly no rational reason becomes a thrilling wrinkle to the French New Wave’s canonical treatment of youth in flux. Truffaut gave these essential concerns a stunning humanism via a potent mug shot of a failing establishment. For Skolimowski, the same iconic face represents all the confusion, potential, and yearning that’s followed. Like Mark’s fruitless pursuit of happiness, social (and cinematic) evolution is a neverending departure from the norm.