From Plato to Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad to William Golding, one of the most enduring leitmotifs in the history of Western Culture has been the duality of man and how, beneath a civilised and housebroken exterior, lurks a creature with a truly terrifying capacity for debasement, savagery and chaos. One of the reasons for the popularity of this dualistic conception of human nature is that the idea of humanity being suspended between two points allows different cultures to position the points wherever they choose. For example, for the Platonists, these points were positioned in intellectual real of the Forms and the sensual world of the flesh allowing Platonists to talk about the need for humanity to aspire to the examined life of the mind. This denigration of the body proved convenient when Plato entered the Christian bloodstream through thr works of Plotinus and Augustine allowing the life of the mind to be replaced with the life of the spirit and the pursuit of Salvation. One of the peculiarities of dualism as a cultural trope is the tendency for people to present man’s duality as an essentially moral problem with one pole representing moral rectitude and the other pole representing all that is base and horrid about human nature. It is telling that, when Golding’s schoolboys are freed from the fetters of civilisation, they immediately turn to killing each other and not to making great art, thinking great thoughts or just fucking the living shit out of each other. The tension between the fundamental amorality of the dualist conception of human nature and our tendency to see this duality in strictly moral terms is one that is present in many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) as for every adaptation that has presented Hyde as an evil psychopath there is an adaptation that presents him as a free spirit to whom the laws of society (for good or ill) simply do not apply. This notion that man’s inner savage need not necessarily be evil is one that is emerging as absolutely central to the films of Fred Cavaye.
Cavaye’s First film Anything for Her (2008) (a.k.a. Tout Pour Elle) tells the story of a man whose wife is sent to prison for a crime she did not commit. Rendered incapable of functioning by the loss of his wife, the film’s mild-mannered protagonist sets about reinventing a new identity for himself that will allow him to break his wife out of prison. Events rip away the character’s veneer of bourgeois rectitude, but while the inner savage allows the character to do some genuinely terrible things, the film never passes judgement on him because what he does he does out of love and because he is ultimately in the right.
Cavaye’s second film as writer/director Point Blank (a.k.a. A Bout Portant) sees him return to this same moral hypothesis: Men and women are born divided. On the one hand, we are civilised beings who love each other, hate violence and generally follow the rules. On the other hand, we are uncivilised beings who will stop at nothing in order to defend what we have and get what we want. Because we live in a society that protects us and enforces ‘civilised’ values, we tend to keep our uncivilised natures in check: We do not murder, we do not steal and we do not fuck the living shit out of each other at the drop of a hat. However, should civilisation fail us then our animalistic character will come to the fore. What makes animalistic actions morally reprehensible is not their violence, their destructiveness or their anti-social character but their motivation. In Point Blank as in Anything for Her, Cavaye believes that there is nothing that is not permissible as long as it is done out of love.
Point Blank begins in media res with a unknown man being chased through Paris by unknown killers. Running down staircases and bounding across bridges, the man calls out for a friend to pick him up but before he can reach safety he is run over by a motorcycle. An act that hideously injures him but also saves his life. Transported to hospital, the man is watched over by trainee nurse Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche). Pierret is a likeable and naïve man with a pregnant wife at home. The chemisty between Pierret and his wife is such that there can be no doubt as to the truth and beauty of their love for each other. This is a love that defines Pierret as a character and ultimately makes him capable of some truly terrifying things. After Pierret interrupts an attempt to murder the injured man in hospital, he returns home only to be knocked out by a masked thug who informs him that he will kill his wife if he does not help the injured man to escape from hospital. Pierret is a law-abiding and gentle soul but when the savage side of his personality is called upon, it responds instantly and Pierret soon finds himself knocking out a policeman in order to engineer the injured man’s escape. The injured man turns out to be Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem), a brilliant safecracker and career criminal who has been fitted up for a crime he did not commit by crooked cop commandant Werner (Gerard Lanvin). Forced to cooperate with Sartet in order to clear his name and free his wife, Pierret launches himself into a flawlessly paced and relentlessly exciting chase through Paris as the pair try to outmanoeuvre Werner’s crew whilst staying one step ahead of a non-crooked team of cops looking to bring down Pierret and Sartet for the crimes that Werner has framed them.
The first thing that strikes you about Point Blank is the absolute economy of its story-telling. When I reviewed Cavaye’s first film Tout Pour Elle, this economy struck me as ill conceived as the film functioned as much as a drama as it did as a thriller and by sketching his characters in such simple terms, Cavaye seemed to be effectively cutting his own throat by denying his audience the emotional impact that stems only from fully-realised characters. Given that Point Blank functions solely as a thriller, Cavaye’s approach to characterisation suddenly seems not just effective but actually quite clever.
Point Blank is very much a work of genre and, as such, it makes use of a number of ‘generic’ character types who will be immediately recognisable to people who are familiar with the crime thriller genre. Rather than carefully explaining to us that Werner is a corrupt detective with political ties, the film introduces Werner by having him shoulder his way onto a case that is already being investigated by a female detective. In the space of a single scene and no more than three lines of dialogue, Cavaye has established two major characters and one of the major conceits of the plot. Cavaye is able to do this because the audience approaches Point Blank fully aware of a tradition of crime literature that presents the police force as corrupt, politicised and deeply prejudiced against anyone who is not a brutal white man. By having Werner shoulder his way onto the case, we know that he has political muscle. By having Werner shoulder his way onto the case of a female detective, we know that he is ‘part of the problem’ and that commandant Fabre (Mireille Perrier) is one of the good guys because she is opposed to Werner. This relationship established, Cavaye then moves on to fleshing out Fabre’s assistant capitaine Susini by casting Claire Perot (an actress with quite a strong and masculine jawline) and outfitting her with the same combination of gender-queering black leather and swagger that Niels Arden Oplev used to recreate Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Point Blank draws not only upon genre archetypes but also upon our preconceptions and prejudices in order to engage our emotions with an absolute minimum of expository dialogue. The result is a film that moves like shit through a goose simply because there is nothing to impede the plot or the flow from one exciting chase-sequence to the next tense stand off. This is an absolute masterclass in genre filmmaking.
Having decided to rely upon audience preconceptions to flesh out his secondary characters, Cavaye is free to lavish attention on the true dramatic centre of the film: Samuel Pierret. Thanks to both Cavaye’s warm and witty dialogue and Lellouche’s deeply human performance, Pierret rapidly emerges as an intensely likeable and profoundly humane person who is forced to do terrible things in order to save his wife. When Cavaye first fires his gun in order to stop Sautet from running off, the sound is deafening and shocking. When Cavaye accompanies Sautet to a safe house in order to stitch him up, he tries to keep his gun on Sautet only to grow bashful when the man slowly takes his clothes off and steps into the shower. Pierret is no Charles Bronson… he is a man far from his comfort zone and ill at ease in the world of guns, criminals and crooked cops that he has been forced to inhabit. Pierret’s constant horror at his surroundings draws upon and feeds back into the scenes in which Pierret is interacting with his wife Nadia (Elea Anaya) as these scenes not only show off the chemistry between the actors but also benefit from a warmth and humour that is almost entirely absent from the rest of the film. This recipe is amazingly effective: Because the secondary characters are largely generic, because the characterisation is so swift, because the rest of the plot is so events-driven and because Pierret seems so horrified by his own actions, the scenes involving the married couple seem to spark and pop with a degree of humanity that is profoundly affecting. You can really see why it is that Pierret is terrified and you can see why it is that he just wants his life to go back to normal… Pierret and his wife are real people forced to do unreal things. The desire that drives them and drives the plot is the need to return to the real world, a world where the savage side of human nature is kept well and truly under wraps.
The gravitational force exerted by the love of the Pierrets is so powerful that it would have been simple for Point Blank to come across as a toothless ode to suburban blandness. However, Cavaye neatly side-steps this problem by giving Sautet an arc of his own.
When we first encounter Sautet, he is an Arabic man running through Paris. We then see him in hospital hooked up to a ventilator and as a man so injured that he cannot walk out of a hospital without Pierret’s assistance. However, using the same economy of exposition that he reserves for all of his secondary characters, Cavaye slowly sets about fleshing out Sautet and transforming him from a victim into a Parisian Kurtz. The transformation begins when Pierret uses his gun to force Sautet to take him with him. Sautet immediately takes him to a flat with an elaborate array of medical supplies. Suddenly, Sautet is not just a hapless Arab caught up in the wheels of Frenh (in)justice but a man who is organised and capable of planning and strategic thought. From there, Cavaye slowly increases Sautet’s both physical capacities and physical appearance as the man who could not walk unassisted slowly emerges as this underworld James Bond-type figure who pulls the strings and goes to war with the Police Judiciaire. Time and again, Sautet saves Pierret’s bacon and does what Pierret will not do as a way of making it clear that while Pierret has opened the door to the beast in his head, Sautet has become the beast… he is the perfect urban savage and he is completely at home in the very world that Pierret fears and yearns to escape.
Aside from the absolute economy with which he is drawn, what makes Sautet such a fascinating character is his absolute amorality. Were Sautet one of Werner’s henchmen then we would not hesitate to fear and loathe him but, because of his association with Pierret, he comes across as a sympathetic character who is ‘doing the right thing’.
Cavaye’s film argues that within every one of us there are two natures: One a civilised and well-trained puppy that wants nothing more from life than a bowl of food and a warm place to sleep and the other a slavering wolf that would rip out anyone’s throat in order to get what it wants. Unlike many writers who address the fundamental duality of man’s character, Cavaye is not judgemental. For him, the wolf and the puppy are both part of the same dog and what makes that dog ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is the capacity to love. In Cavaye’s eyes, what you find when you strip away civilisation is not the horror of the world but rather man’s true character… are you a good dog, or are you a bad dog? A man’s love for his wife puts him in the first camp but as the difference between Sautet and Werner shows, the line between good and bad is both fine and decidedly crooked.