Father Knows Least
directed by Bernard Tavernier
at the Paris and the Orson Welles
'FRANCE IS A COUNTRY of 50 million citizens, 20 million informers," confides a police inspector to the father of a young man being hunted for murder. The inspector (Jean Rochefort) doesn't realize it, but he's just hit upon the motive for the puzzling case he is trying to solve. Bernard Descombes, disaffected son of a Lyons clockmaker, has inexplicably killed a right-wing factory informer. His father, Michel (Philippe Noiret), is shaken by the news, but his beefy face betrays hurt and bewilderment rather than outrage. The glib explanations offered by the press and the police don't satisfy him. He knows his son had no strong commitment to leftist politics, and he doubts the dismissal of Bernard's girlfriend from the factory could have provoked him to such violence. Unfortunately, he is not close enough to his son to supply better explanation. Throughout the film we see him turning over the facts of the case with the same dogged patience he applies to his work.
Michel is a quiet man who minds his own business and obeys the law--he won't even cross a deserted street against a red light. There is no timidity in him, however; he won't tolerate petty injustice. One of his few outbursts of real anger is provoked by the smashing of his shop windows by two leering thugs, hit men for the dead informer. Michel and his friend Antoine (Jacques Denis) chase the vandals down, beat them and knock them into the river.
It turns out Bernard views his crime as a natural response to a similarly blatant outrage. "I killed him because he was scum" is the only explanation he can offer once he is arrested. In Michel's own experience with the two hoods and his memories of the petty tyranny of his army superiors, he finds a link with his son's disgust and rage. Bernard's crime, he realizes, represents his refusal to succumb to the moral lassitude he sees around him.
Hardly a conventional crime film, The Clockmaker arouses virtually no suspense. We know that Bernard committed the crime; we're only uncertain about his reasons. Because the clockmaker's search for a motive is the only spring that propels the plot, the film sags frequently along the way. Only Noiret's performance keeps us from losing interest entirely as we wait and wait for Bernard to be nabbed or for some new hint about his motive to turn up. Noiret resists any temptation to make Descombes a heroic, larger-than-life figure; he is just a regular guy sweating out an embarrassing and very painful problem. And since he works out his trouble with only an ordinary intelligence and a rather blunt sensibility, he is all the more sympathetic. A stilted sort of friendship develops between Michel and the police commissioner, but the clockmaker breaks it off abruptly, unable to stomach the cop's complacent cynicism about the toadies who do the French bureaucracy's dirty work. In this, as in almost everything else, Michel is restrained. Matter-of-factly hoisting himself up from a cafe table in mid-meal and handing the commissioner some money, he conveys more contempt than he would have by slapping him.
By focusing on the specific reactions of the father, Bertrand Tavernier saves the film from triviality as well as tedium. The story of a young man rebelling against a garden variety of evil most people hardly notice could easily have become an exercise in moral smugness. But Bernard's act concerns us far less than his father's awakening understanding and acceptance of it. After the trial, at which Michel scandalizes everyone by announcing that he stands behind his son, he leans into the wind on a bridge over the Saone while Antoine indulges in a tirade against authority. Antoine can't believe that Bernard landed a 20-year sentence for having the instincts of an honest man when a sleazy crime of passion would have earned him a much lighter punishment. Descombes listens in silence, then softly repeats, "Twenty years. My God!" His stolid expression crumples feature by feature and he begins to weep. And this, more than Antoine's polemics, is what moves us: just a homely middle-aged man who looks even homelier when he cries.
The Clockmaker is Tavernier's first film, and although it meanders too much for comfort, it does a very difficult thing very well: it draws us so completely into the protagonist's search that all the action seems to be filtered through Descombes's rather bleary eyes. Every scene is suffused with a soft yellowish light that illuminates without romanticizing. So also our view of the action is colored by the clockmaker's own perception of an ugly but finally acceptable truth.
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