Tuesday, March 8, 1983.
GARDE À VUE. (Under Suspicion). Co-written by Jean Herman. Based on John Wainwright’s 1977 novel Brainwash. Music by Georges Delerue. Co-written and directed by Claude Miller. Running time: 94 minutes. Rated Mature entertainment. In French with English subtitles.
SOMETIMES WE NEED STARS. In a recent  Sunday Stage View column, New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr made “the case for star vehicles."
According to Kerr, star performers “serve as a kind of safety net for playwrights.” By tailoring material to actors with “a ready-made, built-in following,” the writer can attract an audience that otherwise might have little interest in his material.
The same is true of movies. If I told you that Garde à vue (Under Suspicion) was about an intense, all-night-long police interrogation, would you rush right out to see it?
I would have to admit that its plot displays little in the way of dazzling originality. It is, essentially, a close-in duel between a veteran police inspector determined to wrap up a thorny rape-murder investigation, and his best suspect, a prominent local lawyer.
In choosing such material, director Claude Miller limits his basic sales pitch. Since the entire action of his film takes place on a rainy New Year’s Eve inside a police station, there’s no way to exploit the French provincial scenery.
Since that action consists almost entirely of intellectual cat-and-mouse games, it’s not much of a special effects show, either. What it comes down to, then, is the acting.
Weaving Miller’s safety net are Lino Ventura and Michel Serrault, a pair of known French names who deliver on the promise of powerhouse performance. Not unexpectedly, Ventura plays the cop.
A former boxer who made his film debut in 1953, the beefy Ventura has spent the past 30 years perfecting his acting technique while developing a star presence. Like Humphrey Bogart, he broke into the movie business as a villain.
No mere hulk, he was the kind of solid, sensitive tough guy who grew into an anti-hero by suggesting that his characters had emotional depths and quiet intelligence. As Antoine Gallien, he is a world-weary, by-the-book cop doing his dogged best to get at the truth.
Serrault is his suspect. Filmgoers who recall his performances in the Cage aux Folles comedies — Serrault played Albin, the gay nightclub’s star attraction — are in for a surprise.
As Jerome Martinaud, he is compellingly dramatic, playing a character with sharp edges and tinges of pathos. A keen-witted lawyer, Martinaud is a man of wealth and position who just may have raped and murdered two eight-year-old girls.
A firm-but-fair cop, Gallien wants to clear up some significant gaps in Maitre Martinaud’s statement to the police. Although Gallien is a master interrogator, it is soon clear that his man is no amateur when it comes to intellectual cut and thrust.
As evening passes into morning, Gallien exposes more and more of Martinaud’s raw nerve endings. The suspect's best defensive technique — sarcastic humour — begins to turn bitter.
“At this time of night, I don’t know if I’m joking or dreaming,” he says. For the dapper avocat, it is turning into a nightmare.
Gallien is relentless. Recognizing the intelligence of his adversary, Martinaud makes a desperate bid for understanding, revealing resentments and frustrations that have the effect of making him both a more, and less, likely suspect.
A well-mannered mystery with the expected unexpected ending, Garde à vue needs a pair of compelling performances to make it come alive. It gets them from Ventura and Serrault.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1983. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: When Garde à vue played Vancouver in early 1983, its English-language title was Under Suspicion. In other places, posters identified it as The Inquisitor or The Grilling. I found it interesting that when Hollywood director Stephen Hopkins released his 2000 remake, he returned to the calmer Under Suspicion. An English-language adaptation, it featured Morgan Freeman interrogating Gene Hackman in San Juan, Puerto Rico during the late-January San Sebastiàn Festival.
After 2019's soggy solstice — Vancouver had 5.6 mm of rain on December 21 — and endless mass media recapitulations of the depressing decade that ends tonight, I’ve come to appreciate Garde à vue’s quiet strength as a New Year’s Eve movie. Instead of sinking a cruise ship — the year-end entertainment offered us in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure — or partying like it’s 1992 — director Ken Branagh’s ensemble comedy Peter’s Friends — Claude Miller shows us a decent man attending to business and asking the questions that need to be asked. Celebrations come in many forms.
Happier New Years: Positive year-end moments are featured in three other movies currently in the Reeling Back archive. Actor Lino Ventura plays a jewel thief stealing hearts in Claude Lelouch’s romantic comedy La Bonne Année (1973). Actress Michelle Pfeiffer offers the definitive performance of Makin’ Whoopee in Steve Kloves’s The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Actress Sandra Bullock celebrates the romantic possibilities of public transit in Jon Turteltaub’s While You Were Sleeping (1995).