Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, 1958)


Jeanne Moreau (Florence Carala), Maurice Ronet (Julien Tavernier). Screenplay by Roger Nimier. Directed by Louis Malle. Rating: 12. Running time: 88 minutes.

It’s strange that so many group Louis Malle with Godard and the New Wave scene. Besides the fact that both were rapidly rising French auteurs beginning to make films in the late 50s, there really is no reason to associate them. There are no jump-cuts crossed with pop-philosophy here, nor is there a barely important story being used merely as a means to some abstract aesthetic experiment. Malle began his career with a deeply American-influenced, largely conventional noir. But he also added a spice: a gorgeous, unparalleled visual texture that’s amplified by a harrowing, solitary soundtrack penned by none other than Miles Davis.

This combination reaches the peak of its powers in a notoriously ineffable scene in the middle of the film where Jeanne Moreau prowls the streets of Paris, desperately searching through the night for her lover that has apparently vanished. I said it was ineffable for an obvious reason: it really does just have a wow-factor feel to it that no amount of written rationalisation will do justice to. It’s just an achievement of absolute harmony between all the components of cinema, the result being the perfect sequence.

If that’s what we remember Lift to the Scaffold for, it’s just a shame there wasn’t more of it. This is heresy, I know, but I really do think the quality of these moments in the film, where it’s evident that nothing but art is on Malle’s mind, are so good as to leave the majority of the film all too pale in comparison. I don’t mean the score or visuals aren’t consistently wonderful, but rather that we’re often distracted from them by a surprisingly intensive plot that it’s hard to care too much for. The story – of a man’s plan to kill his boss that goes drastically wrong, and all the repercussions that flow in the aftermath – is tricky to get giddy about after our experiencing those higher, transient pleasures stemming simply from Jeanne Moreau walking around to the sound of some serene trumpet playing. Yet they do, unfortunately, dominate the film.

Perhaps that was inevitable. Maybe pleasures of this sort are necessarily brief, because if allowed to monopolise a film then they will turn into aggravating art house nonsense. Fair enough, but that’s not to excuse the simplicity of and inevitable indifference towards Lift to the Scaffold‘s narrative. I’m remembering Mateo Blanco in Broken Embraces saying that despite being blind, he would really like to just sit and listen to Jeanne Moureau’s voice in this film. I know what he means. The sounds (and the sights) are so great not because of any content that they carry, but just because of the way they sound and the way they look.

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