Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 16, 2013
I’m fond of mysteries that evolve through conversation and unravel in small spaces such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and Robert Hosseins DOUBLE AGENTS (1959). The claustrophobia they evoke seems directly linked to our primal fears and primitive suspicions. One of the most interesting films in this vein is Giuseppe Tornatore’s A PURE FORMALITY aka Una Pura Formalita (1994). I recently revisited this opaque thriller after almost 20 years and was surprised by how effective it still was. Even though I was well aware of the surprise twist ending I was mesmerized from start to finish thanks to Tornatore’s deft directing choices, Pascal Quignard’s brilliant dialogue and the masterful performances etched out by two powerhouses of European cinema; Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.
Director Giuseppe Tornatore is probably best known for his sweet and sentimental Oscar winning film, CINEMA PARADISO (1988) but I personally enjoy his darker and more provocative thrillers such as THE UNKNOWN WOMAN (2006) and this earlier effort, which was greeted warmly in Europe but met with a lot of indifference in the US during its initial release. This led to limited screenings and A PURE FORMALITY still hasn’t been released on DVD in the states but you can currently find it streaming at Amazon.
In this murky mystery Depardieu plays Onoff, an acclaimed author and deeply troubled man who finds himself running down a muddy road in the French countryside on a rainy night and is quickly apprehended by the local police. When he arrives at the police station the befuddled and increasingly argumentative writer is confronted by a curious inspector (Roman Polanski) who just happens to be an avid reader and his biggest fan. Much to Onoff’s surprise the inspector has read all of his books and can recite favorite passages from memory. The inspector believes that he knows the author well thanks to various biographies and he uses this knowledge to aggressively go after Onoff in search of the ever elusive truth. Is Onoff really who he claims to be? If he is, why was the admired man of letters found on a dirt road in the middle of the night during a storm? Why can’t he remember the events that led to that moment? And does his refusal or inability to talk have anything to do with the dead body that the police recently discovered nearby?
A PURE FORMALITY contains a number of familiar literary devices that at first glance might seem cliché beginning with the opening that resembles the old chestnut “It was a dark and stormy night …” to its twist ending, which will be recognizable to anyone who has read Ambrose Bierce. Depardieu’s character points this out early in the film after he arrives at the shabby police station full of gruff men and complains that his situation seems to resemble a “Hollywood B-Movie” and he’s absolutely right. But at its core, A PURE FORMALITY seeks to illustrate the complex interior world of one writer so the abundant use of literary (and film) references is perfectly appropriate. Although it was based on an original story by director Giuseppe Tornatore, the film includes dialogue by the celebrated French novelist Pascal Quignard and Quignard’s fingerprints are all over the script. The verbal exchanges between Depardieu and Polanski are poetic at times and Quignard’s obsession with memory and death inhabit every frame. Quignard isn’t a religious man, in fact he often criticizes organized religion and expresses atheist or agnostic principles, but he’s obsessed with religious metaphors and so is A PURE FORMALITY. This seems to confuse or aggravate some critics who refuse to engage with the metaphysical aspects of the film. But you can simply enjoy the movie as a taut mystery that unfolds with scalpel-like precision and contains one of the most fascinating tête-à-tête’s found in cinema. The gripping exchange between Gerard Depardieu and Roman Polanski is what truly sets this French language film apart and gives it weight.
Depardieu is simply unforgettable as the terminally melancholy and cantankerous aging writer and delivers one of his most nuanced and immersive performances as Onoff. It’s not too surprising coming from a man who is arguably one of France’s greatest actors but what is surprising is that Depardieu is matched every step of the way by Polanski. Before appearing in A PURE FORMALITY Polanski had large and small roles in a number of his own films including THE TENANT (1976), THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967) and CHINATOWN (1974) but A PURE FORMALITY is one of the few films where he’s acted under the guidance of another director and he throws himself into the role with gusto. The two leading men are supported ever so slightly by some noteworthy costars including Sergio Rubini as a young policeman and Tano Cimarosa as an old maintenance worker, but this really is a two man show that pits the colossal acting talents of Depardieu against the less experienced Polanski who rises to the occasion like a determined phoenix and meets the challenge head on. Polanski’s inquisitive inspector is a combination of classic Hollywood detectives and eccentric characters found in French film noir but he manages to infuse his character with a very distinct personality that’s all his own. Watching Depardieu and Polanski engage in a genuine exchange of identities and ideas while bouncing Pascal Quignard’s rich text off of each other for almost 2 hours might get tiresome for some but I find it absolutely enthralling. Simply put, this is damn good acting.
Their performances are buoyed by Giuseppe Tornatore’s creative direction, which is surprisingly creative for a film shot almost exclusively in one room involving a lengthy conversation between two men. But he makes the most of the confined space and places his camera in unexpected places. The audience is taken inside toilets and typewriters, we’re given a bird’s eye view of events and asked to stare at lots of hands as they swap drinking cups, clean, plead for freedom and communicate trust with a friendly shake. There are close-ups, lots and lots of intimate close-ups, as well as plenty of POV shots that allow us inside Onoff’s head as the author attempts to piece together the complicated puzzle his life has suddenly become.
Composer Ennio Morricone also provides the film’s score that shrieks, creeps and crawls through the film building tension and creating suspense at every unexpected turn but the music maestro also knows when to let the silences take over. In these soundless spaces rain drops become drums, typing fingers form a choir and every creaking door seems to forecast danger. Morricone established himself by writing scores for popular spaghetti westerns in the ‘60s but during this fruitful period he also produced a number of important scores for Italian horror films and thrillers. His contribution to A PURE FORMALITY recalls the discordant experimental soundtracks he composed for giallo films like COLD EYES OF FEAR (1971) and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972). This is one of Morricone’s most effective and mature scores and when combined with Tornatore’s direction and some exceptional performances from Depardieu and Polanski, you have one of my favorite films from the 1990s. It’s also become one of my favorite films about the writing life and one of the few that successfully conveys (in my own experience) what it’s like being an insecure would-be wordsmith who spends a lot of time living in their own head.
As an aside, A PURE FORMALITY would make an interesting double feature with Polanksi’s own two-person thriller, DEATH AND A MAIDEN, which was produced the same year.
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