Buffet Froid (1979)

D: Bertrand Blier
S: Gerard Depardieu, Bernard Blier

Entertaining black comedy with strong surrealist elements from director Bertrand Blier. An encounter between two lonely men on a bench in a Paris Metro station late one night proves the inciting incident for a chain of loosely interconnected vignettes on the subject of death and the city. One of them, Gerard Depardieu asks the other if he has ever thought of killing someone as a completely random, irrational act without malice or morality. The other is naturally disconcerted, but not a little intrigued. As the film goes on, many deaths ensue (whose must remain a discovery for the viewer) as Depardieu encounters a variety of other strange and unusual individuals with connections to the netherworld of death and alienation. One is Jean Carmet, a quiet, unassuming murderer given to bouts of violent misogyny and anti-urban hysteria. Another is Bernard Blier (the director's father), as an unflappable chief of police who shares an eerily empty high-rise apartment block with Depardieu and his wife.

Like many European films of its age, Buffet Froid is not interested in conventional narrative. Stylistically, the film is very straightforward. The photography is crisp and simple, the settings deliberately sparse (its evocation of urban space as a soulless concrete ghost-town is important for the tone, and provides an intentionally disconcerting contrast with the rural scenes with which the film concludes), and much of it feels quite theatrical in terms of the basic blocking of dialogue scenes. Yet it is definitely surrealist in overall aesthetic vision. It refuses a literal interpretation. Blier makes a virtue of the fact that its world is strangely empty and half-realised, and of the fact that the narrative is full of lapses and playful juxtapositions which lead the viewer down many false trails and disengage them from conventional storytelling. The dialogue is obscure, elliptical, and literate (the script won a César), but focused on certain key themes. With strong echoes of the later work of the late, great Luis Buñuel, the film is a self-conscious moral satire, targeting suburban bourgeois society with the standard weaponry provided by images and discussions of sex and death. Though less pronounced in its use of the former, the film does employ several female characters who act as signifiers of male sexual anxieties. The three central characters have varying reactions and attitudes to women (mostly hostile), the responses to which are usually some form of violence (and usually death). This is standard surrealist stuff, and Blier offers no new wrinkles, though he has fun with what he has to work with.

The three leads work well together. The differing acting styles provides another level of contrast within the movie, particularly notable in Carmet's character, who veers from nervous wreck to screaming maniac even within individual scenes. The script provides the trio with plenty of opportunity to play off one another, confounding audience expectation by adopting roles within roles and acting in unexpected ways which will doubtlessly frustrate and annoy fans of more classical structures. It is very much of the European art house school of film making, with long stretches of meaningful and irrelevant dialogue in which characters create and reinvent themselves as they ruminate on some theoretical or philosophical point, eventually moving on not so much because the plot demands it, but because the analysis has moved into another phase. Depardieu provides the film with a centre, and he is believably quietly unhinged throughout. Blier père is also very effective and has some great moments of his own along the way.

Overall, the film lacks the political anger of a Godard, the force of a Pasolini, the precision of an Antonioni, or the wit of a Buñuel, but it contains elements of all of them. Its sparseness calls to mind Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai or Bresson's A Man Escaped and its urban imagery recalls certain recent American films such as The Parallax View and All the President's Men, but it is considerably more playful than any of them. It is not, finally (obviously) very unique, but it is a distinctive film with a strong identity and clarity of purpose. It is also very enjoyable if you can appreciate its sense of humour and are not too disturbed by surrealist movies in general. It is certainly not for everyone, but well worth a look if you're in the mood for something offbeat and not too demanding.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.