Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A straight political-historical drama that mostly breaks away from its director's penchant for
splintered cinematic time experiments, Stavisky is a lavish, beautifully-executed film
that does what few French films have attempted - to make a compelling tale out of the corruption
in France in the 1930s. The film classics most of us know deal with Stavisky-like schemers in
abstract terms, such as Fritz Lang's
Dr Mabuse films. This show focuses
on an historically real high-stakes swindler and his outlandish schemes, which led to a scandal
that helped cripple the French Government, and in so doing aggravated conditions that led to WW2.
Somewhat hard to follow at first, this is a story for grownups, as topical as the financial
scandals which still make our headlines.
In France of 1933, Serge Alexandre (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a grand empresario and
financier who runs a glamorous theater and lives at the Claridge, and is promoting a grandiose
multinational bank. He loses fortunes at casinos and can boast a beautiful wife, Arlette (Anny Duyperey)
and a loyal friend, The Baron Jean Raoul (Charles Boyer).
But Alexandre's flamboyant lifestyle barely masks a mountain of duplicity that reaches into every
corner of French life between the wars. By a constant infusion of bribes to policemen and
officials in the liberal government, Serge manages to suppress the fact that he is indeed the notorious
Stavisky, a con-man and gangster who's served time in prison. His grandiose finances are held
afloat by false loan vouchers, and even his closest associates seem to stay in his hire only to see
how long he can keep up the deception. Those policemen and government agents who could
neutralize Serge's ruinous schemes, wait for the moment when the expected scandal will work
for their political purpose: to put a conservative government in power.
Stavisky is about the lavish lifestyle of a rogue, the kind of faux-aristocratic adventurer
whose champagne-and-bribes scheming could bring down a government back in the relatively restrained
corruption of 1933 France. We see the handsome and charismatic charmer stave off attacks by the
press with bribes, a practice he calls 'watering the plants.' His own retainers, Borelli (Francois
Périer) and Doctor Mézy (Michael Lonsdale) are convinced he's a megalomaniac with
dual personalities. The high-roller Alexandre cannot stand to be confronted with the facts of his
previous identity, the criminal Stavisky. Unfortunately, even though his personal Empire has a
beautiful facade, its economic base is just as crooked.
Director Resnais and writer Semprún infuse their story with major subplots and minor details
that make you want to know more about the period. France in the 30s was apparently a mess of
governmental scandals and private profiteering in a hopelessly splintered political environment. The
state was so concerned about consolidating power and keeping out communists, it
was unable to acknowledge the threat of fascism, let alone respond in a timely manner when war
broke out. Stavisky/Alexandre's story is interwoven with all of this: a major subplot concerns the
exiled Leon Trotsky seeking asylum in France, dealing with the same government agents that are on
Alexandre's case. Comparing the two men at first seems arbitrary, but as the show goes on, parallels
do come to light. Both men are Russians and both are national 'problems' that cause the government
to reveal its corruption and incompetence. Ironically, Trotsky's agitation from outside the system
is considered the bigger threat, when it is Serge's finance-oriented bribery that compromises and
corrupts officials in all levels of French society.
The screenplay gives Serge every benefit of the doubt. Unlike the stuffy status-quo plodders
around him, aristocrats and bureaucrats alike, he's a fresh breeze of innovation, with his banking
plans and his openness to new ideas, such as the invention brought to him by a young supplicant (Gerard
Depardieu, in an early bit part). Serge's rule-bending seems benign until he reveals his essential
selfishness. He really aspires to be a Napoleon-like 'great man', greater than the hidalgo
fallen nobility with whom he associates. His best friend is the wastrel scion of an aristocratic family, and the deal that he hopes
will pull him out of his financial hole is with a Fascist Spaniard, Juan Montalvo de Montalbán
(Roberto Bisacco). Through him, Alexandre indirectly helps start the Spanish Civil War, by offering
his banking connections to the conservatives in Spain who want to rebel against the Republic.
The film also presents Alexandre's romantic life as a very complicated puzzle. In a devoted but also
very liberated marriage to the dazzling Arlette, Alexandre openly beds other women, as if purposely
shaking off bourgeois monogamy. Arlette's flirtation with Montalban helps Serge further his scheme
to launder Spanish money for Italian arms. French anti-Semitism is nicely introduced through the
character of Erna Wolfgang (Silvia Badescu), an actress. She's yet another exile, a Jew from Germany,
who lightly intereacts with an interested Serge, while also becoming a German translator for Trotsky.
There's a nice scene where Charles Boyer recognizes her on a bicycle in the country and goes over to
perhaps ask her to join their aristocratic country drive. We don't hear what they say, and are
instead given the unhappy faces of Arlette and Juan back in the car: The Baron doesn't understand
how utterly incompatible Serge's upscale cronies are with Trotsky's young idealists.
Very smoothly directed, Alain Resnais' film makes effective use of his cinematic time-twisting
techniques. Some confusing closeups of characters addressing the camera, are eventually revealed to
be testimony given at a later investigation. Intricate flash-forwards are introduced as the story
nears its ending. Instead of blunting the impact of the finale (as in a genre picture like The
Anderson Tapes), they peg the ideas behind Stavisky as the issue at stake, instead of the
plain facts of his downfall. Resnais is still the only filmmaker I know who uses disruptive
flash-forwards in a satisfactory manner. Just the same, I'm very glad I saw this on DVD - the
story is so complex that I found myself stopping and replaying dialogue so as to get a better
grasp on some of the faster subtitles. Also, Resnais deliberately confuses us at some points.
He establishes that Serge in 1926 wears a moustache, while Serge in 1933 does not. One scene
shows Belmondo in a moustache, so we figure it's 1926 - until he pulls it off: it's a disguise
to deceive a sucker in one of his cons.
Stavisky convinces me that Jean-Paul Belmondo is a great actor, as his portrayal has little
in common with the physical rogues he plays in his action films. Charles Boyer is especially
good, considering all of the pointless cameo roles he played in his later years. Anny Duperey is
stunning as Serge's trophy wife, living an unending pageant of luxury, and Roberto Bisacco is properly
creepy as the Fascist. Claude Rich, from Resnais' J'Taime, J'Taime, and Michael Lonsdale
(Day of the Jackal, Moonraker) have fine turns as Stavisky's foe and friend.
Stavisky's complexity encourages some healthy subversive thought. Our present Enron scandal,
a national debacle with foundation-rattling financial consequences,
is fading from public interest, thanks to collusion and a corporate-controlled media that chooses
to ignore a swindle 1000 times greater than Serge Alexander's little con-game back in Paris of
1933. Funny how an administration will topple because of an irrelevant sex scandal, but when a
corporation with heavy executive ties steals BILLIONS, nobody ever suggests that the culprits
simply give the money back. Stavisky is about the nature of corruption in a 'free'
government, where high finance deals between elected officials and criminal financiers is
privileged information, but a President's sex life is open season.
Image Entertainment is to be commended for making such a rarified title available. Their DVD of
Stavisky is handsomely transferred, and the soundtrack presents Stephen Sondheim's lyrical
score in the best possible light. I fear that only the minority already indoctrinated into the interesting films of Alain
Resnais will even be aware of the DVD of Stavisky, as the packaging isn't very attractive and there
are no extras at all. Much attention can't have been expended in the marketing of a disc that
mis-spells a famous director's name on its front cover. Luckily, there's the web, where Savant
spent an hour reading about Resnais' later filmography to prep this simple review. Stavisky
is recommended for
movie fans who can appreciate its complicated historical basis, and its dense political ideas.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson