Moon in the Gutter (1983) is one of those wobbly curio's in a directors biography. For Jean-Jacques Beineix, the film is sandwiched between his well received debut Diva (1981) and what is regarded as his masterpiece Betty Blue (1986). It is fair to call The Moon in the Gutter a sophomore slump because it was an expensive project from a fresh, promising director that met a lukewarm to absolutely cold reaction, the kind of overly ambitious work that caused critics to huff and put the studio behind it in the red.
Dockworker Gerard (Gérard Depardieu) is haunted by the death of his sister, who was raped and immediately committed suicide. He pays nightly visits to the blood-stained alleyway where she was found and keeps his ears out for clues into who could have caused her death. His father and brother have dealt with the death by descending into drunken-sullenness and drunken-craziness, respectively. Gerard finds himself distracted from his vengeance when he is torn between two women and two worlds, that of longtime girlfriend and local prostitute Bella (Victoria Abril) and Loretta (Nastassja Kinski) the near celestial-beautiful sister of a slumming rich guy who journeys into dive bars in order to drink himself to death.
Moon in the Guter is loosely based on a novel by pulp mystery writer David Goodis, who also provided the source material for Dark Passage and Shoot the Piano Player. Thing is, the film isn't really a mystery. I would like to call it a drama, but the film is so concerned with artifice, it is hard to say anything truly dramatic happens. Beineix is concerned solely with style- the idea of this kind of character, the look of this kind of setting, the motions of a tale where a man is divided between his slummy birthplace and a erudite dream life. Realism wasn't a concern, he wants you to feel his hand.
This is a case where you have a bunch of great actors basically given one note vessels to play. The fact that Depardieu's sister was raped and committed suicide is there as much as a plot point as it a character affectation. He's the hulking lower class guy looking for a way out haunted by a family tragedy, no shades beyond that. Kinski is the dream, the pampered girl in the ivory tower who swoops down into his cruddy life and sparkles. Abril is a firecracker, the kind of bipolar woman who will express her love by flinging her naked body at you one second and threatening to cut you with a bottle the next. It is the kind of cartoonish characters one might find in an Almodovar or Fellini film, however there just isn't the same spark- except for maybe Abril- and the performances come across as flat instead of playful.
Beineix puts all of his energy into the style and visually the film is a stunner. If only he put as much work into the story and characters. Moon in the Gutter plays so broad, it is almost like a parody of a style over substance, ennui-ridden art film. Subtlety is completely thrown out the window. For instance, it isn't enough that Kinski rolls up in Depardieu's sleazy neighborhood looking naturally as beautiful as she is, instead she is immaculately lit and dressed, windswept, romantic score singing over it all, in a polished sporty convertible, and she parks under a gigantic billboard travel ad of a sunny beach with the words TRY ANOTHER WORLD plastered on it. It's the kind of film where if a character asks another a simple question like, "How are you?" the response will be a long soliloquy that flatly paints a maudlin tapestry of their feelings and backstory. Furthermore, if matters weren't plain enough and two plus hours wasn't sufficient time to clue viewers into everyone's motivations, a nameless narrator pops in a couple of time to further tell us exactly how everyone feels.
It all looks so good. The sets are amazing. The compositions are impressive. There are few memorable sequences. But, Beineix makes a few fatal mistakes in his grab bag of arthouse meets Tennessee Williams meets film noir spectacle. If the point of the film was that you cannot forget your roots, that there is some kind of beauty in the lower class existence, then he probably shouldn't have painted all of the characters as such a rabble of crazed grotesques. The narrative doesn't really go anywhere other than the obvious, and it takes forever to get there. He got lost in the style and forgot the soul.
The DVD: Cinema Libre
Moon in the Gutter is presented in an appropriately moody Anamorphic Widescreen. I'd venture to say a good 75% of the film is filmed within the studio, basically all the exteriors and interiors of Gerard's gritty world. When the film does venture outside these confines, like the shipyards, it almost looks like a different film, one that Beineix could not manipulate as easily but still maintains that trashy grit and neon-soaked veneer. A very tight print, nary a sign of grain or dirt present. Really the only dating is the character costumes, otherwise the film looks like it could have come out yesterday. Colors are strong. One of the trickier aspects, the film often being so dark, is handled well with some deep, bible black contrast levels.
The audio has a basic 2.0 Stereo track, French with default English subtitles. It's been while since I've seen default, non-removable subtitles. If you speak French, tough, you still have to deal with the subs. Decent audio, basic stuff. The score is really loud, to a point that with a different film, one that wasn't playing so melodramatically BIG, I'd think there was a mixing problem.
A duo of extras include a Photo Gallery and an Interview with director/writer Jean-Jacques Beineix (16:45). Excellent, breezy interview. Beineix is very forthcoming and obviously passionate.
Now, if you want to watch a film purely for some great photography and sets, I'd recommend Moon in the Gutter, but at over two and a half, know where its going hours, it's a dramatic slog. Beineix claims, and he discusses this on the discs interview, that his original cut had two more additional hours of footage that is forever lost. That's certainly more than enough time to account for the heart or coherence being removed from a film, but honestly I never got the feeling while watching the it that something was missing. Instead, I just felt that beyond those wonderful sets and camera setups there wasn't anything there. We'll never know. Rent it.