He is a quiet man, Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc). A balding, middle aged fellow, a misanthrope and a recluse, he doesn’t socialize much. None of the neighbours talk to him either; conversations die down and they start whispering as he passes by. A tailor by profession, Hire is particular about his appearance. He keeps some pet white rats at home. When one of the pet rats dies, he carefully wraps it in a piece of cloth and gives it a respectful water burial! He seems to be a good, honest man, but no one really knows much about him. Perhaps they don’t want to know. But they don’t miss a chance to sneak a curious peek at him like he is some alien being. When Hire realizes this, he promptly snaps back “Want a photograph?” Some neighbourhood kids make fun of him by throwing flour on him or making fun of him. He just brushes all of this off and holds no grudge against anyone. He just isn’t bothered; wants to be left alone, as always.
It is no surprise then, that when one young woman is found murdered in the vicinity, he automatically becomes the prime suspect. Blame it on the neighbourhood! And more so, because a taxi driver saw a figure somewhat matching Monsieur Hire’s description run towards the same block where Monsieur Hire resides. The police detective starts pursuing his suspect; there’s no evidence yet that can implicate Hire, but the detective is in hot pursuit.
Monsieur Hire seems unperturbed, though. There is nothing that can possibly connect him. He has just become an easy target because he is “not sociable; and people don’t like that”. So Hire goes about his daily, mundane, boring routine; amongst his pastimes and necessities is a visit to the bowling alley, he is a champion at the game and is well admired by onlookers who give him a round of applause for he never misses scoring a perfect strike, even when blindfolded. He acknowledges their adulation with a forced smile. He also spends time at a brothel once in a while to satisfy his sexual needs but seems to be getting increasingly weary of it.
And then there’s Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), his object of affection who stays in the neighbouring apartment complex. He spends most of his time standing in his window, simply observing Alice through her open window directly in front of his. She has never noticed; has in fact, always thought that Hire’s apartment was empty and therefore never felt the need to put up drapes! Hire observes Alice’s every move, as she dresses, undresses, eats, sleeps, and once in a while makes out with her no good fiancé Emile (Luc Thuillier). Hire also is a lover of music and plugs in the same record on his player, the soulful Quatuor en Sol Mineur Op. 25 de Brahms, every time he stands to watch Alice. Hire just wants to watch. He is in love, but he knows there isn’t much he can do about it. He just watches. It becomes apparent that Emile doesn’t seem to be serious about marrying Alice. Alice knows this, but she loves him. Everything changes one day when Alice finally gets a good look at the ghostly face that has been staring at her all this time....
Director Patrice Leconte’s effortless storytelling does a laudable job of building Hire’s character for the viewers in a considerably short time. Right from the first frame, as the body of the young woman is discovered, Leconte’s 1989 film “Monsieur Hire” has the power to grip! Sure, there is a murder. But solving the murder is least of film’s concerns. Who did the killing is secondary. The murder acts as a catalyst and alters the status quo. How this killing decides the fate of our two central characters; that forms the crux of this heartwrenching story.
In its modest running time of about 1 hour 17 minutes or so, there is not one wasted moment and we can instantly connect to the two lead characters, Hire and Alice. These characters are both very human. They have their secrets, they have their ambitions, they have their motivations and in the end they have their secret desires! And therefore, not everything is out in the open; not just as yet. There is a lot going on in these characters’ minds which we aren’t given a peek at. The voyeur in us doesn’t have the kind of luck Monsieur Hire has, as he gets to see Alice’s life like a Live reality show! But Leconte has a purpose. For deep within the layers of this deeply moving psychological drama lies the darkest of human traits; motivations that drive a person to take the step they take, that might shatter all beliefs, all the hope one has instilled in humanity. There are important lessons to be learnt. Oft-stated idioms “Don’t judge a book by its cover” are reinforced. Appearances are indeed deceiving. Your curmudgeonly, neglected next door neighbor could perhaps be an angel in disguise! But then there is the bigger question of trust and inherent cynicism that we social beings have to live with. How much can we know at face value? In the end, we are only human!
Michel Blanc instantly makes an impression; his pale, round face, although deadpan most of the times, speaks volumes at its most vulnerable. Sandrine Bonnaire does justice to the kind of unreserved character she is playing.
There is a strong chance that no matter how surrounded you are by people, you will end up feeling all alone when you reach the film’s shattering climax. “Monsiure Hire” is a melancholic character study of a lonesome man who falls in love. But at what price?