"Those walls would not be sufficient to carve out the names of the murderers who supposedly 'discovered' their victims' bodies."
A pure formality turns into an ugly and gruelling interrogation session in French filmmaker Claude Miller's surprisingly overlooked adaptation of John Wainwright's novel, "Brainwash". It is a wonder how a film that boasts of taut writing, crackling dialog, class-A acting performances, combined with even some star power, got relegated to obscurity.
"Garde à Vue" (1981), aka "The Grilling", aka "The Inquisitor" takes place on one stormy New Year's eve. Two little girls have been raped and murdered over a period of a few days. A rich lawyer, Martinaud (Michel Serault) all decked up, presumably for a New Year's bash is called in by police detective Gallien (Lino Ventura) to go over his statement regarding his discovery of one of the bodies. The first person to have seen the body, Martinaud quickly finds himself turning into a suspect as Gallien begins to find inconsistencies and holes in his statement. Guilty or not? Detective Gallien attempts to find out; either by getting a confession or an alibi, neither of which comes his way in a convincing manner, and yet, circumstantial evidence seems to hint at Martinaud's involvement.
Miller sets the stage for a tense, moody police procedural with the minimalism of but three primary players, a closed room claustrophobic setting, and an intriguing premise that immediately locks us in. With superb, calculated camerawork full of extreme closeups and timely zoom-ins, Miller invites the audiences to read his characters' faces and demands their participation in forming their own verdict. Not only is the film an exciting mystery to behold, it is a mighty fine character study as well.
Martinaud is the aptly smug rich guy with, with an air of superiority that he displays in his often belittling ways. He wants all the rigmarole to be over with and openly expresses his disappointments about the workings of the law enforcers, hinting at harassment being a given when it comes to meeting with a policeman. He goes so far as to quote someone about why any civilian is averse to getting involved with the police and criticizes their mechanics in which finding a culprit and getting a confession takes priority over getting to the bottom of the truth when it comes to pressure from the higher ups. Through Martinaud's accusations, Miller effectively examines the apprehensions of the common man regarding the law subsequently creating a wall between a civilian and a civil servant.
On the flipside, it is interesting how his vulnerable side threatens to crush his pride when he feels cornered following some personal questions about his marriage, and owing to the gaps in his statement. There is an inkling of a sense of shame when it comes to admitting certain things, hinted at by an obviously fluctuating degree of eye contact.
Gallien is a man who believes in facts and evidence, and yet somewhere deep within he believes that Martinaud is guilty. Although he can't put his finger on it, he exhibits in bits his resentment towards Martinaud, perhaps a product of his condescending attitude, stemming from his high class social background. Or perhaps it is Martinaud's body language that doesn't seem to go well with the seriousness of the crime in question. The exchange between these two men is a highlight of the film. An exciting verbal cat and mouse game ensues, comprising of the wittiest of exchanges, especially when an alert Gallien catches Martinaud's slightest goof and when Martinaud mocks the police and their ways and even catches tiny problems in Gallien's arguments, thereby turning the tables.
Belmont (Guy Marchand), the subordinate cop is primarily there merely to assist Gallien and type out to the interrogation proceedings. While being an upright cop, he can't wait to see Gallien nail Martinaud, more so because of the latter's superiority complex. A class conflict unwittingly rears its head with the ghastliness of the crime fueling the animosity, and it doesn't take too long for Belmont to get personal about the whole thing, resulting in a violent, explosive display of his feelings. It doesn't help matters that Martinaud had already accused Gallien of trying to gain mileage from a possible scandal that may result from getting a man of his social stature to confess.
Miller's film brings to mind Sidney Lumet's 1957 masterpiece "12 Angry Men" in many ways. The extreme weather outdoors is juxtaposed against extreme emotional outbursts indoors. The setting is a small police station interrogation room. A heinous crime is being discussed, and there is at least one person griping about how he is trapped inside when he should actually be outside welcoming the new year.
Individual backgrounds, personal perceptions and beliefs begin to overshadow the need to give weight to the facts, especially when Martinaud's beautiful wife Chantal (Romy Schneider) pays a surprise visit to the station with some vital information about her husband. Chantal is an enigmatic personality on her own, the sad-eyed lonely wife of the business class, who appears to have locked away years of dark secrets and continued to live in an unhappy marriage.
Ultimately, although the entire drama ends on a note that is not a very satisfying one, "Garde à Vue" (1981) is a considerably solid piece of cinema that despite its minimalist exterior, packs in some rich themes that are certain to make the viewers question their own perceptions about the world they live in.