The gothic rainstorm that blusters for all but the last few minutes of A Pure Formality would nicely suit a movie about Transylvanian vampires, or monsters with zipper necks. But because the deluged land is France, the nearest thing to a monster is the dotty novelist Onoff (Gerard Depardieu, grown quite fleshy), whom the police have picked up roaming the countryside at night with neither a raincoat nor proper ID.
It offends Onoff that he's been taken into custody without being charged of an offense. He says so. And then some. In the old, leaky-roofed station house, he makes a number of scenes that culminate in his rejecting a bowl of warm milk by flinging it into the bespectacled face of the old man who offers it to him.
Moments later, he finds himself wrestled to the damp flagstone floor by officers who are fed up with his insolence. He is the sort of ugly detainee whose mysterious disappearance wouldn't be hard to imagine, but whatever rough-justice plan the duty officers might have in mind is eclipsed by the arrival of the inspector (Roman Polanski), a dapper man of hawklike alertness but no name.
Inspectors in tranquil rural districts don't have much to do, he chattily tells Onoff, and this inspector spends a lot of time reading. His favorite author is ... Onoff! When the sullen, bedraggled figure on the other side of the desk claims to be that great writer, the inspector can't suppress a chuckle.
"And I'm Leonardo da Vinci!" he says with a cheerful smile, by way of introducing himself and saying, Let's cut the crap, pal.
The movie, written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), sets up as a test of wills and storytelling guile between the two men. There has been a murder just that evening near Onoff's country house, the inspector reveals.
Almost nothing is known about the victim. Yet Onoff, despite his energetic protestations, is the obvious suspect, because of his nearness to the scene of the crime and his odd behavior in the rainy dark. His clothes even have blood on them, though he tries to conceal this fact by tearing out the stained patch and eating it. But by reciting passages from his books, he manages at least to convince the inspector that he really is Onoff.
The inspector may not be a literary genius, but he knows the business of interrogation. Through a mix of flattery and derision, direct and indirect jabs, shouting, cajoling, strategic retreats, abrupt thrusts, and the use of a trio of officers who end Onoff's laughing jag by beating his head bloody on a desk, the inspector squeezes out more and more of Onoff's story.
The trouble is that, as befits a professional storyteller, Onoff keeps varying his accounts. He either was or wasn't sleeping alone. ("Anyway we're always alone," he says with majestic dignity to the inspector, who has pointed out this inconsistency in his version of events.) He either drove his agent to the train station or watched her drive herself. His agent might be his second ex-wife. The victim might be his agent, or his editor. There isn't even a train station, as the inspector reveals late in the game. Never has been.
The clash between the inspector's dogged literalism and the writer's fanciful ramblings recalls the great courtroom scene in The Trials of Oscar Wilde, in which the cross-examining lawyer (James Mason) sees one after another of his straightforward questions to Wilde (Peter Finch) artfully batted back at him like whiffle balls in curvy flight.
Depardieu is unpleasantly effective as a towering, temperamental literary figure whose best work is years behind him. He could be delusional or a liar or a murderer, or all three. Certainly he is miserable, a writer "condemned to write," a man nearly eaten alive by his twin gifts: to remember, and to recast his memories into more compelling or palatable shapes.
"As the years go by," he recites to the inspector from one of his novels, "painful memories accumulate. Memories drown men. So as not to die of anguish or shame, men are eternally condemned to forget the more unpleasant moments of their lives."
A Pure Formality begins as a small-bore murder mystery, but it ends as a claustrophobic meditation on memory, and on writing as an act simultaneously of preservation and erasure and madness. Like so many European filmmakers, Tornatore is not afraid of stories that fold back on themselves, even if they finally implode into a black hole from which no light can escape. The European vice is pretension (while the American vice is stupidity). A Pure Formality is often full of itself, but even at its most abstruse, it casts a distinctive spell. And it is never stupid.
One of Tornatore's most effective editing techniques is to illustrate the changeable details of Onoff's story with a kaleidoscope of rapidly shifting images; it is like watching someone shuffle a stack of photographs that contains important clues. If only they didn't flash by so quickly. But they do. By the end of the movie, it isn't even clear that Onoff grasps the stories he's been telling.
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