Doodad Kind of Town

Desperate Times, Desparate Measures: Looking at "Monsieur Verdoux" and "Frozen River"
February 28, 2009, 1:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized
“These are desperate times…. and desperate measures must be taken.” – from “Sweeney Todd”

Last weekend, I watched two films that, at first glance, would seem to be wildly dissimilar: one a deliciously dark comedy from 1947 and one a low-budget indie drama from 2008.

But the protagonists of “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Frozen River” actually have much in common. Both are faced with sudden, severe financial hardship and both resort to criminal activity in order to keep their families afloat. And, in both cases, it’s their constantly improvised ability to keep one short step ahead of both the bill collectors and the police that keep us riveted to the screen. That’s a talent we may be seeing more and more people display in real life as the unemployment rates spike and stock prices plummet. In short, these films were illuminating -if not instructive -about the choices people are forced to make when there simply isn’t enough money to get by.

Ironically, it’s the film with the lighter, comic tone that ultimately goes to the darkest places. Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in “Monsieur Verdoux,”and it showcases both his gift for deft (and daft) physical comedy and his penchant for shameless sentimentality. Yet in the end, it wallops you with an unexpected cold blast of cynicism combined with high-handed moral rectitude.

Chaplin’s Verdoux is a dapper, charming little Frenchmen who, after losing his bank clerk job of 30 years, supports himself in style by marrying -and murdering -wealthy widows. It’s all played for laughs, with the actual murders taking place offscreen and referenced with offhanded delicacy. (Early on, as Verdoux putters in the garden, a neighbor remarks “I don’t know what he’s burning in that incinerator. I haven’t been able to hang my laundry out for two days.” And that’s as much hint as we get of what happened to Wife #1.)

Well, actually she’s not Verdoux’s first wife. While he’s out marrying all these well-connected society dames, his real wife -a beautiful, much younger (this is Chaplin, after all), wheelchair-bound spouse is at home in a sweet little country cottage, along with their angelic-looking son.

Chaplin obviously stacks the deck here. The women he marries and kills are ill-tempered and unattractive; in a prologue, he refers to them as “dumb animals.” (And the one who escapes every murder attempt unscathed, to Verdoux’s mounting comic frustration, is broadly vulgar and annoying.) We’re obviously meant to understand that these women are frivolous and useless, but we aren’t given much specific evidence of that. Meanwhile, both Verdoux’s wife and a homeless woman to whom he gives a meal and a handout are, by contrast, young, gorgeous and exaggeratedly noble.

And yet, there are genuine and unsettling depths to “Monsieur Verdoux.” This was the first film in which Chaplin did not play the Little Tramp, and his performance is a stunning departure from his previous work. Verdoux, while impeccably mannered and graceful, harbors a deep and bitter cynicism and a biting intelligence.

The film’s devastating finale took me by surprise, and not in a good way. Verdoux is caught and sentenced to the guillotine. And he speaks to the court with a posture and intensity that is highly suggestive of the concluding scene in “The Great Dictator” when, disguised as Fascist leader Adenoid Hinkle, Chaplin addressed a rally with an impassioned plea for love and tolerance. But in “Monsieur Verdoux,” the final message is far darker, and in a nutshell, it goes like this: Yeah, I’m a murderer, but governments build bombs and wage wars that kill innocent people all the time, so I’m no worse than they are. And it closes with this ominous warning: “I shall see you all soon. Very soon.”

There’s a large measure of uncomfortable truth in Verdoux’s final words, but it’s tempered with a generous dash of bullshit as far as I’m concerned. And it goes back to that emotional deck-stacking. Chaplin is careful to mention in his final speech that innocent women and little children are being killed by the bombs of war, but he starts the film by referring to Verdoux’s victims as “dumb animals.” Which is another way of saying “They had it coming,” and that, to me, is an indefensible stance. And just who is that warning about “seeing you all very soon”directed to anyway? Verdoux is ostensibly speaking to a French court and a jury of his peers, not a roomful of Nazis. Is he saying we’re all murderers? Chaplin’s muddled morality here almost spoiled the movie for me.

On an entirely different note:

“Frozen River,” the impressive debut of director/screenwriter Courtney Hunt, succeeds on two levels. It’s not only the kind of straight-ahead suspense film that grabs you and glues you to your seat, it’s also an authentic and unsentimental portrayal of a life lived on the poverty margin.

When we first see Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) she’s in her bathrobe, anxiously sucking on a cigarette and shedding a few quiet tears. It’s the first and last minute of self-pity we’ll see her indulge in.

Moments later, she’s out the front door of her trailer. A delivery man has arrived with the new double-wide she’s ordered, but she doesn’t have the money to pay him off; her husband has taken off for the casino with the last of their cash, leaving her and their two sons high and dry in a tiny, rapidly deteriorating single-wide trailer with only popcorn and Tang in the pantry.

Ray’s husband never reappears, but in her quest to find him, she crosses paths with a young Native American woman (Misty Upham) who introduces her to a new way to make money: smuggling illegal immigrants though a Mohawk reservation on the shared border of New York and Quebec by driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

The film proceeds almost like a thriller from this point,with lots of edge-of-your-seat, will-she-or-won’t-she moments, but they’re as much to do with Ray and her family’s hand-to-mouth existence as with the act of smuggling itself. Questions like “Will Ray come up with $255 in time to prevent the repo guys from taking the TV? Will she finish her smuggling run on Christmas Eve in time to hit KMart for ‘something to put under the tree?” loom large, as does the film’s most urgent concern: Will she get the double-wide trailer, with its three bedrooms and much longed-for jacuzzi tub, after all?

Leo’s performance is masterly and well-deserving of the Oscar nomination she received. Her Ray Eddy is undoubtedly strong, but never heroic. You see her constantly figuring out each next step in her daily struggle for survival, and she convincingly seems to be making it all up as she goes along. She bickers with her teenage son in realistically weary tones, she lies to the cop who pulls her over during a smuggling run without any unduly histrionic nervousness. And when she makes a generous sacrifice for her friend in the end, she brushes past any suggestion of nobility and goes straight to the hard-headed practicality of her choice.

Hunt presents the hardscrabble details of Ray’s life without sentimentalizing or sensationalizing them in any way. Some almost go by you entirely. Like Ray telling her son to “Put up the tree while I’m at work”; up till that moment, there’s been no indication that Christmas is coming. Or the fact that on a very cold day when a heavy snowfall is predicted, not one major character has a warm-enough coat or even a pair of gloves. Or the fleeting shot of unopened, scented bath products on Ray’s bathroom shelf – only later did I realize they’d been purchased in anticipation of the move into the double-wide with its spacious jacuzzi tub.

I don’t know that it was Hunt’s intention, but after watching “Frozen River,” I sat for a long time thinking about all the people who might be just inches away from falling into a desperate situation like Ray Eddy’s, about how any one of us – me included -could wind up in similar straits through a series of bad luck. What would we do and how would we treat each other? The poorest characters in “Frozen River” tend to take care of each other a little bit, but those outside the circle of poverty – the repo guys, the trailer merchants, the bingo parlor lady, Ray’s boss at the Dollar Store- are a pretty cold and unforgiving lot. I hope we all may be a little more generous with people in the days and months to come.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great post, Pat. I’m actually in the middle of a draft of something similar about the bleakness of movies last year. I haven’t seen Monsieur Verdoux but I love that you’ve made a connection between them. That’s what blogs are for!

Comment by Daniel Getahun

Daniel -Thanks. I still remember your post on “Frozen River,” which was what really got me interested in seeing it – even though I didn’t get to it for awhile.You should definitely see “Monsieur Verdoux” – it’s a great films up until that ridiculous, sanctimonious finale.

Comment by Pat

You all apparently don't get the movie at all if you're going to put down the ending. The ending is a wonderful conclusion to the amazing movie Charlie made. It wraps everything up the way it was meant to be.

Comment by Amanda

fAmanda -I'm not so sure about that. I think you're just pissed that I don't like the movie as much as you did.And please understand, I think this a very good movie – very well written and acted, and very funny for most of its running time. But I stand by my gut reaction to the ending. In my book, Chaplin was a great filmmaker, but his politics were a little half-baked.

Comment by Pat

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