French cinema has perhaps received the most abuse from American critics, who seem to approach French cinema with a certain prejudice. According to these critics, French films are either "talky" or they're "pretentious," and always "indulgent." Sometimes the criticism is unfair and other times is rightfully earned as in filmmaker’s Jean-Jacques Beineix's The Moon In the Gutter (1983), a stylish but downbeat melodrama in which the adjectives “delirious” and “pretentious” sum up the movie correctly.
Beineix, first film, the 1981 hit Diva, was criticized for being just an empty exercise in style. But in Diva, the showy style was held together by a series of intriguing characters we cared for. Unfortunately, these intriguing characters are completely missing in The Moon of the Gutter. The story is lifted from pulp/noir writer David Goodis’ novel of the same title, which was originally set on the docksides of Philadelphia, transferred in Beneix's film to an undesignated Marseille, with all of the novelist's prototypical characters intact; Loretta (Nastassja Kinski), the angelic and carnally unattainable borgeoise, Bella (Victoria Abril) the triumphantly lusty poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks and Gerard Delmas (Gérard Depardieu) a dock worker who becomes an emotional wreck following the rape and murder of his sister . As the relationships with his girlfriend Bella, his drunken brother, and his depressive father begin to deteriorate, Gerard returns time and again to the scene of his sister's murder, ostensibly seeking her killer. Loretta enters the picture and becomes emotionally involved with Gerard, thus is formed the basis for a plot, such as it may be, yet style is assumed to be victor over substance.
The Moon in the Gutter is visually stunning. It was filmed in elaborate studio sets, mostly lighted by arcs and photofloods, with an elegiac music score by Gabriel Yared, in which the camera movement and choreographed gestures by the actors (call it Stand and Pose Method Acting) were sometimes used as a replacement for real character motivation or plot logic. The initial rape/murder is filmed and edited in a very Hitchcocknian style climaxing with the haunting image of the moon reflected in the wet gutter, so elegant that the moon looks like it belongs there. Even if the movie does not succeed on an emotional level the moonlit-and-bloodstained poetry of Beineix's images and mise-en-scène fills in for some of the logic gaps. At times, Beneix succeeds in creating a dream world where you can expect anything in the next moment, good or bad. But the overall effect of 2 plus hours of haunting images, pretentious dialogue and a poor excuse of a plot that even cheats at providing any form of resolution results in an overlong numbing experience as opposed to the intellectual entertainment intended.
Beineix style may be best described as Rococo-like. His linear narrative plays second fiddle to pop culture references, film myth icons and cliché stereotypes in an attempt to make the surreal dream like logic of the story more accessible to audiences. Beineix uses allegory, dark romanticism, surrealist landscapes, and clean aesthetics - each frame carefully planned, populated with symbols resulting in a virtual dialogue of images, both experimental while at the same time epic.
Unfortunately, ideas and images cannot alone make good drama. The best dramas have always come as a result from a well-defined emotional conflict in the storyline. Emotional conflict in drama results from well-drawn characters that audiences can identify with and relate to. In The Moon In the Gutter the characters are not part of anything resembling reality. The cast looks the part and dresses the part but they don’t speak the part. They don't act or remotely sound like humans. Beneix gives us the look and feel of drama without the emotions or humanity to make a connection. Instead of street slang , Beneix oppressed characters utter poetry and endless existentialist speeches that add up to a bunch of nothing. While watching The Moon In The Gutter I kept being reminded of Alan Resnais’ 1961 film L'Année dernière à Marienbad, a film that was also flooded by spectacular imagery and pointless and pretentious dialogue disguised as serious existentialist philosophy with lines such as “ Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other. Glass objects, objects still intact, empty glasses. A glass that falls, three, two, one, zero. Glass partition, letters drama.” The Moon In the Gutter has several soliloquies of existentialist woe that sound just like that.
The cast-particularly Kinski and Abril really rise above the film style and Beneix provides both actresses fantastic entrances: Kinski’s arrival to the café is hauntingly memorable and Abril’s scene on a swing is one of the most erotically charged sequences ever. Beneix has obviously based Depardieu’s character on photos of Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and in a way it works due to Depardieu’s own kind of animal magnetism. Also worth mentioning is Philadelphia born actress Bertice Reading as Lola who spoke no French and had to learn her dialog phonetically for this film. She earns a few well needed laughs with her intense physicality and delivery, funny wig, spectacular chocolate skin and piercing blue eyes, while torturing Gerard’s father. Unfortunately the heavy handed script doesn’t give much opportunity to these performers to truly shine.
The Moon in the Gutter may be indulgent and pretentious, but it's never banal or routine, it received uneven reviews on its initial release and won a French Cesar Award for its production design.
The film is only available in pan and scan with English subtitles on VHS format (125 minutes) and also
on a limited all Region DVD uncut 136 minutes, 80% widescreen in French with English subtitles at :