Max et les Ferrailleurs is a noir in colour — bright Eastmancolour in the DVD transfer I saw — fresh as paint, and as brightly coloured as a children’s playground. But it’s a shadowy world that is depicted; one of cops and robbers, bars and cafés, precincts and prostitutes. And if each of the characters that people this world has their reasons for behaving as they do, none of them is saintly and none of their motives are pure.
The film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli), a mono-manically obsessive cop intent on bringing a bunch of two-bit crooks to justice through the manipulations of the psychically bruised but physically peachy Lily (Romy Schneider), the girlfriend of one of the ferrailleurs, the not too bright but not too bad Abel (Bernard Fresson).
As with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet and Jean-Loup Dabadie — and another tightly structured, carefully composed and subtly told tale of morally complex people. But Max et les ferrailleurs is a darker film then either although it’s a darkness that is composed by a layering of subtle shadings. First of all, the crooks aren’t really that bad. They’re just a bunch of guys who prefer to spend all day shooting the shit in a junkyard to working. They dream of a score but are really too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it — until Max sets up his trap for them, a score so easy that they can’t help but fall into it. So who’s the bad guy, the entrapper or the entrapped?
It is no credit to Max that he sets his trap through Lily. We’re told she’s German, born in Bonn, who began street-walking in Munich as a teenager. She’s had a hard life; been pushed into drink and drugs from pillar to post throughout Germany by abusive pimps — to the point where she’s survived a suicide attempt. She’s finally free of all that and is, as Inspector Rosinsky (François Périer) tells Max, if not someone, at least something. She’s in a pleasant, not too involved relationship with the easy-going and rather nice Abel and she’s at home in Nanterre.
It turns out that Max knows the amiable Abel from when they did they did their military service together. Abel doesn’t ask Lily for money and he doesn’t mind that she turns tricks for a living. Max isn’t a bad person, or at least he doesn’t begin that way, but he’s effectively entrapping his friend by paying for the services of his woman. Moreover, Abel is the friendly and nice one. The worse that can be said of Abel is that he’s not ambitious and doesn’t quite stick to the letter of the law. But that is at least as true of Max.
In order to entrap the gang, Max hires Lily. He pays her a lot, too much for someone who pretends he only wants to talk. In fact, it’s through these talks that he begins spinning his web. But he also can’t help looking at her, taking endless photographs and papering the walls of his rented flat with them. She begins to see him as something more than a trick too. They develop feelings for each other as they talk, feelings that they sense but can’t quite admit to; after all, there’s money involved. The camera loves Romy Schneider. Max loves looking at Romy/Lily through the camera. We love what we see, even what he sees, though his looking overlaps into a voyeurism that we share, but tinged with a perversity that begins to make us a little uncomfortable. We love Romy Schneider. Lily’s done nothing bad to Max. Yet, she senses an easy score and is not above setting up a robbery of the bank Max pretends to run.
Max et les ferrailleurs is shot in fluid long-takes. It doesn’t feel as the kind of cinema that blows you away by its use of the medium – it’s certainly not self-consciously ‘cinematic- — until you go over how the story is told in your mind, and think of how subtly, how beautifully, how classically, how economically and how powerfully what is shown and how it is shown affects how you understand and what you feel.
I’ll linger on two scenes here as brief examples. The first (see above) is our introduction of Lily. In a subtle, narrationally motivated way, Sautet gives Romy Schneider a fabulous star entrance. We see her through Max. In fact his face goes in and out of focus as we see what he sees. An iris, meant to stand in for the long end of the telescope, provides a space in which Romy and Abel then appear. We know she’s a prostitute partly because of how she’s smoking and walking and mostly because of what she’s wearing: a ribbon around her neck tied into a jauntily-angled bow (Romy’s signature look for this film, she will wear such a ribbon in different colours in most scenes with Max), high-heeled ankle-strapped shoes, and a shiny black vinyl raincoat that might be a nod to Joan Bennet’s iconic streetwalker look as Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945).
Soon Max’s attention focuses strictly on Lily. His telescope, which began following first the gang and then the couple starts following her movements rather than Abel’s. In fact, his first question to Inspector Ronsinsky is a follow-up for context and background to the interest first aroused scopically. After the Inspector gives Max and us this background plot (the unenviable but inevitable task of ‘supporting players’ in the type of film where stars are, protagonists do, and the rest of the characters tell), we return to look at Lily, and though the images we see at first illustrate what the voice is telling us, that Nanterre has become her home, they also exceed that telling. We see that she’s beautiful, we see that she’s happy, we see that she’s part of a community, her window looks out on a world that calls to her and that she’s a part of; and she’s got Abel, nice Abel, a man who clearly is fulfilling her sexually and supporting her emotionally, in the background, behind her, and to her delight. This is the pleasant and pleasantly functional, if maybe not rapturously joyful, world that Max, with his quest for ‘justice’, will destroy.
The other moment I’d like to linger on is the moment Max succeed in capturing the crooks and goes to tell Lily with the intent of reassuring her that she’s in the clear. A gendarme blows his whistle almost as if to announce the moment. The film then cuts to Max going into a café. The camera follows Max as he goes into the café but then remains outside as he goes towards Lily (the camera first moving right but then left). Why does Sautet leave the camera out? What distance is being created? It’s interesting too that there’s a mirror behind Lily so that his reflection is present in Lily’s reaction to what he’s done. The moment, however, is Piccoli’s as it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t only captured crooks, he’s destroyed lives, he’s de-facto put a death-warrant on Lily, he’s destroyed a potential future for them both, in fact, he realizes he’s worse than the poor sods, too lazy to even devise their own hold-up that he’s just put behind bars. Every nuance of perception and feeling is visible on Piccoli’s face, all understated but understandable. It’s an absolutely great moment in the film.
Max et les ferrailleurs is full of such moments: elegant, outwardly simple, seemingly casual, none of it drawing attention to itself, but capable of expressing all the complexities of what it is to be human in a series of unfoldings that deepen into a highly pitched but silent scream of feeling. A wonderful film.