On an idyllic summer day in 1933, a lone car traverses around the bend of a narrow gravel road along the side of a hill, stopping at a scenic overlook alongside the deserted coastline as three unidentified, college-aged spectators anxiously follow the course of a sparsely occupied motorboat through a pair of binoculars as it heads towards shore. The young men then follow the occupants to a public assembly room of the local city hall of Cassis as chief inspector Gardet (Van Doude) subsequently identifies their curious object of surveillance as a political exile named Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Yves Peneau) – better known under the alias, Leon Trotsky – who has been allowed political asylum in France under the strict condition that he refrain from participating in domestic political activities. Following Gardet’s official debriefing of the reluctant exile, Trotsky is then led away on an escorted car to begin a new life as a displaced foreigner in the insular, bucolic town. The distanced and fragmentary images of Trosky’s motorcade passing through town is intercut with the seemingly tangential, parallel shot of a charismatic, impeccably dressed self-made businessman surnamed Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo) – who goes by the name Serge Alexandre – as he rides an elevator down to the main lobby of the luxury hotel Claridge in order to meet with his advisor Albert Borelli (François Périer) and a genial aristocrat named Baron Jean Raoul (Charles Boyer). The elegant synchrony of the opening sequence establishes an early, implicit parallel and seemingly fated interconnection between the two expatriates beyond their common national and cultural ancestry (both were of Russian Jewish descent) and intriguing personalities. Using the morning meeting to impress the aging baron with a set of daily instructions for Borelli to execute a sequence of convoluted re-allocation of funds (that uncoincidentally evokes the transactional equivalent of a classic shell game) to stave off an impending financial crisis, Stavisky soon turns his attention to the baron’s initial impressions – and clandestine surveillance news – of his wife Arlette’s (Anny Duperey) latest affair with a polo player and armchair revolutionary named Montalvo (Roberto Bisacco) before heading out to visit a theatrical production that he has invested in to hold auditions for an unnamed play. However, evidence that Stavisky’s carefully cultivated persona as a bon vivant aristocrat and shrewd entrepreneur continues to erode under the weight of ongoing criminal investigations against accusations of bribery, corruption, elaborate fraud, and money laundering as an ambitious investigator named Bonny (Claude Rich) plants information on his criminal history through a yellow journalist (Michel Beaune) who is writing a series of exposés on his well-guarded, notorious past as a confidence man and petty thief (who used to steal the gold from patients’ teeth at his father’s dental practice) that have served to bolster credibility for the compounding police charges. Chronicling the final months of Stavisky’s life as he continues to court attention and publicity even as he alternately attempts to salvage his crumbling financial empire, plan his next swindle, and dodge authorities, the film evocatively captures the pulse of a rapidly (and irreversibly) changing sociopolitical landscape of Europe in the deceptive calm between the chaos of the two world wars.
Adapted from a screenplay by Jorge Semprún based on the notorious French financial scandal known as the Stavisky affair that culminated in the political disfavor (if not outright collapse) of the left wing coalition of the Third Republic, Stavisky is a voluptuous, exquisitely refined, and deceptively lyrical portrait of celebrity, opportunism, xenophobia, and scapegoating. Alain Resnais incorporates his familiar penchant for the photography of architecture, particularly in the framing of classical building elevations and ornate, baroque interiors of luxury hotels (note the animated fluidity of the extended street view traveling shot that would be similarly incorporated in Marguerite Duras’ subsequent film, India Song) that, not only reflect their intrinsic character as inanimate, but organic “personalities” (a malleable existence that transforms through human consciousness that is implied in James Monaco’s description of Last Year at Marienbad as an exposition on architectural memory), but more importantly, their underlying structure of columns, façades, buttresses, and rooftops that reflect the symbiotic interrelationship within the elements of construction (note the recurring image of triangular and pyramidal motifs throughout the film that also mirror the structural geometry of the architecture: Arlette’s pendant, her extramarital affair with Montalvo, a close-up of an ashtray during Stavisky’s final meeting with his advisers). Moreover, like the unwinnable Marienbad Nim logic puzzles, Stavisky’s existence and ultimate downfall are also games of manipulated outcome: his introductory financial shell game, Bonny’s frequent news leaks to receptive media outlets and evidence planting, Gardet’s restrictive conditions towards Trotsky’s asylum (and subsequent intrusive surveillance) that compel radicals to seek out the idealistic revolutionary in the quaint town. It is this confluence of rigid geometry and engineered disarticulation that inevitably defines the inconceivable, overreaching effects of the Stavisky affair: the uprooting of a culturally reinforcing element of symbolic wealth that collapses the weakened and vulnerable framework of an apathetic, ossified, and materialistic social (and national) structure.
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