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Julien Duvivier Panique

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Criterion Collection: Panique (1946) | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Panique (1946) | Blu-ray Review

Initially a box office flop and critical failure, French auteur Julien Duvivier’s 1946 title Panique is now hailed as one of the great technician’s finest achievements. The film was digitally restored and re-released theatrically in the US in early 2017, but initially premiered at the 1946 Venice Film Festival (which was where Duvivier received the most recognition, competing seven times). In a career which spanned nearly fifty years as a director, from 1919 to 1967, the title is arguably the best-known work from his mid-period, if not his entire career (with Patrice Leconte famously remaking it in 1989 with Sandrine Bonnaire and Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire). However, the incredibly nihilistic, morally questionable character noir arrived perhaps at the wrong time. Duvivier’s first post WWII title, it marked his return to French language cinema after a stint in Hollywood during the early 1940s, and the narrative’s highly allegorical critique of French citizens’ complicity during the Nazi occupation arrived too soon for cultural comfort. Still, Duvivier’s sympathetic yet highly problematic central character and its strikingly macabre finale makes this moody piece of poetic realism a prescient example of today’s compromised humanity in a globalized world.

In a quiet Parisian suburb, an elderly maid is found murdered, her purse stolen. The small community is aflutter at the potential killer in their midst. Arriving in the wake of the murder are a traveling circus and the comely Alice (Viviane Romance), a young woman who has a secret relationship with Alfred (Paul Bernard), a dashing young man recently released from prison who has been waiting for her in town. The couple must pretend to meet for the first time as the police still wish to catch Alfred’s partner in crime for the dastardly deed he committed. Alice also catches the eye of Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), an older intellectual who despises the townsfolk, who, in turn, treat the aloof loner with cold disdain. Dismayed by the attention she’s receiving from Hire, who blatantly peeps into her window at night from across the street, Alice finds herself used as a pawn to ensnare the older man in a terrible scheme of Alfred’s.

Panique remains a highly successful character piece thanks to an astonishing balancing act from Michel Simon, one of France’s most unique performers whose works have finally started to be recuperated over the past several years (notably his comic performance in Sacha Guitry’s devious 1951 La Poison, courtesy of Criterion, and an excellent late turn in Claude Berri’s 1967 The Two of Us, courtesy of both Criterion and The Cohen Media Group). As Monsieur Hire, Simon commands empathy despite his passive lecherousness, peeping at Viviane Romance’s Alice and manipulating her for his own desires. The tragedy of Monsieur Hire is how his pride, loneliness and superciliousness are the elements which allow him to be led into Alice’s trap, blinded by the male privilege which leads him to believe she’ll be fooled into playing along with his game.

Similar in tone to something like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942) mixed with some of the melancholy star-crossed social class critique of Delbert Mann’s maudlin Separate Tables (1958), Panique is a unique portrait of post WWII France in its biting examination of mob mentality. The fitting backdrop of the circus, blaring carnivalesque entertainment and promising titillating facades is the perfect background for this desperately human drama whereby a callous killer uses a social pariah as his convenient scapegoat.

Disc Review:

Criterion treats Panique to a brand new 2K digital restoration, presented in 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are stellar in this new restoration, with Nicholas Hayer’s stark cinematography cleaned up pristinely. A raft of bonus material is included on the disc, focusing on the film’s significant source material, and of course, Duvivier.

The Art of Subtitling:
Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum and founder of Rialto Pictures is present for this 2018 twenty-minute documentary from the Criterion Collection. Goldstein talks about the history of subtitling, best practices, and pays homage to veteran translator Lenny Borger.

Pierre Simenon:
Criterion recorded this fifteen-minute 2018 interview with Pierre Simenon, son of novelist Georges Simenon in New York, who speaks on his father’s significant body of work.

Guillemette Odicino & Eric Libiot:
Critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot discuss Duvivier’s style as a director, his contributions to noir and the personalities of actors Michel Simon and Viviane Romance in this twenty-minute exchange filmed in 2015.

Final Thoughts:

A stunning portrait on the dangers of nonconformity to one’s social surroundings, Panique is one of Duvivier’s (and French cinema’s) finest film noirs (no surprise considering the source material is Georges Simenon), a stellar cocktail of devious desires, sharp characterization and biting social commentary.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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