"It's like a Hollywood B-movie," mutters the main character of A Pure Formality of his situation. Well, it is and it isn't. Hollywood B-pictures rarely--occasionally, but rarely--have the visual beauty or atmosphere of this Italian production, and very few pictures have actors of the caliber of this film's leads, Girard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.
On the other hand, plenty of Hollywood B-movies have done this sort of thriller, a cat-and-mouse game between an interrogator and his subject, and given it a stronger payoff.
The police find Depardieu, who's a novelist, wandering down a country road on a stormy night. He's taken to a rural police station where he is questioned by an inspector (Polanski) about his whereabouts earlier that day. The inspector turns out to be his biggest fan, and is so star struck that he assures the writer that the interrogation is just a pure you-know-what. But when Depardieu's answers prove contradictory, and when he violently attempts to escape, the inspector's approach becomes tougher.
Director Giuseppe Tornatore, best known in this country for Cinema Paradiso, wrote the script, with Pascale Quignard (the actors perform in French). With its single basic setting and tiny cast, the film resembles a good gimmicky stage mystery of the sort that Ira Levin called "the one-set five-character moneymaker," though Tornatore tries to conceal this heritage with some fancy flashbacks.
As with the example quoted above, the dialogue is often self-conscious about its own familiarity. For instance, when Depardieu is told that he can't make his one phone call because the lines are out, he chides the inspector, saying that he, as a writer, would never resort to such a hokey device. Tornatore and Quignard have no such compunction.
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There are reasons to see A Pure Formality, though. The cinematography, by Blasco Giurato, has an eerie loveliness, and Ennio Morricone provides fine scherzos on the soundtrack. The acting of the leads, however, is what really elevates the film out of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents league.
It's well-known that Depardieu, that great, flabby, Gallic ape, is one of the best film actors in the world; what's sometimes forgotten is that Polanski often has given good performances as well, both in his own films and those of other directors. His pallid, tight-lipped, beady-eyed inspector is just as intriguing a character as Depardieu's novelist.
The technique behind mysteries of this sort is basically one of artful stalling--the ingenuity is in how long the audience can be prevented from grasping the fairly simple revelation at the core of the story. Tornatore and Quignard play this game quite well for about the first hour of A Pure Formality, but as more and more gratuitous background is piled on, and Depardieu's flashbacks get less helpful, the stalling begins to seem less artful than stingy.