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A Place Among the Living

A minor romp from prolific helmer Raoul Ruiz, "A Place Among the Living" is a tongue-in-cheek take-off on gangster films from the '50s, with writers, publishers and Existentialism wryly worked into a basic serial killer tale. Film's loving mimicry of genre fetishes, characters and locales will make film buffs smile. But it isn't enough to sustain interest in the unfocused plot.

A correction was made to this review on Sept. 8, 2003.

A minor romp from prolific helmer Raoul Ruiz, “A Place Among the Living” is a tongue-in-cheek take-off on gangster films from the ’50s, with writers, publishers and Existentialism wryly worked into a basic serial killer tale. Film’s loving mimicry of genre fetishes, characters and locales, from a tame strip-tease joint to cutting away just before the sex scene, will make film buffs smile. But it isn’t enough to sustain interest in the unfocused plot. Beyond France, pic’s refined pleasures are likely to be limited to festival auds.

Coy opening scene in a bohemian Paris atelier shows the suicide of a trendy young painter. His model, Sabine (Cecile Bois), calls b.f. Ernest (Christian Vadim), who tells her to scram.

With a face out of Dashiell Hammett frozen in permanent French intellectual stupor, Ernest is a frustrated translator of women’s fiction ripe for the sinister advances of elusive criminal Joseph Arcimboldo (Thierry Gibault). He proposes to pay Ernest to write a novel of his crimes, principally the unsolved serial murders of attractive young blondes who pose for a racy magazine called “Paris-Hollywood.” The writer accepts.

Ernest is connected to two sophisticated rival publishers, Maryse (Valerie Kaprisky) and Christine, via the bedroom. Neither credits him with enough imagination to write a saleable novel, but Joseph’s material is something else again.

Just as it looks like Ernest will finally get published, his mysterious informant decides he wants credit for the book. But unlike the gangster-writer in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” Joseph is unconvincing in his passion for authorship and his last-minute claims win him no sympathy. Pic concludes with a little spoof on Jean-Paul Sartre.

The one liberty the film takes, very successfully, with its period models is several unexpected bomb explosions claimed by the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front). Though uncommented, this eruption of history sharply brings the film back to “reality,” once again forcing the viewer to examine genre conventions.

Cast is amusingly designed around familiar film stereotypes. Gibault is a mysterious, Peter Lorre-ish figure of uncertain danger, while Vadim’s hard-boiled attractiveness nets him all the femmes. Kaprisky, made up like Brigitte Bardot, is a cutthroat businesswoman; the fine Cecile Bois plays Ernest’s sexy, faux-naive mistress with conviction.

Ruiz and his cinematographer Ion Marinescu do a superb job quoting genre tropes. The color lensing emphasizes period browns, while camera plays with shooting on a diagonal, foregrounding huge whisky glasses, and other atmospheric affectations. Jorge Arriagada’s jazz score is amusing.

A Place Among the Living

France

  • Production: An Alizes Film/Arte France production. Produced by Guillaume Roitfeld, Denis Kaville. Directed by Raoul Ruiz. Screenplay, Ruiz, Gilles Moris-Dumoulin.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Ion Marinescu; editor, Valeria Sarmiento; music, Jorge Arriagada; production designer, Florin Gabra; costume designers, Andrea Hasnas, Teddy (SIC); sound (Dolby SR), Georges Moise. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Upstream, competing), Aug. 26, 2003. Running time: 107 MIN.
  • With: Ernest Ripper - Christian Vadim Joseph Arcimboldo - Thierry Gibault Maryse - Valerie Kaprisky Sandrine - Cecile Bois
  • Music By: