L’appartement is a 1996 film written and directed by Gilles Mimouni, a romance film with a difference. Mimouni tells the love story of the film using the techniques of a fast paced mystery thriller, and utilises quite sophisticated flashbacks. It’s an edge of your seat, fingernail biting two hours of wondering, will they find true love, or lose it. Think of the film’s title as “the state of” (Fr. -ment) being “apart” (Fr. séparé), or “separated” (Fr. à part), not just the living space: Apartness/The Apartment.
There is a mystery about “Gilles Mimouni”, who is reported by IMDB to have been born 1956, Paris based, made this one film aged 40, then disappeared, save for some occasional TV work. L’appartement is a classic of French cinema, made with considerable panache and style, and was very profitable. A director who writes and directs such a masterpiece, so expertly constructed and executed, and then disappears is very uncommon, more so when nothing at all is known about the man. No-one, no matter how gifted, can just walk up and both write and direct such an insightful and technically accomplished film without previous experience. At the least, no producer would allow it. So I think it possible that “Gilles Mimouni” is a pseudonym, or that the man has worked before under another name, perhaps outside France. He is said to have an older brother, Patrick, who also makes film.
Another mystery is the film’s music soundtrack, credited to Jeff Davis on IMDB, who has composed many songs for Charles Aznavour (and one of Aznavour’s songs, Le Temps, is featured on the film’s soundtrack). The orchestral soundtrack is credited to Peter Chase, who composed the symphonic pieces and the opening song Same kind of woman. Peter Chase has also composed music for Mina Tannenbaum (1994) and Portraits Chinois (1996) which he also co-wrote, two films directed by Martine Dugowson, said to be a close friend of Gilles Mimouni.
The film’s producer was primarily the Italian company Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, known for such internationally celebrated films as Fellini’s The Voice of the Moon (1990); Michael Radford’s Il Postino (1994); and Sautet’s Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud (1995). Not a company to take risks on an unknown director. They were joined by IMA productions, a French company that made Mina Tannenbaum in 1994 and Portraits Chinois in 1996, both directed by Martine Dugowson.
L’appartement starred the great Romane Bohringer, daughter of Richard Bohringer, legendary French actor and star of Diva in 1981. Romane had acted in Mina Tannenbaum and Portraits Chinois. She was 22 years old when she worked in L’appartement, an immensely skilled actress at almost the start of her career. Monica Bellucci made her debut in Mimouni’s film. She met actor Vincent Cassel on set, fell in love and later married him. Her scenes with Cassel are very probably not acting. Monica was 32 when the film was made. Vincent Cassel exploded on the acting scene with La Haine in 1995, a film everyone should see. This role in Mimouni’’s film was his second; he was 30, and about to become a legend. Jean-Philippe Écoffrey, second lead in this film, is a Swiss who has made comparatively few films. This was his second. He was 36 at the time of filming. In minor roles are Sandrine Kiberlain and Olivier Granier. This was Sandrine’s second film. She was 28. She later married celebrated actor Vincent Lindon (La Crise) and embarked on a parallel career as a singer. The film was also the second film of Olivier. Six new actors, three of them to become superstars of French cinema. The film’s casting director knew their stuff.
The film refers in many ways to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced 400 years earlier in 1596. In Shakespeare’s play a marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta is imminent; two other couples refuse to accept their chosen (by others) partner. Similar events form the structure of Mimouni’s film. The central event of the film, when Max, who loves Lisa, spends a night with Alice and wakes up in love with her, is a direct quote from the play, when Demetrius, who has rebuffed Helena for love of Hermia, has the juice of the flower love-in-idleness sprinkled on his eyelids by Puck, and falls in love with Helena. That play’s confusion of identities, intervention by mysterious powers, and complicated rivalry of affections all find echoes in Mimouni’s film. And the film features a performance in French of Shakespeare’s play, in which the two lead actresses play Hermia and Helena. The male lead, Max, switches, it seems, at least, between Theseus, Demetrius and Bottom, and that is not inconsistent with Shakespeare’s intentions.
Shakespeare’s lovely play evokes magic to explain love, and that is what Mimouni tries to evoke in his film. This is not a film of common sense plot developments, and trying to make sense of it in this way will get nowhere. As mentioned before, it is a romance, and also a thriller. Isn’t the most suspenseful moment of your life just after you’ve asked your lover for their love, and you wait for their answer? Forget about men with guns and car chase scenes.
The film also plays variations on a famous poem, In Memoriam, by Tennyson: “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.
Max sees and falls in love with Lisa
L’appartement tells the story of three couples, all of whom lose love, some by confusing identities, others by confusing the emotions they feel. One of the couples may find happiness, but we have to make that bit of the film up. The central character, Max, feels all too keenly LP Hartley’s dictum: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”. The film does indeed play with the past, and examines how memory of it informs the present in ways that may confuse. Max is to learn one of life’s bitter lessons: no-one can recover the past. It’s gone, and gone forever, leaving memory, which can often delude.
Lisa (Bellucci) is an actress who once fell in love with a computer engineer called Max (Cassel) only, she thinks, to be abandoned by him. She is now in a relationship with an older man, Daniel (Granier), whom she suspects of having murdered his wife so as to be with her. He keeps her in the apartment of the film’s title. Lisa breaks with Daniel and is still in love with Max, but Daniel has no intention of letting her go.
Alice (Bohringer) is a complex soul, lonely but in love with love, who spies on the happiness of Lisa and Max, and plots to take Lisa’s place in Max’s life. She succeeds, and spends a night in the apartment with Max, but with tragic effects. Max, also in love with love more than with a woman, thinks he loves Lisa, but when she seemingly abandons him (in reality Alice deceives him about her intentions) he meets and proposes to Muriel (Kiberlain), sees and is infatuated all over again with Lisa, spends the night with Alice and falls in love with her, and then, at the end of the film, meets Muriel, and seems destined to continue with his marriage plans.
Lucien (Écoffrey) is a friend of Max’s who falls in love with Alice, who uses him for her own ends, seems to return his affection, then runs away appalled at her own duplicity, until she bumps into Max at the airport and looks as though she might at long last find true love. But we’ll never know, because the film ends before all the plot complications have been sorted out. Just like real life.
Lisa sees and falls in love with Max
All through this film characters see each other through substitutes for personal contact. Max sees Lisa on a TV screen in the repair shop he works in at the start of the film; later he hears her voice on the phone. So much is conveyed via telephone and image in the film, and so much is left to personal fantasy to flesh out.
Perhaps the prime example of this absence at the heart of relationships is the apartment itself. It is central to the film, the reason why it forms the film’s title. In this art deco fantasy architecture glass walls that could easily shatter hide bedrooms without lovers. Couples fail to meet, other couples meet under false pretences, and only at the end is there a meaningful, and tragic, encounter in this space. The apartment stands for the human heart, and sadly, with so much to offer, it is so often left empty.
Remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The film’s characters are under the spell of a god. However, in the interests of financial investors, Mimouni throws in a ‘mystery’ sub plot. It concerns the wife of Lisa’s new lover, Daniel. Has she or has she not been murdered? Not compelling or important, but it adds a bit of suspense to the plot. Film buffs will enjoy finding the Hitchcock quotes, but they too are a bit irrelevant (good for the English market though).
Alice falls in love with love
The treatment of romantic love in this film may become a fatality of the space between French and English attitudes to the subject. The French recognise amour fou, which may be ‘the folly of love’, or uncontrollable passion under whose influence you may do crazy things. It can represent jealousy, instigate deceit and dishonesty, vengeance, a murder of crime passionnel and many other dark emotions. The characters in this film act under amour fou for most of its length. They are all a little crazy, which would inspire a Gallic shrug from a French person: Ah well. That’s what it’s like!
In English, on the contrary, we know ‘in love’, lovey dovey, holding hands, getting married. Why does he/she have to see their ex partner for…oh well, I’m sure they know what they’re doing. So rational! We have romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral in which the predominant emotion is embarrassment. The French have films like Betty Blue or the films of Leos Carax, about people we think are crazy.
Perhaps the folly of love suggests the biological imperative that both male and female must submit to in order to propagate. Then passion would be so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing”. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 24-28)
Another Gallic trait which might be off-putting for the English is the French tendency to intellectualise everything. No matter how deep the passion that shakes the characters, Mimouni is prepared to theorise.
Just another hero
Is the relationship of the film just that between Max and his wife to be Muriel? In that case the attraction between Max and Lisa and between Max and Alice would be just fantasy. A kind of overtone representing Max’s reluctance to end his freedom as a bachelor by imagining all kinds of alternative relationships he could have had, had he not decided to marry. A kind of magical, alternative reality. And then at the end of the film he comes down to earth. At an airport. If such was his intention I think Mimouni wouldn’t want us to see it as an alternative interpretation of the film’s events. Just an added layer of meaning to bear in mind while separating the film’s past and present and working out who is in love with whom, and tracing the parallels with a play by Shakespeare. Not your ordinary thriller by any means.
A question coming somewhat belatedly to my mind is this. Was Mimouni consciously alluding to another film about actors playing Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale (whom the plot moves on to eventually play Othello), in which a woman loves unavailingly even though she marries the object of her passion, while the man she loves searches for the love of his life in vain, Garance. This is Les enfants du paradis, Carné’s 1945 film made during the German occupation and coincidentally voted greatest French film of all time in a 1995 poll, while Mimouni was making his film (the ‘gods’ of the title are not divine forces, but the crowd whose response to the actors can make or break them).
This is a poignant, bittersweet film, bound to hit people who have known an ideal love then lost it. Were it not for the breakneck pace it would probably be a three handkerchief weepie, depending on how long ago your heart was broken. As it is, it’s just one of the all time great films. In its handling of magic and fantasy applied to love it is the equal of Médem’s 1998 film Lovers of the Arctic Circle. In it’s sensitivity to nuances of feeling between people it is the equal of Sautet’s Heart in Winter of 1992 or Martine Dugowson’s Mina Tannenbaum of 1994. In its consideration of the place of love, and possibly illusion, in the heart of man, it can be compared to the great La maman et la putain (1977) of Jean Eustache, another one hit wonder, and still one of France’s, and the world’s, most gifted film directors.
Perhaps Mimouni didn’t want Orson Welles’ experience: “I started from the top and worked my way down”? Al least Welles didn’t make Citizen Kane II. And Mimouni, despite his marginal involvement with the American remake of his film (I’ve not seen it) seems determined not to make a L’appartement II.
More information on the parallels between L’appartement and A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be found at http://shakscreen.org/analysis/analysis_appartement/. Currently L’appartement is available under $10 from Amazon on DVD and even less for streaming download. No soundtrack CD has been released that I can find, no script seems available, and both these omissions are regrettable. YouTube has a few short clips under 5 minutes. Peter Chase has a website, http://www.peterchasemusic.com/Site/Intro.html, where you can listen to all his music.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.