Monsieur Hire (1989)

  • Sandrine Bonnaire as Alice
  • Luc Thuillier as Emile
  • Andre Wilms as Police Inspector
Directed by
  • Patrice Leconte
Produced by
  • Philippe Carcassonne
  • Rene Cleitman
Written by
  • Leconte
  • Patrick Dewolf
Photographed by
  • Denis Lenoir
Edited by
  • Joelle Hache
Music by
  • Michael Nyman

Crime, Drama, Foreign, Thriller

Rated PG-13

88 minutes

Patrice Leconte’s “Monsieur Hire” is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a murder, and the opening shot is of a corpse. Monsieur Hire is a scrawny, balding middle-aged tailor who lives by himself. Alice is a beautiful, tender-hearted 22-year-old blonde who lives alone across the courtyard from Hire in the same apartment building.

On the night of the murder, a slight man was seen by witnesses running toward the building. In his investigation among its residents, a police detective learns that nobody likes Hire. Hire is the first to agree. He admits he seems to strike people oddly. As a neighbor from across the hall peeks at him from his doorway, he asks, “Want a photo?” As he walks through his courtyard, white powder is dumped on his impeccable black suit.

Everything about Hire (Michel Blanc) is impeccable; his suit, his tie, the shine on his shoes, the fringe of his hair so neatly trimmed. Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) is sunny, open-faced, with a warm smile. One night during a thunderstorm a flash of lightning reveals a man watching her from the shadows of the apartment opposite. This is Hire, who watches her for hour after hour, night after night: Sleeping, waking up, dressing, undressing, ironing her clothes, making love with her lout of a boyfriend, Emile (Luc Thuillier).

What does she do when she discovers this? The screenplay is based on Monsieur Hire’s Engagement by Georges Simenon, but it’s nothing like his Inspector Maigret policiers, much more of a traditional novel with carefully-observed behavior and details. Simenon was fascinated by peculiarities of human personality, which he described in elegant, simple prose, not unlike Leconte’s controlled visual style here.

The film is in color, but Hire’s world is black and white: His suits, shirts, the white mice he keeps in little cage in his tailor shop. His skin is so pale he might never go outside in daytime. Alice, on the other hand, likes red: Her clothing, her lipstick, the grocery big of ripe tomatoes she “drops” on a staircase so they roll toward Hire as he opens his door. Does he leap to assist her? No, he simply stands and regards her. What is the purpose of her contrivance?

Another day, she knocks on his door, but he doesn’t answer. He must know it’s her, because he never has visitors and he must realize she’s just left her own apartment. She knocks the next day, and he invites her to visit a restaurant—in a train station, which may be a clue to certain of his thoughts. Eventually he confirms that, yes, he has seen her and her boyfriend making love. And he witnessed something else that he believes explains her sudden and unexpected friendliness toward him.

So it may, at first. But Alice’s feelings for him grow more complicated, and she is touched by his declaration of love. Her boyfriend Emile, on the other hand, is a crude physical type whose idea of a perfect date is taking her to a boxing match and ignoring her. Later, when he needs to sneak out of a window quickly, he steps first in a cradle formed by her hands, and then on her shoulders. Hire shares his secrets with Alice. He makes considerable use of prostitutes, he tells her, and as he describes the process of a bordello her face reflects fascination, perhaps that a man like Hire could have such erotic experiences and describe them so sensuously. But he can never visit a prostitute again, he explains, because he has fallen in love with her.

Hire is a man with many secrets. One night in the course of the police inspector’s investigation, he takes him along to a bowling alley, where he rolls strike after strike flawlessly, even backwards between his legs, even blindfolded, and is applauded by the regulars who have seen this before. He collects a payment from the owner, joins the cop at the bar, tosses back a shot and says, “You see? I’m not disliked everywhere.”

What’s going on between Hire and Alice? For that matter, what are her feelings for the boyfriend, Emile? That relationship seems pretty standard for a film noir; he seems to be a witless small-time criminal, and only her loyalty can save him. Her devotion to him is pointless and undeserved, as far as we can see, and although sex figures between them, she’s too complex for that to explain everything. She’s never met a man whose love for her is more profound and devoted (and obsessive) than Hire’s. Emile wouldn’t even be able to understand it.

At the center of this film is great sadness, captured in a late fast-motion shot that slows for an instant to show a detail lingered on in heartbreaking slow motion. Then the ending wraps everything up, but not to everyone’s satisfaction.

Patrice Leconte, born 1947, is one of the most versatile of French directors. He switches styles and genres from film to film, and you may be a fan of his without realizing it. “Monsieur Hire” (1989) was his first considerable success, premiered at Cannes, which is where I saw it. He also made “Ridicule” (1996), about a provincial landowner during the reign of Louis XVI, who seeks to win the favor of the court by practicing the quick wit much loved by the king; “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” (2000), about a condemned killer awaiting death on a French-Canadian island until an executioner can be imported from Paris; “Man on the Train (2002)” with Jean Rochefortand Johnny Hallyday as a suave provincial gentleman’s chance encounter with a thief; and another of my Great Movies, “The Hairdresser’s Husband” (1990), again starring Rochefort as a man so enraptured by a small town hairdresser that he marries her, buys her a beauty parlor, and requires only that he be allowed to sit in it, day after day, adoring her.

“I don’t think that a filmmaker is manipulating puppets,” Leconte told me at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival. “On the contrary, I believe a filmmaker is more like a chemist. You mix elements that have nothing to do with each other and you see what will happen. The starting point for ‘The Man on the Train’ was the meeting of the two actors. Put in a few drops of Johnny Hallyday, a few drops of Jean Rochefort and look what happens. Sometimes it blows up in your face.”

I asked him an obligatory question about the French New Wave and he said, “Well, I didn’t know Truffaut at all. I never met him, because he died too early probably. One of the things that I loved most about Truffaut was that he loved movies. And I would like that on my tomb: This man loved to make movies. 

The Match Factory Girl (1990)

This poor girl. I wanted to reach out my arms and hug her. That was during the first half of “The Match Factory Girl.” Then my sympathy began to wane. By the end of the film, I think it’s safe to say Iris gives as good as she gets.


The film begins with a big log. In documentary style, we see what happens to it. It has its bark stripped off. Blades shave thin sheets from it. These sheets are chopped into matchsticks and divided and stacked and dipped and arrayed and portioned into boxes, which are labeled, packed into larger boxes, and labeled again. That’s where Iris comes in. At first we see only her hands, straightening labels, sticking them down, removing duplicates. Then we see her face, which reflects absolutely no emotion.

The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki fascinates me. I am never sure if he intends us to laugh or cry with his characters–both, I suppose. He often portrays unremarkable lives of unrelenting grimness, sadness, desolation. When his characters are not tragic, he elevates them to such levels as stupidity, cluelessness, self-delusion or mental illness. Iris, the match factory girl, incorporates all of these attributes.

She is played by the actress Kati Outinen, a Kaurismäki favorite who has often starred for him. Whatever it is she does, she is very good at it. His camera stares at her, and she stares back. She is a pale blonde, slender, with a receding chin and eyes set deep in pools of mascara. If she were to laugh, that would be as novel as when Garbo talked for the first time. It would be easy to describe her as “plain,” but you know, she would have a pretty face if she ever animated it with a personality. In “The Match Factory Girl” she is deadpan and passive, a person who is accustomed to misery.

Her job at the match factory is boring and thankless. She is one of the few humans among the machines. She takes the tram home to Factory Lane, where a shabby alley door admits her to the two-room apartment she shares with her mother and stepfather. They sit in a stupor watching the news on TV. Her mother smokes mechanically, so listless long ashes gather on her cigarette. Iris cooks dinner, serves it, and sits down with them. A soup has pieces of meat in it, and her mother reaches out a fork and stabs a bite from Iris’ plate. She is expected to do all the cleaning, sleep on the sofa, and pay rent.

In the evenings she goes out seeking companionship, and is ignored. At a club, nobody asks her to dance. In a bar, she locks eyes with a bearded man. His gaze is aggressive, not affectionate. They sleep with one another. He never calls her again. She goes to his flat to indicate she cares for him. He tells her, “Nothing could touch me less than your affection.” That’s all he ever says to her. Her stepfather says less. “Whore,” he calls her, after she spends some of her paycheck on a pretty red frock.

I watched hypnotically. Few films are ever this unremittingly unyielding. I found myself as tightly gripped as with a good thriller. I could hardly believe the litany of horrors. What made it more mesmerizing is that it’s all on the same tonal level: Iris passively endures a series of humiliations, cruelties and dismissals. This cannot be tragedy because she lacks the stature to be a heroine. It cannot be comedy because she doesn’t get the joke. What can it be?

Kaurismäki has made many films with hapless characters. When I say that when I see each one it makes me eager for the next. I suppose my description makes this one sound depressing, but although it is about a depressed woman it is always challenging us, nudging, teasing our incredulity. When Kaurismäki has an entry in a film festival, I will make it my business to see it.

I’ve reviewed four of his other films: “Ariel” (“the character’s lack of physical and social finesse is a positive quality”) ; “Lights in the Dusk” (“his characters are dour, speak little, expect the worst, smoke too much, are ill-treated by life, are passive in the face of tragedy.”) ; “Drifting Clouds” (“he wants his characters to always seem a little too large for their rooms and furniture”) ; and “The Man Without a Past” (“He finds a community of people who live in shipping containers. There is a kind of landlord, who agrees to rent him one”).

Not all of these films are as dour as “The Match Factory Girl.” Some of his characters are more resilient. I never get the idea he hates them; in fact, I think he loves them, and feels they deserve to be seen in his movies, because they are invisible to other directors. In making them, he seems to be consciously resisting all the patterns and expectations we have learned from other movies. He makes no conventional attempt to “entertain.” That’s why he’s so entertaining. He wants only to hold our interest. He wants us to decide why he chooses such misfits, loners and outsiders, and to ask how they endure their lives. Even those who are not victims have a passive acceptance bordering on masochism. Life has dealt them a losing hand, and that’s how it is.

Kaurismäki’s camera work is meticulous. He composes without any eagerness to put elements in or leave elements out; his camera simply votes “present,” and gazes with the same dispassionate eyes that Iris has. An image is there before us. We see it. There you have it. We can draw our own conclusions. He doesn’t go in for reaction shots, or perhaps it would be more fair to say that every shot is a reaction shot. Asked at a film festival why he moves his camera so little, he explained: “That’s a nuisance when you have a hangover.”

He is often compared to Robert Bresson, who also made films about isolated, lonely characters (“Mouchette,” about a village outcast; “Diary of a Country Priest” about a disliked and unsuccessful young priest; “Au Hasard Balthazar” about a mistreated donkey). Both directors use an objective gaze. Both move deliberately. (Told he must have been influenced by Bresson, Kaurismäki said, “I want to make him seem like a director of epic action pictures.”) Actually few directors are more different. Bresson’s films are deeply empathetic, spiritual, transcendental. Kaurismäki seems detached from his characters. Most of his films could open with the title card, “Here’s another sad sack.”

But there’s something concealed beneath the attitude of detachment. He invites us to peer closely at these people he pins so precisely to the screen. What does it say that there can be such lives? How do people endure it? How do some of his characters even prevail? In “Drifting Clouds” again starring Kati Outinen as a luckless waitress with a jinxed husband, there is actually dark humor in the way the clouds are always dark and rainy. As sad as her life is, the film is immensely amusing in its over the top bad luck. When her luck changes at the end, it’s thanks to the Helsinki Workers’ Wrestlers Association.

Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Match Girl.” It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her. To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort. She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.

In the early scenes of this film Iris doesn’t smoke at all. When she finally lights a cigarette–with a match from her factory–it summons visions for her; ideas of revenge. We watch as she acts on these notions. Does she find happiness? That would be asking too much. But she finds… satisfaction.

“The Match Factory Girl” is the third film in Kaurismaki’s Proletariat Trilogy. It follows “Shadows in Paradise,” about a aimless garbage collector and “Ariel” (1988), about a coal miner who escapes his subterranean work by turning to crime. The three films have been packaged together and released by Criterion.