In Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, Jeanne Moreau seems to glide through the dampened streets of Paris, sullen and melancholic, as she searches for her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). In one of cinema’s greatest pairings of music and image, the desperate, blues-infused jazz of Miles Davis serves as the soundtrack, lending even more weight to the proceedings. Louis Malle opens Ascenseur pour l’échafaud with Jeanne Moreau repeating “je t’aime, je t’aime” to Julien; a man who is willing to kill her husband, and his boss, so they can finally be together.
Miles Davis famously improvised the score of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, creating an utterly unique environment of desperation and wistfulness. Films like Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) helped break scoring conventions, as the new style and mood of noir seemed to demand an equally unconventional and offbeat soundtrack. Along with Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle was helping usher in the cinematic landscape that French New Wave filmmakers would follow in. As someone multinational in terms of influence and collaboration, Miles Davis lends the voice of a stranger in the French scene; a perfect fit for a film about outsiders.
For all the beauty of Malle’s classic, Moreau’s half-mad gliding has become the signature image of the film. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is not unlike Robert Wise’s noir The Set-Up (1949); a film also shot in a such a way to evoke real time. In the American film, an ageing boxer argues with his wife that he can still win a fight, while his manager bets against him the same night. Unable to watch her husband deteriorate further, his wife wanders the streets waiting for the fight to be over, unsure she will ever see her husband alive again. Temporality is similarly very important for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, as Julien tries to commit the perfect murder and finds himself locked up in an elevator. The effect of simulated “real” time actually reveals that time itself is transformed by our subjectivity. The tricks and tools used to evade time in film are used to mirror our own perception of it. Both films are very much about waiting, but more importantly, they are about feeling powerless.
A feeling of powerlessness is no doubt at the heart of Moreau’s possessed performance. As if in her own world, Florence Carala glides through the streets waiting to be reunited with her love. She is terrified, and perhaps aware, that things are not quite going according to plan. She chatters her teeth, mumbles to herself and seems to look through others rather than at them. One has to wonder if the pair would ever find happiness if everything had gone right. They’re in too deep — too deep into obsession, darkness and desperation. Affairs of this kind — wrought with secrecy and murder — don’t seem long for survival, which adds that final blow of existential angst to the film. This open-endedness and desperation will carry over into the best films of the New Wave, as Ascenseur pour l’échafaud becomes one of the most crucial lead-ups to the game-changing early 60s movement.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.