Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski star in Jean Jacques Beineix’s second feature, a depressive and surreal vision of Marseilles slum life dripping with noirish flair.
Seven months into the eternity after his sister was driven to suicide by rape, dockworker Gerard (Depardieu) spends his nights standing in the alley where her body was found waiting to confront her attacker. Driven by his obsession for revenge, he wavers when he meets a beautiful rich girl (Kinski) who frequently finds herself on the wrong side of town when her alcoholic brother takes residence in a nearby dive bar in order to hide from his dark past in a bottle of cheap liquor. Beineix crafts a world where the gutter permeates every action, informs every decision, and clouds every judgement.
There is a cliché in film criticism which goes along the lines of “it’s almost as if the city was a character in its own right.” That is not only true in the case of The Moon in the Gutter, but one might even posit that the slum to which this title refers is the primary antagonist of the film. It targets and destroys all those it touches with sharpshooter precision and then reassembles them as shambling henchmen, spellbound and forced to do its bidding.
While performances are never pitched naturally, the bulk of the cast realise a heady mix of intensity and verve that results in the sort of frothing sexuality of Tenessee Williams. Depardieu cuts a hulking, yet forlorn, figure often lit from below, back-acting to the camera with a sad shrug and a soulful glare. This operates in direct opposition to Kinski’s slinky femme fatale and Victoria Abril’s irascible prostitute, Bella, who both wear their allegiances behind a gossamer of lust. Sure, the rest of the film populous are interchangeable drunks who split their time between comic relief and sneering mcguffin, but that’s no different to the films of Leone or Kurosawa.
While it made no great shakes at the time – it was labelled as ‘style over substance’ by critics on its release – some of the film stylistic touches carried through Beineix’s career and helped mould the visual language of the New French Extremity movement, while simultaneously melding classic 40’s broilers with Hitchcock-by-way-of-gialli and French New Wave. It’s hard to imagine either of Gaspar Noé’s tentpole titles – Irreversible and Enter The Void – being the same without him growing up in a culture that embraced, nay encouraged, this style of filmmaking. By the same token, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet would have struggled to create the rich bleak imagery of Delicatessen without The Moon in the Gutter laying the track.
A challenging watch; It’s bloated, baggy, and often loses steam, but The Moon in the Gutter is a film that rewards perseverance. A triumph of purely visual cinema, it manages to portray a romantic melancholia combined with a beautiful sense of hopelessness projected through a prism of primary colour and quiet kinesia. Even when failing to engage on a narrative level, there is always something of substance to latch on to. The substance is within the style and that’s what keeps The Moon in the Gutter fresh 30 years on.
Searing sexuality: 8
Non-linear surrealism: 6
Shots of a silhouetted behemoth near a full moon: 7
Influential – The Moon in the Gutter is sometimes a slog but carries itself on the strength of its visuals. It wanders through indulgence and comes out the other side, broody but satisfying.
- This was written for a series of Netflix recommendations and published in 2013 at the sadly defunct zombiehamster.com.