vt Les Anarchistes; vt Bonnot’s Gang
France / 86 minutes / color plus some bw / Intermondia, Kinesis, Mega, Valoria Dir: Philippe Fourastié Pr: Jean-Paul Guibert Scr: Jean Pierre Beaurenaut, Pierre Fabre, Rémo Forlani, Philippe Fourastié, Marcel Jullian Cine: Alain Levent Cast: Jacques Brel, Bruno Cremer, Annie Girardot, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, François Dyrek, Dominique Maurin, Michel Vitold, Nella Bielski, Pascal Aubier, Anne Wiazemsky, Armand Mestral, François Moro-Giafferi, Léonce Corne, Jacqueline Noel.
In reality, Jules Bonnot was a very minor criminal; he was not even the leader of the gang that the French press of the day—the early 1910s—dubbed La Bande à Bonnot (the Bonnot Gang; the movie’s anglophone variant title, Bonnot’s Gang, is actually a mistranslation). Bonnot began as a bit of a rebel without a clue, became interested in anarchist politics and then, in 1908, joined a counterfeiting gang. The gang diversified into auto theft and burglary. In 1911 he became a member of the anarcho-criminal gang led by Octave Garnier, where he pioneered the use of the getaway car. The following year, with the public in an uproar and the cops coming ever closer, the gang split up. On April 24 1912 the flics almost nabbed Bonnot; in a shootout, he killed Louis Jouin, deputy head of the Sûreté Nationale. A few days later the cops surrounded the house where he was now hiding, and there was a major standoff that ended only when the cops dynamited the building.
The events in this movie bear some resemblance to the ones just recounted (with the help of en.wikipedia.org and fr.wikipedia.org).
Jacques Brel as Raymond.
Raymond Callemin (Brel), nicknamed “Raymond la Science,” is an anarchist and a bit of a troublemaker; he and his pal Édouard Carouy (Dyrek) tend to get thrown out of places a lot. They join up with an anarchist group led by the pacifist Victor Kibaltchiche (Vitold); Kibaltchiche publishes a newspaper and is affiliated with the counterfeiter Octave Garnier (Kalfon). Also members of the gang are Marie “la Belge” Vuillemin (Girardot), a young psycho called André Soudy (Maurin), the motherly Rirette Maîtrejean (Bielski), the none-too-bright Eugène Dieudonné (Aubier) and an attractive young redhead, “La Vénus Rouge” (Wiazemsky), who’ll eventually cooperate with the flics and bring about the Bonnot Gang’s demise.
Left to right, Jean-Pierre Kalfon as Garnier, François Dyrek as Carouy and Dominique Maurin as Soudy.
Jules Bonnot (Cremer) still hasn’t entered the picture (so to speak). He does so when some of the gang steal his valise while he’s sitting outside a café. He follows them, turns the tables on them, and is soon accepted as a prime mover of the gang.
Several of these characters drop out of the story fairly quickly, as hotheads like Raymond, Marie, Jules and Octave decide that Kibaltchiche’s pacifism isn’t the way to overthrow the running dogs of the capitalist paper tiger. The tearaways form their own gang and start robbing banks, committing mass murder and in general being pains in the ass. Louis Jouin (Mestral) of the Sûreté Nationale leads the hunt; he’s killed by Bonnot just at the moment the flics think they have their man. Thenceforth events roughly follow the historical record.
Jouin (Armand Mestral, right) interviews Kibaltchiche (Michel Vitold).
It would be easy to see La Bande à Bonnot as some sort of French response to the previous year’s international blockbuster BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) dir Arthur Penn, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, which was based very loosely on the real-life exploits of the Barrow Gang of robbers and murderers. If that was the intent, the French movie missed the mark entirely, because this is actually, despite its stellar cast, quite a drab little outing. Unlike the case with the Penn movie, there’s no attempt to glamorize the criminals—indeed, the movie seems often to be mocking them as the small-time inadequates they were; the only rebel to come out of this with much credit is the soft-spoken pacifist Kibaltchiche (curiously presented here as a middle-aged elder statesman although in reality he was in his early twenties at the time). Nor is there any attempt to get the audience’s pulses pounding; the shootemups, of which there are plenty, come across more like History Channel reconstructions than thriller hijinks.
Annie Girardot as Marie “la Belge” Vuillemin.
If you view La Bande à Bonnot on its own terms, though, without the preconception that it’s trying to be Bonnie and Clyde, the movie displays a hypnotic little fascination of its own. In part this is because of the splendid visuals and the period details: we’re drawn right into a world where vehicles are as likely to be horsedrawn as motorized—and how wonderful some of those old motor cars are!
Bruno Cremer, who died in 2010, was a favorite actor of mine, and for me he’s always immediately associated with the long-running series of (highly recommended) French TV movies based on Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories. He appeared, too, in quite a few neonoirish movies:
- OBJECTIF 500 MILLIONS (1966; vt Objective 500 Million)
- L’ATTENTAT (1972; vt The Assassination; vt The French Conspiracy)
- Les SUSPECTS (1974; vt The Suspects)
- La CHAIR DE L’ORCHIDÉE (1975; vt Flesh of the Orchid)
- FANNY PELOPAJA (1984; vt À Coups de Crosse; vt Fanny Strawhair; vt Fanny Straw-Top)
- DE BRUIT ET DE FUREUR (1988; vt Sound and Fury)
- NOCE BLANCHE (1989)
The young Bruno Cremer as Bonnot.
Jacques Brel needs no introduction, of course, although this may be the first time I’ve seen him act rather than perform his songs. Also of note, although her part here as La Vénus Rouge is quite minor, is Anne Wiazemsky. She had a quite extensive screen career, working for directors such as Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard (to whom she was married 1967–79) and Pier Paolo Pasolini. In the late 1980s she abandoned the cinema and turned instead to writing, since when she has published a string of well respected novels and a number of nonfiction books. Her 1996 novel Hymnes à l’Amour won the Prix Maurice Genevoix and was adapted for the screen by Jean-Paul Civeyrac as Toutes ces Belles Promesses (2003; vt All the Fine Promises), which won the Prix Jean Vigo; her 1998 novel Une Poignée de Gens won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française.
Anne Wiazemsky as La Vénus Rouge.
The story of the Bonnot Gang was a central feature of Les Brigades du Tigre (2006) dir Jérôme Cornuau, with Jacques Gamblin as Jules Bonnot.
At one point in La Bande à Bonnot, just before their viewing pleasure is interrupted by a police raid, the gang are among those watching a movie. That movie is the silent short The Gangsters and the Girl (1914) dir Scott Sidney.