A long time ago, I went to see Michel Deville’s Le Dossier 51 knowing absolutely nothing about it. About 5 minutes in, I realized I had made a terrible mistake, and I started to plan my exit from the middle seat where I was trapped. 5 minutes later, I had become intrigued enough by the weird experiment I was watching to be distracted from that plan. About 100 minutes after that, as the lights came up, I was convinced I had just seen a masterpiece, a film that should be mentioned in the same breath as The Conversation and Blow Out.
My recommendation then is not to read anything else (everything after this paragraph included) before you watch the film. I’m also urging you to give yourself about 15 minutes to settle into it, since most people are likely to think there’s no way they could make it through an entire feature as seemingly dry as this movie’s first few minutes.
If you’re still reading and you haven’t watched it yet, then I take it you want to know a little something about it. Okay. It’s a spy thriller. Well, more of a spy procedural. The premise is simple enough. Some intelligence agency of an unnamed country is tasked with obtaining influence within a powerful WTO-like organization. To that end, the agency targets a random career diplomat — a Frenchman they code name 51 — as an insider they want to gain control over. We watch as different branches of the agency go about the business of manipulating people in order to collect information that will help them manipulate other people, and so on until they’re able to get to 51 himself. Except that we do more than watch. In fact we do most of the work.
Deville’s formal gambit is to shoot the entire film from a first person POV. That idea wasn’t new even back then, but Deville introduces the special wrinkle of dedicating his subjective camera to a multiplicity of POVs, all belonging to agency employees. On a plastic level, this variety allows Deville to disguise his technique and to keep the action fluid. Since his mise-en-scène isn’t enslaved to the single take, we soon forget about our role as camera, enough that his 15-minute continuous shot is likely to pass by unnoticed as such when he does eventually earn it.
More importantly, Deville’s device links viewer identification not to an individual but to an enterprise. The objective is ours and we naturally want to succeed. We get pulled into the mission, share in the frustrations of unexpected setbacks and rejoice at sudden breakthroughs. We chuckle in recognition at the petty infighting and bureaucratic jockeying common to any kind of organization. We are frequently stymied by the mysteries before us, even if we might pick up on some clues ahead of our fellow agents who are trying to sift through them. We shake our heads about the foibles of human nature even as we exploit them. Once in a while, we might balk a little at some of the things we’re required to do. But hey, it’s only a movie. And movies are the ultimate innocent pleasure, aren’t they?
Even if some of Le Dossier 51’s Freudian orthodoxy is a little dated, the link between espionage and cinema is fairly self-evident. Still, Deville’s aim here is to question whether the voyeuristic impulse is really that much more innocent in the act of watching movies than it is in the business of spying. His answer doesn’t come as a surprise. Yet unlike Funny Games’s Michael Haneke who takes such refined pleasure at rubbing our faces in the cost of our narrative appetites from a perch high above the fray, Deville refuses to absolve himself of complicity: this is a film that climaxes with a sternly directed rehearsal. Then again, I suppose Deville can afford to be magnanimous. After all, it’s his movie’s foundational Aristotelian joke that through cinema we aspire to nothing less than divinity.
[While Le Dossier 51 is very recognizable as a Deville film once you know what makes him tick, there’s nothing else quite like it in his filmography. Just work your way through chronologically. In case you’re in the mood for more spook stuff, I would be remiss not to put in a plug for the American TV series Rubicon, which sadly failed to survive to a second season. Its brief run never quite manages to make it back to the heights of its pilot episode, but it was still one of my highlights of the year.]
Extra 1 (5m18s): Faire un film par Michel Deville – Raconter en photos (“To make a film – Telling a story in photographs”). A short subject consisting of Deville commenting on the use of photographs in various of his films, including Le Dossier 51. No subs.
Extra 2 (27m55s): Sans star ni paillettes, mais avec une caméra subjective (“With no star and no glitz, but with a subjective camera”). Individual talking head interviews with Deville and Gilles Perrault, his co-scenarist and the author of the novel from which the two adapted Le Dossier 51. No subs.
Extra 3 (1m17s): French theatrical trailer. No subs.
DVD Source: Gaumont, region 2, DVD9
DVD Format: PAL
DVD Audio: Stereo
DVD extras: Untouched
Subs: English (custom, enabled, selectable)