Nicolas Mallet (Jean-Louis Trintignant, The Conformist), a naive bank clerk, meets Marie-Paule (Jane Birkin, Je Taime Moi Non Plus, Keep Your Right Up), a beautiful but lonely young girl, in a quiet corner of Paris. She smiles at him and he offers to buy her a drink. When she agrees, he assumes that his luck has finally changed. But when later on they rent a room in a cheap hotel, he discovers that she is a prostitute. Before they make love, he forces her to tell him that she came to the hotel because she truly wanted him.
Feeling good about himself, Nicolas meets old pal Claude Fabre (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Army of Shadows), a handicapped intellectual, in their favorite bistro and immediately tells him about his experience with Marie-Paule. Intrigued and inspired by Nicolas’ accomplishment, Claude decides to transform him into the type of man women cannot resist and wealthy men would flock to do business with. When the transformation is complete, Claude will document it in his next novel.
Michel Deville directed Le mouton enrage a.k.a. Love at the Top more than forty years ago, but its visual style and very intelligent social commentary give it a strikingly contemporary identity. It is unquestionably one of Deville’s best, but as it is the case with the majority of his films, it is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic.
Love at the Top blends the biting sarcasm of Luis Bunuel’s classic films and the social awareness of Elio Petri’s films (without the unbridled anger) to expose the hypocrisy of a society in which everyone has a price. There is a good dose of Marco Ferreri’s cynicism in it as well, though it is far better controlled and ultimately a lot easier to tolerate.
The focus of attention is on the moral corruption of Trintignant’s character. Initially, Nicolas is a vulnerable man whose life is fully controlled by the system he serves. After his surprising encounter with the beautiful prostitute Marie-Paule, however, he is lured out of it and taught how to manipulate it. Gradually, the former bank clerk evolves into a dangerous chameleon without morals that would do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals.
During the early stages of his transformation Nicolas falls in love with the sexually frustrated wife (Romy Schneider, César et Rosalie) of a busy professor (Michel Vitold, La nuit de Varennes) with a serious drinking problem. For a while Deville allows the lovers to enjoy their affair, and by doing so relaxes the film quite well, but eventually they are separated and the film shifts gears dramatically. Around the same time, Nicolas also meets the strikingly elegant Flora Danieli (Florinda Bolkan, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), but Deville uses their short-lived relationship only as a litmus test. (Flora is a far more experienced chameleon that can instantly recognize ambitious contenders like Nicolas).
The film ends with a type of moral lesson Hollywood loves to avoid. It is hardly surprising, but because it is honest and fair, it feels fresh.