It’s not a stretch to say that 2023 has had its share of weird moments. The first two months alone already filled the oddball quota with films like Infinity Pool and Skinamarink, and that carried throughout the rest of the year with movies as diverse as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Saltburn. But everything now pales compared to the retro dish served by Altered Innocence, a small distribution company that has just released 2023’s weirdest movie, The Strangler.
Never heard of it? Me either. And there are plenty of good reasons for that, the most obvious being that it was made in 1970 and never released in America until now. Yet the movie, made in France by Paul Vecchiali and starring the late Jacques Perrin as the titular murderer, is strikingly modern in its approach and storytelling. And the 2K restoration, executed by the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) and Cosmodigital laboratory, is so well done and pristine that it feels like a new release. While it has its problems, The Strangler is such a one-of-a-kind movie that it would be a crime to miss it.
The film concerns Emile, who, in the opening prelude set in late-1940s Paris, is a small child who witnesses a stealth strangulation of a young woman by a man. The weapon of choice? Emile’s white-knit scarf. Thirty years later, several young women have been murdered the same way, and it’s quickly revealed that they were killed by Emile himself. An inspector’s televised plea to the publicly unknown killer to meet draws the attention of Anna, a single young woman inexplicitly drawn to the killer.
As the movie progresses, Emile targets victim after victim while also reaching out to the inspector in a vain hope to explain his actions. He doesn’t kill out of anger or sexual excitement, he claims, but out of a sort of pity; all of his targets are suicidal women, and he wants to bring them a brief moment of happiness — usually his companionship — just before he strangles them. Throw in a thief who trails Emile and steals from his victims, the inspector’s strange fascination with Emile (which jeopardizes his career and his morality), and Anna’s equally perverse entanglement with both of them, and you get a movie unlike any other.
Oh, where to begin? How about that it’s a mystery that reveals it’s killer in the first five minutes? Or that it’s a thriller that continuously downplays any sort of thrill the audience usually gets in a serial killer movie like this? Or maybe that it’s a horror movie that doesn’t really show that much violence and makes Emile the most sympathetic and logical character? The Strangler can’t be technically classified as belonging to any genre, although it contains elements of many. It’s a movie that constantly demands you to redefine it. That sounds taxing, but The Strangler has too much poetry and oddball grace to feel punishing.
There’s also the outstanding cinematography, which transforms Paris into an isolated, sunburnt landscape by day and a haunted ghost town at night. As he stalks the streets looking for his next victim, Emile occasionally sees figures resembling phantoms, strange passerby wearing Halloween masks for no reason at all, and menacing figures who inspire more fear than the angelic-looking Emile. Georges Strouvé is the man behind the visuals, and he balances light and shadow, bursts of color and almost monochromatic sequences beautifully, helping Vecchiali turn Paris into a show world populated by lost souls.
The Strangler also has a musical interlude in which a middle-aged female singer croons longingly about making herself a sailor (because why not?), a group of French prostitutes who fight harder and dirtier than any MMA fighter, and a bravura sequence where Emile witnesses a string of brutal assaults (or does he?) while walking down a street. None of this makes any logical sense and yet, on sheer vibes alone, it kinda does. It’s so French, so different, so … well, weird, but in all the right ways.
It’s tempting to tout The Strangler as some stunning lost masterpiece, a movie that has finally been reclaimed and become fit for genre lionization. And while it is arresting, it’s also deeply flawed. The narrative comes apart at the end; for all of its weirdness, it asks too much from the audience to ignore logic completely. The inspector and Anna in particular are more plot devices than characters, existing only to serve Emile’s character arc and changing personalities to suit the plot’s convenience.
More disturbing is the film’s perplexing attitudes toward its female victims, who are all murdered so gracefully, so willingly that the movie seems to argue they are asking for it. In some respects, they are, as they are depicted as being suicidal, but the movie seems to equate being single as being lonely and, thus, worthy and welcoming of death. That’s just bullshit, and it’s here where The Strangler feels dated and retrograde.
But the movie’s standout qualities are too good to ignore: the haunting cinematography; the jazzy grindhouse score by Roland Vincent, the blurring of genres to explore its themes of loneliness and suppressed sexual desire. Best of all is Perrin’s performance as Emile, who could have easily come off as an unsympathetic creep, but instead is probably the most gentle mass murderer you’ll ever meet. (If you do, here’s a tip: pretend you’re happy and in a relationship.)
With his blank angelic features and wry Mona Lisa smile, Perrin completes the idea of Emile as a benevolent Angel of Death, picking off his victims one by one, not out of any personal desire, but because that’s what he was put on Earth to do. He commits murder as a kind of civic duty, and the movie’s dark joke is that in 1970 France, there are far worse things out there than that.
The Strangler is playing in New York City and will play in select theaters nationwide throughout November and December. It will be available for rental and purchase at a later date.
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