Almost everyone has a good reason for why they want to get married but for Hugues, there is a very specific need. He wants to find a woman with a place of her own, preferably one with ample square footage that includes a sitting room and a large, walk-in closet. Love or companionship isn’t a main objective. Nor does he have any particular preferences concerning the woman’s appearance or personality as long as she is close to the same age. Strangely enough, Hugues finds the ideal candidate through the Duvernet Agency, a professional matchmaker. Jeanne is not only lovely and charming, if a bit elusive, and she has never been married before. Plus, she resides in a sprawling ground floor apartment once owned by an uncle. What could be better? So begins 1970’s L’Alliance (also known as The Wedding Ring), an exceedingly peculiar tale that slowly lures the viewer down a rabbit hole.
The film is directed and co-written by Christian de Chalonge, who has worked in the French film industry and television since the late 1960s. He remains mostly unknown in the U.S. because most of his films have never received a theatrical release here with the exception of Dr. Petiot (1990), an unconventional biopic starring Michel Serrault as the infamous Dr. Marcel Petiot, a serial killer who preyed on Jewish refugees in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. L’Alliance is less macabre and cynical than Dr. Petiot and more like a theater of the absurd chamber piece with surrealistic flourishes as in Luis Bunuel’s dreamlike satire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
There is a reason for that. Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who co-wrote Bunuel’s masterpiece, is also the co-author of L’Alliance as well as the male lead, and it is his influence and contributions that give the film a distinct Luis Bunuel vibe. After all, Carriere collaborated with Bunuel on six of his best-known films beginning with Diary of a Chambermaid in 1964. The screenwriter’s subversive sense of humor and satirical observations of the upper class is also on full display in such Carriere-penned screenplays as Taking Off (1971), directed by Milos Forman, Lifesize (1974), in which Michel Piccoli becomes obsessed with an inflatable sex doll, and Max, Mon Amour (1986), Nagisa Oshima’s rare foray into French cinema starring Charlotte Rampling as a married woman enjoying a private affair with a chimpanzee.
L’Alliance is less overtly bizarre and outlandish than some of Carriere’s other work but there is a strange, off-kilter quality to the narrative that keeps you guessing right up to the final fade-out. For example, what is Jeanne (played the luminous Anna Karina) getting out of a marriage to Hugues? Her motives are inscrutable and she may not be who she pretends to be. During her first meeting with Hugues, they are interrupted by a surprise visit from Duvernet (Jean-Pierre Darras), who takes Jeanne aside and gives her a box containing two siamese cats. He tells her, “Just pretend you like them, He’s a veterinarian.” Hugues eavesdrops on this conversation and it plants a seed of suspicion about his intended bride-to-be. It also makes the viewer wonder as well. Are Duvernet and Jeanne conspirators in some plot to hoodwink Hugues? Yet this becomes a meaningless red herring as further developments raise more important questions about Hugues and Jeanne’s relationship.
It is revealed in passing that Jeanne needs a companion to help her with bills and manage the property. Yet, she puts up almost no resistance to Hugues setting up his veterinarian practice in their home. After they are married, he begins filling up the rooms with patients’ pets and live animals for his studies. We’re not just talking about dogs and cats but exotic critters like lemurs, iguanas, tropical birds, monkeys and various insects. The sound design of the film is particularly effective as the cries, squawks and chattering of the animal menage provide a background soundtrack to the couple’s conversations and activities, even after they retire to bed. The effect is unnerving and it begins to unsettle Jeanne as well.
Hugues comes across as a stuffy academic bore with more interest in his work than maintaining a relationship with his wife but Jeanne’s frequent shopping trips and time spent away from home arouse Hugues’ curiosity. Why does she often come home empty-handed after shopping? Who does the fishing pole and the pair of oversized men’s shoes in the closet belong to? And why is someone stealing ether from his laboratory? All of this encourages Hugues to begin spying on Jeanne and even tape recording his suspicions about her mysterious behavior, which she later discovers while exploring his office. Then she begins to spy on him.
L’Alliance cleverly refrains from revealing what Jeanne is doing away from home and quite possibly she is telling the truth. [Spoilers ahead] There is one revelation late in the film when Jeanne reaches her limit with animal acquisitions. After the arrival of a new specimen, she peeks inside the container and flees the room, leaving the lid ajar. Later she returns home to find Hugues in a panic and a team of firemen fumigating the house in an attempt to drive the escaped animal into the open. It turns out that the box contained a rare Mexican snake and Jeanne secretly donated it to a zoo.
All of this proves to be too much for their housekeeper Helene (Isabelle Sadoyan) so she gives her notice and quickly departs, forcing Hugues and Jeanne to finally confront their mutual distrust of each other. L’Alliance reaches a dramatic crescendo as the animals become agitated and restless as if on the verge of a revolt and the couple have a much-needed moment of truth confrontation. It ends with a happy reconciliation and, for the first time, we see Hugues embrace and kiss Jeanne after his previous aloof behavior. But it is too little, too late and the film ends on an apocalyptic note.
Actually, the WTF ending is not entirely unexpected if you have been following the clues left along the way. There are premonitions of disaster from the very beginning. Early in the film, Jeanne recounts a story in which her father gleefully kicks and destroys an ant colony. She says, “I was always asking my father if there’s also someone watching us and who kicks us from time to time.”
Later in the film, a professor drops in to observe one of Hugues’ rare animal species and tells Jeanne, “There’s always more dwarves than giants in the world of living things and it’s the dwarves that are dangerous. With a species’ weapons, for example, the so-called balance of nature is disrupted. Farewell everyone.”
Jeanne: “Man would disappear?”
Professor: “He’s gonna disappear anyway.”
Professor: “Unless he changes his form or accepts someone changing his form.”
When you think about it, director de Chalonge and Carriere’s entire conception of L’Alliance reflects a cool, detached observational quality as if Hugues and Jeanne, and not the animals, are under the microscope. Their behavior and growing paranoia about each other are orchestrated like a science experiment under controlled conditions. The cinematography by Alain Derobe and the production design by Hubert Montoup further enhance the cluttered laboratory-like environment of the house with fish tanks, wall to ceiling cages, and large photographic close-ups of insect heads in the study. At one point, Hugues even subjects his dinner guests to 16mm footage of lizards stalking and eating their prey.
Yet L’Alliance is not too clinical in tone to work on an emotional level. Quite the contrary. There is considerable suspense and humor as the story unfolds as well as a tantalizing sense of mystery that hangs over every scene. At one point, we even begin to believe Hugues’ suspicions that Jeanne is out to murder him. The sequence where he pries open the locked closet door seems like a homage to the gothic fairy tale Bluebeard and the central premise of a forbidden room. But that is just another false clue to distract us from what becomes a completely different end game.
Jean-Claude Carriere, who died on February 8, 2021, is delightfully deadpan and anal-retentive as the priggish Hugues. Although he is best known as a screenwriter, Carriere was an actor and voice talent for more than 30 features and TV series. L’Alliance is one of his rare leading roles and it is a shame he didn’t pursue more acting opportunities although it was probably by choice. He also had a major role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), an intriguing, puzzle-like drama of a man (William Shimell) and woman (Juliette Binoche) who met and may have been a couple in the past. For the record, Carriere received four Oscar nominations during his career, which included a Best Writing nod for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). He shared an Academy Award with Pierre Etaix for their collaboration on the 1962 short subject, Happy Anniversary, and he received an Honorary Award from the Academy in 2015.
As for Anna Karina, she is appropriately enigmatic and beguiling in L’Alliance and her performance is a highlight from this second phase of her career. Once the darling of the French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard’s muse until 1967 when they divorced, Karina went on to work in both commercial and art-house fare until Victoria (2008), her final film which she wrote, directed and played the leading role. Along the way, she appeared in Andre Delvaux’s compelling WW1 drama, Appointment in Bray (1971), Franco Brusati’s critically acclaimed tragicomedy Bread and Chocolate (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette (1976), Raoul Ruiz’s avant-garde version of Treasure Island (1985) and, in a special cameo in The Truth About Charlie (2002), a remake of 1963’s Charade in which Karina performs the Serge Gainsbourg classic, “Sous le Soleil Exactement.”
L’Alliance is not currently available in any format in the U.S. from an authorized distributor although you can stream it on Youtube in French (no English subtitle options). But L’Alliance certainly deserves a Blu-Ray digital restoration and would be an essential addition to any Jean-Claude Carriere retrospective being programmed by film festival or museum curators.
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