Release Date(s)1989 (October 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Cinéa/Hachette Première/FR3 Films (Cohen Film Collection/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
Patrice Leconte’s masterful 1989 film Monsieur Hire is based on the 1933 novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire by Georges Simenon, who was the creator of the popular police commissaire Jules Maigret. Les Fiançailles de M. Hire doesn’t feature Maigret, since it was one of what Simenon called his roman durs or “hard novels,” but it does feature a detective of a very different sort. The book had already been adapted into film by Julien Duvivier in 1946 as Panique, though Duvivier ended up using the story as a metaphor to indict the French collaboration with the Nazi occupation under the Vichy government. Leconte was more interested in the timeless aspects to the themes of marginalization that were present in the novel. Hire’s Jewish heritage is only referenced obliquely in Leconte’s film, and while it’s still easy to read the way that he’s treated by others as being antisemitic, this version of Hire is more of a universal Other, someone who’s been marginalized by “polite” society simply for being different. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that he’s not entirely sympathetic, either; the lines between victims and victimizers are blurred all throughout Monsieur Hire.
In the adaptation by Leconte and Patrick Dewolf, Hire (Michel Blanc) is a solitary man who tries to avoid social contact as much as possible, but he’s always carefully observant of what’s going on around him. When the dead body of a young woman is found nearby, Hire’s neighbors are only too happy to point suspicion toward him, so he ends up becoming a person of interest for a local police inspector (André Wilms). Unbeknownst to the inspector, Hire’s real transgression is that he spends his evenings peeping on Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), a woman who lives in the apartment across from his. When a sudden flash of lightning reveals his secret activities to her, she decides to turn the tables on him. Yet Hire’s illicit habits have uncovered some of Alice’s own secrets, so the two of them will end up vying for dominance, right up until the bitter end.
Monsieur Hire is essentially a cat-and-mouse story, but unlike many thrillers that use a similar template, it’s not always clear which character is playing each of those respective roles. Despite the presence of a police detective who is investigating a crime, his hunt is secondary to the precarious game that’s being played between Hire and Alice. Yet even their own roles in that struggle are fluid, with the predator becoming the prey whenever one side momentarily gains the upper hand over the other. That’s because the real stakes in their struggle are of an emotional sort, rather than physical.
Hire’s entire life has been defined by his sense of control over his surroundings, which fuels his voyeuristic tendencies that end up setting the entire plot in motion. He has no control over how others may feel about him, so he compensates by controlling his own personal environment, as well as his interactions with the outside world. He even carefully scores his sessions spying on Alice by playing the same passage from the middle of the fourth movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. It’s significant that he hasn’t merely chosen a specific piece as a needle drop, or even a movement within that piece, but rather a specific moment within one movement. Hire feels the need to be in absolute control of his own emotions, so he relies on very precise musical choices to maintain a mood. The real threat that Alice poses to Hire after she turns the tables on him is that she upsets his ability to restrain his own emotional responses, and that breaks down the barriers that he’s meticulously established between himself and the outside world.
It’s easy to see why Leconte was so fascinated by Hire. The tightly controlled nature of the character mirrors the careful control that Leconte exercised over every inch of every frame in the film. Leconte’s career up to that point had primarily been in the world of comedy, so Monsieur Hire may have looked like change of pace for him, but it still fit perfectly into his own way of seeing things. He had worked as a cartoonist prior to making his feature film debut in 1976 with Les vécés étaient fermés de l’intérieur, and he always displays a cartoonist’s eye in his work, regardless of genre. His compositions within the frame in Monsieur Hire are laid out with the exact same precision with which an artist would draw pictures within a comic panel, and the editing from shot to shot reinforces those compositions the same way that comic panels interact with each other. That kind of visual precision works well for comedy, but it works equally well for a drama that revolves around a man who wants to maintain control over everything in his life. It’s almost as if Leconte directed Monsieur Hire as Hire himself would have imagined his own story being portrayed.
If anything, from Leconte’s perspective, that’s the real tragedy of Monsieur Hire. Hire ends up losing control not just of the world around him, but of his own emotional responses as well. As a result, he essentially loses the plot. Hire is no longer telling his own story, but having it told about him instead. Yet Leconte wasn’t willing to let Monsieur Hire go without letting Hire have the last laugh. Hire’s loss of control may lead to misfortune, but an earlier attempt to manipulate the situation with Alice and the police detective comes full circle at the end. His intended act of kindness turns out to be the ultimate moment of revenge. It may not provide any comfort for Hire at that point, but if revenge is a dish that’s best served cold, then even the icy hand of fate can’t stop people from receiving their just desserts. Hire may be a marginalized individual, but he ultimately gets to write his own epitaph, and so his control is finally restored.
Cinematographer Denis Lenoir shot Monsieur Hire on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. This version is based on a 4K scan of the original camera negative, with restoration work performed by Pathé and the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) in Paris. The results are nothing short of extraordinary, even on 1080p Blu-ray. Everything is immaculately clean and finely detailed, with well-resolved textures. Every pore, blemish, and wrinkle on Michel Blanc’s face is clearly delineated, and even Sandrine Bonnaire’s smoother skin shows an impressive level of detail. The grain looks refined, and the encode manages it well—Hiventy has had a mixed track record over the years, but they did excellent work here. Lenoir employed a bleach bypass process to enhance the contrast while slightly desaturating the colors, and that stylized palette has been reproduced accurately for this transfer. It’s a distinctive look, with plenty of warm, golden hues on display, and yet there’s still an inherent coldness to the image that swallows up even the warmest of the tones. It’s a lovely master from Pathé, and while a 4K Ultra HD release could potentially offer further refinements, this is as close to perfection as 1080p Blu-ray can muster.
Audio is offered in French 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with forced English subtitles. Monsieur Hire’s sound design is appropriately subtle, and this presentation sounds smooth and clear. It’s a quiet mix, with the environmental sound effects always playing second fiddle the main characters, who always remain front and center both visually and aurally. Michael Nyman’s superb score provides the mood, and it sounds as good as it can in mono. (Sadly, there’s never been a soundtrack release for Monsieur Hire, though some of Nyman’s pieces from it have been released on compilation albums.)
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Wade Major
- Interview with Patrice Leconte and Sandrine Bonnaire (HD – 38:41)
- Monsieur Hire Trailer (HD – 1:05)
The commentary is with Wade Major, who is the producer and host of the DigiGods podcast, as well as a film critic for both CineGods website and the KPCC Radio’s FilmWeek. After opening with admiration for the new transfer, he talks about the source novel and the ways that Monsieur Hire is structured differently than Panique—the Duvivier’s film is more of a noir, while Hire is a pure Hitchcockian thriller. He also covers the ways that Hitchcock distinguished between a simple mystery and a thriller. As the film progresses, Major points out the ways that Leconte uses the visuals to convey story details rather than dialogue, noting how the changing colors of the costuming is coded to indicate the shifting relationship between Hire and Alice. Additionally, in their final scene together, while the police inspector may be the one who is doing the speaking, the real dialogue takes between Hire and Alice using only their eyes. Monsieur Hire contains many subtle details that are easy to miss, especially on a first viewing, so Major’s commentary offers a nice road map for anyone wanting to delve more deeply into its secrets.
Appropriately enough, the interview with Leconte opens with him providing his own slate. He explains how he always dreamed of remaking Panique, but it was producer Philippe Carcassonne who encouraged him to read Les Fiançailles de M. Hire and make a new version of the book instead. He explains his methodology in adapting the book for the screen, including what kinds of liberties that he took with the source material, and also talks about the way that he cast the primary roles. Bonnaire was interviewed separately, and her own thoughts about Leconte and the film are intercut with his. As a result, the editorial process creates a sort of a post-facto dialogue between the two of them. Bonnaire has her own insights into the character of Alice that provide an interesting counterpoint to what Leconte has to say. They both have plenty of praise for Michel Blanc, who Leconte says stayed in character 24/7 for the entire shoot, but dropped it like taking off a mask the moment that the film wrapped.
Both of these extras are particularly insightful, so they’re a nice addition to this package from Cohen Media Group and Kino Lorber. Yet it’s the gorgeous new master from Pathé that’s the real selling point here. If you’ve only experienced Monsieur Hire in standard definition on DVD or VHS, then you haven’t really seen Monsieur Hire. It’s as if a veil has been removed, and the original intentions of both Leconte and Denis Lenoir have finally been revealed. This Blu-ray is an essential addition to the library of any and every film fan. It gets the highest possible recommendation.
- Stephen Bjork