Directed by Henri Verneuil
With Yves Montand (Henry Volney), Jean-François Garreaud (Vernon Calbert), Pierre Vernier (Charly Feruda), Didier Sauvegrain (Karl Eric Daslow), Jean Lescot (Franck Bellony), Jacques Sereys (Richard Mallory)
Before enjoying the moving images, the audience first discover a film with a still image, the poster displayed in the movie theaters, the streets, and the media. The poster of this political thriller puts close to the center of the image in big red thin letters the names of Montand and Verneuil next to each other above the bigger white bold letters of the title. These two names are clearly viewed as being the key to catch the attention and to warrant buying a ticket: actor Yves Montand and filmmaker Henri Verneuil are arguably in 1979 at the apex of their popularity, living symbols of a thriving and influential national cinema able to draw crowds in the theaters, artists who have largely proved how talented and successful they are, and are widely respected for their skills – and a few other things, in Montand’s case, his charisma and political commitments, conveyed on the silver screen through the films of Costa-Gavras “L’aveu”, 1970, and “Z”, 1969, in Verneuil’s case his knack at pleasing the audience and making profitable films.
Their new film is a personal affair: both are the producers, although Montand goes uncredited. To Montand the film is a fresh attempt to portray an honest, decent man who is battling lies and fighting for truth (his films with Costa-Gavras are the obvious reference), which suits his belief that spectacular entertainment can make ordinary folks think about the world. To Verneuil it is the opportunity to share his dismay at a famous, and contentious, experiment made by a leading expert in psychology, American academic Stanley Milgram, purporting to prove that large swaths of the population, out of deep respect for scientific authority, are able to carry out the worst act. Verneuil extends the notion of scientific authority to any kind of authority and gladly assents to Milgram’s conclusions; he has not been alone then, but this is still vexing.
Since the psychologist’s findings are so unsettling and important to him, Verneuil’s urge to expose them prompts him to weave a reconstruction of Milgram’s experience into his narrative. The 14-minute sequence is hard to forget, but honestly, it does not help that much to understand who the killer who is under investigation really is and how he ended up taking part in the assassination of his country’s democratically re-elected president. According to the fictional scientist, the experience showed that Karl Erik Daslow was a cold-blooded fellow who could only respect some kind of authority: that seems harping on the obvious and a weak trigger for the rest of the narrative, the quest for those who ordered the murder – the conclusion that there was a plot looks like a foregone conclusion that the screenplay predictably makes Prosecutor Henry Volney utter at this convenient moment.
What could have been a personal reason for a director skilled at shooting good detective stories and films that capture the zeitgeist is the personal challenge to give his national cinema a production looking like the wave of new, anxiety-ridden political thrillers coming from across the Atlantic Ocean. American cinema, faced with a society reeling from the Vietnam War fiasco and worried by the extent of the powers grabbed by politicians, a fear epitomized by the denunciation of the so-called “imperial presidency” of Richard Nixon, and by corporations, has delivered nervous, brisk, and pessimistic stories where paranoia plays a clear role, like Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation”, in 1972, or Sidney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor”, in 1975. And “I… comme Icare” rests without question on paranoid fears of overreaction by the powers that be, especially those which are not immediately accountable to voters.
The narrative also borrows from modern America, as it is egregiously based on the events surrounding the murder of President John Kennedy some sixteen years earlier. After the killing of the leader of a fictional nation (whose descriptive details effortlessly bring to mind North America), an official inquiry publishes its findings. But one member of the investigating commission, Volney, refuses to sign up to what he deems an effort at hiding real facts. As the rules of the commission demand, he is right away granted the power to make his own investigation, a huge and risky task he forcefully takes on, with the highly effective aid of his deeply loyal assistants, Charly Feruda and Vernon Calbert. They soon realize how easily the previous inquiry neglected many leads, including an amateur film shot on the assassination’s day. Through an analysis of the images, they can find out a group of persons who clearly noticed something important; but it turns out that many of them died in odd circumstances. Yet they manage to meet a key surviving witness, Franck Bellony.
Acting on the few elements he can provide, delving deeper in the life of the suspected killer, who seemingly shot himself after his crime, Volney slowly uncovers a path linking the assassination to a senior official of his nation’s, Richard Mallory. But he would not be able to go much further.
If the American movies thrived in ambiguity, or even happy endings, Verneuil’s film is remarkable by refusing both, instead choosing for a deeply pessimistic, somber outcome for the brave hero seeking the truth, in another attempt to make the audience think, and realize how fragile a democracy can be, because of the faults of elements of the authorities too readily left unaccountable, in this case the national security apparatus, and because of the public’s own failings, a notion that leads us back to Milgram’s experience. This is a blunt assessment, but still a very relevant one, and one that is rather brave to make to a French public who may trust too easily state power, at least more than the American public of the 1970s, and view themselves as better (or just luckier) than the others.
Montand is the only movie star in a film featuring mainly supporting actors more or less well-known but no other big actor (although famous stage director and actor Roger Planchon plays the part of the fictional Milgram), perhaps for budget reasons. Obviously creating a whole nation and reconstructing so many historical elements at the same time were a striking endeavor probably strained the budget already. But it should be noted how well Verneuil pulls it off with his many collaborators with what they had. Montand plays Montand, gestures, voice, and emotions wonderfully recognizable and recycled, which means that the audience is on a solidly charted and trodden territory and scenery can sometimes be readily chewed before their eyes. “I… comme Icare” is a vehicle for his skills and opinions first and foremost, but certainly not exclusively: the suspense is really good independently of his presence. The narrative proves engrossing, with astute ideas, though Volney’s inquest is only successful because of the stunningly inept mistakes of the previous inquiry, such a blatant show of incompetence that it still begs belief and makes Volney’s aides incredibly clever, and a bit too much so – but after all, details of the official inquiry into Kennedy’s murder still fuel fierce debates decades later. The film, more interestingly, is a reminder that French cinema has often been able to handle sensitive topics and recent history in a quick and decisive manner: the hackneyed judgment on its inability to produce such films is just, indeed, hackneyed and wrong.