Whatever Happened to Gilles Mimouni?
It happens so rarely with Cinema. In Literature, its more common; Harper Lee, Arundahti Roy. Both writers who wrote one novel, then gave up. There are others; Ross Lockridge Jr. He wrote "Raintree County" in 1948, and it was called a "Great American Novel" by lots of critics. Killed himself two months later, leaving it as his single novel. Not so in cinema. Directors begin careers. They make a second film, it flops, they start to take jobs in TV or advertising. Or they craft an oeuvre, film after film of varying quality, hitting their stride at some point, tailing off into late middle age as they lose edge and relevance. They don't just...stop.
Gilles Mimouni did. He made "L'Appartement" in 1996. 12 years ago. It is one of the great French films - perhaps one of the greatest films from anywhere - of the 1990s, and it was a commercial success, a sizeable hit, in fact. He hasn't made a film since. There are a few precedents. Charles Laughton never directed again after the failure of his lovely "The Night of the Hunter" (1955). James William Guercio made only "Electra Glide in Blue" (1973). But even the directors who gain reputations as virtual cinematic J.D. Salingers - like Terrence Malick had before his recent return to the fray, like Kubrick had after 1970 - even they make films fairly regularly regularly. Malick made two films in the 1970s, and next years "Tree of Life" will be his third in just under a decade since he returned to cinema. Kubrick made a film every five years or so and was always developing something. Nobody just stops. Except Mimouni. IMDB draws a blank. His only credit besides "L'Appartement" is as Executive Producer on "Wicker Park", its 2004 US remake. A comment thread on his page lists three projects he has been subsequently linked with, all of which fell apart. Well, I remember reading announcements about all of those over the last decade. "The Pretender" an English language Spy Thriller which would have reunited him with Vincent Cassel - fell apart in 2001. "Flight of the Storks", an adaptation of the debut novel by the author of "Crimson Rivers" about a serial killer - broke down in 2004. "The Swedish Cavalier", an adaptation of Leo Perutz's 1936 swashbuckling identity-swap thriller, which Christophe Gans is now attached to direct. 12 years is a long time without anything to show for it except a string of broken down projects.
The reason this is worthy of comment is the sheer quality of "L'Appartement". Obviously a product of the post-"Pulp Fiction" rush to greenlight any film with a sense of its own cinematic heritage, a vaguely noirish feel and a sense of style, it is one of the few films from that era to have aged really well. This is because Mimouni displays talent both as a writer and director. He looks like a natural, in fact, with a distinctive voice and an amazing confidence for a debutant director. While most post-Tarantino films borrowed the tough guy criminal settings or the richness of the dialogue, Mimouni is more cine-literate. "L'Appartement" refers obviously to "Vertigo" and there is a definite Hitchock vibe to the the whole enterprise, underlined by the Herrmann-esque score by Peter Chase. Yet the film always feels like its own unique beast. Indeed, it feels more like the best film Brian DePalma never made, like DePalma with a slightly classier sensibility.
It is brilliant mix of thriller, love story and mystery. Above all, it is a story of obsessive love and grief. The plot is far too complex to summarise. In brief, it follows Max (Vincent Cassel) after he overhears a woman he believes may be Lisa (Monica Bellucci) the love of his life, who left him without explanation two years before. His search for her leads him into the life of Alice (Romaine Bohringer) who has her own secrets and connections to the separated couple. The story turns and reverses itself countless times until in the last act we trust nothing and no-one, least of all Mimouni, who is brilliantly adept at flipping his narrative and indicating new readings of what we have seen before. Despite this, it is engrossing throughout, the characters sympathetic even at their most selfish and self-destructive. Cassel's Max is driven to the brink by his grief for Lisa. When he thinks he can discover why she left, he cannot help himself, and under this spell, he lies to his fiance, his colleagues, follows strangers, breaks into apartments and hotel rooms. The actor's versatility is evident here, his harsh, dramatic face softened for an everyman effect, as is his chemistry with Bellucci, whom he met on set. This was the first film to properly acknowledge her ravishing beauty, and it does so by utilising an old cliche; it allows Max to fall for her in an instant in one of those silent slow falls of the soul. We see it in his eyes, his breath stopping. Mimouni shows us what he sees - videotape footage of her in close-up, talking, casual, yet heart-stopping. Max falls in love with her partly because he first encounters her on footage Alice shot. He sees her through Alice's eyes, and Alice is plainly a little in love with Lisa. But such sequences litter romances and romantic comedies, rhapsodizing women who are unworthy of the treatment. Bellucci, however, earns it by her sheer extraordinary beauty, and so the moment when Cassel, stricken, becomes utterly bewitched by her face feels believable, even natural.
Bohringer has the most difficult role. Much of the time the camera is trained upon her face and we have to read so much of the story's emotion there - her truest feelings often seem hidden even from herself. She is magnificent - sad, frightening, insecure, sexy and always human. It is the dark act of her character that has driven the plot of the film, and she is the shadow in its emotional margins. That darkness is a key component - this is a story full of people breaking rules, stalking one another, lying, hurting, partly a love story and partly a story of somebody trying to destroy that love. So convincing is Bohringer that it is as if she has convinced the film to take her side after and hour and a half. It feels more her story than Max's or Lisa's. She and Cassel share a chemistry just as blistering as that between him and Bellucci. The final 15 minutes, when the ridiculous revelations and reversals pile up, depend upon believable relationships, and each of the principals delivers. The film works. Aside from its wit and style, it is affecting, it has emotional weight. The ambiguity of its ending seems just and the only way not to betray what has gone before. Cassell and Bohringer gaze at one another, then she fades away. It is beautiful, in its sad, low-key fashion. Bellucci, by contrast is punished for her beauty, perhaps.
That American remake, "Wicker Park", directed by Paul McGuigan in 2006, unsurprisingly absolutely botches the ending. It opts for a simple, happy reunion to the strains of Coldplay's "The Scientist", an unimaginable lapse in taste when the original is taken into consideration. And in many other ways it has remained faithful. Many of its scenes are virtual shot-by-shot recreations of Mimouni's film, and some of the design choices are incredibly similar. But this is no surprise either. One of the most notable aspects of "L'Appartement" is its boldness and confidence. Technically, Mimouni is obviously gifted - his framing, shot choice and editing are all seamless, his storytelling smooth and stylish. His screenplay - so confident and assured - is given the direction its quality warrants. His design choices are bold in service of the wit and mood he seeks - think of the gaudy, infernal red of the central cafe, the gothically shot apartment of the title, the shoe shop like something from an advertisement. This is the work of a man with a vision, a man who knows exactly how his film should look, sound and play.
Perhaps "L'Appartement" was all he had in the tank. Perhaps he had said everything he wanted to say with that one, near-perfect film. He wrote it, he directed it, it worked, people liked it. Quit while you're ahead, perhaps. But I hope not. I hope he comes back. After all this time, that sensibility will have matured, altered subtly. Cinema itself, the world, they have changed. It would be fascinating to see what Gilles Mimouni makes of those changes and what we make of him.