Friday, November 21, 2008

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.

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Blogger Ross said...

L'Appartment was the film that persuaded me that French cinema wasn't just the stereotypical arthouse drone of close-ups of dead pan faces, cigarettes in hands and dripping cod-philosophical snippets.
It showed me that it could be amazing. I haven't seen it in years so I will have to dig it out - it's time.

Do you sometimes wish that other directors had only made one movie and then stopped? Or are you always glad of interesting failures?

1:18 am  
Blogger Beezer B said...

This is funny because until I read this I just assumed that dude had made bunch of films and was still going strong. I wouldn't assume to know see. I saw the film on VHS and thought it were right good.
I guess I just assumed he was making some of the French films I wasn't really in the know about for the last ten years.

Oh and when that Malick film comes out can you tell me a couple of weeks in advance so that I can find he one cinema it's on at and see it there in the one week it's on? Seeing New World on DVD only sucked a lot of balls.

1:25 am  
Blogger David N said...

Imagine Tarantino had only made Reservoir Dogs. Or Soderbergh stopped at Sex Lies & Videotape. I would obviously miss many of their subsequent films, but the mistique both would have would be amazing. I can think of more directors I wish had never made any films at all, though...

I thought of another I should have mentioned - Gary Oldman never followed Nil by Mouth with anything.

Beez - theres a region 1 Directors Cut of the New World just come out. A lot longer, supposedly just as amazing. i can't believe hes working on another, and there is talk of an adaptation of Gawain & the Green Knight to follow that. Truly we are blessed.

12:35 am  
Blogger Ross said...

Hadn't Tarantino made something else when Resevoir Dogs came out, or was it just the writing for True Romance, NBK and Killing Zoe?

2:20 am  
Blogger jamesinseoul said...

I always think it's better to have too much than not enough. I haven't seen L'Appartment, but I hope he comes back too.

5:08 am  
Blogger David N said...

He'd written much but directed nothing. Truly great debuts are rare, too. Many directors stumble their first time out. Not Tarantino, not Mimouni.

12:23 am  
Blogger Beezer B said...

"an adaptation of Gawain & the Green Knight"

for real? That's nuts. I'll have to put that New World long(er) version on my christmas list. Santa has a lot of responsibility this year.

11:29 pm  
Blogger David N said...

For real. Its perfect in a way - pastoral, mystical, an old, generic enough myth that he could write whatever he wanted onto it.

The version with Connery from the 70s is not bad, either. A bit literal, maybe.

12:50 am  
Blogger Nix said...

Thank you for this post. I, too, have often wondered what happened to Gilles Mimouni.

L'Appartment is one of my all-time favourite films, viewed on its own or alongside the similarly themed master-works from Hitchcock and De Palma. But unlike those directors who graduated to the masterpieces of their career, Mimouni made a masterpiece on his first outing.

The precision with which Mimouni crafts L'Appartment is extraordinary from a first-time director in a Citizen Kane way. And perhaps that need for precision is the reason why we haven't had another Mimouni film before or since? I hope he does make another film, as it's bound to be worth the wait.

1:44 pm  
Anonymous missD said...

google Gilles Mimouni and I found your blog. ^_^

2:29 pm  
Blogger Grant said...

I still love this film after originally seeing it in the cinema when it was released, I bought the DVD and I've probably watched it 20 times since. It is, and always will be, in my list of the 5 best films ever made. Mimouni seems to have distilled some essence in this film, not immediately apparent in the straight narrative, that is simply the best evocation of longing and heartbreak I've ever seen committed to celluloid. I don't think Cassel, Belluci and Bohringer have ever been better in their subsequent work. To stop at this one film is a fantastic enigma.

6:40 am  
Blogger Steve S said...

Great film (first thing I played in my Cyberhome multi-region player) and boring remake, agreed.

The reason why it's rare to see a true director (as opposed to a Charles Laughton was primarily an actor) make just one film versus a writer producing just one book is logistics. It takes someone years to work up to the point where someone will entrust that much money just to stop after the first one. A writer only needs a case of paper and something to write with.

Although this is much more prevalent with female directors who also have to buck the system. Just look at Jenniphr Goodman, who should have been deluged with light comedies after her very assured debut of TAO OF STEVE, but has criminally never been given another one.

6:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The purest instance of one-shot cinematic excellence I know of is Barbara Loden's WANDA, and I suspect lots of others besides me had known about it for 35 years before making arrangements to see it-- an utterly confident one-off whose blurred narrative and naturalistic performances feel beyond the reach of moviemaking-courses and the canons of commercial film.

3:04 am  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah, I've seen Wanda, and it is brilliant.

But like Laughton, Loden was primarily a performer, which is obviously part of what makes the film work so well - that loose, cinema verite approach, all the improv. It barely got a release, and she died before she could follow it up, which explains why its a one-off.

11:48 pm  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

He'd written much but directed nothing. Truly great debuts are rare, too. Many directors stumble their first time out. Not Tarantino, not Mimouni.Actually, Tarantino shot a feature in the 1980s called My Best Friend's Birthday. It's 16mm, in black and white. It cost $5000 and took him 3 years to film (1984 - 1987). Apparently, it was supposed to run something like 70 minutes, but I don't think he finished editing it, so the surviving footage runs about 34 minutes.

It is actually the aforementioned stumble, and he later reused portions of its dialogue in his later films and adapted to the plot for the script of True Romance. Bootleg videos of it have circulated since he first became famous. He uses some of the same actors, too, including the guy who'd end up playing the sheriff in Reservoir Dogs.

3:07 am  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


You can watch most of it on YouTube:

3:09 am  
Blogger David N said...

A stumble indeed, but I'm not sure I'd call it an actual debut, since it was never finished or released. More of a high quality (and even that is debatable) home movie...

12:02 am  
Blogger olivia said...

A few years back, I worked with Mimouni. He directed a commercial for me in Marseille. Then I never heard about him anymore. One day I read the obtuaries in La Figaro French dayly paper. They aneounced that "a"Gilles Mimouni had passed. Nobody could confirm. And in the businesse, I never heard about Mimouni anymore..

4:51 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Mais Non!!

Surely, surely such a passing would garner more attention than that...?

10:54 pm  
Anonymous TH said...

I've been wondering about Mimouni for many years. This old post of yours is the first result you get when you put his name in Google. For someone who has written and directed a rather popular and well-known film, maybe even a masterpiece, there's curiously little information available. I can't even find a photo of him, and almost no biographical information. Perhaps someone with a better command of French than me can tell me more?

It's almost as if he's playing a practical joke on everybody. I don't believe he's dead; someone reputable would have written about it somewhere. Perhaps Mimouni is not his real name? Perhaps he's working in the industry under some other name? Perhaps he's sick?

He's a total mystery. Maybe that's the way he prefers it.

1:08 am  
Blogger Jonathan Fox said...

Of equal mystery is Peter Chase who created the music for L'appartement. There is no evidence of him either. You cannot find the soundtrack for the film or any photos or material on Peter.

All of this is as mysterious as the film. I want to know more but where to look?


3:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely stunning film! I am unable to find any details on the shooting -- where is that fabulous apartment? It reminds one of Gaudi somehow... Have googled endlessly and not having any luck. Suggestions anyone?


12:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

)))))))))) I to you cannot believe :)

8:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You did not try to look in

2:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have hit the mark. I like this thought, I completely with you agree.

3:37 am  
Blogger Phil said...

I am amazed to find this page and realise that others too consider this film to be unique in it's quality and style. It is sad that Mimouni has not provided us with more material examples of his obvious talent. However, having been involved in the making of a film myself I could forgive him for not continuing if he simply found the experience was just too stressful.
Suffice to say that L'Apartment stands on it's own as a masterpiece in film making. The tone, balance, pace, energy and subtlety of this work should be carefully observed by all aspiring film makers. The final comment I would like to make on this talented film maker relates to his masterful use of of a truly haunting music soundtrack and his ability to thread it into the very essence of this film and it's engaging characters.

2:22 pm  
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10:57 pm  
Anonymous Tanya said...

Thanks for initiating this blog. This is truly one of my all time favourite films! Mysterious, poignant, atmospheric and masterful!
I have bee trying to locate the soundtrack for this film for several years now... No luck as yet... Peter chase is indeed just as elusive. If anyone knows where one can obtain a copy, please let me know.

11:39 pm  
Anonymous Roger Ebert said...

In the U.S., anyway, you can stream it via Amazon Instant for $1.99. And I'm going to:


8:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Manon from the Sources and The Apartment - undeniably two best French movies ever made.

5:26 pm  
Blogger Maxim Arnold said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:49 am  
Blogger Maxim Arnold said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the film totally. I also love the fact that Gilles obviously feels that he doesn't need to prove anything to either himself or anyone else when it comes to his art.
In a world where utterly talentless so called celebrities act with all the charm and wit of a fish wife, it is refreshing to witness the silence of someone who, for all we know may have found something completely different to interest and occupy his mind. Whatever, thank you so much for your gem of a gem.

8:14 pm  

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