Don’t be fooled by the fact that Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire (1989) ends tragically. Despite an ending that guarantees the triumph of justice and the punishment of evil, Julien Duvivier’s Panique—the earlier French adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire” —is by far the more nihilistic film. Released a mere year after Germany’s surrender in World War Two, Panique is both an accusation and an exorcism of national shame.
It’s easy to miss that Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), the odd fellow who keeps to himself in his room at the top of his small village’s hotel, is Jewish. It’s only briefly alluded to in one line of dialogue. And certainly, his explicitly non-kosher diet of “thick and bloody” lamb chops and “ripe and runny” camembert is no big help. But he is Jewish nonetheless. So it’s impossible to watch his eventual exclusion, persecution, and indirect execution by his fellow villagers after being falsely accused of the murder of a local heiress as anything other than a piercing denunciation of French collusion and indifference towards the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. But even stripped of its social/historical context, the deliberate seduction and betrayal of Monsieur Hire by the girlfriend of the actual murderer as a scapegoat for their crimes is downright Shakespearean in power.
The last third of the film stands as one of the great triumphs of post-war French cinema as harmless rumors and suspicions snowball into an unstoppable lynch mob mentality. Most directors go their entire careers never making a scene as perfect as the one where Monsieur Hire arrives in an empty village square via a taxi only for the entire community to crash into him as one like an angry wave. Criterion Collection released Panique in Blu-ray this past December, and as an exercise in cinematic craftsmanship, the film is essential. As a manifestation of post-war French guilt, it’s indispensable.
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