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The Second Wind
cast: Daniel Auteuil, Monica Bellucci, Michel Blanc, Eric Cantona, and Philippe Nahon

director: Alain Corneau

150 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
The Second Wind (aka: Le deuxième souffle) is certainly an ambitious piece of filmmaking. Packed with big French names, an epic running time and what appears to be a sizeable budget, The Second Wind is not just a remake of one of Jean-Pierre Melville's lesser known (but nonetheless respected) works, it is also a film that tries to update and reinvent the visual and emotional palettes of the noir crime drama. The result is a film that is beautifully made and filled with talented actors trying their best, but while one can certainly applaud the boldness of Alain Corneau's aesthetic choices, it is difficult to agree with them.

The film opens with old gangster Gustave 'Gu' Minda (Daniel Auteuil) escaping from prison. This news comes as something of a shock to his former girlfriend Manouche (Monica Bellucci) and his former partner Alban (Eric Cantona), as both had written Gu off as someone who had given up on life, a great criminal name broken on the rack of the 1960s' French prison system. Initially, Gu seems to be his old self again. Indeed, the second he gets back he expertly thwarts a pair of local hoods in their attempt to squeeze some money out of Manouche. However, having traced the hoods back to local pimp Jo Ricci, Gu seems uncertain and strangely unwilling to take revenge. Instead, he decides to skip town and Manouche and Gu flee to Marseilles where they wait to be smuggled into Italy. However, while they are waiting for their connection, Gu gets tempted out of retirement for one last job. A job that will allow him to retire as a rich man to Italy´┐Ż But soon the job goes wrong and Gu finds himself accused by a thuggish local detective (played by the wonderful Philippe Nahon who appeared as 'the butcher' in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, and I Stand Alone) of being a stool pigeon. Instead of fleeing the country in safety, Gu tries to clear his name, taking on first the detective and then his former associates. For all of Gu's complaints that things are not the way they were, he seems strangely unwilling to leave the life of crime he has chosen for himself.

Visually, the film displays an impressive use of colour. Instead of the long black and white shadows or washed out colours of Melville's noir, we have an intensely colourful but intensely dark world of sepulchral yellows, greens and reds. By combining the noir imagery of guns, raincoats and hats with broad Amélie-style chromatic saturation, Corneau has created something that is deeply reminiscent of Warren Beatty's rather uneven blockbuster Dick Tracy (1990). Mercifully though, we are spared that blockbuster's psychological shallowness.

Gu is a fascinating character as he is essentially suicidal. Having initially decided to die quietly in prison, he suddenly takes extraordinary risks by breaking out and hooking up with his old friends. Once home, he seems poised to begin a campaign of brutal retribution that would leave his enemies (and quite possibly him) drowning in their own blood. But rather than embarking down this path, he stops. He chickens out. As his survival instinct reasserts itself, he flees to Marseilles but rather than quietly slipping out of the country he gets himself involved with the family of the pimp that he was plotting to kill only a few days previously. Not only does he take on an incredibly dangerous job, he is also completely unconcerned with hiding his tracks. It is almost as though he wants the police to capture him. But then suddenly, his instinct for self-preservation reasserts itself and he allows himself to be taken for by the police. Then, having escaped again, he feels the urge to delve back into the life of crime in order to murder those who would besmirch his good name.

The film is also filled with talk of how much better things used to be. Corneau presents the younger police as ignorant and the younger crooks as sociopathic as though to suggest that Gu's days are over, replaced by a harsher and more brutal climate. But of course, this is self-deluding nonsense. Gu is a brutal killer and he always has been. The only difference between him and the young gangsters he falls out with is that he has friends and a reputation. When the young gangsters' time comes, they too will be rolling their eyes in horror at what other young men will do in an attempt to earn a reputation for themselves and make the right kind of friends.

Gu's bowdlerisation of the code of the streets finds an interesting complement in the worldview of the detective that is hunting him down. Blot (Michel Blanc) is loquacious where Gu is monosyllabic. He understands the supposed codes of the street but he is cynical about them. He sees them as things to be manipulated and worked around, unlike Gu who treats them as holy writ when it suits him; providing a handy moral justification for his suicidal and irrational courses of action.

One of the more interesting subplots to feature quite heavily in the Melville version but much less in Corneau's is the fate of Manouche. Supposedly an ageing moll who has been around the block a few times, Manouche begins the film with a great loyalty to Gu, but as she realises the doomed path he is on, she carefully removes herself from his life. Hooking up instead with the elegant and eminently sensible Orloff (Jacques Dutronc), a crook whose careful disposition serves as a wonderful counterpoint to Gu's increasing lack of care.

Indeed, all the ingredients are here for a great film, but sadly one never quite materialises. Firstly, while the names above the title are all very impressive, they seem terribly miscast. When Melville first made the film, he chose as his star the great Lino Ventura, an ageing actor who had been playing criminals for years. When Ventura returned from prison as Gu, it was like Sinatra singing My Way, there was an instant association between the character and the actor. However, while Auteuil does good work as Gu, he is not an actor with those kinds of associations. He is an actor who owes his profile as much to frothy comedies, such as The Closet (2001), as he does to serious art house fare such as Hidden (2005), and A Heart In Winter (1992). He has no real association with the genre and as a result his casting seems unbelievable despite Auteuil's considerable technical skill.

By contrast, consider Jean-Francois Richet's recent film, about Jacques Mesrine, Public Enemy Number One (2008). When Richet wanted an actor to play an older and slightly louche criminal he went straight to Gerard Depardieu, a man whose image fit the part perfectly. Bellucci is also a problematic piece of casting as she is simply too glamorous for the supposedly battered Manouche. Bellucci's Manouche could have walked out of a life of crime and into high society at the drop of the hat. The same could not be said for Christine Fabrega who perfectly inhabited the icy and yet fragile Manouche in Melville's original. However, having made this complaint, it does strike me that the film's one truly standout performance is by Michael Blanc who is wonderful as the sarcastic and tricksy Blot, despite having forged a career largely as a comic actor. So maybe I know nothing at all about casting.

Secondly, while the film looks marvellous, it is thematically off-putting. Melville's use of light and colour in films such as Dirty Money (1972), and Army Of Shadows (1969), gives the impression of a cold and heartless world. A world against which his characters were forever protecting themselves with raincoats and hats pulled down over their eyes. Corneau presents us with a world with a colour scheme more reminiscent of the pre-reboot Batman films. This lends the world an almost dream-like quality that is actually quite grating over the two and a half hours of the film. This sense of unreality is not helped by Corneau's decision to accompany every gunshot with Kill Bill-style geysers of blood. Where Melville's violence was a natural outgrowth of a bleak world, Corneau's violence is the cartoonish currency of a darkened dreamscape.

The film's pacing is something of a double-edged sword. Melville's 150-minute running time showed real innovation and his bold decision to place an equal amount of emphasis on the action sequences and the more personal aspects of the film gave it a genuinely unique film. Evidently this formula is robust enough to survive a rewrite by Corneau as it works again here. If you are willing to surrender yourself to the careful pacing, The Second Wind is a slow-burning joy. But if you want something a bit faster paced then you will most likely find yourself reaching for the fast-forward button in search of the film's few short action sequences. Personally, I adore the film's careful pacing but it definitely moves it out of the thriller genre and towards the territory occupied by more traditional dramas.

While there is much to admire in Corneau's re-adaptation of Jose Giovanni's novel, I was struck by how little it added to the Melville original. Corneau's big name casting mostly fails to work out (the notable exceptions being the two detectives) and the film's remarkable visual style really adds nothing to the story. By contrast, what works in The Second Wind is also what works in the Melville adaptation. So I would suggest that you would be better off hunting down the Criterion release of the original, if only because it ships with more extras than a single poxy trailer.

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