France 2001 : Cedric Kahn : 124 mins
ONE-LINE REVIEW: True-crime tale of a psychotic cop-killer on the loose in southern France – strong performances and accomplished direction, but repetitive, episodic script makes it a long haul for no great reward.
Roberto Succo (Stefanio Cassetti) was a psychotic but charismatic young criminal who blazed a violent trail across Italy, southern France and Switzerland in the late eighties, always one step ahead of the various bungling police authorities on his trail. According to the film, this elusiveness is more as a matter of luck than skill – there’s little or no planning behind Succo’s exploits, which encompass housebreaking, kidnap, burglary, car-theft and, occasionally, murder.
When finally arrested, he also confesses to rape – but this is one crime which Kahn never shows Succo perpetrating. Instead, we see his oddly chaste romance with inexperienced French teenager Lea (Isild le Besco) which she eventually breaks off, tiring of his live-wire unpredictability. Succo’s aversion to sexual activity also presumably played its part in the split – we’re a long way from the non-stop carnality that powered Kahn’s L’Ennui, another tale of amour fou involving a laissez-faire teenage girl and a motormouth older man.
But while L’Ennui zipped along on the freewheeling interplay of characters, Roberto Succo is constricted by its adherence to the case’s facts. The results are episodic and repetitive: Succo carries out a series of impulsive crimes while the police – headed by a French officer Major Thomas (Patrick dell’Isola) – slowly gather clues to his identity and, even more slowly, close in on their spring-heeled prey. When shown in Cannes, the film attracted noisy protests from the French and Italian police forces who were upset at the supposed glorification of the cop-killer ‘hero’, and their presentation as ineffectual bunglers.
As with other real-life multiple killers like American Ted Bundy and ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ Peter Sutcliffe, the facts indicate how remarkable it is – not to mention how worrying – that Succo got away with his antics for so long. And, like so many notorious criminals, the circumstances of his capture are borderline farcical: he casually says ‘ciao’ to a couple of Italian cops as he passes them on the street. The methodical Italians and French don’t emerge that badly, however – it’s the Swiss who have the most cause for complaint, appearing quite spectacularly ineffectual when Succo zooms through their patch after a car-jacking.
The ‘glorification’ charge doesn’t quite stick, either, even though Cassetti’s performance is strikingly physical, mercurially intense – sufficiently so to join the pantheon of self-aggrandising no-good-niks that includes Martin Sheen from Badlands and Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless. But while Succo clearly isn’t a “serial killer” in the manner of a Bundy or a Dahmer, he’s more pitiable than sympathetic – and the audience loses patience with him around the same time as Lea: in the latter stages, when he goes off the rails after being arrested, a little of his paranoid ranting goes a very long way.
It doesn’t help matters that Kahn’s script is so relentlessly one-note – or that he places the Swiss car-chase, a tense and darkly humorous action sequence that feels very much like a climax, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. Everything afterwards feels flat and interminably protracted, with no sense that Kahn is telling us anything about Succo’s psychology or motives that couldn’t have been imparted in a half-hour short. On a scene-by-scene basis, however, this is a solid enough piece of film-making, with some atmospheric use of the geographically varied locales and an evocatively moody Marianne Faithfull track popping up no less than three times on the soundtrack. But it’s hard avoid a none-the-wiser, so-what-ish feeling of pointlessness as the credits roll – psycho killer, que-est-ce que c’est? indeed.
29th July, 2002
(seen Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 28th July)
by Neil Young
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