My personal favorite of Alain Resnais’s films, Stavisky… raises familiar arguments about the relative importance of style and content in a particularly loaded way. A fictionalization of events that led to the downfall of the Popular Front French government in the 1930s, it subordinates politics to a lapidary evocation of the era, allowing the ignorant to sigh in wistful envy at the passing of a time deceptively restricted to the most luxurious environments.
To be sure, Resnais and scenarist Jorge Semprun stress the fictional aspects of the film with an opening title that warns the film is not a literal depiction of events. Still, it is difficult to glide along with smooth con man Serge Alexandre (Jean-Paul Belmondo), aka “Stavisky,” without acknowledging that his elaborate pyramid schemes nearly bankrupted the French state, brought down the government and ruined thousands of innocent victims, all during the depths of the Depression. Measured against that reality, the film’s glossy polish could border on the insulting.
Except that Stavisky… was not unique among ’70s films to exploit a misplaced nostalgia for the ’30s by setting the action amidst the privileged. Some of those films (for example, The Conformist) claimed to examine the conditions that led to Fascism. Others (such as Murder on the Orient Express) reveled in the period atmosphere for itself. Their motivation was debatable, their success variable, but Stavisky…’s contribution to the political discussion was even more oblique and complex than most, since it does not deal with Fascism directly, but with events leading to the collapse of resistance to right-wing extremism.
So, given this potential fecklessness, how can I describe Stavisky… as my favorite Resnais film? Precisely because of that period evocation. To be sure, this “dream” about Stavisky (as one character insists is the appropriate reaction to his actions) is achieved by ignoring the worst aspects of the setting and subject, and can be seen as little better than a fashion show with expensive accessories. In a sense, that is the point: the surfaces and execution are so exquisite that they have an appeal of their own that smothers any greater reality. The film may have no ragged reminders of the Depression, but we know there could be and are content to ignore their absence, thus complicit in the decadent willingness to avoid the unpleasant as long as it does not affect us.
Stavisky… does little to enlighten us about the motivations of its charming protagonist and almost nothing about the consequences of his irresponsible manipulations. With every silky camera movement, precise cut, opalescent image, Yves. St. Laurent ensemble, sparkling diamond necklace, shiny limo and polished witticism, it does something more subtle, insidious and powerful. It demonstrates how easy it is to ignore corruption so long as it remains pleasurable. Indeed, the pleasure seems to justify the rot. So, if Stavisky… presents history as perfume commercial, it may be because there is a lot of stink to smother.