Everything about this alluringly tainted French mystery is geared to make us doubt our first impressions. An agitated man (André Wilms) photographs a young girl’s corpse. His emotional state suggests a personal involvement, but the man is a police inspector investigating the girl’s murder. Later he interrogates a local tailor, Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc). Hire is a misanthropic hermit whose dark clothing and parchment pallor (he’s a ringer for the child molester played by Peter Lorre in M) arouse our suspicions. Hire also enjoys spying on Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), the beauty who lives in the apartment across from his.
Hire is a peeping Tom, but is he a killer who deserves to have his neighbors rise up against him? Alice and her boyfriend Emile (Luc Thuillier), whose love-making Hire watches from the shadows of his room while listening to Brahms, look innocent. But why does Alice stage a meeting with Hire and take steps to seduce him?
In adapting Georges Simenon’s 1933 novel Les Fiançailles de Monsieur Hire, director and coscreenwriter Patrice Leconte has shifted the emphasis from political to human drama. Simenon’s book was a stinging indictment of mob justice, as was Panique, Julien Duvivier’s 1946 film version. But Leconte is more concerned with the issue of personal betrayal. He has made an unapologetically romantic film out of a grisly story. Leconte, a comedy director who has done five films with Blanc, is perhaps overzealous in draining the film of humor. His sober approach slows down the pace, but the gain in emotional impact is ample compensation.
Blanc is mesmerizing as he reveals the hurt beneath Hire’s icy exterior. And Bonnaire, the hardened rebel of Vagabond, brings out the warmth and confusion in Alice. In one breathtaking scene, shot on the roof of a church, these two unlikely lovers momentarily forget their hidden agendas to share a kiss in the open air. The longing and loss in that kiss is the essence of the film – a spellbinder that digs into the darker recesses of the heart.