Point de chute – or the day I started to identify with Johnny Hallyday

Point de chute (Falling Point) is the first film I ever saw with Robert Hossein as director. I thought it was wonderful – even if it did star Johnny Hallyday. I’ve never been a fan of Hallyday’s but it seems he really is a rather good actor. I had already seen him in Patrice Leconte’s L’Homme du train (The Man on the Train) and he was excellent in that too. It’s a pity he didn’t prioritise his acting career over his music.

Anyway, this film is one of my favourite films now and it made me seek out other films directed by Robert Hossein. I’ve seen a few – there’s no doubt he’s a real talent as both an actor and a director. I read somewhere, though, that Point de chute was a rip-off of another movie – Hubert Cornfield’s film of 1968 (pre-dating Point de chute by two years) The Night of the Following Day. I took a look at the plot summary of this film and it certainly sounds very similar but I can’t imagine that it could actually be a better film than Point de chute – it seems to be more sordid and brutal. Point de chute is a film of subtleties; it’s very sensitive. Actually, it’s perfect.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I saw it and when I later saw Robert Hossein’s 1969 film Un corde, un colt (The Rope and the Colt) with a very similar escape scene (a red haired lady running through the sand) and the crumbling of food at the dinner table, it reminded me of Point de chute and I decided I should write something about it. It’s been a long time coming but here it is finally:

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* SPOILER ALERT * The article below contains the entire plot of the film

The plot summary is that a gang of criminals kidnap the daughter of a wealthy man and demand a ransom. The girl is taken to a cabin on a deserted beach until the ransom has been the paid. One of the criminals, Vlad, is appointed to keep an eye on the girl whilst the other gang members make contact with the family and organise delivery of the ransom. Vlad and the girl wait patiently for payment to be made – once payment has been received she will be freed and he will also be able to leave the isolation of the cabin. But the girl sees Vlad without his disguise on and so the gang leader has decided that it is too dangerous to let her go once the ransom has been paid. Vlad, who they hold responsible for this incident, will have to kill the girl. The ransom is a long time in coming though and Vlad and the girl slowly develop an understanding of each other. This makes it impossible for Vlad to kill the girl and when the gang turn up with his share of the ransom money they find the girl still alive. Vlad won’t let the gang kill her and he turns his gun instead on the gang. He lets the girl go free and takes the gang leader’s car so he can escape himself. But the car won’t start and as Vlad heads off along the beach on foot, the gang leader takes a rifle from the car and shoots Vlad in the back. The girl, hearing the gun shot and seeing Vlad collapse, runs back to him and is subsequently shot herself. They try to reach other by crawling through the sand and are within a hand’s reach of other when they die.

There are five main characters in the story: Johnny Hallyday is Vlad (also known as the Romanian); Pascale Rivault is the girl; Robert Hossein is the boss; Albert Minski is Eddy (the other gang member); Robert Dalban is the Inspector.

The story is basic enough but it’s the way Robert Hossein, as director, manages to draw the spectator into the narrative and gets you to identify with the characters that makes it so good. The film is shot in both colour and black and white – the significance of this becomes clear as the story develops. The black and white sequences are events following the deaths of the two main protagonists – Vlad and the girl – and are confined to the police inspector and his investigations. The colour scenes are flashbacks to the kidnapping and the events leading up to the deaths. The flashbacks contain information that the inspector is not privy to and may never know but the black and white sequences act as an aid to assist us with our journey through the story.

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The film starts with a black and white sequence where the police inspector enters the cabin on the beach. He sees books, beer cans, a flute, masks and a radio. He notices bullet holes in the door.

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The two masks here resemble the two dead protagonists at the end of the film

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Then he goes upstairs to a room where he finds some crumpled up notes on the floor. He reads the notes to himself and we hear his inner voice: “How long are they going to keep me here? I’m afraid.” and “They locked me in the attic. I’m cold. I don’t know how long they’re going to keep me here. I feel sick.” He finds a notebook hidden under the mattress and reads what is written – “I have to find a way out. I don’t know how to do it with that horrible guy downstairs. I can see him between the door’s planks.”

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The police inspector then closes the door and looks through the hole in the door.

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The main story is cued by the inspector’s reading of “I can see him between the door’s planks” and the act of looking through the hole – the next scene is in colour and it is a girl looking through the hole.

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Is the inspector trying to identify with the hostage? And are we, as spectator, identifying with the inspector? At this point we don’t know quite where we’re situated – we know less than the inspector knows because we do not know the reason the police are investigating on the beach. But we hope that his investigations will lead us through the entire story – as it turns out we only identify with the inspector in the respect that he is looking to solve the mystery of what happened to the girl and we also want to know what happened. We have identified with him to a certain extent – seeing the items on the table as he saw them (from his point of view) and we have also been privy to his inner voice when he read the notes out to himself – but on one occasion when the inspector reads the girl’s notebooks the internal sound we hear is of the girl herself reading it out. From this point forward the information we witness as spectator is more detailed and differs to the information available to the inspector.

The narration is, on the whole, unrestricted. As a spectator we know and see more than anyone else. We see things that Vlad does not see and we see things that the girl does not see. We know more than the inspector. In order to identify with the two protagonists we need to see and hear what they see and hear. But we’re not identifying with just one of the protagonists, spectator placement alternates between the two characters and we identify with both of them – and, interestingly, they begin to identify with each other too.

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The narrative is not completely unrestricted – we never learn whether the girl’s dad called the police; we don’t know what the boss and Eddy are doing away from the cabin. Our views shift constantly between Vlad and the girl, seeing their external behaviour and also shots from their point of view or sound perspective. I would argue that we identify slightly more with Vlad than the girl (we never even learn her name) because we go into his mind more – when he imagines the girl at school and when he imagines her running along the beach. We know from accessing his fantasy visions that he is thinking about the girl’s life, the life she led, and that he can see her smiling at him and then in fear of him: he knows from reading her note book that she thinks he is nice but she will surely be afraid of him when she realises he has to kill her. This fantasy sequence reveals the strong probability that he will actually be incapable of killing her.

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We know how the girl feels from a combination of her external behaviour – she is often seen crying, she appears to be afraid – and the insights we gain from her writing in her note book; that Vlad goes from being “the horrible guy downstairs” to being “nice”. Subtle clues to a growing identification are also provided by the looks exchanged between the two characters. One of the first incidents involving the girl identifying with Vlad takes place early on in the film, when she takes Vlad’s mask and tries it on: in one gesture both taking on his personality – this is your mask, I am wearing it to identify with you – and also losing her own identity, which is of course what Vlad hoped to achieve by wearing the mask.

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There’s no real reason for her to do this and, in fact, it makes Vlad angry – he slaps her – but is he angry because she has seen him without the mask or because she is wearing the mask? We don’t know. Interestingly, once the girl has tried his mask on, Vlad goes upstairs and reads her school reports and notebooks – enabling him to get into her mind. Of course this is a mistake but Vlad does not realise this at the time.

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The film is about looking – so it’s appropriate that Vlad should imagine the girl at school with a telescope

Once we have seen the kidnap sequence, the story order is on the whole chronological until Vlad is given the order that when the time comes he will need to kill the girl. At this point there is a second black and white scene with the inspector in the present tense; but this is the inspector’s final appearance until the protagonists’ deaths when he reappears to signify the end of story.

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The kidnap sequence is interesting from an identification point of view. The kidnap is standard – they follow the girl home from school and execute the kidnap when the chauffeur gets out of the car to open the gates to the family’s mansion home. The incident is seen from two perspectives – an unrestricted external view, followed by the girl’s subjective point of view. This is not quite a point-of-view sequence because although we see her perspective of the chauffeur going to the gate and the car arriving, the shot then alternates to an objective one as we see the surprise on her face and then it briefly returns to her perspective before changing to the chauffeur’s point of view as the car races towards him. It then returns to her perspective as she looks on but when we see her running it is no longer from her perceptual visual space. As the chloroform starts to overcome her we see an approximation of her view – slowly becoming more and more blurry – but this is clearly from an external stand point. It’s obvious we are supposed to identify with the girl – but with the added advantage of seeing and knowing more than she does.

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Second view of the kidnapping – point of view shots:Falling Point 23Falling Point 24Objective shot:Falling Point 25Point of view shot:Falling Point 26Objective shot:Falling Point 27Chauffeur’s point of view shot:Falling Point 28Objective shots:Falling Point 29Falling Point 30

Shot from external stand point but representing the girl’s visual experience:

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Although we often see the characters looking through the hole in the door and experience their views of each other, we are reminded that we know more than both of these characters when the girl tries to escape by climbing out of the window. We see her legs dangling from the roof and we also see the man outside – she doesn’t know he is outside and he doesn’t know she is trying to escape.

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Vlad’s reactions to the girl’s escape attempts are of interest too. Instead of being angry on this occasion he just looks at her and she instinctively knows that she must go back to her room.

A later attempt at escape is seen as sport – when the girl runs past Vlad who is sitting in the car listening to the radio, he doesn’t even hurry to give chase. He does not appear to be annoyed at all and in fact smiles broadly before running after her. Again, when she falls she knows she must get up and go back to the cabin.

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Whilst the chase might not be the “romantic walk by the sea” that the boss suggests, Vlad certainly seemed to enjoy it.

I should say, too, that sound and music are of great importance in this film. Even when there is no music, the film is saturated with loud sounds of the sea and sea birds. The soundtrack is provided by Robert Hossein’s father, André Hossein, and is perfect for the film. Given that we bring to the film our knowledge that Johnny Hallyday is a musician, it’s not surprising that his character should be playing some music in the film – reinforcing a sense of identification with the character.

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The girl sees Vlad through the hole in the door as he plays his flute but this music – at this point, part of the film’s plot – later becomes part of the non-diegetic soundtrack, appearing within the film as a commentary. So when Vlad is told to stay downstairs whilst the boss and Eddy torture the girl to make a tape of her screaming, this piece of music reminds us: this is Vlad’s song, he played this when he was sitting alone before.

We know very little about the two main characters – all we know is that the girl is from a wealthy family and that Vlad is a criminal – not a first timer, we know he has worked with this gang before. On the surface they would seem to have little in common. And yet somehow there are parallels and reasons for them to identify with each other – they have both been thrown into this situation together and they are both locked away in the cabin and wanting to get out. They are both waiting. They also have a musical motif – a certain piece of non-diegetic music is played during key scenes with and about the two characters.

The first occurrence of this musical motif is when Vlad reads the girl’s school reports and imagines her at school. The second occurrence of the musical motif follows the incident with the beach party revellers – Vlad and the girl watch together from the door as a gang of people laugh and dance on the beach. There is a mirroring of body language as they both stand in the doorway together, watching, both imprisoned in the cabin against their wills – the girl as a hostage and Vlad as the one chosen by the gang to be exiled in this way.

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After the party people have gone, Vlad and the girl sit together at the table downstairs and this is when the musical motif appears. This is one of the most beautiful sequences for me in terms of identification and the way the two protagonists feel in each other’s company. Vlad eats an apple in silence and subtly pushes a sandwich towards the girl. They only look at each other when the other is looking away – there appears to be an embarrassment between the two of them. The girl hesitates for some time before crumbling off a tiny piece of the sandwich and playing with it before coyly putting the crumb in her mouth. Vlad watches her. The girl takes another tiny bit of the sandwich, fiddles with it and twists it between her fingers. She looks so sad at that moment and has tears in her eyes – she looks at Vlad and he looks away. She puts her head down on the table crying as Vlad looks at her, when she looks up he is still looking at her but again catching her gaze he looks away. She eventually runs up to her room in tears.

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Eddy and the boss had indicated that the method of creating a recording of the kidnapped person physically suffering is “tried and tested in America”. Although Vlad dissuaded the boss from continuing with the recording and using it, it does not stop the girl from using the tried and tested method on Vlad by repeatedly playing her own excruciatingly loud blood-curdling screams on the tape player. It works a treat. From the girl’s external behaviour it is obvious she is trying to get a reaction out of Vlad – she even looks at the hole to check if he is looking towards the room and smiles when she is playing it, until eventually he shouts to her that he’s had enough. The girl gets what she had wanted – a reaction and Vlad’s presence in the room.

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This is another sequence with the musical motif – a shared moment of identification: Vlad looks at the atlas; the girl looks at Vlad; Vlad looks at the girl; Vlad sits down looking at the book; Vlad looks at the girl; the musical motif kicks in; Vlad looks at the girl; the girl looks at Vlad; Vlad looks at the girl; the girl looks at Vlad; Vlad looks at the girl; the girls looks back and almost smiles. Vlad smiles to himself and says out loud: “Hey, I know that place!”; Vlad laughs and looks at the girl; the girl looks away but she is smiling. Vlad sees the girl smiling, stops reading and leaves the room. At the point he drops the atlas the music stops. The moment is over.

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It is at this point that he goes outside with the flute to play the same sad song that indicates his loneliness there. It’s befitting that at this point he receives the message informing him that he has one hour to kill the girl as the boss and Eddy are coming to collect him with his share of the ransom. As Vlad takes the shovel to dig a hole for the girl’s body Vlad’s theme plays non-diegetically.

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Vlad’s identification with the girl proves to be his downfall. So strongly does he identify with her that he even dictates a letter to her written by him on her behalf in first person; instead of saying to the girl, “”Write that you are okay and that you’ll be freed when the ransom’s paid,” he gives her his pen to write with and says: “My dear daddy, I’m alright. They didn’t hurt me…” etc

The girl’s belief that Vlad is not like “the other two”, that he is different and not totally aligned to their way of working – nice, even – is validated at this point. So strong is the girl’s belief that Vlad will not kill her, even when she knows the time has come, she follows Vlad outside to the beach and heads towards the hole. They even share another moment of mirroring of body language as they both look up to the sky at the same moment , their gazes following the same course until they share a look. As she pushes some of the sand into the hole with her foot, Vlad raises the gun as if to shoot but she turns and without even flinching or showing any fear she almost smiles and declares: “I’m hungry!” At this point the musical motif recommences and Vlad puts the gun away, the girl smiles and walks towards him.

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What follows does not appear to make any sense – time is running out for Vlad and the girl but there she stands eating a sandwich and smiling: the last meal. It is perhaps their innocence that allows them to share these final moments – Vlad getting sprayed with beer when he opens a can and them both laughing about this – as the boss’s car pulls up.

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Vlad is indeed incapable of killing her but also unable to allow the boss and Eddy to kill her; this throws them together further in the conflict as he now puts his own neck on the line. With this development Vlad aligns himself with the girl and this seals his fate – the gang want the girl dead and they also want Vlad dead too.

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The final sequence of their story is heart-breakingly sad – Vlad repeatedly tells the girl to go away before telling the boss and Eddy: “I’m sorry. I didn’t want things to be like this. It’s not my fault, you left me alone with her too long.”

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At 69 minutes into the film the boss finally removes his dark glasses – to shoot Vlad – and although it’s not much of a disguise it’s the first time we have seen his eyes and his full identity

Although the girl has a head start she stops when she hears an altercation between Vlad and Eddy and again when she hears the boss shoot Vlad in the back

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The musical motif recommences for this final part of the film where the girl starts running towards Vlad, despite the fact that she too is putting herself in the firing line, and it signals the end for her. The boss shoots the girl and flees the scene.

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At this point the musical motif stops. Then moments later it recommences as Vlad and the girl, dying, look at each other and try to reach each other by dragging themselves along in the sand. They just reach each other and the girl suddenly drops dead.  The music stops at this point.

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There is no real sense of finality in terms of the investigation – will the inspector find out what we know? Will he find the boss and Eddy? What are the final consequences? But it doesn’t matter now as the two characters we identify with – the ones we spent time alone with – are now dead.

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Robert Dalban, who had previously been in H-G Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, which also featured a very young Johnny Hallyday

I doubt very much that Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day would have moved me as much as Johnny Hallyday did in this film. He was excellent. It surely must be the best thing he has ever done. And Pascale Rivault – what a great actress she was and so beautiful too.

If you’ve not already seen Point de chute I have no doubt totally ruined it for you by telling you everything about it – sowwy! (although you were warned with the spoiler notice…) – but I would say see it for yourself anyway. I’ve seen it 3 times now and it gets the same reaction from me every time – I have to have the hankies at the ready!

I hope this article hasn’t been too much “all over the place” – there is so much to say about Point de chute but it’s quite hard to rein in your enthusiasm. Excuse me if it’s a bit free-form in places.

Other things I should tell you about the film:

  • Point de chute means stopping-off point or falling point – a very appropriate name for the film
  • Filming took place over 6 weeks at a beach near Royan in the south-west of France
  • The kidnap sequence took place at the Château de la Roche Courbon (also in the south-west of France)

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