Before there was Jack Henry Abbott, there was Pierre Lacenaire. Before there was Gary Gilmore, Leopold and Loeb, Raskolnikov, Raffles, Professor Moriarty or even the Penguin, there was Pierre Lacenaire, the elegant criminal.
Lacenaire, who on Jan. 9, 1836, in a frosty Paris square kept an appointment with Madame Guillotine, was the first to see the celebrity potential in crime. And he didn't even have an agent! Amazing!
Lacenaire, at least according to Francis Girod's provocative new film "L'Elegant Criminel," which opens today at the Charles, was unique to the criminal culture of the 1830s in Paris in that he was an educated man brought low by his father's bankruptcy and his own peculiar psychological needs. At an early age, his father had predicted that he
would end up on the scaffold, waiting for the descent of the blade, and he rushed to embrace this fate with a peculiar, weird intensity.
It turned out that his greatest gift was being on trial. He turned his own, in the account of the squalid murder of two squalid minor characters in the Paris underworld, into a platform for the existential man decades before existentialism the con
cept had been invented. Talk about being ahead of the curve! "To kill without remorse," he crowed, "is the highest of pleasures."
Naturally, the French loved it. So did everyone else. It is even said that his bizarre appearance inspired Dostoevski to create Raskolnikov and indeed all the other "master criminals" of
literature have descended therefrom.
Indeed, in the blush of his post-trial notoriety, as he waited for his date with the blade, Lacenaire regularly entertained the literary royalty of the age at his cell. He probably
could have gotten a great table at Elaine's.
The movie is brisk and convincing in the laconic French style, with the great actor Daneil Auteuil (Montand's buddy in Claude Berry's "Manon of the Springs" films) playing the ironic, self-aware murderer with a great deal of brio. It's an astonishment. (Connoisseurs of world cinema, note: Lacenaire also appears as one of Arletty's suitors in Marcel Carne's legendary "Children of Paradise," which is slated into the Charles beginning Sunday in a new 35mm print.)
Starring Daniel Auteuil.
Directed by Francis Girod.
Released by RKO.