Marc (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the car-obsessed protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1967 film Le Départ, is eager to take part in his first motor rally in a few days, though there is one slight snag yet to be overcome: He doesn’t have a car. More to the point, he registered for the race as a Porsche driver, so unless he shows up in a Porsche, he won’t be allowed to participate. Lacking the funds necessary to rent one, he intends to “borrow” his boss’s vehicle (which entails hot-wiring it and sneaking it out of a garage in the dead of night), but upon discovering that his boss (Paul Roland) intends to go away for the weekend in said vehicle, he’s forced to come up with a new plan of action, legal or illegal — mostly the latter.
His strategies are eclectic, and all doomed for failure. Among them: He visits a car dealership with a fake maharajah who’s purportedly interested in buying a Porsche; he tries to steal spare parts at an auto show in order to resell them; he even submits to the sexual advances of a middle-aged woman (Jacqueline Bir), a customer at the hair salon where he works, though he doesn’t seem entirely aware of what he’s gotten himself into. In the midst of these misadventures he meets a young woman named Michèle (Catherine-Isabelle Duport) who becomes his accomplice and, potentially, a love interest, provided that he can stop thinking about cars long enough to pay attention to her.
More often than not, Marc comes across as a case of arrested development, and not a particularly likable one, even aside from his criminal activities. Admittedly, he’s still quite young — at one point, he orders a cocktail without realizing that he has to be more specific — but his behavior is frequently, at best, that of an unruly, undisciplined child. When, for example, Michèle slaps him for refusing to let her leave the trunk where they’re hiding out at the auto show, he slaps her back. He gets into multiple fist fights throughout the film as well and, at one point, gets punched in the face by a co-worker at his own request. Some of his other antics, if less violent, are downright bizarre: stealing an apple from a baby, repeatedly blowing up and popping a paper bag at the auto show, sticking a safety pin in his arm, insisting that a street vendor “feed” a sausage to a car, pretending that his throat has been slit in order to frighten Michèle. (She, meanwhile, remains remarkably calm and levelheaded the vast majority of the time, a welcome contrast.)
Adding to the oddness of the character is Léaud’s strange, frenetic performance, full of abrupt shouting and outbursts of manic laughter. In a 1970 interview with the New York Times, he explained that “if I’m different from one film to another, it’s because of the director. Skolimowski makes me explode” — an accurate description. A few years later, in an interview with Sight and Sound, he noted that the language barrier between himself and the non-French-speaking director wasn’t a major issue because Skolimowski would physically act out the scenes, so that Léaud had to do little more than imitate him.
It’s fitting that at least some of Marc’s eccentricities seem to come so directly from Skolimowski himself, because Le Départ as a whole is as strange and frenetic as its central performance. Full of energy, complemented by a jazzy score from composer Krzysztof Komeda, it has a tendency to jump from one sequence to the next without much in the way of transition or explanation, making it somewhat difficult to follow at times; better, perhaps, to focus on the images, the set pieces, even the energy itself instead of the details of the story. There are a number of charming moments scattered throughout, most of them relatively low-key: one overnight at the auto show when Marc and Michèle sit in the two halves of a car that opens down the middle, another — more whimsical — that has them transporting a large mirror through the streets, seemingly switching places in a surreal manner.
One surprisingly somber, thought-provoking incident also occurs at the auto show, when an older man dies (or at least suffers a serious health episode) while sitting in a car. Marc, for all of his immaturity and self-centerdness, appears quite struck by this tragedy, and even makes a futile attempt to help, only to be turned away. The scene is followed by shots of employees throwing tarps over the vehicles at the end of the day, visually reinforcing the idea of death. It has no real bearing on the story (which might be said of many of the scenes, in fairness), but it does throw the Marc’s youthfulness and vitality — and the film’s — into sharper relief.
Thought-provoking, too, is the fact that this was the first film the Polish Skolimowski made in Western Europe (Brussels, to be exact). According to Senses of Cinema‘s Bruce Hodsdon, the director lamented that “in the West only money matters,” and it’s not difficult to see something of this idea in Le Départ. After all, Marc’s desire for a Porsche and lack of money drive him to desperate, often criminal acts, even if they are presented under a comedic veneer. “I’m not a thief,” he insists to Michèle when she asks why he doesn’t just steal a car instead of stealing and reselling parts — an odd kind of rationalization from a decidedly odd character.
Dawson, Jan. “Getting Beyond the Looking Glass.” Sight and Sound Winter 1973/74: 46-47.
Hodsdon, Bruce. “Le Départ.” Senses of Cinema July 2014. http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/2014-melbourne-international-film-festival-dossier/le-depart/
Ross, Walter S. “The Actor the French Dig the Most.” New York Times 28 June 1970.
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