The Clockmaker (1974)

“He didn’t talk to me.”

In The Clockmaker (L’Horloger de Saint-Paul) middle-aged Michel Descombes (Philippe Noiret) is a clockmaker who owns a small shop in Lyon. He’s a quiet, modest man, whose life is composed of his work and spending a few evenings with friends. At one time he was married, but his wife left him and later died–so he’s unsure whether to describe himself as a bachelor or a widower. There’s no woman in his life now, and he shares his home (at the back of his shop) with his only son Bernard (Sylvain Rougerie). Michel is not a particularly political person, and he gives the impression that his emotions aren’t so much controlled as deeply submerged and almost forgotten.

Although Michel’s primary relationship is with his son, he begins to discover just how little he knows him when Bernard is accused of murdering a brutal right-wing factory employee. According to Inspector Guilbond (Jean Rochefort) Bernard and his girlfriend Liliane committed the murder, made no attempt to hide their crime, and in fact left clumsy clues that revealed their identities. Bernard and Liliane are now on the run, and the police turn to Michel for help capturing Bernard.

The murder occurs in politically tumultuous times , and both the media and the police try to make the murder a politically motivated crime. The victim–an Algerian war veteran–exploited his position at the factory, and according to other female employees he may have tried to coerce Liliane into exchanging sexual favours in return for keeping quiet about fabricated charges of theft. The idea that the murder is politically motivated gathers momentum while the finer details of the crime are buried. Motivation is often the most difficult element to pinpoint, and indeed the political motive of this otherwise puzzling crime seems to satisfy all parties involved. Michel is outraged, however, as this objectifies his son and removes the possible motive to another level. He feels particularly betrayed by the Left’s response and their abandonment of Bernard who they label as a “terrorist.”

The Clockmaker, based on a novel by Simenon is not a film about solving an apparently motiveless murder–it’s a character study that examines the relationship between Michel and Bernard, and a quasi-relationship that forms between Michel and Guilbond. Michel gradually accepts that there are some things about his son that he will never understand. As for Michel’s relationship with Guilbond…well it’s difficult and temporal. At first Guilbond’s approach to Michel is bureaucratic and suspicious. Over time, Guilbond sees Michel as a father wounded by doubt–a man who always tried his best in his relationship with his son–but often failed. Guilbond’s initial depersonalized approach to Michel can be extrapolated to the larger issue of the state’s depersonalized, political approach toward Bernard. The judicial system and the media find it far easier to categorize and label Bernard than to investigate why two young people committed a clumsy, senseless, and seemingly motiveless crime. Both Michel and Bernard lose their individuality in the state’s need to politicize a crime that was inherently personal. The Clockmaker is arguably one of director Bernard Tavernier’s best films. In French with English subtitles.

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