Movie of the Week: A Pure Formality

Back in the mid-’90s, I  began to work the graveyard shift (which turned into a nearly eighteen year stretch).  When I was not working, on my “days” off so to speak, I had a tendency to keep to my routine of being up late at night and sleeping late into the day (this was before marriage and kids, mind you).  This was also before the modern-day conveniences of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Shudder.  There wasn’t even YouTube to occupy the night owls back then.  What I did have was basic and premium cable, and the late night offerings would be a real roll of the dice.  A Pure Formality came up sevens (Cinemax’s late night fare is for a different article altogether).

The film opens with a gunshot.  A man (Gérard Depardieu) runs through the rainy night only to be stopped by police.  A crime has been committed nearby, an unknown victim has been shot dead, and the police have a few questions to ask the running stranger.  It’s quite suspicious to be out for a jog on such a night.

The big problem, though, is the running man is having some lapses in memory.  This puts him on the express lane to the head of the line in terms of suspects.

The police escort their unknown gentleman back to headquarters.  “Headquarters” is really too fancy a name for the police station as it is a dank, cluttered place located in the middle of nowhere with no working telephones and a perpetually leaky roof.  It’s really not the kind of place the citizenry would reflect on fondly.

This is where the stranger’s interrogation by the Inspector (the notorious Roman Polanski) begins.  The stranger, whom the Inspector believes may be a little nuts, gives his name as Blaise February.  Before long, the Inspector (his name is never given) learns that the stranger, Mr. February, is actually the reclusive writer, Onoff.

The Inspector is familiar with Onoff’s work and this helps the investigator in his questioning.  Onoff tries his best to piece together what’s happened to him, and possibly what has happened to the murder victim.  The more he remembers, and the more clues he finds on himself, such as the blood stain on his clothes, the more he fears he may be responsible for something horrendous.

I first saw A Pure Formality in the wee hours of the night and I suggest that is the best time for it to be viewed.  As I’ve said before, my definition of “midnight movies” are those which make no clear sense in the light of day, but as the late show they seem quite cohesive and, at least mildly, coherent.  These movies are pure diabolical entertainment.

This is a pleasant little movie which aims for lofty ideas that don’t exactly hold up in the morning sun.  The best parts of it are watching Depardieu and Polanski (despite what you think of him, he is a good filmmaker and a decent enough actor) spar with each other.  Its cloistered atmosphere bolsters the mystery and a late night viewing enhances the feeling. The payoff may need work, but the build up is where the fun is at.