vice and virtue (1963)
Vadim's Vice and Virtue is a sweeping tale of passion and verve in wartime. The passion for living, the passion for dying, for some, survival is victory, for others, there is always the cause. Vadim sets the stage for high emotion in the midst of a second world war landscape that feels an apocalyptic hell. All vice, including lust for power, has taken hold in the highest German ranks and Vadim starkly contrasts this with a virtuous resistance. Here is a film that cares nothing for historical context and is all the stronger for it, weaving the tapestry from life's threads yet the portrait rendered is that of an epic poem. Every sense and emotion heightened to its very peak, the film moves from one intrigue to the next with Vadim's depictions of the carnal in all forms, the descent into barbarism, the desire for divine purity. Deneuve is virtue and placed in a canvas of castles and flora, the sun's rays through the trees, dressed all in flowing white. Girardot is vice, those scheming eyes ever watchful for the next ship to jump to as the one she's in goes down, providing the dramatic center of the tale, all events seeming to coalesce around her. The true victory here is in the landscape presented, the amoral cruel world of Vice and Virtue. Harrowing drama results from every scene in a way that few films can achieve. Vadim's film drips with tension and becomes pure genre, weaving its clearly defined and thickly-drawn characterizations into intersection after intersection of intrigue. The film's penchant for beauty amongst the chaos becomes its highest order as the combinations in brutality intermix with the rousing score and black&white photography in a delicious combination of bleak desperation and evocative visuals. The film is remarkable in its genre for its ignorance of combat sequences (save for a great finale), instead focusing on the volleys of power within the ranks of the Third Reich and, more importantly, the volleys of lusts and desires within the individuals caught up in the moment when it seemed the whole world was ending all around them.
The film opens strongly with effective combinations and Vadim is able to deftly weave the pool scene, the film's main set piece to begin as all of his elements together. The brutality of combat in sport, the decadence of the generals, the sexual desire of all in the room swirling together into the picture of an army growing complacent with vice after being held in such strict fascism for so long. Vadim shows us men who have long ago forsaken their cause and resigned themselves to an aloof hedonistic enjoyment, instantly at odds with both Deneuve's fiery and passionate rebukes toward authoritarian control as well as Hossein's SS Colonel and his cold pursuit of his own power and code. Vadim sustains the palpable genre thrills throughout by setting his self-interested, largely demoralized characters against the backdrop of a virtually lawless society. The only law is loyalty, and it's a law easily broken when a more powerful player enters. The film does well to keep the action streaming through our consciousness at steady pace, the film is a runaway train of imagery, dashing players and a choreography of camera and actor. Any ripple in the pond could break the spell, but Vadim here is a master of the cinematic dance above all else and here he is rarely, if ever, out of step. As the film moves and we are moved with it, Vadim continues to punch away at every pulp plot element from Nazi brothels within secret societies to two-way mirrors observing deals and torture, poisoned champagne and double-crossings abound. The film's finale is a fine effort with action and intrigue, Deneuve and Girardot in a final dramatic reuniting only to become one with the sides of the war they've chosen. Vadim's epically staged final shot is a reminder of the general falseness of the beauty we see before us, Vice and Virtue is an entirely constructed picture form start to finish, expressionist in its portrayals and lacking all touch with reality. It is a feast for the senses and Vadim welcomes our indulgences as he portrays the indulgences of the officers and their folly. Vice and Virtue relishes in itself, takes its time with story beats that lesser films would simply rush through as a point of the plot, but not Vadim's work here. A seemingly simple double-crossing early the film becomes a twenty minute set piece and one of the dramatic highlights of the film. Vadim's economy of sequences maintains the razor sharp potency of each, and he is in no hurry to reach the climax of any of them, rather we linger and reach the conclusions in a perfectly slow burn.
Films that can transcend genre as a mere blueprint and rise to a level of crafting pillars of the mythology bring out the best in their corners of cinema. For Vadim with Vice and Virtue, it's difficult to see the film as anything but that, a perfectly served and prepared experience with enough force, wit and potency behind it to light a cinematic fire. The feast for the senses doesn't leave much conceptually to speak of, but when a film is able to nail the intangibles so well, it matters little and still raises it cinema nirvana all on the strength of its movements. A brilliantly constructed series of set pieces and a knockout of a cast. Vice and Virtue's kind of cinema is a lost art, but when crafted well, reaches the kind of purity in vision that most films and filmmakers only dream of.