Why we must review “Le Messager” by Joseph Losey

Dfor more than thirty years, The messenger had become a rarity, a film totally invisible in theaters. And this, although he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 (while that year, the Death in Venice of Luchino Visconti started as big favorite for the supreme award). Yes, The messenger (The Go-Between in VO) had evaporated. It only existed in the memory of a few cinephiles, who had fond memories of it. Luckily, this untraceable Joseph Losey film celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. And it was released for the very first time on Blu-ray at ESC last November. As good news never comes alone, this feature film is finally back in theaters at the start of the year and presented in a new copy superbly restored in 4K!

Beautiful and sad at the same time, The messenger is not a happy movie. And don’t be fooled by the softness of its images, its pretty landscapes, its peaceful and sunny countryside. We also see raindrops that bead, like tears, on the window glass of his credits. The dark and obsessive music of Michel Legrand (fans of the show Let the accused enter Christophe Hondelatte’s version will immediately recognize the music in the credits) and his piano with dissonant chords set the tone. And it will be serious. Behind the pictorial beauty of this drama, it is above all the ugliness and cruelty of human relationships that emerge.

A dissection of class relations in Edwardian England

From a novel written in 1953 by Briton Leslie Poles Hartley, The messenger was adapted for the screen by the playwright Harold Pinter, who had already collaborated in 1963 with Losey on the screenplay of The Servant. The American filmmaker had fought for seven years to acquire the rights to the book and he wanted to tell this story which had touched him deeply.

The messenger takes place in Norfolk, a county located in the east of England, at the very beginning of the last century. Leo Colston (Dominic Guard), a modest 12-year-old boy, is invited by his boarding school mate Marcus to spend the summer holidays with his British aristocratic family. By settling in Brandham Hall, a gigantic mansion with one hundred and twenty-six rooms (!) And a grand staircase, Leo discovers castle life. Dazzled by the location and the immense park of this luxurious property, he is especially fascinated by the beauty of a young woman: the older sister of his friend, Lady Marian (Julie Christie, the romantic heroine of Doctor Zhivago) that he meets for the first time with his white dress and his parasol, languid in a hammock.

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Little by little, she sympathizes with the kid and gives him a Lincoln green suit. But despite being engaged to Lord Trimingham, a viscount who returned from the Boer War with a scarred face (the excellent Edward Fox), Leo gradually discovers that Marian has a lover: the manly Ted Burgess (Alan Bates, handsome and mustache), a farmer from the neighborhood, close to nature. Soon the teenager will act as an intermediary between the sharecropper and the beautiful aristo, becoming their messenger. Indeed, Leo secretly transmits letters to the two lovers to allow them to meet clandestinely. At first, this little merry-go-round works quite well. The “little postman” runs madly across the fields to carry messages from one to the other and vice versa. He is nicknamed Mercury, like the messenger of the gods of Roman mythology. But we feel that an inevitable tragedy will soon strike the adulterous couple and Marian’s “servant knight”. The scorching summer will end with a violent thunderstorm.

A critique of high society with contained violence

Told from the point of view of a child and filmed at his height, The messenger is a film about the loss of innocence. Leo is a very pure kid. A foreign body in a society which is not his own and whose rules he does not understand. Suddenly confronted with the cruel world of adults, he becomes in spite of himself the witness, then the accomplice, of a guilty and forbidden passion. Marian (whose image is associated with belladonna, a poisonous plant that grows in the former garden of the estate) uses and manipulates this naive child to serve his interests, without thinking that he will keep a deep wound from it as he ages adult. That he will remain marked for life by this experience …

From his first feature film, The Boy with Green Hair (1948) who revealed Dean Stockwell at the age of 12, Joseph Losey was interested in the world of childhood. Here, the director evokes the emotion of the first times and signs a magnificent initiation story, which is also a film on class relations and domination. In this regard, the sequence of the cricket game develops the antagonism of the different characters (the villagers on one side, the squire on the other). The cricket ground where sports gatherings take place is indeed the only place where the farmer (played by the formidable Alan Bates) is admitted into a social caste which is not his …

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Joseph Losey has also been a hurt, humiliated, rejected man in the past. Victim of McCarthyism and the sinister “black list”, this former communist saw his career in the United States interrupted by the Commission of Inquiry into Anti-American Activities in 1952. An irreparable breach. Unable to work in his country, he went into exile in the United Kingdom, where he would shoot numerous films. A great man of the theater, a pupil of Brecht, Losey is a filmmaker of extreme intelligence and immense culture. Admirable by rigor, The messenger is one of the peaks of his career, one of his most sensitive and completed films.

The apparent classicism of the staging is counterbalanced by the play over time and the flashforwards that Losey uses on several occasions. Because The messenger is also the story of an old man who reflects on his past and returns to the places of his childhood (Michael Redgrave plays the role of sixty-year-old Leo). The very first line of the film (“The past is a foreign country …”) moreover announces the objective of the director: to question the consequences of the past on the present. Losey then reunited with Harold Pinter on a final project, the adaptation ofIn Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, which will never see the light of day (but the text of the adaptation, The Proust Scenario, was published in 2003 by Gallimard). If he did not succeed in this bet, the filmmaker can take comfort: The messenger is also in its own way a search for lost time.

The messenger (restored 4K version). In theaters since January 5. Les Acacias distribution.

The film is also available in a Blu-ray / DVD combo with a booklet from ESC éditions (Fnac exclusive). 25 €.

Joseph Losey retrospective at the Cinémathèque française from January 6 to February 7, 2022.


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Why we must review “Le Messager” by Joseph Losey