The Strangler: Paul Vecchiali’s Underseen Queer Arthouse Thriller

Movies Features Paul Vecchiali
The Strangler: Paul Vecchiali’s Underseen Queer Arthouse Thriller

Paul Vecchiali’s 1970 film The Strangler defies genre categorization. Not quite a crime thriller, not quite a giallo, not quite a romantic drama, the film follows Émile (Jacques Perrin), a boyish Jack the Ripper figure who serially stalks the streets of Paris at night, strangling sad, lonely women with a white child-sized scarf. Anna (Eva Simonet) has recently dumped her cheating ex-lover, and fearfully believes herself to be the killer’s next target. She offers herself up as bait to the inspector on the case, Simon Dangret (Julien Guiomar), who quickly discovers Émile’s identity, but uses unconventional methods to exact a strange kind of justice. It is from these three perspectives that a melancholic story of isolation and murderous intrigue unfolds into one of love and radical acceptance.

If that sounds like a fuzzy, happy ending, I can assure you that for Vecchiali, love and radical acceptance are concepts drenched in more anguish than you might expect. How do you find empathy for an individual who has murdered people just like you? 

While Anna and the inspector’s romantic affair, and their unique relationship to Émile, have their own stylistic merits, the strangler Émile’s inner rot and gay sadness are Vecchiali’s focus. Throughout his career, Vecchiali often dealt with transgressive queer themes and The Strangler is no exception, as the film explores Émile’s complicated, often sick feelings toward his own sexuality without exploiting them for shock value—or taking sides. Unable to come to terms with his sexuality, Émile murders women whom he believes to be lonely and depressed. He has quite a bit in common with these women, but he is so averse to his own queerness that he fails to come to this realization. We are so used to seeing macho heterosexual serial killers hypersexualizing their female victims before tearing them apart, that makes Émile’s melancholic, sorry look quietly subversive by comparison.

What could have easily been a straight-laced crime thriller becomes an intransigent experiment in editing and cinematography. One arrestingly dark, painful scene struck me in particular, in which Vecchiali used the Kuleshov effect to make Émile’s paranoid inner turmoil explode from the screen and straight into my heart. 

Émile stalks the streets at night, as we have seen frequently, only this time he is inundated with violent images of murder and sexual assault. Vecchiali cuts between these vicious scenes and Émile’s face, which grows more and more tearful, creating anxiety and feelings of sickness. Any attempt to intellectually interrogate Émile’s psychology is proven moot in this scene; whether his urban lifestyle breeds disturbing paranoia or his dark childhood memories are taking hold, Vecchiali’s visually expressive emotions completely take over. 

At the time, Perrin was best known to the French public as a Jacques Demy regular, both as Prince Charming in Donkey Skin and Maxence in The Young Girls of Rochefort, but his heart-wrenching turn as the disturbed, confused Émile proves Perrin’s acting chops beyond fairy tales and musical comedies. His ability to use his boy next door charm for wickedness instead of good is excellent; hands shyly tucked into pockets somehow take on a darker tone. In a less emotionally complicated, more shock-focused version of The Strangler, Perrin might have played Émile as a cackling psychopath who finds demented joy in taking women’s lives. Instead, it’s within our realm of belief that Émile sees his crimes as more merciful than cruel; he is not re-enacting the murder he witnessed as a child out of malice or jealousy toward women, but enacting clemency out of respect. 

Vecchiali’s own deep respect for women is evident in a scene in which an entire bar full of women defiantly saves a lively prostitute named Claire (Nicole Courcel) from Émile’s murderous impulses. Vecchiali first shows us the bustling bar filled only with women, then shows Claire seducing Émile nearby. He is only trying to slip away from another murder he has just committed, the slaying of a man who threatened him while cruising. Claire is different from Émile’s previous female victims, in that she has zero desire to die; she loudly shouts out for help, and the women come running to her aid. Claire survives, but the ladies catch the wrong guy. “That’s not him!” Claire sobs, “That’s not him, but I don’t fucking care.” They bring the wrong guy back to the bar for an interrogation, as Émile quietly slips back into the night, passing the bar on his way. It’s a moment that might feel tonally at odds with the rest of The Strangler, but it’s a significant moment of catharsis, watching a crowd of women save one of their own from danger. 

At least to the general American moviegoing public, Paul Vecchiali is one of the lesser-known filmmakers to come out of the post-French New Wave era, although he wore many important hats in the film industry up until his recent death in January 2023. In the wake of the more bourgeois, mainstream French cinema mindset, Vecchiali founded his own production company called Diagonale in the 1970s on the principles of shooting for cheap and avoiding traditional filmmaking rules, with a focus on supporting female and queer filmmakers. 

In its documentation of banal feminine rituals in real time, Marie-Claude Treilhou’s Simone Barbés, or Virtue, produced by Diagonale, treads similar territory as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Vecchiali also produced many of his own films under the Diagonale banner, including Femmes Femmes (1974), which has been rumored to shock even the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Encore (1988), one of the first on-screen portrayals of the AIDS crisis. His final feature, Le Cancre—starring himself, Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric—tells the story of a filmmaker looking back on French cinema, and competed for the 2016 Palme d’Or at Cannes. 

The 2K restoration of The Strangler from Altered Innocence opens its theatrical run in NYC at Anthology Film Archives on November 15th, and will expand to Austin, Chicago, Denver, L.A., San Francisco and Raleigh on November 17th. This will mark The Strangler’s first-ever theatrical run in the United States. 

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

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