Director Mauro Bolognini establishes such a draggy pace and vague, melancholy mood for "La Grande Bourgeoise" that one must struggle to sustain interest - or consciousness - before the interesting aspects of the movie begin to materialize. There's a compelling story of emotional and social conflict embedded in this film, now at the K-B Janus, but Bologini's lugubrious approach prevents it from asserting itself either boldly or coherently.
Set at the turn of the century, "La Grande Bourgeoise" deals with a murder conspiracy that ruins a socially and politically prominent family. About 45 minutes meander by until the murder is committed and the movie snaps to attention. A musical motif which seems funny at the time, signals the turnaround: Composer Ennio Morricane announces the entrance of Marcel Bozzuffi, playing a steely, implacable police inspector, with slashing cello chords. Bozzuffi's presence turns out to be as arresting as Morricone's salutation.
As Inspector Stanzani, a stauch conservative Catholic who seizes the opportunity to discredit a family whose progressive ideas represent everything he detests, Bozzuffi makes a formidable defender of conventional morality. The barely perceptible smile that betrays his satisfaction at getting the goods on the people he suspects is brilliantly innerving. As an ironic capper, he has also perfected a minimal expression of disappointment, which we see flicker across his face briefly when Stanzani resigns himself to the fact that his conspiratorial theory will encompass one miscreant fewer than he hoped.
Bozzuffi, best known for his performances as the assassins in "Z" and "The French Connection," brings such authority to the role of a sincerely but alarmingly zealous official that one might even contemplate another movie version of "Les Miserable" for the sake of watching him potray Javert. Fernando Rey, who played Bozzuffi's confederate in "The French Connection," is almost in "La Grande Bourgeoise" - the patriarch of the distinguished, ill-fated Murri family.
Catherine Denueve and Giancarlo Giannini have the official co-starring roles, appearing as Rey's children, a society matron and aspiring politician who conspire to do away with her snobbish husband. Despite the incestuous implications and premeditated nature of the crime, these characters never becomes a focus of dramatic interest. The targedy of the relationship, in which the sister appears to exploit her brother's devotion without ever acknowleding the selfishness of her motives, remains unclarified. The movie simply languishes until Bozzuffi and Rey monopolize out attention.
The policeman's vengeful tenacity and the patriarch's shame and despair at learning what his beloved children are capable of suddenly awaken you to the exceptional possibilities in this crime story. Although they're introduced as secondary figures, these men are the most substantial and significant characters on the screen. They embody clear-cut ideals and outlooks; their convictions and prejudices are astutely contrasted.
The characters are also touchstones for progressive and reactionary prejudices in the audience. It's inconvenient for progressive that Inspector Stanzani has the goods on people in their philosophical camp. On the other hand, his zealotry is dangerous, because it tempts him to frame an innocent man whom he fondly desires to discredit. In the last analysis he's too honest to take that step; he doesn't have the evidence. by the same token, Rey's sense of honor won't allow him to conceal the murder once he learns of it.
Although they perceive one another as mortal idological enemies, Stanzani and old Murri are honorable antagonists. Ultimately, they acknowledge certain restrains that Murri's children have violated.
The film's importer is so anxious to attract an audience that a long written prologue in Italian hasn't even beeb translated. Moreover, the opening sequence, which have ought to be able to recall clearly when the conspirator are on trial, is obscured by being staged like a gratuitous erotic interlude and sprinkled with the credits, which seems to linger interminably. It takes far too long for Bologini to alert us to the fact that he's got a crime story worth watching.