A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Alain Resnais' "Stavisky" shares only its brilliance with his other work. His films have never had a consistent visual style, if only because he begins with such dissimilar material and then tries to find a look for it that's appropriate. But even so, we'd hardly anticipate this elegant, sparkling period piece from the director of "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "La Guerre Est Finie."
Resnais sets his film in the France of the early 1930s, when a shaky economy is being held together by the lies and bluffs of the ruling class. One of the greatest of the manipulating financiers, and certainly the most fascinating, is Alexandre Stavisky, the emigre son of a Russian Jewish dentist, who's parlayed his personal charm and confidence schemes into a vast stock swindle.
He has, in the process, partially deceived even himself. He's a man of great contradictions who wants, on the one hand, to be embraced by French society (he even changes his first name to the more fashionable Serge) and, on the other hand, to hold his new peer in contempt. He knows how his frauds work and yet, at times, he actually seems to believe in them. He fights with perfect sincerity against inflation and unemployment and, in the process, all but succeeds in destroying the French economy.
To play Stavisky, Renais chose Jean-Paul Belmondo, and it's perfect casting. There's something in Belmondo's screen personality that fundamentally suggests the con man. It was there in the jauntiness of his first movie, "Breathless," and in "Cartouche," a movie totally unlike this one except for Belmondo's cocky bravado in the face of certain defeat Belmondo has grown and become more subtle in 15 years, and in "Stavisky," he gives us his most complex and probably his best performance.