For more than thirty years, Le Messager 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 (when that year, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice was the top favorite for the supreme award). Yes, Le Messager (The Go-Between) had evaporated. It only existed in the memory of a few moviegoers, who fondly remembered 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 early in the year and presented in a beautifully restored new 4K copy!
Beautiful and sad at the same time, The Messenger is not a happy film. And don’t be fooled by the softness of its images, its pretty landscapes, its peaceful and sunny countryside. We can see raindrops beading like tears on the window glass of his credits. The dark and obsessive music of Michel Legrand (fans of the show Bring the Accused, 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
Based on a novel written in 1953 by Briton Leslie Poles Hartley, The Messenger was adapted for the screen by playwright Harold Pinter, who had previously collaborated with Losey in 1963 on the screenplay for 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 is set in Norfolk, a county in the east of England, at the turn 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. Moving to Brandham Hall, a gigantic mansion with one hundred and twenty-six rooms (!) And a grand staircase, Leo learns about castle life. Dazzled by the place 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) who ‘he crosses for the first time with his white dress and his parasol, languid in a hammock.
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 neighborhood farmer, 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 through the fields to carry messages from one to another and back again. 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 “knight”. The scorching summer will end with a severe thunderstorm.
A critique of high society with contained violence
Told from a child’s perspective and filmed at its height, The Messenger is a film about the loss of innocence. Leo is a very pure kid. A foreign body in a society that 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 be marked for life by this experience …
From his first feature film, The Boy with the Green Hair (1948), which 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 about class relations and domination. In this regard, the sequence of the cricket game develops the antagonism of the various characters (the villagers of ’on one side, the squire on the other). The cricket ground where sporting 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 …
Joseph Losey has also been a hurt, humiliated, rejected man in the past. A victim of McCarthyism and the sinister “black list”, this former communist saw his career in the United States cut short 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. Admirably admirable, The Messenger is one of the peaks of his career, one of his most sensitive and accomplished films.
The apparent classicism of the directing is counterbalanced by the play over time and the flashforwards that Losey uses repeatedly. For The Messenger is also the story of an old man who looks back 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 …”) announces the director’s objective: to question the consequences of the past on the present. Losey then reunited with Harold Pinter on a final project, the adaptation of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, which would never see the light of day (but the text of the adaptation, Le Scénario Proust, was published in 2003 at 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.