Originally released in France in 1970, and now available in a new restoration, “The Strangler” is a strange, seductive film that takes the conventions of the serial-killer thriller and explodes them with baroque colors and convulsive camera movements. It’s like “Peeping Tom” meets one of Dario Argento’s giallo joints, but slathered in a coat of melancholic malaise.
The titular lady-killer isn’t frantic and blood-starved; he’s a baby-faced young man, Émile (Jacques Perrin), who takes to the streets of Paris on the lookout for women he perceives as lonely and suicidal. For the most part, these women indeed meet Émile, their agent of mercy, halfway — a process the director, Paul Vecchiali, depicts as an eerie, enigmatic dance of death and desire.
Born in 1930, Vecchiali belonged to the same generation as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Despite beginning his filmmaking career in the early ’60s, he was never associated with the “nouvelle vague” crowd. He came to prominence later in life, with the critical success of “The Strangler” playing a substantial role in his rise. With Diagonale, the production company he founded in 1976, he gained a reputation for transgressive themes and experimental methods — and up until his death in January of this year, he continued to work on the margins of the French film industry.
Using a white knitted scarf as his weapon of choice, Émile stalks new victims as three individuals separately stay on his tail, each with a different pursuit: Simon, a burly detective (Julien Guiomar); a thief (Paul Barge) who swipes cash and jewelry from each corpse; and a woman, Anna (Eva Simonet), who seems to want to be a future victim.
Contrary to what you might expect from such a lurid nightmare scenario, “The Strangler” is quite unlike the exploitative slasher fare from which it draws inspiration. The killer loses his will to kill; the investigators, their desire to solve the crimes. Vecchiali makes poetic — and tragic — what the true-crime junkie must experience after bingeing one too many episodes: the emptiness of all those pretty corpses.
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.