When Cédric Kahn's film Roberto Succo was first screened in Cannes last year, the French director found himself under fire from two sets of critics. One camp was made up of people who had admired his earlier films, in particular the taut psychosexual drama L'Ennui, and wondered why such a distinctive art-cinema director had gone on to make what seemed a mainstream true-crime drama. The other, more vociferous camp was composed of French police officers who objected to Kahn's film supposedly glorifying its subject, a multiple murderer who ran wild in France in the mid-1980s. Police from the Haute-Savoie region, where Succo was active, demonstrated outside the Cannes Palais, and the controversy followed the film around France on its eventual release.
Released in Britain a year later, Kahn's film looks neither such a scandal, nor such an anomaly. Anyone who admired the chilly intensity of L'Ennui will recognise a similar tone in his sober, distanced recreation of Succo's career, with its jigsaw impression of a disturbed figure whose true nature evades understanding much as Succo himself evaded capture.
Kahn has described his film's subject as "pure madness". Succo, he explains, represents "a madness you can't rationalise – he's not just a little bit mad, he's an extreme case." In 1981, Succo, aged 18, from the Venetian suburb of Mestre, murdered his mother and father. Five years later, he escaped from psychiatric custody and went on the run in France, where he committed a number of apparently motiveless murders, including those of two policemen. Killing himself in prison in 1988, he was commemorated as the anti-hero of the play Robert Zucco by French dramatist Bernard-Marie Koltès. This Brechtian, almost fairy-tale work depicts Zucco as a satanic, almost mythical figure, but Kahn found himself more intrigued by the Succo described in a book by journalist Pascale Froment.
"In the play he's a sort of black angel. The play's very poetic, very exalted – it's about a killer hero, an anarchist. The great thing about the book is that it offers no explanation of him. There's just this juxtaposition of incoherent facts, which ends up forming a portrait."
Kahn's great achievement is to give the semi-legendary figure a real, strikingly ordinary presence. Played by unknown Italian non-professional Stefano Cassetti, the screen Succo with his piercing eyes could be a glamorous figure, but instead comes over as a mundane, rather pathetic poseur, an overgrown schoolboy trying on fantasy roles (gangster, secret agent, terrorist) to impress people.
Kahn's film depicts Succo as someone whose life was ruled by randomness: whether or not he killed depended on how he felt, or where he happened to find himself. "He wasn't a serial killer – that's someone who kills methodically, creating a certain mise en scene around death. With Succo, it's a matter of circumstance – it's chaos. He's a megalomaniac who sees himself as being above the world, having the power of life and death over people who get in his way. A psychiatrist could explain it, but I didn't want to get into that area."
What Kahn pursues instead is a pair of parallel observations. On the one hand he juxtaposes disconnected incidents in Succo's life, particularly interludes with his captivated but bewildered ingenue girlfriend; on the other, he gives us a terse police procedural drama, focused on the investigations of a taciturn inspector. This is the aspect that baffled some critics, Kahn's new interest in conventional thriller terrain. But it is hardly unusual for auteur directors to venture at least halfway into the mainstream. "What's tempting," Kahn says, "is to visit a genre without being a prisoner of genre."
In fact, Roberto Succo is not so far from Kahn's previous work. Like his Alberto Moravia adaptation L'Ennui, it is the story of one person helplessly fascinated by another. Succo's girlfriend comes under his spell just as in L'Ennui, a middle-aged male academic became erotically obsessed with an equally lawless young woman. But Kahn is loath to trace patterns: "I can't analyse the connections between my films because I'm the one making them. I don't make films in a very intellectual way."
Starting out as an assistant editor working for Maurice Pialat, Kahn graduated to his own debut feature in 1992, the small-town drama Bar des rails, then followed it with Trop de bonheur, commissioned for a series of films about tormented adolescence (Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné and Claire Denis also contributed). He claims to have no idea what he has taken from influences such as Pialat and Jean Eustache, except "a certain relation to reality, an investigation of human nature. But I can't define the links with film-makers I admire. I can't really find traces of their work in mine."
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Perhaps this refusal of self-analysis extends to what seems a bizarre oversight on Kahn's part, one which people haven't stopped pointing out to him, namely, that Stefano Cassetti, his choice to play Roberto Succo, looks uncannily like Kahn himself. "I hadn't noticed it. It's just a coincidence." There is just the hint of a significant pause. "But then there's no such thing as coincidence."
'Roberto Succo' (15) is released on Friday
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