Patrice Leconte’s “Monsieur Hire” is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a murder, and the opening shot is of a corpse. Monsieur Hire is a scrawny, balding middle-aged tailor who lives by himself. Alice is a beautiful, tender-hearted 22-year-old blonde who lives alone across the courtyard from Hire in the same apartment building.
On the night of the murder, a slight man was seen by witnesses running toward the building. In his investigation among its residents, a police detective learns that nobody likes Hire. Hire is the first to agree. He admits he seems to strike people oddly. As a neighbor from across the hall peeks at him from his doorway, he asks, “Want a photo?” As he walks through his courtyard, white powder is dumped on his impeccable black suit.
Everything about Hire (Michel Blanc) is impeccable; his suit, his tie, the shine on his shoes, the fringe of his hair so neatly trimmed. Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) is sunny, open-faced, with a warm smile. One night during a thunderstorm a flash of lightning reveals a man watching her from the shadows of the apartment opposite. This is Hire, who watches her for hour after hour, night after night: Sleeping, waking up, dressing, undressing, ironing her clothes, making love with her lout of a boyfriend, Emile (Luc Thuillier).
What does she do when she discovers this? The screenplay is based on Monsieur Hire’s Engagement by Georges Simenon, but it’s nothing like his Inspector Maigret policiers, much more of a traditional novel with carefully-observed behavior and details. Simenon was fascinated by peculiarities of human personality, which he described in elegant, simple prose, not unlike Leconte’s controlled visual style here.
The film is in color, but Hire’s world is black and white: His suits, shirts, the white mice he keeps in little cage in his tailor shop. His skin is so pale he might never go outside in daytime. Alice, on the other hand, likes red: Her clothing, her lipstick, the grocery big of ripe tomatoes she “drops” on a staircase so they roll toward Hire as he opens his door. Does he leap to assist her? No, he simply stands and regards her. What is the purpose of her contrivance?
Another day, she knocks on his door, but he doesn’t answer. He must know it’s her, because he never has visitors and he must realize she’s just left her own apartment. She knocks the next day, and he invites her to visit a restaurant—in a train station, which may be a clue to certain of his thoughts. Eventually he confirms that, yes, he has seen her and her boyfriend making love. And he witnessed something else that he believes explains her sudden and unexpected friendliness toward him.
So it may, at first. But Alice’s feelings for him grow more complicated, and she is touched by his declaration of love. Her boyfriend Emile, on the other hand, is a crude physical type whose idea of a perfect date is taking her to a boxing match and ignoring her. Later, when he needs to sneak out of a window quickly, he steps first in a cradle formed by her hands, and then on her shoulders. Hire shares his secrets with Alice. He makes considerable use of prostitutes, he tells her, and as he describes the process of a bordello her face reflects fascination, perhaps that a man like Hire could have such erotic experiences and describe them so sensuously. But he can never visit a prostitute again, he explains, because he has fallen in love with her.