Monday, January 24, 2022

The Unknown Man of Shandigor, Starring Serge Gainsbourg

Life is cheap when you are a spy, especially when you are in a spy-spoof. You could die at any moment for your country, but there is a good chance viewers might laugh when it happens. There is a pretty high body-count in this spoof, but at least one of the fallen agents gets a requiem serenade from none other than Serge Gainsbourg. The mayhem is goofy but unusually stylish in Jean-Louis Roy’s Euro-spy send-up The Unknown Man of Shandigor, which releases tomorrow on BluRay.

Everyone is interested in the “Canceler” formula developed by the mad scientist Herbert von Krantz that holds the power of neutering nuclear war heads. Just about every spy in the business is out to get it, including the Serge Gainsbourg ‘s aptly named “Baldies” from France. There are also the Americans, led by the Eddie Constantine-like Bobby Van and the Soviets, commanded by Shostakovich. Frankly, it is a little unfair to make him the composer’s namesake, considering the real-life Shostakovich had a very complicated and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the Communist Party.

The formula is safely tucked away somewhere inside Von Krantz’s weird split-level suburban McMansion, but only he and his albino assistant Yvan know where. Not even his neglected daughter Sylvaine is privy to his secret, but it is somehow related to their last happy family vacation to Shandigor. Understandably, she still carries a torch for the dashing Manuel, whom she met there—but can she trust him when they eventually reunite?

is a lot like Godard’s Alphaville, but the story is easier to follow, the comedy is broader, and sets and backdrops are even more stylized. Roy shrewdly used the ultra-modernist buildings of Geneva’s NGO district and Barcelona’s Gaudi buildings to create a trippy environment for his espionage frolics. Frankly, the story is more than a little ridiculous and it is riddled with le Carre-esque moral equivalence for each network of spies. However, Shostakovich is arguably the most sinister of the bad lot.

Regardless, it is a trip to hear Gainsbourg’s funky send-off to one of his fallen Baldies. It is unlikely this tune is collected on any of his greatest hits, so Gainsbourg fans really need to hear it here. Admittedly, the story is rather dumb, so viewers should just try to ignore it and concentrate on the stunning ultra-noir black-and-white visuals crafted by Roy and cinematographer Roger Bimpage.

The cast is also quite a unique assembly. In addition to Gainsbourg, Jess Franco-regular Howard Vernon out-Constantines Eddie Constantine (both the actor and the character) as Bobby Gun and Ben Carruthers (maybe best known from Cassavetes’
Shadows) is aptly mysterious as Manuel (technically the title character). Regardless, this is a film to drink in and sometimes listen to, but not to pay such close attention to. Highly recommended for its style rather than its substance, The Unknown Man of Shandigor releases tomorrow (1/25) on BluRay.