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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

How Elevator to the Gallows' Opening Scene Establishes Florence as a Femme Fatale

Scene Analysis

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

An extreme close up with the passionate pleads of a beautiful woman. This is how the opening scene of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958) commands its viewer's undivided attention and establishes the film’s dangerous Parisian world. In the first seconds of the film, camera movement, light, and dialogue are all key in implicating Florence Carala as the source of destruction and trouble to come.

The film opens under a blanket of darkness that slowly fades to unveil Florence’s shut eyes. As the black on the screen dissolves, an extreme close up of Florence’s face is revealed. The very first image the film presents is of Florence being uncloaked by darkness. We see her open her eyes as her character is brought to life, but the film’s careful use of light informs us that her origins are of something more menacing than the usual purity that surrounds new life. The remainder of her close up is shot with a slight shadow cast across half of her face. This intentional lighting is starkly contrasted by the lighting of her lover, Julien, whose face is evenly lit in the following scene. Florence’s murky face serves to communicate the complicated inner workings of her mind — complications that later lead to the murder of her husband and the imprisonment of both herself and her lover. The darkness that surrounds her serves to implicate her in the upcoming crimes and set up the dramatic thriller ahead.

Camera movement is equally essential in establishing Florence’s villainous character. In addition to its aesthetic value, Florence’s close up is an unsubtle way of informing audience members that her character’s secrets, desires, and actions will profoundly affect the film’s storyline and those in it. It is Malle’s explicit way of telling viewers to pay attention to her. On the other hand, Julien’s character has the reverse relationship with the camera. While the film’s eyes never strays too far from Florence, Julien becomes smaller and smaller as the opening scene expands to reveal his presence in a large building. By the end of the two-minute scene, Julien is completely swallowed by his environment. This is indicative of Julien’s importance in the story. Julien is just a man who got tangled up in the complexity of life and love; this is shown as he becomes engulfed by the many lines and windows that surround him. Although he will soon be the one to commit murder, he is only a small player in the larger story of Florence’s wild imagination. His relationship to the screen showcases this.

Dialogue is another tool that Malle uses to establish Florence’s destructive nature. The opening scene’s first few moments of silence are cut through by the sound of Florence’s voice. The words spoken from her lips read, “I’m the one who can’t take anymore” (Elevator to the Gallows 1958). Florence feeds the audience information on the ominous events to come as she insists that they must commit this mysterious deed. During this exchange, Julien makes no mention of their plans to commit murder; his only words to Florence during their conversation are ones of love and endearment. The dialogue of the opening scene reveals the characters’ motives and differing priorities. Florence insists that violence must occur. Julien insists on loving her.

Works Cited

Malle, Louis, director. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Nouvelles Éditions de Films, 1958.


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