Dossier 51 (Michel Deville, 1978)

Dossier 51 is an obscure lost gem by Michael Deville, adapted from a novel by Gilles Perrault.  It’s could be described as a “spy film” but that’d really be doing it a disservice, as what’s it’s actually about  is surveillance and manipulation. The plot revolves around a nameless organisation who wish to manipulate a political body called ODENS and so therefore target one Dominique Auphal, a newly elected ODENS member (he’s the codenamed “51” of the title). They set to digging into his life, searching for levers of manipulation.

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Formally, the film is pretty stunning, it’s shot entirely in first person camera, from the point of view of various agents or their shadowy controllers. These characters remain off screen throughout, bar the occasionally glimpse in a mirror. This has the doubled effect of making the viewer both  complicit in the surveillance, and heightening the anonmyity of these “characters” – in fact, I hesitate to use the word “characters” as so little is given away. The protagonists are an absent presence, defined only by their desire to manipulate Auphal. On screen we see long shots via hidden cameras, CCTV footage, and scattered and fragmented shots of spy paraphernalia and a few soliloquies to camera. It’s these soliloquies that gave the film it’s most powerful moments. The revelations of Auphal’s mother are heart-rending, even more so in the context of false trust that’s been set up by one of the film’s many agents.

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As the film builds, “they” begin to pull together a psychic portrait of Auphal, his weak points, obsessions and hidden drivers. In this sense, the film rests exactly on on kind of psychic archaeology that one undergoes in psychoanalysis. What struck me when watching is that the film is emblematic of the moment when psychoanalysis was at its peak of cultural power, when Freud (and others) seemed to have the keys to all existence. However, in a way, this denouement at the end broke some of the film’s magic –  which lies in the evocation of paranoia and furtive observation. The narratives of psychoanalysis, these explanations of the psyche, sometimes seem too contorted, too contrived – unless you are living them. That’s maybe the case here, though I won’t give the end away.

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Regardless, it’s a great film, a brilliant 70s curiosity. Psychoanalysis may have lost some of its cultural force but given recent revelations about agents of the State and the ubiquitous nature of surveillance, it’s remarkably prescient.