There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!
The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.
The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.
The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.
So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.
The US trailer:
Le guetteur is a ‘polar‘ or crime film (see Roy’s post on the French polar). The benefit of this term is that it covers all varieties and sub-genres of crime films, eg, police procedural, gangster film, noir, heist film, etc). It has long been one of the staples of the French film industry and, as Roy’s piece argues, they do it pretty well. How does The Lookout stack up against this rich tradition? Well, fair to middling. The cast is mainly French but it is directed by an Italian, Michele Placido (I’m only familiar with his 2005 film, Romanzo Criminale (2005), which shows at least that he can handle action sequences pretty well).
Although a good translation of the word ‘guetteur‘, ‘lookout’ is a bit misleading, suggesting a fairly passive role. In fact, the lookout in question is a ruthless, highly skilled and enterprising criminal. The opening scene takes a typical bank heist gone wrong, and then gives it a fresh twist. Chief Inspector Mattei has received a tip-off that a major heist that is set to go down in Paris and assembles a large team of armed police. However, the police operation is disrupted when a sniper, who is perched some distance away on a rooftop, opens fire on the squad of arresting officers, killing and badly wounding several of them. Mattei’s connections lead him to discover that he is a former soldier and is high on Interpol’s wanted list but there is also a hint of undercover work for the French security services which might make it more difficult to track him down. But Mattei does discover his identity, Kaminski, the heist being shown in flashback as the film actually begins with Mattei interrogating a prisoner in custody. Kaminski refuses at first to answer Mattei’s questions, holding his gaze impassively, but eventually he asks to see his lawyer (with whom he has had a relationship in the past and who is willing to renege on her professional scruples to help her ex for whom she still holds a candle). The fact that Kaminski is played by the co-star and is in custody early in the first act (the film does seem to follow a three-act structure) suggests that he won’t be inside for long. In the initial heist, one of the robbers is badly wounded and (a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and many other examples of the genre) must be attended by a defrocked doctor. Usually in the genre, this is a minor character but in The Lookout the doctor, Franck, at first a marginal character, turns out to be by far the nastiest criminal in the film and who takes the narrative in the direction of misogynistic horror.
One of film’s main strengths is the terrific set pieces like the one described above which lasts about seven minutes (and another one which ends the film) which rival Heat which it also resembles in terms of plot in the way that it is structured around a central conflict between the leading cop and the leading criminal. In the second act, Mattei is marginalised as the focus of the plot shifts to the criminals falling out with each other and here the screenplay (by Denis Brusseaux and Cédric Melon) seems to have an attention deficit disorder. It wants to do too much and the film becomes overwhelmed for a while. The number of characters – including the thieves, Kaminski’s lawyer, prisoners on detention, a (slightly stereotypical) gypsy, the hard-nosed wife of the wounded gangster – means that there are too many sub-plots (of short duration) and obfuscate the film’s central conflict between Mattei and Kaminski. There is a late-stage revelation (no spoilers) which functions to complicate the backstory between the two key conflicted protagonists which I thought worked quite well.
Casting is one of the film’s strengths, Mattei being played by Daniel Auteuil. He can sometimes seem as if he plays each role in the same register, that of angst-ridden gruffness (except when he plays parts requiring him to speak in his native Southern accent such as in Jean de Florette Jean de Florette or The Well-Digger’s Daughter/Le Puisatier), or even in comedies like Le Placard. But it’s a register he does better than any of his contemporaries. Mathieu Kassovitz, whose career alternates between directing (La haine/Hatred (1995) is his best-known film) and acting, shows that he can hold his own as a downbeat action star.
The creepy Franck is played by Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet whom I have seen mainly as a regular of the Dardenne Brothers (such as Le Fils/The Son in 2002) but he is beginning to have prominent parts in French films and played the leading role in L’exercice de l’État/The Minister (2011). The director has a brief cameo as garage owner with a sideline in supplying crooked passports to the criminal underworld and Fanny Ardant, one of the leading French actors of the last 35 years (she played, for example, in Truffaut’s La femme d’à côté/The Woman Next Door in 1979 and Marion Vernoux’s Les beaux jours/Better Days Ahead this year – who says women over 60 don’t get sexy roles!), has an even briefer one with about 20 seconds of screen time. I wasn’t sure if it was her as the part is uncredited but imdb.com confirms her presence.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs):
The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).
The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.
I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.
This is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s scabrous, perverse, surreal and offensive but nonetheless engaging. You need to know that is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel and that therefore there will be sex, drugs, violence and various obscenities. Nothing is to be taken seriously. In strict Aristotelean terms this is possibly a tragedy rather than a comedy – but even then the ending is ambiguous.
I haven’t read the Welsh novel, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page suggests that the adaptation has changed several aspects of the narrative and this may be a problem for Welsh fans. Non-Brits should be aware that ‘Filth’ is a slang term for both the police (‘Polis’ in Scotland) and for pornography as well as more properly for ‘dirt’. The anti-hero of Filth is a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh CID, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is put in charge of a murder case which he must solve in order to gain promotion – and win back his wife and child who have left him. But this is a policeman who has a serious mental health problem and who is declining rapidly under a regime of cocaine, alcohol and obsessive sex. He is haunted by a childhood memory that begins to haunt him after he becomes involved in a street incident. Ironically this incident offers Robertson a possibility of some form of redemption but he is already set on a path of destruction which will damage all his colleagues.
Director John S. Baird is not an innovator matching the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and there is nothing too surprising in the aesthetics of the film, but those of Welsh’s ideas that have made it into the film adaptation added to the array of fine performances by a truly stellar cast carry the film through: Baird keeps the pace going at a fair lick. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only one or two actors and many of Scotland’s finest are here including Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie, Shirley Henderson, Martin Compston and John Sessions. You can’t really go wrong with talent like that, especially when you throw in the English stars like Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Imogen Poots. But above all there is James McAvoy. I’ve previously questioned his casting in action roles but here he is unassailable, generating viciousness, self-loathing and gleeful pleasure in tricking his colleagues.
This production is a good case study for an investigation of ‘British independent’ production in 2013. Despite the the Irvine Welsh connection (or perhaps because of it – two other adaptations after Trainspotting failed) and the excellent cast, money was hard to come by and the producers appear to have been in that classic position of paying the actors out of their own pockets at one point. Once again Europe comes to the rescue with public funding from Film i väst in Sweden and various funds in Germany and Belgium. This explains the insertion of a trip to Hamburg in the narrative. It looks like an injection of cash from Trudie Styler’s company topped off a £3 million budget. That’s about twice the size of a ‘domestic’ UK movie budget these days but it does appear that the money has been well spent on cast and effects plus music. Clint Mansell is in charge of music and though I have no real knowledge of the tracks used in the film, I think that they work pretty well. I’m sure that eventually there will be a fan community analysis of the music.
After three weekends on release (the first only in Scotland) Lionsgate are probably fairly pleased with the box office returns, especially given the ’18’ certificate in the UK and distribution to certain overseas territories has been finalised. Censorship will keep it out of India and North America might be a problem but in Northern Europe I think it will play well. So far the UK total is just over $4 million with only a 25% drop in Week 3.
It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scottish films with Sunshine on Leith and the specialised offering For Those in Peril. Here’s the shortest of many official trailers for Filth: