Two French thrillers were released in the UK by Metrodome without too much fanfare in May and June and I managed to see both in the same week on digital prints at the National Media Museum. My first reaction, much like last Summer’s when a swathe of French films appeared, was why don’t we get British films like this on a regular basis – interesting genre films with star names presented in ‘Scope? What’s not to like? Well quite a lot if you are certain British critics, but I was engrossed.
The two films are actually quite different. Of the two, I think Pour elle (Anything for Her, France 2008) worked best. It reminded me of classic crime thrillers – what the French call polars. The set-up is very simple. A young mother, Lisa (Diane Kruger) is arrested and convicted for murder on seemingly incontrovertible evidence. Her husband, Julien (Vincent Lindon) believes she didn’t do it and determines to spring her and reunite the family (Oscar is their young son). And that’s it. In some ways, the situation is pure Hitchcock with an innocent man forced into dangerous and criminal acts because he loves his wife. The difference is that Hitchcock would cast Cary Grant. The woman would be Grace Kelly and it would all take place in a glamorous fantasy world. But Julien is a teacher in a nameless Paris suburb (much like the teacher in Entre les murs). This time, however, we learn little about his classroom, except that his students seem rather docile and the writer/director Fred Cavayé has a little joke when one of Julien’s students gives a short talk about George Simenon and Maigret – as Julien looks out of the window pondering his next move.
Vincent Lindon is terrific – he could easily be a character in a polar by Jean-Pierre Melville with his gravelly voice, lugubrious expression and ‘bashed in’ face giving him the look of Belmondo crossed with Lino Ventura. The main criticism of the film appears to be that it is implausible – in other words that ‘ordinary people’ like this don’t do extraordinary things such as springing the partners from prison. Teachers can’t be ‘extraordinary’. Pah! I’ve known several extraordinary teachers, at least one of whom was an ex-paratrooper. But that’s not the point. If this was a Hitchcock film, nobody would worry about plausibility – and nobody criticises Batman for not being plausible. Pour elle is a genre movie and it includes several genre tropes related to getting hold of money and prison breaks. As long as the characters are plausible and the plotting shows intelligence, I don’t have problems.
Cavayé has the neat device of Julien pretending to write a book about a famous prison escapee (played by Olivier Marchal, director of 36, Quai des orfèvres). Julien gets all the pointers he needs, but can he carry them through? Much depends on whether we believe that he loves his wife and son and that he would do anything to keep them together. I think the script is generally pretty good. Everything is held together by Lindon and the action sequences are genuinely exciting and convincing. If you’ve seen 36, the ending is in some ways similar.
I hope that this does as well as Tell No One from 2007. It’s not as glamorous as that film and doesn’t have the same central Paris chic. It’s more noirish in every way. In France the film made around $5 million and in the UK it opened in the Top 20 from only 43 screens and with a healthy screen average of over $3,400. This bodes well, but the film probably won’t make it to North America as Paul Haggis and Lionsgate have already announced an American remake. That’s a shame, I think. Lindon is terrific and for much of the film, I idly wondered where I’d seen him before. He’s a prolific actor in French cinema and TV, but a little research soon answered my question – he’s the drunk who helps the three lads escape from the police when they try to steal a car in La haine (a film I must have watched a dozen times).
The other recent thriller is Mark of an Angel (L’empreinte de l’ange, France 2008) – a more problematic proposition for me. I was drawn to the film as it was produced by the same team responsible for La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006) and features the same star, Catherine Frot. La tourneuse de pages is terrific and I hoped for more of the same. The two films are both psychological thrillers/melodramas which again have a Hitchcockian feel and Mark of an Angel also has something in common with Claude Miller’s Ruth Rendell adaptation Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001). The narrative set-up is that Elsa (Catherine Frot) sees a small girl at a children’s party attended by her son. She becomes obsessed with the child, convincing herself that the girl is her own daughter who she had been told had died soon after she was born. Elsa is separated from her husband and struggling to work and look after her son. Her obsession leads her to inveigle her way into a tentative friendship with the girl’s mother Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire) in order to observe the child more closely.
The criticism of this film has also been based on ‘implausibility’, but this time it is complicated by the opening title that informs us that the film is based on a true story. I certainly fell into the trap of pursuing the implausibility argument, but only because I had the nagging feeling that Catherine Frot was too old to play the role of Elsa. I’m a bit ashamed of this reaction. Ms Frot is an excellent actor and I’m all in favour of starring roles for older women. There is no real reason why she shouldn’t play characters a few years younger than herself, although film is a pretty unforgiving medium. I’ve since revised my initial reaction for two reasons. First, I happily accepted Vincent Lindon as an older father in Pour elle, so why not Catherine Frot in this film? Secondly, children born to mothers in their mid-forties are now more common and in narrative terms it actually helps the film since it makes Elsa seem more ‘other’ in comparison with the younger Claire as the supposedly ‘natural mother’. It seems to me that Elsa also dresses younger at times.
Lots about the film worked very well for me. In fact it worked too well. I watched several scenes through my fingers because I found them painful and excruciating (i.e. extremely effective). There are some pure Hitchcockian moments in the film, including a wonderful sequence in a theatre where the girl is performing in a school ballet and both women are watching her. On my first viewing I found the ending of the film very hard to take. For some other viewers this was because they deemed it implausible. For me it just wasn’t ‘enough’ – I was hoping for more of a melodrama ending. I think it retrospect, I was too harsh on the film and I suspect that on a second viewing I would be more favourable. I don’t know anything about writer/director Safy Nebbou but he seems to have made several films that sound interesting – I’ll certainly look out for them.
Postscript (11 October 2009)
In her review of the film in Sight and Sound (June 2009), Catherine Wheatley suggests that Pour elle might be the first ‘Sarkozy-era thriller’. Her argument is that aesthetically the film is a slick, Hollywood-style action thriller, but with a production design that emphasises the cold unsympathetic state. She casts Julien as a conservative symbol ( a teacher of French) and specifically a representative of a traditional French community under siege. The police and the criminals are, she argues, predominantly Arab whereas Lisa and Oscar are almost ‘angelic’.
I’m not averse to this reading and indeed I did feel a sense of Julien almost like a Michael Winner style ‘ordinary man’ against the ‘filth on the street’. But I think that’s pushing it. On the whole, I still think that the script justifies Julien’s move to taking enormous risks. He is a driven man with an obsessive love for wife and child. The charge of racial typing does make me think again, but I’m not sure that the effect is quite what Wheatley argues. I will continue to reflect on this.