Search results for: polar

French crime thrillers – the polar

In the week that sees the UK release of the first of two French films about Jacques Mesrine, the French gangster figure from the 1970s, it seems opportune to explore the concept of the polar or crime thriller in French Cinema. French crime cinema now exists in an interesting relationship with Hollywood and Hong Kong Cinema in a seemingly endless flow of influences between the three. I’ve just watched the slightly disappointing Public Enemies in which, as some commentators noted, Johnny Depp tries hard but can’t really nail being as cool as Alain Delon in a Jean-Pierre Melville film. Eventually, I hope we also get to see the latest Johnnie To crime flick with French legend Johnny Halliday in Vengeance (2009).

Here is an update of some notes I used for a day school in 2006.

The thriller and crime fiction

In any film culture, the ‘thriller’ is likely to be one of the main broad generic categories. In France, as in Britain during the later studio period from the 1940s to the 1960s, the crime thriller was arguably second only to comedy as a popular format. France has a long history of ‘crime fiction’ – the first ‘detective story’ could be said to be Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 with a character perhaps modelled on Eugène François Vidocq, a real life crook turned thief catcher who became the first head of the Sûreté in 1811 (and the basis for a feature film in 2001). Poe offers an early American connection with French crime fiction which was to become more important in the 20th century.

But the police were not the heroes of early French crime fiction. More important were ‘super crooks’ such as Fantômas and Arsène Lupin who were defeating clod-hopping policemen in films from the 1910s. It was not until the 1920s that the French police found their hero in the form of (Belgian) Georges Simenon’s Maigret.

The roman noir, ‘dark stories’ of doomed characters began to appear in the 1940s and soon set up a kind of dialogue with ‘hard-boiled’ American fiction, both being published in France under the famous ‘Série Noire’ label. In the 1950s psychological mystery/crime novels gained a higher public and critical profile through the works of writers such as ‘Boileau-Narcejac’ and Sébastien Japrisot. The former is a pseudonym for a pair of writers, Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, perhaps best known outside France for the original novel used as the basis for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and for Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955). Japrisot’s books have also been used for films, most recently for the story which became Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (2004).

It isn’t difficult to make the links between French novels and films and American novels and films, with various French film directors turning to the work of ‘hardboiled’ writers of the 1940s, e.g. Truffaut turning to the work of William Irish/ Cornell Woolrich in The Bride Wore Black (1968) and La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and to David Goodis for Shoot the Pianist (1960). Goodis was also the source for Jean-Jacques Beneix’s The Moon in the Gutter (1983).

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien in Le Doulos (d. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien in Le Doulos (d. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)

The polar

The term polar seems to have been coined in the 1970s. Like many terms in idiomatic French, it’s a corruption or slang term, perhaps deriving from film policier. It now has a fairly loose meaning which covers films that may include ‘police procedural’ work or which may focus on the milieu of the criminals. It has also sometimes been widened to include spy thrillers and more action-orientated films. In critical usage, various French Cinema scholars have referred to the polar as a means of tracing how representations of crime, criminals and police work have changed over time. This is one of the important aspects of genre study. Because genre films are composed of elements mixed together in patterns of ‘repetition and difference’, we can use genres to log changes in references to issues of gender, race and class and to broader changes in French society. This is neatly set out by Phil Powrie (1997) in his book on 1980s French Cinema, a period when the polar was again popular. Powrie suggests three aspects of the polar that could form the basis for study:

  • its use as a ‘vehicle’ to carry comments on contemporary society;
  • an indication of the state of French-American cultural exchange;
  • the focus on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society.

Although the term ‘polar dates from the 1970s, we can trace it back at least as far as the 1930s when Jean Gabin was the major star of French cinema.

Pépé le Moko (1937)

Pépé (Jean Gabin) is a Parisian gangster (originally a ‘moko’ – ‘from Marseilles’) exiled in Algiers where he is holed up in the Casbah and supported by a network of people all dedicated to making sure that the police can’t arrest him. He is doomed because he can’t stop himself being attracted to beautiful women and because his network is vulnerable through the naivety of his ‘surrogate son’ and the sly manipulations of a local police officer.

The Casbah is carefully constructed and photographed in a Parisian studio – so effectively that in some ways the film looks like an early rehearsal of the famous scenes in Battle of Algiers, shot on location in 1965. Gabin/Pépé is a recognisable character in a category of films given the title of ‘poetic realism’ in which a romanticised hero from the working class is shown to be ultimately defeated. Surprisingly perhaps, most of these pessimistic films were made by supposedly ‘left-wing’ directors. In this case, the director was Julien Duvivier, not generally seen as of the left. Gabin continued to be a major star into the 1970s, dying in 1976. He set the standard for the masculine hero, rugged and brutal, but also romantic and well-dressed.

Jean Gabin (left) and Lino Ventura (right), two great stars of the polar in Rouge est mis (France 1957) part written by Jacques Audiard's Dad, Michel Audiard

Jean Gabin (left) and Lino Ventura (right), two great stars of the polar in Rouge est mis (France 1957) part written by Jacques Audiard's Dad, Michel Audiard

Plein soleil (France/Italy 1960)

This version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, starred Alain Delon in one of his first roles as the cold-blooded killer Tom Ripley. Delon went on to become a major star of both auteur films and popular polars, later appearing in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It was directed by René Clément, one of the directors who perhaps suffered by association with la tradition de qualité attacked by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma. Plein soleil refers to at least two of the polar’s features in the early 1960s – an origination in American crime writing and and to some extent Hollywood filmmaking in colour, on location in Italy. The Italian setting also refers to the sense of the new environment of the ‘periphery’ (i.e. ‘not Paris’) which began to appear as a locale at this time.

À bout de souffle (1959)

Now famous, alongside Truffaut’s Les 400 coups, as the films that heralded la nouvelle vague for cinephiles around the world, À bout de souffle shows director Jean-Luc Godard taking the elements of the polar and the American crime B-picture and creating something new. In the opening of the film, we see Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘playing’ with the image of Humphrey Bogart and then moving into an exciting drive from the Cote d’Azur to Paris and trashing the conventions of the ‘well-made’ film along the way.

Belmondo was both the male star of the New Wave and the heir to Gabin’s role. In À bout de souffle he is a charming young thug who dies on the street in a scene at once ‘romantic’, futile and ‘marginal’. He appeared in other polar-related films for Truffaut and Chabrol and for the ‘mentor’ of the New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville. He also appeared in more commercial films, e.g. alongside Alain Delon in Borsalino (France/Italy 1970) a 1930s set Marseilles gangster movie which refers perhaps to both the Warners films of the 1930s and to contemporary ‘buddy movies’ such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (US 1969).

Alain Delon as Jef Costello in Le Samourai – at your heart out, Johnny Depp!

Alain Delon as Jef Costello in Le Samourai – eat your heart out, Johnny Depp!

Le Samuraï (France/Italy 1967)

Delon again, for Melville and playing the ultimate hitman ‘Jeff Costello’. Melville had developed a highly individual style in his earlier polars, which were both ‘popular’ (i.e. commercially more successful than the New Wave films) and attracted cinephiles intrigued by his commentary on the crime film, American cinema, existentialism etc. Costello is clearly ‘marginalised’ and seemingly anachronistic in the Paris of the mid 1960s.

subwaySubway (France 1985)

Writer-producer-director Luc Besson is one of the figures associated with the cinéma du look of the 1980s. Powrie argues that the polar was revived in the 1980s and filled an ‘ideological gap’ left by the dramas drawing on left-wing ideas in the 1970s. Other auteur directors of the period (e.g. Beneix, Leos Carax) also made polars, but Besson has always been interested in popular genre cinema and the American connections which saw his Nikita (France 1990) re-made in Hollywood and Léon (France/US 1994) set in America, are an integral part of the history of the polar.

Other polars released in the UK include Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘realist’ study of the Parisian drugs squad in L.627 (France 1992) and Maurice Pialat’s Police (1985), a classic polar with Gérard Depardieu as a police officer falling for a mysterious woman. Depardieu could be seen as the 1980s successor to Belmondo/Delon as a polar hero.

References and further reading

Susan Hayward (1993) French National Cinema, London: Routledge

Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds) (2000) French Film: Text and Contexts, London: Routledge

(Includes papers on Le Samouraï, À bout de souffle and Nikita)

Phil Powrie (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP

Websites

Useful sites giving background on French crime fiction:

www.dartmouth.edu/~gjdemko/french.htm

www.crimeculture.com/Contents/FrenchCrimeFiction.htm

Thomas (Romain Duris) and Miao-Lin (Linh-Dam Pham) in The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Thomas (Romain Duris) and Miao-Lin (Linh-Dam Pham) in The Beat That My Heart Skipped

De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, France 2005)

Jacques Audiard (born 1952)

Audiard’s father, Michel, was a prolific writer/director of thrillers/polars, responsible for over 100 scripts between 1949 and his death in 2000. Jacques Audiard also became a screenwriter and in 1994 directed his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber. Unlike his father, Jacques began as an editor, before moving to writing and finally to directing. He has spent much longer fashioning his scripts and has directed just five features to date. All have been widely praised and each represents a form of commentary on the history of the thriller. The first two films both feature Jean-Louis Trintignant and Mathieu Kassovitz.

In Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall, 1994), the veteran Trintignant (himself a star of crime films, alongside other genres and auteur films of the 1960s and 1970s) is an ageing hitman who takes on a younger partner (Kassovitz) with learning difficulties. The film is more of a character study than a straight thriller. In Un héros très discret (Self-made Hero, 1997), one of the best French films of the 1990s, Trintignant and Kassovitz return as older and younger versions of the same man, a successful politician of the 1990s recounting his own bizarre story from the Occupation in the 1940s. This isn’t a thriller as such, but again it features a rather weak character who is taught how to behave and who discovers a talent for inventing himself as a new personality. Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) in 2001 certainly was a thriller. A working class criminal released from prison meets a thirty-something woman with a hearing impairment who is being cold-shouldered in her work as a secretary for a building company. She hires him as her assistant and gradually they are drawn together to form a an unusual partnership which benefits from her skills as a lip-reader. The relationship strengthens as they become enmeshed in a thriller narrative.

Audiard’s films all feature partnerships. Regarde les hommes tomber is perhaps most clearly related to the polartradition, with its surrogate father-son relationship. Un héros très discret offers several different relationships all involving the central character, but all in some way based on a deceit – fitting for a story set in the context of exposing the ‘myth’ of resistance in the 1940s. Sur mes lèvres is unusual in focusing primarily on the woman, but creating through the partnership a kind of amalgam figure related to the polar hero. De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté returns in a way to the (real) father/son relationship.

Putting aside the ‘special case’ of Un héros très discret, Audiard’s three polars all take place in a world that is recognisably the ‘real France’ of the 1990s/2000s, but which also makes reference to the generic locations/mise en scène of earlier polars. They are mostly set in Paris, but more in the suburbs than the centre and, in Sur mes lèvres, the kind of industrial/residential sprawl with its clubbing and high rises that features in many European cities. There are strong elements of realism in the depiction of Paris in a range of polars – marking the genre as aesthetically removed from the quirky fantasy world of Amélie or the earlier ‘heritage’ films set in the ‘glorious’ past.

The two most recent Audiard films are interesting in terms of their central characters. Vincent Cassel plays against type in Sur mes lèvres. Cassel has all the qualities that would make him a modern counterpart of the Belmondo/Delon characters from the 1960s/70s. He has the same physical beauty and presence and the skill to suggest the peculiar mixture of intelligence, brutality, coldness and tenderness that they display. But in Sur mes lèvres, he becomes the object of attraction for Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), who herself displays a similarly complex array of personal traits. Carla is the lonely and isolated figure, drawn into criminal activity through her repressed sexual desire. For some audiences, the move into the thriller territory is something of a disappointment after the slow build of the first half of the film which carries a strong sexual charge.

Perhaps the clearer generic narrative in De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté has enabled it to become a bigger commercial success. The film is a remake of Fingers, the 1978 American ‘independent’ film made by James Toback and starring Harvey Keitel. Bizarrely produced by Brut “the great smell for men”, the plot outline sees a young man who is caught between the demi-world of his criminal father and the more gentile world of his mother a concert pianist.

Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) in the remake really does seem to be the Belmondo/Delon hero. His dark good looks and stylish, if casual, clothes, his mix of brutality and delicacy are all suggestive of the earlier characters. Duris is some thing of a throwback in this performance with his longish hair, leather jacket and cuban heeled boots. He has entered his father’s business as an unscrupulous property developer who buys up apartment blocks after evicting squatters with violence and threats. He wearily beats people up for his ailing father, but refuses to endorse his parent’s new relationship (with Emannuelle Devos). His chance meeting with his dead mother’s agent/impresario prompts him to take up the piano again and to seek out a piano tutor, Chinese conservatoire student Miao-Lin.

Duris is fantastic and manages to be brutal and sexy, immoral and honourable. Audiard makes excellent use of the mix of classical piano with ‘techno’ and edits the film tightly so that it is a tense thriller even if the actual narrative incident is relatively slight. This is possibly the best polar of recent years – at least before Audiard’s next film which did so well at Cannes in 2009.

Here’s the trailer:

Discussion questions

1. Think about the ending of De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté. How does it compare with the traditional polar? What do we think of Thomas and his situation at the end of the film?

2. Is Thomas the ‘marginalised figure’ alluded to by Phil Powrie? If so, in what ways?

3. What kind of environment does the film inhabit? If you have been to Paris recently, is it a ‘realist’ environment? Does the film feel like it is dealing with a recognisable society in 2005?

4. Should we take anything from the fact that Audiard has ‘remade’ a (relatively obscure) American film? Does the film have anything to say about that unique French/American/crime connection?

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Vertigo Sea (UK 2015)

John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.

Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:

Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:

A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.

The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.

The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.

The three screens with one of the archive portraits of Africans

The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.

The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.

For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?

A still from archive footage of migrants at sea. I think these are the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ of the late 1970s?

I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.

Scribe (La mécanique de l’ombre, France-Belgium 2016)

The poster’s graphics convey the attempt at stylisation

This is an unusual political/paranoia thriller with a star name and a downbeat, almost abstract setting. It seems to have wrong-footed some reviewers but is certainly worth catching. Thomas Kruithof makes his directorial début with plenty of ideas but struggles a little with a script he has co-written with Yann Gozlan and two other collaborators. There seems to be a flaw in the last third of the narrative, leading to a rushed ending. The star of the film is French actor François Cluzet. He must command a very high fee because the €5 million budget doesn’t necessarily appear on the screen in what is an imaginative but minimalist presentation. The film is set in France but filmed entirely in Belgium, mostly in Brussels, and this gives a strange sense of anonymity to the images. There is funding from Wallonia as well as France. As well as Cluzet, most of the cast are French – apart from the Italian-German Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice.

A night of frustration at work leaves Duval in a strange place

One issue is the genre categorisation of the film. It begins almost as a Wellesian mystery like The Trial (1962). Cluzet is Duval, an accountant/accounts clerk in his late 50s who has a breakdown at work and two years later is unemployed and divorced, a former alcoholic who has successfully managed a year of abstention. He meets Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) at AA and around the same time receives a job offer which he accepts, needing something to occupy himself. It takes him to an unfurnished and drab apartment in a tower block where he has to transcribe telephone conversations recorded on a series of cassette tapes. His employer, ‘Clément’, distrusts digital technology and Duval is required to use a typewriter and to follow a set of strict rules in his work practice. Clément makes clear that he is conducting surveillance and that he is engaged in ‘protecting France’. Duval says he is non-political – but affirms that he is a patriot. The audience isn’t clear how much Duval understands but we know that he needs, and wants, this job. Some reviewers have likened his situation to that of the Gene Hackman character in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

As Duval works conscientiously from 9 to 6 each day in his solitary workspace, it becomes obvious that the material he is transcribing is a phone-tap involving people connected to hostage-taking in Mauritania, the former French colonial possession in West Africa. The plot appears to draw on the real kidnappings in Lebanon in 1986 and the questions surrounding the actions of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac about their release, but places it in the context of a contemporary election campaign by a right-wing French politician that brings it back up to date. Director Kruithof  has said that he understands that contemporary spy networks are returning to analogue methods to keep their work secure from cyber attacks and it seems a logical step.

The narrative suggests the possibility of romance with Sara

Duval is either slow to realise the import of what he is doing or genuinely engaged in a form of ‘automatic writing’ – which is the intimation of the French title of the film. He simply transcribes the conversations without thinking about what they mean. Inevitably, something goes wrong and Duval finds himself trapped between his boss, French ‘domestic intelligence’ and a third party. By chance, Sara is also involved. It is this predicament which triggers the concluding segment of the narrative – and which some reviewers have claimed is ‘sub-Bourne/Bond’. I think this is an exaggeration. What does happen is that at key moments the seemingly placid Duval acts, decisively but effectively without turning into a superhero.

Denis Podalydès as Clément

Cluzet is always worth watching. Here he seems to have put on weight and he inhabits his character effectively. The whole cast is very good and Denis Podalydès as Clément is particularly interesting as the rather unusual employer with the very strict rules. In an interview with Variety, the director describes how he shot scenes in such a way as to involve the audience as much as possible in Duval’s sense of becoming trapped by his task. The cinematography by Alex Lamarque and the score by Grégoire Auger definitely work in this respect. The film in its early stages was known in English as ‘The Eavesdropper’ – which I think would suggest something rather different from the final French title. It’s disappointing that Alba Rohrwacher’s role is simply to allow a variation on Duval’s paranoia by first ‘normalising’ his emotional isolation and then making him vulnerable. She seems to disappear towards the end of the narrative but I may have missed something in the closing scenes.

Duval is questioned about his actions

If you enjoy suspense and mystery, Scribe will entertain you. In the Variety piece above and in other reviews there is a sense that this kind of genre cinema is returning in France. As I was watching it I did wonder whether this could be categorised as a polar the broad generic classification which has in the past included this kind of political thriller. The UK distributor is Arrow who tend to release titles for short cinema runs and then focus on DVD and online. It should be available online now if you’ve missed it in cinemas.

Jean-Pierre Melville in New York

I was recently visiting a friend in New York and by happy chance the Film Forum multi-screen in ‘the Village’ was running a retrospective of this ‘cool auteur’, as one plug commented. Melville was born on 20.10.1917 and the programme celebrated his centenary. His films nearly always centre on crime or gangster stories, known as ‘polar’.

The Film Forum started up in the 1970 and moved to its present location in Houston Street in 1989. It has three screens and its programme offers

“two distinct, complementary film programs – NYC theatrical premieres of American independents and foreign art films, programmed by Cooper and Mike Maggiore; and, since 1987, repertory selections including foreign and American classics, genre works, festivals and directors’ retrospectives, programmed by Bruce Goldstein. Our third screen is dedicated to extended runs of popular selections from both programs, as well as new films for longer engagements.”

It is a compact but well designed cinema. I only saw one auditorium, seating about a hundred, with a reasonably large screen and proper masking. The rake was shallow so one had to judge one’s seat when films involved sub-titles. The cinema has a policy of offering 35mm prints whenever possible and I enjoyed three films there on reasonably good prints. The adverts are only promos for the cinema followed by trailers, impressed.

The earliest was a rare film, [which I had not encountered before] Quand tu liras cette letter  (When You Read This Letter, 1953). The print had been loaned for the retrospective by

‘the people of France’

via Rialto, the distribution company related to Criterion. This was in black and white and Academy ratio. This was an atypical Melville offering, being essentially a melodrama. The film centred on a Parisian Lothario, Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire)  working for the summer in Cannes. His targets included a rich divorcee  Irène Faugeret  (Yvonne Sanson); several dancers at the local hotel cum night-spot; a young naive teenager, Denise Voise (Irène Galter); and her older sister Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco). Thérèse was the key character in the film. She had left the convent where she was a novice when her parents were killed in an accident. She acted as guardian to Denise and managed the Voise shop, a stationers. As the film progressed the narrative became darker and the sunlight of Cannes changed to the chiaroscuro of night. As one would expect the film’s resolution involved a violent death. In fact the film involved another trope we saw in all the Melville films, the violent death of a woman in a motorcar – by design. The film closed at the Convent followed by slow pan across Marseilles harbour: so that water and the seaside were central motifs in the film.

The print had no subtitles so Film Forum had commissioned a set of English sub-titles which were projected digitally onto the frame [rather than below] in white with a blue tint: this was very effective.

The second film was Le Doulos (1962) in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio and with English sub-titles. This film enjoyed a UK release in 2008. It was a proper ‘polar’ and fairly typical of Melville’s crime thrillers.  The main credit was for Jean-Paul Belmondo who played Silien but what impressed me most was Serge Reggiani as Maurice Faugel. He opened the film in a run-down and ‘noir’ location which set the tone for the whole film. The cinematography was by Nicolas Hayer and the chiaroscuro of many settings reflected the troubled and ambiguous lives of the protagonists.

The French title refers to a ‘hat’ but is also slang for a police informant. Whilst the atmosphere was great I felt the plotting was over-complicated and that the motivations were opaque. This was partly because the film wished to offer a violent, unexpected and almost tragic resolution. Like much of Melville the women characters were subordinate and pawns in the masculine chess-like manoeuvres. So Monique Hennessy as Thérèse came off badly. She did though, fit the comment made by Melville on the film:

“all characters are two-faced, all characters are false”

The third film was Le deuxiéme souffle (1966), also in black and white, a ratio of 1.66:1 and with English subtitles. it was also the longest film running for 144 minutes, It did not seem that long because this was the best and most absorbing of the three titles. This was partly because of a splendid cast led by Lino Ventura (Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda) and Paul Meurisse ( Commissaire Blot); both in Melville’s masterwork Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969). Ventura brought his air of fatalism to the film whilst Meurisse imbued his cop with an impassive but relentless pursuit of his quarry.

The film opened as ‘Gu’ escaped from prison, a familiar trope. The film quickly established his violent character but also his circle of supportive friends in the underworld and the competing gangs. There were some great scenes in a Parisian night-club, journeys and crime on the road, and a slow and final violent denouement in Marseilles. The film offered a relatively strong woman character, Christine Faberega played Simone – also called ‘Manouche’, ‘Gu’s sister. The gangsters in the film  constantly plotted and double-crossed. ‘Gu’ was a relatively straightforward criminal and there existed a professional respect between him and Blot. The film ended with violence and failure.

Melville, adapting the film from ‘Le deuxiéme souffle’ by Jose Giovanni, not only examined the ruthless nature of criminality but that of the Marseilles police as well. The settings and locations reflected the urban milieu favoured by the gangsters and their actions outside this territory in empty roads and deserted places suggested their alienation from society.

The retrospective also included The Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres) and Le cercle rouge (1970, released in the UK in 2003 and then alongside Le Doulos in 2008). Léon Morin, prêtre (1970) was scheduled for a week long run. A dozen film in all plus À bout de souffle (1960) in which Melville has a role as a writer, Parvulesco. The three 35mm prints that I saw definitely added to my stay in New York. I expect that there will be a UK retrospective for Melville later this year: let us hope they get a national distribution as well as screenings in the metropolis: and 35mm  prints.

 

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.

Two Men in Town (Fra-Bel-Algeria-US 2014)

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The French Maghrebi filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb made two films in the US following his first film in English (with a fair bit of French) London River (France-Algeria 20o9). This remake followed Just Like a Woman (2012) and has received a similar response in the US to that for Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009) – bafflement at the arthouse approach to what seem like US genre stories. The difference here is that Bouchareb has not adapted an American story but has instead transposed a French original to New Mexico.

Deux hommes dans la ville was a 1973 French film written and directed by José Giovanni. It starred Alain Delon as a man released from prison partly because of the work of a social worker/parole officer (Jean Gabin). The two men develop a relationship outside prison but the ex-convict’s attempts to go straight are caught between a vengeful police inspector (Michel Bouquet) and his former criminal colleagues who want him to rejoin the gang. I haven’t seen this original film so I’m unsure of the details but this sounds like a classic noir/polar. Giovanni was himself an ex-con and he was a highly respected writer of polars, one of which was Classe tous risques (France-Italy 1960). His scripts were also used by leading directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Becker.

Here’s the trailer for the original (out in North America from Cohen Media). Don’t miss the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu:

Rachid Bouchareb adapted Giovanni’s script for the contemporary US with his regular collaborator Olivier Lorelle and a new collaborator Yasmina Khadra (like Giovanni working under a pseudonym – Khadra has political ambitions). In Bouchareb’s version, the convict is William Garnett, a local boy who killed a sheriff’s deputy. Played by Forest Whitaker, he converts to Islam in prison and is released on parole after 18 years. On release he is placed under parole officer Emily Smith, played by Brenda Blethyn (the lead in London River). She is a stern, ‘no nonsense’ but generally fair and progressive officer. Unfortunately Garnett is released locally (as per local custom) where the sheriff, Harvey Keitel, remembers the death of his deputy and is determined to put Garnett back behind bars. Garnett’s criminal connections from his youth are represented by Luis Guzmán‘s ‘Terence’, now a local hood engaged in criminal activities that cross the border.

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

As in Tavernier’s American film, the strong cast and setting (New Mexico desert landscapes) promise something dramatic and spectacular, but here the story – a character study drawn for a polar in France – is perhaps just too alien for American audiences. The assumption must be that Bouchareb is interested in all the problems and the possibilities that arise in border communities. Race, religion and politics all impinge on the central narrative in quite complicated ways. Garnett finds love quite quickly after leaving prison – with a Spanish woman. Keitel’s sheriff is a civic leader welcoming a returning soldier from Afghanistan at a celebration. He’s also quick to stamp down on local vigilantes who have illegally ‘arrested’ Mexican migrants but then intimidates Garnett quite unreasonably and seemingly encourages his deputies to do the same. Bouchareb also throws the audience by introducing Garnett’s mother at one point – played by Ellen Burstyn. We wonder how she met Garnett’s father and what life was like for the family as her son grew up.

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The strength of the film drama is to be found in the use of landscape. I was interested to find out later that it was photographed by Yves Cape whose credits include several of the French films I admire, including White Material (France 2009) by Claire Denis. It was also an interesting decision to provide Garnett with a second-hand motorbike as his means of travel to work (a Triumph Bonneville?) – the images of him riding to work at a cattle ranch with Éric Neveux‘s excellent score mixed with the ambient sounds of the desert are evocative of a wide range of films.

The film narrative opens with a murder which takes place in extreme long shot much like the celebrated scene in Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) and it is only later that we realise that this is a flash-forward to the last scene of the film.There is relatively little action in the film, although when it does come it is handled well. Most of the drama comes from the character studies. It is a formidable cast, especially with that fine actor Brenda Blethyn. I’ve no idea where her accent suggests that she comes from, but she is a compelling character. Whitaker is shown with a neatly trimmed hair style, suit and heavy-framed glasses that make him a dead ringer for Malcom X and emphasising that African-Americans have converted to Islam in prison since the 1950s (confirmed by Bouchareb in the French Press Pack). His new Muslim identity is evident throughout and causes some bemusement for his workmates, but this is not an easily typed identity for him – nor for them. At the point of release Garnett is visited in prison by an imam and throughout the film we see him at prayers. Only one person directly insults him. There are stand-offs between Blethyn and Keitel and a sad story about another of the parole cases – both of these incidents point to problems with the parole system. Bouchareb is interested in the psychology of the characters and the pressures of society rather than genre conventions – though he recognises that he is attracted by the Western. He tells us he did a considerable amount of research on the border migration issues and spoke to law enforcement officers and parole officers in New Mexico.

The only real problem I had with the ‘bare bones’ DVD distributed in the UK by Signature Entertainment was the lack of subtitles. Like many modern films, the ‘realist’ dialogue is sometimes hard to follow and I would have appreciated English subs for the hard of hearing. In addition there are a few scenes in which Garnett and his lover (Dolores Heredia) speak in Spanish. Not understanding these lines completely didn’t really spoil the film for me but the lack of subs does indicate the way the film was ‘dumped’ on the UK DVD market (with no cinema release). I think the American Region 1 DVD does have subs.

As a French-Maghrebi director, Rachid Bouchareb offers a possibly unique take on the American border/migrant story, though he does join other European directors such as Tony Richardson (The Border 1982 – also with Keitel) and Louis Malle (Alamo Bay 1985) as well as US ‘independents’ such as John Sayles (Lone Star 1996). I think Two Men in Town (awful title!) deserves to be seen. I think I’ll watch it again. Two Men in Town is one of those films which, if you set out to denigrate it, is a soft target. (See this Variety review which does an effective hatchet job.) But if you give it a chance, it will grow on you through landscape and performances. Yes, it does attempt to be a modern day Western like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (France-US 2005) – but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the US trailer for the 2014 film. It includes some SPOILERS – but also a nice shot of Brenda Blethyn as John Wayne from The Searchers (or ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ as it was in France):

Dheepan (France 2015)

DheepanPost

Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ ending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.

I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.

The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.

Dheepan and Ill

Dheepan and Illayaal. Photo © Paul Arnaud, Why Not Productions

Plot Outline (no spoilers)

‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?

Not social realism?

In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.

Yalini with Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) the son of her employer.

Yalini with Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) the son of her employer.

There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.

Audiard’s achievement

I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.

Hong Kong Crime Cinema #4: Vengeance (HK-France 2009)

Costello (Johnny Hallyday) has to use Polaroids to remember the faces of his team in the aftermath of a shoot-out in the rain.

Costello (Johnny Hallyday) has to use Polaroids to remember the faces of his team in the aftermath of a shoot-out in the rain.

The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polarLe cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.

The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.

Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.

Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.

What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.