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).
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.
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).
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.
Subway (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
Useful sites giving background on French crime fiction:
Here’s a piece I wrote a little later about Jacques Audiard and his polars:
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.
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?