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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Weimar – Samstag II

A Berlin Market, 1929

Whilst popular cinema in the 1920s was focused on fictional dramas there were a variety of non-fiction films. This was the decade in which John Grierson coined the word ‘documentary’ for films that presented the actual world about us. Germany, as elsewhere, produced films that utilised film shot in and about recognisable places, peoples and institutions. The travelogue, one of the earliest examples of feature-length non-fiction film, was popular. There were also experimental and avant-garde film-makers who offered films that emphasised cinematic techniques and explored the way that film represented reality.

Across Two Worlds by Car (Im Auto durch Zwei Welten, 1927 – 1931) is a travelogue but also an adventure.

“For this prototype road movie, race car driver Clärenore Stinnes (1901 – 1990) and Swedish cameraman Carl-Axel Söderström covered 46,758 kilometres. Travelling in an Adler sedan and sponsored by companies like Bosch, Aral, Varta and Continental, they drove through 23 countries and once round the globe – ..”

This epic journey took two years and started out east from Frankfurt, through the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran, the USSR to Siberia, across the Gobi Desert into China and Japan. The crossing the Pacific it continued up the backbone of South America along the Andes. Then by boat to the USA, ending up in New York. Another boat across the Atlantic bought them back to Europe and finally Germany. Söderström claimed that he did ‘more pushing than filming’ and in fact there are long stretches where the filming is sparse. All we see of the USA is the West Coast and then the East Coast. There was also a van or truck accompanying the sedan, presumably all the stores and equipment.

After the journey Stinnes had the film edited by Walther Stern and added a commentary and a musical score by Wolfgang Zeller. The commentary accompanies the images but these are intercut with shots of Stinnes talking direct to camera. The score is European in style even for the far-away places.

The sponsorship by German firms was an important aspect of the production. In her opening comments Stinnes stresses the German composition of the team, then noting that the cameraman is Swedish. She adds, in a comment that is mirrored by others later in the film, that Scandinavian are Germanic ‘fellows’. The filming does tend to stress the backwardness and poverty of the lands through which much of the journey travels. In fact, even discounting the boats, the round-the-world journey is only partly driven. There are frequent sequences where local people are persuaded or paid for hauling the vehicles, often through mud, sand or rocky terrain. The most gruelling, for the labourers, is when they cross the mountains and deserts of Peru. So her comment that ‘the automobile makes the big world small’ is as much rhetoric as actuality. The film is interesting but conventional: Stinnes is not Riefenstahl. However, she clearly is an independent and adventurous woman.

Short Films 2: ‘Experiments in Sound and Colour’ (‘Kurzfilme 2: Experimente mit Ton und Farbe’) offered nine film made between 1922 and 1934, the majority from the early 1930s. They consisted of actuality film, advertising film, puppet animation and conscious experimentation. All of them used varied colouring techniques for the period. Staff from the Deutsche Kinemathek introduced the programme providing illuminating detail on the various colour formats used.

The Victor (Der Sieger, 1922) and The Miracle (Das Wunder, 1922) used hand colouring and tinting processes, techniques that had appeared in the earliest days of the new medium.

Colour tests (Farmfilmversuche, Demo-Film für Sirius Farbverfahren, 1929) used a Dutch subtractive two colour system. In the earlier experimentations in colour systems relied on two rather than three primary colours. This produced acceptable results and could utilise the two sides of the film print.

The Joy of Water at the Zoo (Wasserfreuden im Tierpark, 1931) relied on Ufacolor. This was another subtractive two-colour system introduced in 1931 by Germany’s major production company.

Palm Magic (Palmenzauber, 1933/1934) was an advertisement using Ufacolor.

Two Colours (Zwei Farben, 1933) was a more experimental advertisement using Ufacolor. It made great use of the two primary colours in the system, red and blue.

Tolirag Circles (Alle Kreise Erfasst Tolirag, 1933/1934) was an experimental work by Oskar Fischinger, a major cinematic artist in this period. Gasparcolor was a subtractive three -colour system, the technical advance that made Technicolor a dominant system for several decades. It was developed by a Hungarian scientist. Fischinger used it in several of his works in the period and at least one Len Lye animation also used the system. The palette was different from Technicolor but it looked really fine.

Pitter and Patter (Pitsch und Patsch, 1932) was a drawing-based animation. In a distinctive set of techniques the sound was created by wave-like drawings that produced an equivalent of the soundtrack patterns printed on film stock.

Bacarolle (1932) used the same techniques but married with puppet animation.

This was a fascinating programme and I had great pleasure in watching the different colour palette and imagery. The different films came partly on 35mm film and partly on DCPs. Günter Buchwald provided accompaniment for the non-sound films.

The Great Unknown (Milak, Der Grönlandjäger, 1927) is a fictional drama presented in documentary mode. An opening title explains that the film is inspired by the exploits of polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Elements of both explorer’s stories figure in the plot.

Filmed largely on location in Greenland and Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago, the film combines impressive landscape footage with ethnographic observation. With their athletic way of filming in the open air, the camera staff from Arnold Fanck’s ‘Freiburg camera school’ used the natural world as a key player, even blowing up ice sheets to create high drama.“

The film follows an expedition crossing Greenland to a high point in the north. The team consists of explorers Svendsen, Eriksen and Inuit Milak, an expert dog handler [who is titular in the German title]. During the course of the expedition we also watch their families at home waiting to hear how they managed.

The film seems to have been successful: critics at the time suggested that it was ‘Germany’s answer to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The connection is obvious. Apart from being set in Polar regions the films also features Inuit. The difference is that whilst Flattery did not just record but directed Nanook and his actions, in this film the Inuit are placed in a completely fictional narrative.

I found the tropes from other polar stories, especially that of the British expedition led by Captain Scott, lacked conviction. The expedition is trekking across Greenland and there is a contest, a US team with the same objective. They struggle over ice slopes, snow slopes and crevasses. Eriksen sickens and we follow a sequence where he does a ‘Captain Lawrence Oates’ style exit from the tent in a snow storm. Then the team run low on food and face the possibility of failing to reach stores, fuel and safety. The plot avoids the tragedy of Scoot and his team, but the sequences are clearly modelled on that actual disaster.

What undermines some of the narrative is that the film combines excellent location work with rather obvious studio sets. This is the case in the sequence where Eriksen attempts ‘suicide’ during a storm and in the scenes where lack of food and exhaustion threaten the team and the expedition.

The team also use two dog teams, more like Roald Amundsen. Twice the dog teams fall into crevasses, the second time they do not survive. In each case it is down to an oversight of Eriksen. I have to confess that I hope his fellows would save the dogs rather than Eriksen. What makes it odder is that one dog does survive. But it is clearly not one of the dog team, all black or dark-haired huskies. This sole survivor is brown and more like Labrador. This is a shame, because the location work and the sequences of the Inuit are well done. The ethnographer parts of the film work better than the dramatic episodes during the expedition. The film was screened from pretty good 35mm with Günter Buchwald essaying a balancing accompaniment between actuality and fiction.

The final film of the day also combined actuality with fiction. The Light of Asia (Die Leuchte Asiens, 1925) was a joint German/Indian co-production directed by Franz Östen for Indian producer Himansu Rai. They worked on three productions in the 1920s, titles that are rare survivors of Indian cinema’s silent heritage. In this film English tourists are regaled by an old Buddhist monk with the story of a C6th monarch who has to choose the material and the spiritual; a choice that figures in several Indian mythic tales. Essentially most of the film is a flashback to this story. The film uses actual Indian locations and cast for its narration.

The film had been transferred to DC P and had an added music track by Willy Schwarz and Ricardo Castagnola, Schwarz playing traditional acoustic instruments and Castagnola contemporary electronic music. This was a problem. The soundtrack was far too loud during the opening credits: I saw other audience members winching. The staff did lower the volume but I still found it too loud, especially with the harder tones of electronic music. So I left shortly after the flashback commenced. I checked later and the level of sound had been requested by the composers. This is a tricky issue as composers and performers are entitled to have their music presented as they intend. But in the case of film the music is an accompaniment and I do think it has to be subordinated to the image. In fact, I have noticed in recent years that increasingly some accompaniments are too loud or forceful and distract from the image. I suspect this is a follow-on from the increasing use of ‘live music’ as a way of attracting audiences to silent film screenings.

Fortunately I had seen the film previously. At Le Giornate del Cinema Muto with live accompaniments on traditional Indian instruments.

The Light of Asia was the only film that I gave up on in the programme. I thought that the live musical accompaniments were well done. Models of assisting and informing the imagery whilst respecting the primacy of what is on the screen.

Quotations from Weimarer Kino neu gesehen Brochure.

Hostiles (US 2017)

Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), looking glum – as they might in the circumstances

Sometimes I feel sorry for film reviewers. If you have to respond with a tight deadline to watching a film like Hostiles it must be very difficult. Here is a film which is beautifully presented with some excellent performances but also with a very iffy script and some equally questionable didactic urges. Do you slam the film or try to justify it? An experienced reviewer like Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound (January 2018) can just about get away with a negative response slightly sweetened by discussion of the good points. But I’ve also seen some 10/10 user reviews on IMDb. I confess that I was a little suspicious when the ads for the film in the UK quoted glowing reviews from several publications I didn’t recognise.

Fortunately, I don’t have to score the film. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I think it’s doing and what the problems are. However, I am intrigued by the US companies who financed this $40 million independent film. It was picked up by Entertainment Film Distributors for selected UK multiplexes but I fear that its pacing alone will deter the popcorn crowd.

Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk tries to give advice about dealing with Comanche rebels

The first issue with the film is its location in the history of the West and the Western. We are supposedly in 1892 in New Mexico, which seems rather late to be dealing with Comanche rebels and a journey to escort a Cheyenne warrior and his family from prison in the South West to his homeland in Montana after seven years in captivity. The prisoner is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has terminal cancer and the escort is to be led by a reluctant veteran ‘Indian fighter’, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) on a last mission before his retirement. Soon after the party leaves the fort, they come across Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of a raid by those Comanche rebels on a settler family’s homestead. The party will gather (and lose) members as it encounters various groups on its way to Montana and a final showdown. The party that left the fort included a ‘Buffalo soldier’, another hard-bitten Indian hunter, a raw French recruit and a greenhorn Lieutenant – a generic grouping for a Western narrative. The whole set-up seemed wrong in terms of historical period to me and when I came across some pre-publicity for the film which dated the events as 1882 that made more sense. To put this in context, the major battle of Little Big Horn and its consequences covers the period from 1876 to 1881 (the Northern Cheyenne fought with the Lakota of Sitting Bull). After that the focus on the final acts of the Indian Wars was on the Apache and the tribes of the South West.

Rosalee (who has lost her family to Comanche rebels) becomes protector of Cheyenne women and child

But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Much more important is the exploration of the guilt of the coloniser which in this film seems to be represented in ways which are perhaps easily dismissed as anachronistic. Several of the (white) characters seem to perform an abrupt volte face, switching from hatred of ‘savages’ to true respect for Cheyenne culture. These questions are the fulcrum for readings of the film which veer from condemnation for being too politically correct and turning away from the genre towards being accepting of our contemporary views and a denial of historical perspective. The film takes itself very seriously and is in many ways wedded to gloom. It begins with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the American soul – “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” (Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923). Characters discuss their faith and one concludes that “God is blind” to what has happened in the West. Before I saw the film, somebody described it as violent. Many people are killed in the film, but not as many as in some other Hollywood action pictures. It is the film’s own seriousness (emphasised by sparse and spare dialogue and a Max Richter score) which gives the deaths a proper importance in the narrative.

The film is written, directed and produced by Scott Cooper. I did see Cooper’s first film, the country music romance Crazy Heart (US 2010), but not his next two, Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015). Reading reviews, it would appear that Cooper is interested in strong character-driven narratives with a measured pace (Cooper was first an actor). He certainly uses genre narratives but appears not want to consciously work with or against genre expectations. On this basis, the meaning of Hostiles is to be found in Christian Bale’s character (Bale was also the lead in Out of the Furnace). But in relation to a genre as deeply embedded in the American psyche as the Western, Bale’s character is inevitably going to be read in terms of specific earlier Westerns and their characters. On this score, Cooper, in an interview with MovieMaker magazine seems to be confused in his understanding of the Western and what he is trying to achieve (though the interview is not well sub-edited):

I don’t think much in terms of genre . . . while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple of shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.

It’s that last part that baffles me. Perhaps he said “Conrad not McMurtry or L’Amour”, since the latter are two of the best-known writers of Western novels.

The five soldiers who start the journey. “Who will survive?” might be the genre question.

At this point I should state that the real strength of the film is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi who worked on earlier films by Cooper and also Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner. Here in an interview he recounts how he and Cooper worked only on location and how he changed film stock to deal with dramatic changes in weather conditions. The results are stunning and they immediately lead us to think about Anthony Mann Westerns and possibly the Peckinpah of Ride the High Country (1962). But as Cooper suggests, the central emotional trigger is John Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Cooper even goes as far as claiming that the end of his film in some way responds to the famous ending of The Searchers. I won’t spoil what happens in Cooper’s film. It is interesting, but doesn’t have the power of Ford’s ending. Ethan Edwards is one of the great creations of the Hollywood Western. As Martin Scorsese says about him, he’s not a villain but he’s despicable. Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche is deeply rooted but it is accompanied by cultural knowledge about his enemy. He can keep his anger under control when faced with Martin Pawley and his own niece Lucy, both of whom are ‘tainted’ in his eyes by their links to Native Americans. But control is not enough to allow Ethan back into the American family/community. He remains as the French title of the film suggests, a ‘Prisoner of the Desert’.

Here is what Cooper says about his narrative (the script was worked up from an original by Donald E. Stewart, a well-known screenwriter who died in 1999:

I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.

Blocker at the Cheyenne burial ground. Like Ethan Edwards, he knows something of his enemy’s culture – and his language

Ethan Edwards in 1956 was a complex character stirring up questions about race and racial difference in an America still to experience the full force of Civil Rights. Bale’s Captain Blocker faces similar questions in 2017 when America is a very different (but still conflicted) society. I don’t feel that Blocker, as written, can carry or express the emotions that Cooper has in mind. Here is a final extract from Cooper’s interview, in response to those comments about the violence in the film:

. . . the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny.

‘Manifest Destiny’ was the belief in the United States that ‘Americans’ (i.e. of white European stock) were destined to spread across the United States, settling the land and creating a free society which persecution had denied them or their forefathers in Europe. This would inevitably mean annexing the lands of Native Americans. Ironically, in 1892 when Captain Blocker’s orders come directly from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, the Republican platform for the November presidential election re-affirmed a belief in that ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was beginning to fade. The Republicans lost the election but returned in 1896 when the ‘Western frontier’ was effectively ‘civilised’. American expansionism then turned overseas to the Spanish-American Wars and the pursuit of American power across the rest of the Americas.

I think my final thoughts are that Scott Cooper may be sincere in what he is attempting, but that he is trying to do too much and perhaps he needs to spend more time watching Westerns. But then is possibly better to attempt too much rather than to succumb to the limited aims of much of contemporary American filmmaking. I was never bored by Hostiles and those landscapes are amazing. The trailer below does include a ‘Searchers moment’ and some of the terrific ‘figures in a landscape’ cinematography.

Un flic (A Cop, France-Italy 1972)

Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) and Cathy (Catherine Deneuve)

Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation and a major influence on those who followed. A retrospective of much of his work was shown in New York earlier this year where Keith was able to see three films and in a BFI touring season in the UK a few months later. I couldn’t get to any of these screenings in Melville’s centenary year but I have finally managed to get hold of his last film, Un flic from 1972 (he died in 1973).

The Optimum PAL DVD released in 2007 delivers a screen image that seemed a little ‘blue’ and washed out to me. DVD Beaver’s report suggests that this is likely to be an accurate presentation and certainly the tone of the film is suited to a ‘cold’ aesthetic. Melville’s crime films – polars in France – had a chequered history in UK distribution. Researching Un flic, I discovered that it was given a BBFC ‘X’ certificate as The Cop in July 1971 after unspecified cuts. The certificate went to Gala, yet the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1974 – in a dubbed version distributed by Columbia-Warner. There is a review by Tony Rayns in the September 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The DVD offers a print in 1.85:1 ratio but IMDb suggests the original was 1.66.1. An alternative English title Dirty Money appeared on UK dubbed cinema prints and US DVD releases at a later date. Melville’s polars appeared in the UK when ‘popular’ European films were often dubbed and released through commercial ‘chain’ cinemas. What is now considered a ‘specialised film’ (or still ‘arthouse’ by some) like Un flic, in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in Odeons and ABCs alongside spaghetti Westerns, Italian horror and Scandinavian soft porn.

Simon (Richard Crenna) left, with Michael Conrad and Riccardo Cucciolla

Dirty Money is not a bad title for the film whereas Un flic is arguably misleading. Alain Delon (who featured as the criminal in Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970)  for Melville) is this time the cop. His adversary is played by the American actor Richard Crenna (dubbed into French for the accent despite being able to speak French) and Cathy, the woman who has a relationship with both men, is played by Catherine Deneuve. Delon gets top billing but I suspect that Crenna has more screen time and it often feels like he is the focus of the narrative. Simon (Crenna) runs a Parisian night club but is planning two major robberies – the first to raise money to finance the second.

The narrative structure of the film is unusual. Melville offers us not one but two long robbery sequences and between them these take up a significant amount of the film’s running time. Neither of the two sequences could be described as ‘action-packed’ but they are both very well thought out and, by including every painstaking stage in the procedure, Melville is able to make them gripping. The opening bank robbery is being set up as the credits appear on screen. It’s set on the windswept promenade of a town in La Vendée on the Atlantic coast. Not a soul is in sight (it’s December and raining heavily) but when the robbers in coats and fedoras enter the BNP building on the corner there are several customers already being served just before the bank closes. The getaway from the robbery is quite novel. The cut from the deserted beachfront into the inviting bank interior signals the ‘artificial’ nature of the mise en scène. During the robbery Melville cuts away to central Paris where Commissaire Coleman is setting out on his evening shift and he gives a voiceover from his car about the tedium of his work. Meanwhile the robbers in an American Plymouth car exchange cars for a Mercedes during a clever getaway procedure.

The robbers approach the bank along the beachfront in Vendée

This artificiality is present in many of the scenes that follow. In one, Simon and Cathy leave the club in a car driving towards what looks suspiciously like a painted backdrop of a Paris street ahead. A cut then takes us into a Van Gogh street scene with the camera pulling back to reveal that the painting is in a gallery (the Louvre?) where three of the robbers are meeting. The gallery too appears to have a painted backdrop to represent an extension to the gallery space. I was amazed to realise that this Melville film made in 1971 vies with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as a cause celèbre of matte painting – and model work. When the second robbery occurs on a train, Simon is lowered onto the moving train from a helicopter and this is accomplished with a studio mock-up of the flying ‘chopper and models used extensively for the train and chopper shown in long shot. It is so obvious that you feel it must be deliberate and the crudity of the presentation clashes with sophistication of the script. (The sequence lasts around 20 minutes.) I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to sleep on a train again given the way that Crenna breaks into a locked apartment.

The same artificiality manifests itself differently in the performances of Delon and Deneuve in particular. Delon is almost expressionless in his scenes, a cold and deliberate law enforcer. Deneuve is in her immaculately coiffured ice maiden mode. Perhaps it is Crenna’s Hollywood background that makes him appear slightly warmer. One of the strongest elements of Melville’s polars is the relationship between the investigating lawman and the principal criminal. In Un flic the two characters are mirror images of each other – a situation compounded by their shared interest in Cathy.

The film begins with the quote above from Vidocq (1775-1857), the founder of the French national police force. The subtitles translate this as “Man has only ever inspired ambiguity and ridicule in a police officer”. So Coleman is shown as peremptory in his treatment of the routine cases brought to his attention and shows little emotion even when faced with the murder of an attractive young woman. Coleman seemingly treats everyone coldly (and this seems also true of his relationship with Cathy). The other two contacts that he makes are with a gay couple, an older man and an under-age youth who has attempted to steal a valuable sculpture, and with his own informer, a transgender character who is beautifully dressed and carefully made up. This person is treated badly by Coleman. Because Simon is a mirror image of Coleman, does this mean the flic is ambiguous about himself? Melville doesn’t give us any clues. It’s as if he wants to explore the terrain of the polar, drawing on its American cultural links, primarily in terms of its locales and mise en scène as well as its usual scenarios – the carefully planned crimes, the police procedures and the wordless communications about friendship and betrayal. Significantly, the key scene between Simon and Coleman is mainly about the eyes.

I need now to rewatch the earlier films, but for the moment I’ll be investigating other 1970s thrillers, political thrillers, as part of a new major season at HOME. Before I leave Un flic, however, I want to comment on the reviews and synopses for the film in the archives and on the web. When I found David Overby’s review in Sight & Sound Autumn 1974 I was amazed to see that he transposed the two central characters and also situates the bank raid at the beginning in the Paris suburbs! I respect Overby’s work and I know how difficult it was in the days before internet resources to check cast lists and locations, but these mistakes seem extreme. Tony Rayns in his review gets the train robbery wrong thinking the train is going to Italy via Marseilles. Even HOME’s programme notes (presumably using BFI notes) sets the bank robbery on the ‘Riviera’. There seems to be an almost pathological desire to misrepresent what is actually on the screen. I doubt this is deliberate but it must mean something – perhaps the dubbed print is the problem? In reality, Melville’s script is finely detailed. So the train heist is planned for a stretch of railway line, “the oldest electric line in France, dating back to 1963”, which is being upgraded and therefore diesel-hauled. The robbers have twenty minutes to complete their task before they run the risk of being entangled in overhead lines when the helicopter attempts to retrieve Simon from the train. Whatever one might think about the strange triangle at the centre of the film, the robberies are presented in incredible detail. I think film students could learn a great deal from Melville’s work on this film narrative. He remains for me the past master of the crime film.

LFF2017 #6: Razzia (Morocco-France-Belgium 2017)

I enjoyed Razzia and found it a thought-provoking as well as entertaining film. The director Nabil Ayouch thought that its Toronto screenings went well and the film has been selected as Morocco’s Oscar entry in 2018 (not without some controversy). It will be released in Morocco, France and presumably other francophone countries early in 2018. It’s a shame that the director wasn’t at this London screening as he sounds an interesting character.

It’s a long time since I’ve been to Morocco but I remember thinking that it was a country which could explode, simply because of the lack of employment possibilities for the growing population of young people. The film’s title refers to the disturbances on the streets of Casablanca mainly by youths in 2012-13. I think ‘razzia‘ has the connotation of ‘raid’ in the Maghreb. (Researching the title I discovered an interesting polar, Razzia sur la chnouf (France 1955) starring Gabin and Ventura.) The narrative actually begins in a village in the Atlas mountains where a charismatic school teacher becomes friendly with a young widow whose son attends the school. The villagers gossip about the couple’s relationship but the children adore the teacher. This is 1983 and the progressive teacher comes to the notice of the authorities introducing educational ‘reforms’. Soon he is ousted when he refuses to shift to rote learning in Arabic instead of his more Socratic teaching in the local Berber language. He sets off for Casablanca and is barely seen again in the narrative which then moves forward to life in Casablanca some 30 years later. We do see the woman from the mountains again, and her son Yto, now a man of around forty working in a restaurant. The restaurateur, Joe (Arieh Worthalter) is Jewish and he will become another of the main characters whose lives in the city we will explore.

Salima (Maryam Touzani)

There are three other central characters who are not directly connected to the four already mentioned. One is Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a young man who is attempting to become a pop singer following the example of his idol Freddie Mercury. The second is Salima (Maryam Touzani, the co-writer on the film), a woman who has become ‘westernised’ and has started to be criticised for the clothes she wears and the way she presents herself. She is in a rather dismal relationship with a businessman who doesn’t respect her freedom. Finally, and introduced only in the last part of the film, is Inès (Dounia Binebine) a young middle-class girl, a 15 year-old who is left to her own devices by her parents and who is determined to lose her virginity.

Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid)

These characters are connected only loosely in most cases, though in some ways the restaurant provides a kind of focal point. Don’t expect a single linear narrative. I think Joe and Salima have the most developed stories/scenarios but all the characters contribute something. Think of the film more as a kind of illustrated essay about what is happening in Casablanca.  Most audiences will also home in on the symbolic or metaphorical use of the film Casablanca (US 1942). The Yto is proud of the film, imagining it to have been shot in ‘his’ city and his boss doesn’t know whether to break it to him that the film was entirely shot on a Hollywood sound stage. On the same level of symbolism, we are also offered a similar shot at the beginning and end of the film – a traditional high-backed chair is placed at a full-length open window looking out onto an indistinct vista. Here is a society that seemingly doesn’t know where it is going. The young are angry, the unemployed attack the rich, the Islamists turn against the secularists, minorities like gay men and women or the Jewish community struggle to feel secure. Yet Casablanca is a vibrant city with a long history and rich culture and the film appears to be a cry of pain about the lack of direction and the indifference towards inequalities.

I fear that Razzia won’t get a UK release (I can’t remember the last Maghrebi film I saw on release), but perhaps because this is a French co-production handled by Unifrance we’ll have a slightly better than usual chance of seeing it. Nabil Ayouch is a controversial director and here he does seem to be offering a more complex view of his country than the two usual images we have in the UK of either tourism/music/food or young migrants crossing over to Europe. The music in the film, which looks very good, is very good but there is so much going on I would need more viewings to take it all in. I enjoyed all the performances. Here’s the 33 second teaser – enjoy.

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.