MUBI UK has streamed some of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville over the last couple of months. They have tended to be the better-known titles but at least it has given the opportunity for new younger fans to see what all the fuss is about. Le cercle rouge still has 3 days left I think and, if you miss it, you will still have the chance to catch Un flic (1972) which as around 10 days to go.
Melville died in 1973 so these were his last two films. His later films suffered in UK distribution by being cut and sometimes dubbed for release in circuit cinemas and it wasn’t until a successful re-release of Le samouraï in 1993 that Melville began to get proper treatment in the UK. Like the other two titles mentioned here, Le cercle rouge is a polar and a film imbued with Melville’s unique combination of American gangster tropes, French policiers and East Asian philosophies, the latter contributing to a code of sorts among criminals and some police officers.
Le cercle rouge refers here to a Buddhist reading (possibly written by Melville himself) which appears at the beginning of the film in the credit sequence. This suggests that men who meet, albeit randomly, are destined, even if they take separate paths, to all end up within the red circle. The plot is relatively simple for a narrative that extends over 140 minutes. A prisoner handcuffed to a Police Commissaire is taken to a Marseilles station one night where they board a Paris-bound sleeper. Early the next morning the man makes his escape. That same morning a second prisoner is released from prison, having been told by a warder about how a jewel robbery could be successfully carried out in Paris. After a series of incidents this man, Corey (Alain Delon) hears about the escaped prisoner when he is stopped at a road-block in his newly acquired car. He parks at a diner near where he thinks the escapee, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) might be hiding. When he leaves the diner, Vogel is in the car. There are more incidents before the couple arrive in Paris. Meanwhile Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil) has come to the attention of Internal Affairs and is under severe pressure to re-capture Vogel. The robbery is accomplished with the help of a former police marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand). There is one other significant character, a nightclub owner and underworld fixer, Santi, played by François Perier.
There is no real mystery about what will happen – Melville revealed his hand in the opening credits. The focus is instead on the heist – completed in just under 30 minutes in a bravura dialogue-free sequence – and on the relationships between the characters who will all end up, one way or another in the ‘red circle’. Le cercle rouge follows the rules of previous polars from Melville. Corey drives an American car and has Japanese prints in his apartment, much like his character in Le samouraï . He wears a hat (a fedora) and a trench coat with the belt tied. When Corey meets Jansen for the first time in Santi’s club, he is already seated, in his trench coat, when Jansen descends the stairs from the street. We see his feet in shiny black leather shoes, dark trousers and then a coat – a long blue-grey tweed coat – and on his head a grey fedora. We perhaps remember then that in the preceding scene Mattei also wore a grey fedora – but all the other plain-clothes police were bare-headed. Jansen is immaculate with a neat dark tie and a button-down striped shirt. Corey is without his hat at this point. His trench coat is grey and crumpled, his tie is slightly awry and his shirt collar is crumpled. As he and Jansen talk, we see the arrival of two plain-clothes police, hatless but one has a light-coloured ‘shortie’ trench coat. They’ve come to escort Santi to the police HQ. When he is summoned from a back-room, Santi emerges with his long coat and, of course, his fedora. He glances very quickly at Corey and Jansen. Everything is communicated by costume and looks in this scene. The nightclub itself which features in three separate scenes with a different dance routine in each, is another convention lovingly explored by Melville. The club features a raised square dancing platform on which a group of immaculate dancers, all beautiful women, perform.
All of this creates an almost timeless ‘dance’ of crooks and cops. The characters seem ‘out of time’ to me with their hats and trench coats, more early 60s than 1970. I am aware though that in 1970 I was more influenced by hippies than middle-aged guys in suits. But I do think that Melville creates his own universe governed by codes of honour. I’m tempted to say that the codes resemble those that Peckinpah’s Western characters display in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The triumph of a Melville polar is usually based on pacing, attention to detail and performance. All are on display here. Alain Delon was one of Melville’s regulars with his good looks (slightly challenged here by his moustache?) and deadpan expressions. There is no Lino Ventura unfortunately but Gian Maria Volonte is a good replacement with his curly hair (so he does match the times tonsorially). What a year it was for him. In 1970 he was also the lead in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy) and Godard-Gorin’s Le vent d’est (Italy-France-W. Germany), the one as a fascistic Italian police chief (with the neat, oiled hair), the other as a Latin American bandit type in the Dziga-Vertov’s group’s best-known ‘political’ film. Yves Montand, fresh from his two successful leading roles in the Costa-Gavras political thrillers Z and L’aveu seems to me to have been perfect casting. The surprise for me this time round was Bourvil. I last watched the film about 15 years ago and I remembered thinking that the almost imperceptible comic air about the Commissaire was a brilliant touch – Melville nearly always seemed to ‘play’ on the relationship between cop and crook. I hadn’t at that point realised that ‘Bourvil’ as the star tended to be known was the same star of the 1950s comedy films that used to be imported and shown in the UK. That was clearly a time when there might have been less titles distributed in the UK but we saw a wider range of French films.
The jewel heist is a stunning piece of work, a masterwork in constructing suspense and using the details of the security system. But what do we make of the nearly complete absence of women in the narrative? There is a brief reference to Corey’s ex-girlfriend but she has no ‘agency’ whatsoever. The dancers in Santi’s club are there seemingly as icons for a certain sense of style in much the same way as the fedoras and trench coats. This is a film about masculine codes of honour. The characters could be samourai or Western gunfighters. It may just be about style but there is romance (in its ‘knightly’ medieval meaning) as well. And there is always Alain Delon for the female gaze.
The original French trailer:
The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
This odd film is one of the MUBI selections from the My French Film Festival. It’s odd because on the surface it appears to be a typical polar/crime thriller but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like a genre film. It may be because it is an adaptation of an Israeli novel by Dror Mishani and the adaptation is directed by Erick Zonca as only the third film he has completed since his international arthouse hit The Dreamlife of Angels (La vie rêvée des anges, 1998). The lead player of that film, Élodie Bouchez, is the fourth lead in this new film – in a secondary role behind three very established French stars.
The most immediately recognisable of the three stars is Sandrine Kiberlain as Solange, a depressed mother in her late 40s with a young teenage daughter who has learning difficulties. Her older child, Dany is a high school student who has gone missing and her husband, a merchant seaman, is away on a trip. When the boy’s disappearance is reported to the police it becomes a case for Commander Visconti played against type by an almost unrecognisable Vincent Cassel and seemingly lurking around every corner is a neighbour and Dany’s sometime tutor Yann Belaille played by Roman Duris – also looking very different. What follows is a drama featuring these three powerful actors.
The settings of the film are also unusual. Visconti is based in a police station in the city but the boy’s family live in an apartment block by a wood, presumably in an outer suburb and at times this felt like the setting for a Nordic Noir. If your recent experience of French policing on TV is the wonderful serial Engrenages (Spiral) you may also be a little baffled by the police operations this film. How does Visconti keep his job? This narrative is only marginally interested in police procedures. Visconti is an alcoholic living alone and battling with his son who appears to be operating a semi-pro drugs business from his high school. The Commander is dishevelled with greasy unruly hair and a thick beard. His appearance and demeanour suggest that he is permanently suffering from hangovers and his interrogation of witnesses in their homes often includes a request for whisky. Part way through the narrative he is taken off the case and replaced by a colleague with a more conventional approach. But this doesn’t appear to prevent Visconti carrying on his investigation.
Visconti becomes interested, perhaps too interested, in the creepy neighbour/teacher. Romain Duris is similarly disguised by a thick bushy beard (though this one is carefully groomed) and large spectacles. What does he know? What is he up to now? Most of the time this narrative is a mystery. Dany can’t be found. Is he still alive? In one sense Zonca seems to be teasing us with possible red herrings but perhaps he is most interested in the three central characters, each of whom has secrets. The case of Dany’s disappearance is eventually solved – or at least there is a confession, but not a clear resolution that ties up all the loose ends.
I’m not sure what to make of this film. As someone very interested in this kind of procedural/rogue cop etc. crime fiction, I found it very interesting, especially because of the three leads. But I do wonder whether a general audience, either of genre cinema or arthouse cinema, will enjoy the film.
Christmas Day this year meant our annual treat at home with a digital projector, a screen and a DVD – this time of the last film by François Truffaut. I’d not seen it before and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite having had too many glasses of wine. I’ve watched sequences again before starting this post.
I realise with horror that it is 50 years since I watched my first Truffaut, Baisers volés (1968), and I’ve grown old with the director’s alter ego Antoine Doinel. Over the years I have been mainly a faithful fan but occasionally I’ve become impatient with what I’ve seen as Truffaut’s failure to leave an adolescent view of women behind (which may also be a fear that I’m just as guilty). In this last film, which was released only a few months before his tragically early death, there are still traces of his adolescent desires but they are explored in a playful narrative. Added to that, the film stars his then partner the terrific Fanny Ardant and mixes together the director’s ‘personal’ cinematic flourishes with his love for Hitchcock and film noir/pulp fiction – and touches on other ideas about genre. Truffaut’s script, co-written with long-term collaborators Suzanne Schiffman and Jean Aurel, is an adaptation of the ‘hard-boiled’ crime novel The Long Saturday Night (1962) by Charles Williams. It’s appropriate in a way that Truffaut’s final film returns him to the world of noir fiction associated with the idea of the polar in France. Wikipedia suggests that much more of Williams’ work is currently in print in France than in the US. Truffaut’s three earlier forays in adapting similar books are Tirez sur le pianiste (1960, based on a David Goodis novel), La mariée était en noir (1968, Cornell Woolrich) and La sirène du Mississippi (1969 again based on a Cornel Woolrich novel). These last two films both feature femmes fatales in the form of Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve. The difference in Vivement Dimanche! is that Fanny Ardant’s character is an investigator and we don’t think of her as possibly deceitful (though there are other women in the film who are). The film is also comic and almost surreal in certain scenes.
The film is set in Provence and begins with the murder of a duck hunter. We don’t get a good view of who pulls the trigger but suspicion immediately falls on Julien Vercel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who has been hunting in the same area. He runs an estate agency (real estate) and on return from his hunting trip falls out with his secretary/receptionist/office manager Barbara (Fanny Ardant). The case against Vercel strengthens when it is revealed that the murdered man was sleeping with Vercel’s wife. As coincidences and connections pile up and more murders follow, Vercel is forced into hiding and Barbara becomes the effective investigator of the crimes.
Truffaut decided to make the film, shot by Néstor Almendros, in black and white. According to Serge Toubiana, in the introduction included on the DVD, this decision caused problems with French TV which co-funded the production and at the time was committed to ‘colour-only’ productions. Truffaut felt that colour on his earlier noirs in 1968/9 was a mistake and he was justified to a certain extent in that Vivement Dimanche! was commercially successful. He also urged Almendros to work quickly to create a ‘B movie look’. In doing so he seems to have adopted a certain view of Hollywood film noir (several ‘A movie’ noirs, especially from RKO, seem to have been viewed as ‘B’s). It also confuses Truffaut’s other aim which seems to have been to create a Hitchcockian ‘romance thriller’. This type of film is often defined by The 39 Steps (1935) or its later version, North by North West (1959). In these films the hero is falsely accused, goes on the run and is helped by a woman. The couple fall for each other, but not before they have fought and perhaps deceived each other, unsure of the other person’s motives. The 39 Steps was a black & white Hitchcock, as were most of his films until the late 1940s. North by Northwest was widescreen and colour. Vivement Dimanche! melds some typical Hitchcockian use of close-ups and noir shadows with the more pulpish action of 1940s noir. Barbara at first seems to be in dispute with Julien but later becomes the active protagonist positively helping him. Truffaut’s regular composer Georges Delerue provides a score that is effective for suspense and danger but also for ‘romance’.
In the polar (roughly defined as the French crime film), there is often a specific relationship between the criminal protagonist and the police Inspector who is trying to catch him. The Inspector is also often a rather eccentric character. In Truffaut’s film, the chief police officer Santelli has his comedy moment when he fails to control the tap (faucet) on a wash basin, an incident which seems to confirm his status. The other added ingredient in the film is an amateur theatre troupe. Barbara is a member of the troupe and as well as comic interludes her role in the current production provides her with a costume which she finds herself wearing during her sleuthing – and then being forced to cover up with a raincoat. Truffaut reportedly dreamed up the idea of the narrative when somebody said that images of Fanny Ardant in a raincoat in her previous Truffaut film La femme d’à côté (1981) reminded them of film noir.
I think what surprised me most about the film was Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance as Julien. It seems rather stolid and lacking either the elegance of a Cary Grant or the vulnerability of a Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcockian versions of a similar character. But what it does do (presumably deliberately) is to thrown the spotlight on Fanny Ardant who is elegant, beautiful, resourceful and light-hearted – combining all the qualities of both partners in the Hitchcockian couple. Truffaut is often said to have favoured weak men and strong women and to have argued that stories need to be built around women rather than men. In Vivement Dimanche! he seemed finally to have found his female hero. Perhaps it is significant that at the end of the film, the line which I always associate with Truffaut, “Women are magic!”, is given to the murderer. Earlier in the film, Julien is seen staring at his wife’s legs as she fusses with her stockings a reference back to the almost fetishistic interest shown by Truffaut’s male characters in women who are often older or wiser. Fanny Ardant in heels is also taller than Jean-Louis Trintignant and reminds us of the scene in Baisers volés when Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel walks with a woman who is a head taller. Other elements in the film linked to Truffaut’s personal interests include a popular cultural reference to pony-trap racing (trotting?) in Nice and a visit to the cinema which is showing Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory. Truffaut also repeats one of Godard’s questionable choices – asking his partner to play a prostitute, though in this case Fanny Ardant simply dresses appropriately in order to visit a red light district as part of her investigation.
The original novel was written in the 1960s and because of the choice of black & white and the avoidance of any modern(ist) architecture, I’m wondering if the film is meant to be set in the 1960s or to suggest the era. No doubt car enthusiasts could tell by the models on display. The Provence setting (IMDb suggests Hyères and Var as locations) makes me wonder whether some scenes were shot in the Victorine Studios in Nice (where Truffaut shot La nuit américaine in 1972) but research suggests that the studio was in a very bad way by 1983. Even so, some scenes feel like they are studio sets, including Julien’s ‘hideaway’ in the back of his business premises. This is one of the surreal elements in the film as Truffaut’s mise en scène and camera movement make it impossible to properly place how the back room leads into the front office (in other words it seems obvious that the police would search the building looking for him).
The plot extends the ‘long Saturday night’ or, at least, I think it does. The plotting is so loose that I wasn’t sure of the ‘story time’ or the geography of the events. The English-language title, Confidentially Yours seems almost meaningless. Despite this I think the film works very well as a stylish romp with Fanny Ardant excelling in her role. I must go soon to the previous Truffaut in which she stars as ‘the woman next door’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.