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.
The French Maghrebi filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb made two films in the US following his first film in English (with a fair bit of French) London River (France-Algeria 20o9). This remake followed Just Like a Woman (2012) and has received a similar response in the US to that for Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009) – bafflement at the arthouse approach to what seem like US genre stories. The difference here is that Bouchareb has not adapted an American story but has instead transposed a French original to New Mexico.
Deux hommes dans la ville was a 1973 French film written and directed by José Giovanni. It starred Alain Delon as a man released from prison partly because of the work of a social worker/parole officer (Jean Gabin). The two men develop a relationship outside prison but the ex-convict’s attempts to go straight are caught between a vengeful police inspector (Michel Bouquet) and his former criminal colleagues who want him to rejoin the gang. I haven’t seen this original film so I’m unsure of the details but this sounds like a classic noir/polar. Giovanni was himself an ex-con and he was a highly respected writer of polars, one of which was Classe tous risques (France-Italy 1960). His scripts were also used by leading directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Becker.
Here’s the trailer for the original (out in North America from Cohen Media). Don’t miss the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu:
Rachid Bouchareb adapted Giovanni’s script for the contemporary US with his regular collaborator Olivier Lorelle and a new collaborator Yasmina Khadra (like Giovanni working under a pseudonym – Khadra has political ambitions). In Bouchareb’s version, the convict is William Garnett, a local boy who killed a sheriff’s deputy. Played by Forest Whitaker, he converts to Islam in prison and is released on parole after 18 years. On release he is placed under parole officer Emily Smith, played by Brenda Blethyn (the lead in London River). She is a stern, ‘no nonsense’ but generally fair and progressive officer. Unfortunately Garnett is released locally (as per local custom) where the sheriff, Harvey Keitel, remembers the death of his deputy and is determined to put Garnett back behind bars. Garnett’s criminal connections from his youth are represented by Luis Guzmán‘s ‘Terence’, now a local hood engaged in criminal activities that cross the border.
As in Tavernier’s American film, the strong cast and setting (New Mexico desert landscapes) promise something dramatic and spectacular, but here the story – a character study drawn for a polar in France – is perhaps just too alien for American audiences. The assumption must be that Bouchareb is interested in all the problems and the possibilities that arise in border communities. Race, religion and politics all impinge on the central narrative in quite complicated ways. Garnett finds love quite quickly after leaving prison – with a Spanish woman. Keitel’s sheriff is a civic leader welcoming a returning soldier from Afghanistan at a celebration. He’s also quick to stamp down on local vigilantes who have illegally ‘arrested’ Mexican migrants but then intimidates Garnett quite unreasonably and seemingly encourages his deputies to do the same. Bouchareb also throws the audience by introducing Garnett’s mother at one point – played by Ellen Burstyn. We wonder how she met Garnett’s father and what life was like for the family as her son grew up.
The strength of the film drama is to be found in the use of landscape. I was interested to find out later that it was photographed by Yves Cape whose credits include several of the French films I admire, including White Material (France 2009) by Claire Denis. It was also an interesting decision to provide Garnett with a second-hand motorbike as his means of travel to work (a Triumph Bonneville?) – the images of him riding to work at a cattle ranch with Éric Neveux‘s excellent score mixed with the ambient sounds of the desert are evocative of a wide range of films.
The film narrative opens with a murder which takes place in extreme long shot much like the celebrated scene in Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) and it is only later that we realise that this is a flash-forward to the last scene of the film.There is relatively little action in the film, although when it does come it is handled well. Most of the drama comes from the character studies. It is a formidable cast, especially with that fine actor Brenda Blethyn. I’ve no idea where her accent suggests that she comes from, but she is a compelling character. Whitaker is shown with a neatly trimmed hair style, suit and heavy-framed glasses that make him a dead ringer for Malcom X and emphasising that African-Americans have converted to Islam in prison since the 1950s (confirmed by Bouchareb in the French Press Pack). His new Muslim identity is evident throughout and causes some bemusement for his workmates, but this is not an easily typed identity for him – nor for them. At the point of release Garnett is visited in prison by an imam and throughout the film we see him at prayers. Only one person directly insults him. There are stand-offs between Blethyn and Keitel and a sad story about another of the parole cases – both of these incidents point to problems with the parole system. Bouchareb is interested in the psychology of the characters and the pressures of society rather than genre conventions – though he recognises that he is attracted by the Western. He tells us he did a considerable amount of research on the border migration issues and spoke to law enforcement officers and parole officers in New Mexico.
The only real problem I had with the ‘bare bones’ DVD distributed in the UK by Signature Entertainment was the lack of subtitles. Like many modern films, the ‘realist’ dialogue is sometimes hard to follow and I would have appreciated English subs for the hard of hearing. In addition there are a few scenes in which Garnett and his lover (Dolores Heredia) speak in Spanish. Not understanding these lines completely didn’t really spoil the film for me but the lack of subs does indicate the way the film was ‘dumped’ on the UK DVD market (with no cinema release). I think the American Region 1 DVD does have subs.
As a French-Maghrebi director, Rachid Bouchareb offers a possibly unique take on the American border/migrant story, though he does join other European directors such as Tony Richardson (The Border 1982 – also with Keitel) and Louis Malle (Alamo Bay 1985) as well as US ‘independents’ such as John Sayles (Lone Star 1996). I think Two Men in Town (awful title!) deserves to be seen. I think I’ll watch it again. Two Men in Town is one of those films which, if you set out to denigrate it, is a soft target. (See this Variety review which does an effective hatchet job.) But if you give it a chance, it will grow on you through landscape and performances. Yes, it does attempt to be a modern day Western like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (France-US 2005) – but that’s no bad thing.
Here’s the US trailer for the 2014 film. It includes some SPOILERS – but also a nice shot of Brenda Blethyn as John Wayne from The Searchers (or ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ as it was in France):
Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ rending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.
The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polar, Le cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.
The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.
Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.
Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.
What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.
I enjoyed Glasgow Film Festival last year so much that I was keen to return. This time I had a packed three days with the usual choices governed by the times and venues. First up was Disorder, due out in a few weeks in the UK from Soda Pictures. Unfortunately, it was a slightly disappointing start, offering a ‘bodyguard’ narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere and perhaps wastes the pairing of its stars, Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger.
The ‘difference’ in this genre film is that Schoenaerts as Vincent is a soldier home from action in Afghanistan and taking on security work as an extra. This is an interesting plot detail. The French contingent in Afghanistan was relatively small and combat troops were withdrawn in 2012. French armed forces have operated recently in other war zones, including Africa, but perhaps ‘Afghanistan’ makes sense for the international film audience. Vincent has been diagnosed with hearing impairment and potential post traumatic shock. The film emphasises this through subjective sound as well as image and it clearly affects his efficiency as a guard. The film also has a pounding techno soundtrack which certainly disturbed me.
Vincent starts as part of a security team on an event and then gets a job protecting the hosts – Jessie (Kruger), the wife of Whalid a Lebanese arms dealer, and the couple’s small son Ali – who live on a large walled estate known as ‘Maryland’ (the film’s original title) in the South of France. With Whalid on a trip, the narrative appears to offer the audience the possibility of a relationship between Schoenaerts and Kruger and with Alice Winocour as director and co-writer I looked forward to something more interesting than what actually transpired. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the arms dealer seems to be part of an illegal operation in France that is in the process of going wrong and a ‘home invasion’ plotline develops in which Vincent might be on his own trying to secure the house with the threat of both criminals and police as enemies. Jessie then has to decide what she wants to do to get out of this situation. Disorder is one of those films where the principals have no backstories, so it seems strange that Winocour is attempting to make some kind of comment about women’s roles in other cultures when she shows Jessie watching the news (in English). Why is this German woman with one friend in the world married to a Lebanese in France? I still don’t know.
In the film’s defence, I was never bored and the tension and sudden outbursts of (brutal) violence are very well handled. I just needed more out of the personal drama. Festival co-director Allison Gardner introduced the film with references to Schoenaerts’ physical appeal and if that’s your thing his magnificent physique is certainly on display (if a little scuffed, bruised and tattooed). Poor Diane Kruger looks a little undernourished by comparison. As several commentators have pointed out, this is a return for Schoenaerts to the hulking but vulnerable muscle man of Bullhead and Rust and Bone. I like Schoenaerts in all his guises and I usually like French genre films – perhaps that’s why I felt disappointed with Disorder. Some critics have suggested French directors can’t compete with slick Hollywood thrillers. This is ridiculous since the crime thriller/polar is a French staple, but Disorder could learn a few tricks from another Diane Kruger film, Pour elle (Away From Her, France 2009).
Here is the French ‘big budget’ response to the Hollywood ‘French Connection’ films about the drugs trade in Marseilles in the 1970s and the city’s important role as the ‘processing’ centre for heroin on its way from Turkey to New York. A less high-profile French take on the story which sounds intriguing was released as Le Juge (The Judge) in France in 1984. The budget for La French is quoted by Variety as $26 million. This is modest by US standards but substantial for a European production (i.e. in a European language). French films tend to be the most expensive in Europe. La French is a mainstream crime thriller/action picture directed by Cédric Jimenez, born in Marseilles in 1976.
La French might not have made it into international distribution without the high profile of its two stars. Gilles Lelouche and Jean Dujardin are both major stars in France but Dujardin has recently begun to appear in Hollywood films following his success in The Artist (France 2011) with all its Oscar wins. Both actors, as well as Benoît Magimel (third in the credits for La French), also appeared in Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (France 2010) – a film I didn’t like very much, but which was technically well-made with a very starry cast. In a sense, La French is the same. It is well-made and the money spent ends up on screen with period motors and costumes. It also has a long running time (135 mins), lots of songs on the soundtrack and action sequences breaking up more dialogue heavy scenes. Because it is a polar – a crime thriller – there is more discipline in the narrative and it seems less indulgent than Little White Lies. I was engaged for the whole running time and I enjoyed watching the film and thinking about it as a polar, but afterwards I realised that it didn’t really offer anything particularly memorable. Certainly it didn’t have the intensity of Gene Hackman’s performances or the chase sequences in either of the French Connection films.
La French approaches the drugs racket in Marseilles from a different angle. Dujardin plays the ‘investigating magistrate’ Pierre Michel who takes on the task of cleaning up organised crime in Marseilles and in particular the heroin processing controlled by Gaëtan (‘Tany’) Zampa – the Lelouche part. This ‘head-to-head’ struggle is emphasised with a direct meeting between the two in a scene reminiscent of Pacino and De Niro in Heat. But the personal battle (usually between the police inspector and the gang boss) is also a strong conventional feature of the polar going back to the Jean-Pierre Melville classics of the 1960s. By personalising the struggle in this way it also opens up the possibility of roles for the wives and families of the two men. The two wives – and the wife/girlfriend of a third character, a potential ‘grass’ – at least have speaking roles in the film. However they don’t have any ‘agency’ as such and several French reviewers have bemoaned the lack of scope in the role of the magistrate’s wife Jacqueline played by the accomplished Céline Sallette. Every time I saw Jacqueline with her two small girls I thought of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (US 1953) in which Glenn Ford’s policeman’s family is attacked by gangsters. I won’t spoil La French by telling you what does happen to Jacqueline. It is important, however, that aspects of the family melodrama come into play in the film – alongside a focus on the film policier, the ‘procedural’. This latter includes the drama of the magistrate’s lonely position – something familiar to the viewers of Engrenages, but exaggerated here with the magistrate becoming much more active in initiating police activity.
Both the family melodrama and the police procedural ‘slow down’ the action film. Elements of the procedural pop up in the French Connection films but the characters in those films have relatively little family background as such. It is the concept of ‘family’ which eventually leads La French into the discourse of police corruption that is present but less visible in the French Connection films. Zampa appears to be a Neapolitan migrant in France who deals with the Sicilian Mafia in New York. But his position in Marseilles is always threatened by the Corsicans – the ‘Union Corse’ – who otherwise control every aspect of organised crime in Marseilles. The story and the characters in the film are based on ‘real people and real events’. It is the Union Corse that in the film infiltrates the Marseilles police. I confess that I didn’t completely follow Zampa’s connection to the Corsicans. What I do know, however, is that organised crime in the polar often involves Corsican characters.
Why doesn’t the film make more impact? I think it may be that it attempts to do too much overall so that what might be interesting sequences tend to be somewhat perfunctory as the narrative has to rush through them to get to the next. There are many characters but we don’t really get ‘into’ them. Instead, we are asked to ‘stitch together’ separate small scenes in order to understand the central characters. I’m prepared to admit that lack of language fluency and cultural knowledge means that I might have missed the significance of some scenes – and possibly the use of popular music. I recognised songs but not the singers and was then taken aback to hear Townes Van Zandt over the closing credits.
Slightly disappointing in terms of what might have been, La French is nonetheless entertaining and worth the price of a ticket. Certainly it is more entertaining than most of the mainstream fare at the multiplex these days.
French polars were often made as co-productions with Italy. As a kind of tribute here’s an Italian-dubbed trailer for La French.
Phew! I’m a new convert to Engrenages and I’m not sure how those veterans of the previous four seasons have stood the pace. I did watch the first couple of episodes of Season 1 back in 2006 but somehow it didn’t stick then. I’m not sure why – perhaps I’ve slowly acquired the serial habit after The Killing and The Bridge? Or perhaps I first had to get used to European TV crime drama via Wallander on BBC4 in 2009? Since I’ve been reading the literature for a long time this seems unlikely. I think the real answer is that the BBC i-Player and the PVR have allowed me to develop the serial habit. This is important since the BBC4 screenings on a Saturday night have generally been two hours. Engrenages matches The Killing with double episodes (2×52 mins over 6 weeks). I usually watch one hour and save the other until later in the week. I find that there is far too much going on to take the whole two hours at once – and this is arguably the big plus compared to similar UK shows which often seem padded out.
The first thing that struck me about the serial was that unlike the Scandinavian shows, Engrenages exists in a film and TV culture with a long history of popular crime films – the polar. I wondered how much familiarity I would have with the TV serial given my earlier viewings of polars. The obvious point is that I would have had much more difficulty understanding both the French judicial system and the organisation of French police forces. The film 36 (France 2004) is particularly useful in explaining this background. The interesting institutional point is that because the French industry is so much bigger (i.e. than the Scandinavian), like the UK it can produce quality TV actors who don’t necessarily appear in films and vice versa. Engrenages doesn’t offer the same pleasures of ‘spot the actor’ as the Swedish/Danish serials do but it does mean that we don’t ‘read’ the characters through a lens of familiarity. The themes and representations of Parisian streetlife are familiar from the films. The only direct reference to the polar, that I spotted, however, was the appearance of a poster for Un flic, the 1972 film with Alain Delon, the last film by the most celebrated director of polars Jean-Pierre Melville. This is in one of the squad offices and I think that the central character Laure has the image on her phone. This reference alone marks out Engrenages as ‘knowing’.
The central structure of Engrenages features the interconnections between a Parisian crime squad led by Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants ‘Gilou’ and ‘Tintin’ and a trio of independently-minded lawyers – an ‘investigating judge’ Roban and two high-flying (and glamorous) avocats Joséphine Karlsson and Pierre Clément. Berthaud and Roban trust each other – and sometimes bend the rules for the sake of justice. In Serial 5 Berthaud is investigating the murder of a young mother and her small daughter. This in turn will lead to a second investigation into a gang plotting robberies. As the programme’s title suggests (it means something like ‘Gears’), different stories become enmeshed, affecting each other in complicated ways. So Joséphine finds herself defending a wealthy Libyan diplomat accused of assaulting one of his ‘domestic’ workers and Gilou is arrested for using unauthorised equipment – while at the same time becoming personally involved in the private life of an informer. Both of these stories will tie in back to the central investigations. Throughout everything, Berthaud – still recovering from a personal tragedy in Serial 4 – is pregnant and still undecided about keeping the baby.
Thinking about structure, Engrenages covers almost the same ground as The Killing 1: a central crime story involving a form of family melodrama, a ‘personal story’ about the problems of the lead female investigator and a third ‘political’ story which ties into the central crime story in some way. The political angles of Engrenages are more complex and nuanced, involving machinations in the judiciary as well as the French establishment. I’m not claiming that one has copied the other (and I don’t know how Serials 1-4 of Engrenages worked out – perhaps this structure began in France?). It could be argued that most, all, TV crime series have these three elements in different mixes and different proportions – but I don’t think that they are so clearly spelt out or that they are so carefully written into a tripartite structure in those other shows. It is the richness and complexity of the narrative that I enjoyed in Engrenages – and the characters and performances. Copenhagen and Paris do share a metropolitan location which means that police investigations are closer to political centres and international stories. But having said that, Laure Berthaud’s team are simply ‘local cops’ and one of their problems is that they run up against specialist units with questions of who has the authority for investigations. This is also the case with The Killing but the difference is that Laure Berthaud does not have the status of the Sara Lund character (i.e. as the single focus for the narrative) or the freedom to investigate with just one partner. Instead Laure leads a team (and they cock up together!)
Engrenages offers a range of pleasures of story-telling and characterisation as well as heart-pumping emotions and some very brutal scenes. The chase scenes are excellent and it is noticeable that the female roles are crucially important in every aspect of the narrative. I think also that there is some evidence here as well as in one or two recent French films that the range of characters is becoming more diverse and representative of contemporary Parisian society. My only frustration is that the BBC (which is credited with an ‘association‘ with the production) is not very helpful with details of the show’s background. What we do know is that there were major cliff-hangers/and ‘loose ends’ when Serial 5 closed. The next should appear in France later in 2015. It will be keenly anticipated when it comes to the BBC.
There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. Many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!
The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.
The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.
The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.
So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.
The US trailer: