This is an odd film to see in UK distribution – possibly only released because of the purchase of the UK distributor Optimum by Studio Canal, the French major, in 2006. This seems to be confirmed by Optimum’s release strategy that has used only 12 prints and a low profile campaign.
I should say straightaway that I enjoyed the film and that I’m very happy to see more mainstream French product like this get a UK release. The French title of the film is perhaps more helpful in indicating the storyline. I think it translates as something like ‘Blood Ties’ and the film stars Guillaume Canet and François Cluzet as two brothers, one a flic (a cop) and the other a life-long criminal, in 1970s Lyon. The plot sees Gabriel scheduled for release from prison if he can get a job and his younger brother, François, torn between helping out and keeping his distance (and his professional integrity). It all goes wrong of course in a very traditional story. In fact, this feels to me like a conscious recreation of the 1970s polar – that curiously indefinable French genre of the crime film, a broad generic category that embraces the gangster film, the police procedural and several other forms of crime thriller. There has been something of a revival of the polar in the last few of years with The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), 36, Quai des orfèvres (2004) and Tell No One (2006). I’ve discussed these last three films in an article that will be published in Splice magazine in early 2009. The origins of the polar are in the early days of French cinema, but the category really became established from the late 1940s and has often been related to the concept of the film noir – in terms of the French crime novels of the Série Noire and the Hollywood crime films and melodramas of 1940-55. A good example of a noir melodrama would be Quai des orfèvres (1947). Les liens du sang is definitely ‘noirish’ in its themes and narrative structure and it clearly incorporates many elements of the polar – police investigations, violent crimes, gangland killings and the police-criminal relationship are central to the story. And yet there are odd ways in which the elements are mixed.
One of the features of the traditional polar is the representation of the French-American cultural exchange. French gangsters might adopt American clothes, cars etc. and sometimes the stories themselves are taken from American pulp fiction (which the Série Noire brand often published). However, there is little of this in Les liens du sang. The only obvious reference is the Neil Young song ‘Cinnamon Girl’ that the younger brother plays on an electric guitar. Elsewhere in the film, the music is certainly American, but I would argue it is more representative of an international jazz and disco music of the period. (And, yes, Neil Young is Canadian and rock music is an international phenomenon, but the guitar playing of this particular song stood out.) Everyone smokes in the film, seemingly all the time, so perhaps the cigarette choice – Marlboro for François and Gitanes for Gabriel is significant?
But although it avoids the clear American-referencing of a Melville film, other elements of the polar are in place. Set in Lyon, there are references to the influence of criminal gangs in Italy and Spain and there is a clear sense of local culture. There is also an element of the absurd in some of the action – or perhaps it’s just me. I was reminded at times of the comic gangsters in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste. Cluzet is a charismatic actor and his performance more or less holds the film together. Still, I found that with his moustache and hair he teetered on the edge of the absurd, almost a muskeeter trapped in a world where robbers escape by running behind a coach of brass bandsmen and police in a Renault 5 chase crooks in runabout vans. Having said that, the violent scenes are certainly brutal.
One of the strengths of the film is the array of female characters – all traditional roles in the polar perhaps, but here the roles are well cast and there are impressive performances. Clotilde Hesme makes a distinct impression as the woman caught between the husband in gaol and the policeman who stalks her.
Overall, I don’t think the film achieves all its creators might have aimed for – there are strange narrative ellipses and I found the final action scenes less interesting than the melodrama (but then, I nearly always do). The film is certainly worth catching when the DVD appears and it will be useful in work on the polar – used perhaps for comparisons with the 1970s films. Some commentators have referenced Life on Mars, the UK ‘retro’ TV police series, but I don’t think this is appropriate. Les liens du sang is not ‘knowing’ about 1970s mores from a 2008 perspective. It claims to be ‘loosely based’ on an autobiographical novel. Cluzet and Canet were star and writer/director of Tell No One and that must have helped in setting up this film. Perhaps they will be involved in more productions during this revival of the polar?