Tag Archives: polar

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, France 1958)

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is the latest cinema re-release by the British Film Institute. The film has often been argued to be the first ‘French New Wave’ film or at least an important pre-cursor’ to the New Wave proper which began with Chabrol’s Le beau Serge in the same year. I showed the film as part of an evening class considering ‘A new look at the French New Wave‘ in 2009 and I thought it might be useful to post those notes here.

Outline (no spoilers)

This film has a complex plot with narrative twists. These are concerned with two separate narratives that become intertwined. In the first narrative an adulterous couple set up a serious crime which goes wrong when the man is trapped in a lift. In the second a young couple go on a spree when the boy steals the car of the man in the lift. Once linked the two stories lead to a typical noir conclusion.

Commentary

ScoreLiftAscenseur pour l’échafaud became a commercially successful film offering action, suspense, crime and twisted romance. In some ways traditional in featuring a ‘locked room’ crime, the narrative also embraces the Hitchcockian romance thriller. Because of its inclusion of younger characters, innovative camerawork and direction and a stunning jazz score by Miles Davis, the film also feels much more modern than most 1950s films. However, given its relatively ‘straight’ treatment of its material, it is distinguished from the later New Wave films by Godard (À bout de souffle) and Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste) which utilise similar genre elements, but treat them in a more ‘playful’ way.

Louis Malle early in his career

Louis Malle early in his career

Like the young Cahiers critics, director Louis Malle was obsessed with cinema. But instead of writing about film like his contemporaries who attended the Cinémathèque and wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he plunged straight into learning about filmmaking. Originally enrolled to study science at the Sorbonne, Malle switched to the French film school IDHEC. He never completed the course because he took up an offer to become an assistant to Jacques Cousteau the underwater explorer. Malle soon proved to be a wonderful underwater photographer. He also learned direction and editing and at the age of 23 he shared a Palme d’Or with Cousteau as co-director at Cannes in 1956 for the documentary film The Silent World. Malle also had experience of observing/assisting director Robert Bresson and in 1957 he began work on his own first feature film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He thus became one of the youngest of all the ‘young directors’ of la nouvelle vague. After the success of his first film, Malle quickly followed up with the controversial Les Amants (The Lovers), again with Jeanne Moreau. This was a far less likely candidate for the New Wave, but Malle’s third film Zazie dans le métro (1960) placed him back alongside Truffaut with a zany comedy about a small girl whizzing about Paris with her uncle, complete with cinematic references and jokes. Malle went on to make a further twenty-seven features, including several documentaries and films made in the US in English. The American critic Pauline Kael noted that Malle’s refusal to work within a specific genre or any other form of categorisation of style or thematic meant that he was often dismissed as a dilettante. The high quality of many of his films suggests that this was a bad mistake by those critics.

No other French director of the 1960s, outside the Cahiers group, has had such wide international recognition. Is this particular film really New Wave? It seems sensible to classify Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as at least a significant precursor to the New Wave for the following reasons:

  • Louis Malle was undeniably a ‘young first-time (fiction) feature filmmaker and the film narrative includes a young couple who represented the ‘problem youth’ of 1950s European and American culture;
  • the film was shot on the streets of Paris by Henri Decaë who along with Raoul Coutard would introduce the innovative cinematography of the New Wave (like Coutard, Decaë was experienced as a documentary camera operator, having served with the French Army in WW2);
  • the film was based on a ‘Serie Noire’ novel by Noël Calef and is in many ways an amalgam of the American B film noir with the French policier/polar;
  • Malle was already involved with a production company, NEF which had already co-produced Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and would go on to produce all of Malle’s films.

These four features of the production would be echoed in subsequent New Wave films by other directors. It’s also important to note that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was a traditional genre film in terms of its structure and in Jeanne Moreau it had an actor with real presence who had been performing since the late 1940s both on the stage and in films, including B policiers with the great Jean Gabin. Moreau fought to make the role of Florence bigger than it was in the novel. The male lead, Maurice Ronet was another theatre-trained actor who had started in films in 1949 and was established in French Cinema before Ascenseur pour l’échafaud made him an international star. Moreau and Ronet both appeared in films during the New Wave period and subsequently for New Wave directors. Moreau because of Jules et Jim, is now remembered as a ‘New Wave star’, whereas Ronet is remembered for his work in Malle’s films (especially Le feu follet, 1963) and his lead in René Clair’s Plein soleil (1960). These seem like arbitrary distinctions. A closer look at the credits of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows several future ‘players’ in the New Wave. Jean-Claude Brialy has a walk-on part, Jean Rabier, a future cinematographer, is an assistant here alongside Henri Decaë. The Bresson connection is apparent in the scenes in which Julien (Ronet) is trapped in the lift; Bresson was one of the more ‘personal’ directors who was valued by the Cahiers critics. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a polar (the French term for a crime picture is virtually untranslatable and refers to a broader genre than the policier or police procedural). In his 1997 book on French Cinema in the 1980s, Phil Powrie, looks back on the development of the polar and suggests three key features of the genre:

  • it focuses on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society;
  • it carries comments on contemporary society;
  • it indicates the state of French-American cultural exchange.

We could fruitfully look for these three features in many of the films of the New Wave and not just those which are obviously polars based on American pulp fiction sources. The focus on young characters in a changing society is there in most New Wave films and the ‘play’ with American culture at this moment in French post-war history is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the pinball machines in the cafés, the incursion of American jazz onto the soundtrack, the ubiquity of American cars and the references to Hollywood. (Although in most of the films, and especially in Truffaut’s, it’s mixed with traditional aspects of French popular culture.) Again this wasn’t necessarily ‘new’ and is evident in earlier polars, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956). Also quoted as a precursor of the New Wave, this was the first of Melville’s attempts to use the conventions of American crime films to tell French stories. The importance of the extensive Miles Davis score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud also links up with the work of another, later, New Wave figure, Jacques Demy with his obsession over American musicals. In one sense though, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is different. This is in its political references. The marginalised hero of the film, Julien, is an ex-paratrooper who has returned to France after fighting in the colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa. He transfers his ‘action skills’ to crime, operating in the world of oil industry espionage. Along with the presence of the young couple on the run, this feels like a French parallel of the concerns of American B noirs. The appearance of the German couple as tourists also prompted comments. Louis Malle was often a controversial director and his later films dealt with taboo issues such as the Occupation in France (Lacombe Lucien, 1974 and Au revoir les enfants, 1987). More than most New Wave films (Godard’s Le petit soldat is the exception), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud seems to be aware of the issues of the moment.

Reference

Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP

Classe tous risques (France/Italy 1960)

classe-tous-risques-1960-11-g

This could be an image from a neo-realist film on the streets of Milan.

The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.

I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.

À bout portant (Point Blank France 2010)

Samuel (Gilles Lelouche) reluctantly stitches the wound of Hugo (Roschdy Zem)

This is the second taut thriller from writer-director Fred Cavayé following Pour elle (Anything For Her, 2008). That was remade in Hollywood as The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe. I didn’t bother with the remake but the consensus seems to be that it was less interesting than the original.

This second film at first appears as if it will be more or less a repeat of the first – a happy and ‘respectable’ youngish couple suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation (with the woman heavily pregnant) which forces them into criminal action against their wishes. And indeed this is a short widescreen polar that has no pretensions beyond a desire to entertain as an action thriller. However, it soon reveals itself to be different from Cavayé’s earlier film in two respects. First, the male protagonist is given no time to think about the consequences of his actions or to plan how to rescue his wife – this time he is just thrown into the chase to save her almost immediately. Secondly, where the first film mostly involved outwitting the police, here the narrative is much more complex involving corruption and assassinations. In other words, this film is less the ‘one innocent man against the system’ and more ‘one innocent man caught up in extensive struggles between police and organised crime’ – i.e. much more like the traditional French polar.

The set-up is seemingly straightforward. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a trainee nurse about to take his exams when a man is brought in to his hospital ward. We already know that Hugo (Roschdy Zem) was wounded and running away from two men when he was involved in accident. Samuel then foils an attempt on Hugo’s life and considers himself a hero. But the next day his wife is kidnapped and he is told that he must get Hugo out of the hospital if he is ever to see his wife again. The rollercoaster begins.

Most of the film involves chases across Paris, especially in the metro (invoking memories of Luc Besson’s Subway). As I watched these very exciting sequences it occurred to me that I can’t really compare them to British crime thrillers since my expectations of most British crime films are so low that I avoid many of them. Perhaps it is just a case of the ‘the grass is greener . . .’) but the French crime films of recent years seem to make much better use of Paris and its environs than British films do of London. Add to this excellent performances by Lellouche (French actor du jour, I think) and the always dependable Zem, plus a sudden narrative twist part way through the chase and you have excellent entertainment that will wake you up and keep you on the edge of your seat. No Hollywood remakes please.

UK trailer:

Crime d'amour (France 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier

This was the last film of Alain Corneau, veteran French director of polars – amongst other genres. He died aged 67 soon after the film was released. I watched the film on a long-haul flight – not the best format for critiquing a film. Even so, I could see that this was an interesting idea. Whether Corneau fully pulled it off, I’m not sure, but for a man suffering from cancer it was a brave venture.

Co-written by Corneau and Nathalie Carter, Crime d’amour (‘Love Crime‘ for the Anglophone world) is an intriguing genre mix. I would class it as a polar combined with something of a film noir. I’ve seen it described as a psychological thriller and even compared to La tourneuse de pages but I don’t think that’s really appropriate, although revenge is a central feature of the plot. North American reviewers have suggested a cross between Dangerous Liaisons and Working Girl – quite a neat description, but not very helpful in a French context. In some ways, I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958), partly because of the office setting and partly because of the detailed procedural elements of a crime. It’s quite difficult to give an outline of the plot without ‘spoiling’ the pleasures of the film, so I’ll just offer the film’s premise.

Outline

Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a senior executive in a French subsidiary of an American-owned food company. She is highly ambitious and angles for a top post in the US. Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is a junior executive in the same company working as Christine’s assistant. Christine seems particularly interested in giving Isabelle a helping hand and offers her a trip to Cairo to promote a new product. In Cairo she works with Phillipe, a young man working for an associate company – and also Christine’s lover. Isabelle turns out to be as driven as Christine and she does well with the Cairo work. How will the two women behave towards each other in future? Christine instigates a war between the two by stealing credit for Isabelle’s triumph in Cairo and using it for her own advancement. The knives are out.

Commentary

The film is really in two halves. In part one the conflict is set up and developed until it reaches a climax with the ‘crime’ of the title. In the second half there is a criminal investigation by the police, an arrest and imprisonment and a highly contrived defence by the perpetrator. The first half is rather unrealistic in terms of business procedures but gripping because of the playing by the two stars and Corneau’s tight direction. (French office life is presented as extremely glamorous.) I found the second half to be possibly too clever in its plotting and I was slightly irritated by it. The plot hinges on the procedures of French criminal law which allows a good deal of discretion by the ‘examining/investigating judge’ in an inquisitorial judicial system. I think that this is what marks out the plot trajectories of the polar as quite different to those of British or American crime films which end up in the criminal court.

I know that some critics don’t like Ludivine Sagnier and that Kristin Scott Thomas can do no wrong (especially in the UK and US) but I’m rather taken with Ms Sagnier and this is just as much her film. We don’t get enough crime films focusing on women protagonists. Too often they are diverted into comedy, psychological drama or melodrama. In this case, the film is clearly about the women and their descent into criminal activity. The title, I think, is misleading. Philippe is a rather disposable character and Isabelle has a young male acolyte – a role which is perhaps not fully developed. The crime is too much ambition rather than too much love.

I’m not sure if the film will be released in the UK, although it has been released in New Zealand. Kristin Scott Thomas could be used to sell the film, though her role may be something of a shock for her UK/US fans. The image above helps to suggest how creepy she is, asking Isabelle what perfume she is wearing. By coincidence, one of the other new French releases available on my Air France flight was another Kristin Scott Thomas film, Elle s’appelait Sarah. A very different film, this one has just been nominated for a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars). Scott Thomas plays an American magazine journalist investigating the notorious round-up of French Jews in July 1942 in which they were held in a velodrome before being sent to the camps. I watched the first few minutes of this film but I was too tired to continue watching. This film will, I’m sure, get a UK release. We’ve reported on several Kristin Scott Thomas films recently and it’s worth pointing out that in both these French films she gets to speak English.

Here’s the New Zealand trailer for Crime d’amour:

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?