For those under the misapprehension that American cinema had a monopoly on film noir, July and August will see a number of retrospectives in London that prove that ‘Noir is,’ to quote Jeanette Vincendeau, ‘a French word’.
At the National Film Theatre, there are retrospectives of Jean-Pierre Melville and Henri-Georges Clouzot, while the programmers at the Ciné Lumiere have curated an eclectic selection of French Crime dramas spanning the history of cinema. Jeanette Vincendeau, author of a forthcoming BFI book on Melville, opened the retrospective with a lecture on the French concept of ‘Noir’, dividing it into a series of tropes, ranging from surrealism and social realism, and finally, with the screening of Phillipe Harel’s new film, Tristan, feminist noir.
Like the morsels left over at the end of a sumptuous banquet, the clips Vincendeau chose to accompany her talk left audiences hungry for more; a comic moment from Feuillade’s Fantomas; Montmartre at dawn as seen through the eyes of Bob Le Flambeur; Jean Gabin railing against his incompetent staff in one of his turns as Maigret; Alain Delon making his first on-screen kill in Le Samourai; and Patrick Dewaere as the salesman play-acting a gunfight, over the opening credits of Série Noire. As Francesco Rosi proved, seventies American cinema was not alone in producing exceptional political thrillers (his own Illustrious Corpses surely deserves to be re-released and seen by a generation under the misapprehension that The Parallax View and The Conversation are as bleak as things get). Vincendeau’s illuminating lecture demonstrated that French cinema has consistently produced films that are as morally compromised and visually stylised at the best of that critic-coined, US-centric genre.
Whether Tristan will be seen as a memorable film in years to come remains to be seen, but Harel’s film casts a peculiar spell while it plays. Mathilde Seigner is Emmanuelle, a hard-nosed cop attempting to break a prostitution and racketeering ring run by East European gangsters. Her dedication to her job, which supersedes any personal relationships she has, is only interrupted when she discovers a similarity between the suicides of two young women. Convinced she is on the trail of a serial killer whose emotional blackmailing pushes his victims over the edge, and with the encouragement of a psychological profiler, Emmanuelle finds herself drawn into a complex game of cat and mouse with her nemesis.
Tristan may come as a surprise after Extension du Domain de la Lutte, Harel’s faithful adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s first venture into the mind of a misanthrope, ‘Whatever’. It avoids the emotional distance of the earlier film, portraying Emmanuelle as tough, but never cold. As the film progresses, the complexity of her character increases. As it does, another mood creeps in, bleaker and more reminiscent of Extension. Certainly, there is more hope in this film, with an end that, though badly edited and perhaps too rushed, offers some hope for the future. But a nihilistic mood remains, detached from the main narrative, drawing attention to the fact that in addition to being a police thriller, the film is a study in loneliness and how people cope with the burden of interacting with others and supplanting desperation with a brittle construct they believe to be love.
On its own, Harel’s film is an effective thriller that offers the excellent Seigner the chance to play a tougher role, more in keeping with male characters that have populated the genre. As the main course, after Jeanette Vincendeau’s appetising opener, it offers the promise of a month-long celebration of law and disorder.