A brown drizzly landscape under a lowering sky. A big battered car and its rumpled driver, his hair hanging down in strands from his bald spot. What is he doing in the mud? Why is he looking around with dramatic jerks? Whom is he speaking to? As the camera comes in for a closer look, he’s dancing and acting in his own imaginary gangster drama, pulling a transistor radio out of his pocket and aiming it like a revolver. He’s childish at play in a game above his station, starring in a mental movie more exciting than his life.
As with Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) from Martin Scorsese, as that character does his “You talkin’ to me?” routine in front of the mirror, there’s also a shadow of danger that this play-acting man-boy could talk himself into reality.
Such is the cold wet opening scene of Alain Corneau’s Série Noire (1979), a film named generically after the series of black-covered crime paperbacks sold in France in the decades after WWII, when American pop culture was no longer verboten. This series, published and often translated by ex-actor Marcel Duhamel, is how French readers were introduced to writers like David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich and the writer under consideration now, Jim Thompson.
The novel adapted here on Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics is Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1954), translated into French under the odd wordplay title Les cliques et les cloaques, which basically means “the cliques and cesspits”. I’ve read this bleak little book, and what it has in common with most of Thompson’s novels is a nihilistic worldview narrated by a man living in his own existential hell. It also indulges the author’s impulse to experiment with first-person voice as it devolves into narrative gimmicks we won’t reveal here, but which hardly seem filmable without a split-screen.
Corneau felt encouraged to approach avant-garde writer Georges Perec, who’s heavily into wordplay and challenging formal structures and who, it turns out, was familiar with Thompson and other American pulpists. His script pared the events to one strong plotline that allows for lots of behavioral improvisation like the opening scene. He also littered the dialogue with his specialty for untranslatable French puns that the subtitles, alas, must ignore as though they aren’t there. That’s probably the best of two otherwise unacceptable choices.
This movie wouldn’t exist without Patrick Dewaere, an actor whose stature has only grown since his suicide in 1982, and knowledge of that can cast a veil of sadness over what’s already a sad characterization, as well as a manic and funny one. He plays Franck Poupart, a rinky-dink door-to-door salesman working for the phlegmatic Steplin (Bernard Blier), who crouches toad-like in his messy office, counting money. We quickly grasp that Poupart’s life is an unrewarding round of hucksterism and bill collection.
At a big isolated mansion in the middle of an urban wilderness, he meets a mean old lady (Jeanne Herviale) who’s perfectly willing to trade his goods in exchange for letting him have sex with her teenage niece, Mona. The almost entirely affectless Mona is played blankly or rather sullenly by 16-year-old Marie Trintignant, the director’s daughter. Mona is clearly used to being whored out by her aunt and seems completely retreated into herself, if not actually on the autistic spectrum. Despite some impulsive and desperate moves, she’s the small, still, quietness in counterpoint to Franck’s jittery gestural motormouth.
Franck refuses to have sex with Mona and, in fact, will never have it in the course of this story, whether from fear or gallantry or premature ejaculation. Perhaps he doesn’t want what he can have so easily, as he prefers to make life as difficult as possible and then complain that nobody’s ever had worse luck than himself.
This is very Jim Thompson and captures his self-defeating losers exactly, whereas this film’s conception of Mona is more forgiving and sympathetic than the book’s. It’s not entirely clear that Mona has any plans to plant murder in the head of the man she perceives as her rescuer, although she does mention the gun rather helpfully. Instead, when Franck understands that the miserly old lady is sitting on a fortune, his thoughts begin spinning elliptically in the direction of murder. Even in their first-person narrations, Thompson’s anti-heroes remain elliptical where it counts most.
Patrick Dewaere as Franck Poupart and Bernard Blier as Staplin (courtesy of Film Movement)
An interesting thesis waits to be written comparing the fictional worldview of Thompson to that of Flannery O’Connor. Their stories are liable to end in the same catastrophes, and both have ghastly humor. The difference is that one writer believes in God and the other in Hell. If Thompson had written “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953, one year before A Hell of a Woman), it would have been narrated by the Misfit. If O’Connor had written Thompson’s book, it would have observed the same events with mordant, stringent objectivity.
If houses reflect the inhabitant’s soul, Mona’s large isolated house compares with Franck’s own isolated house. He lives in fraught relations with wife Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), who begins angry and enervated and then tries to reconcile with him and reinvent their marital bliss. These houses are beautifully designed but there’s no designer; everyone on this low-budget crew pitched in. Shooting handheld in often close quarters, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn collaborated with Corneau to allow the actors to work out their scenes in full lengthy takes, letting multiple cameras figure out how to capture the energy while the actors wore the novelty of wireless mikes.
Dewaere is the most special effect, and everyone knew it. His intensity and centrality, as well as his balance of anger and absurdity as Franck bluffs through asinine lies and poses, can compare with such virtuoso performances as David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) or, as Corneau singles out in his interview, Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Or as mentioned, DeNiro in Taxi Driver.
Several moments simply observe what Dewaere is willing to do, whether it’s to bang his head or remain underwater in the tub with his eyes open in a scene possibly intended to recall Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), whose title kind of rhymes with Les cliques et les cloaques.
Although she only appears in a few scenes, Trintignant makes a great impact. Her mother, filmmaker Nadine Trintignant, is interviewed in the one-hour making-of and discusses how everyone approached Mona’s startling nude scene, which is handled with the character’s unemotional mundanity. Glenn states that her father averted his eyes during filming.
Patrick Dewaere as Franck Poupart and Marie Trintignant as Mona (courtesy of Film Movement)
Marie appears in a 2002 interview, one year before her own shocking death at the hands of a murderous boyfriend. Knowledge of this fact, as with Dewaere’s death, contributes to the film’s pall. Both actors moved on to celebrated careers that ended violently and senselessly, all of which, unfortunately, testifies to the validity of Thompson’s vision. She states that this, her first real film role, was easy because she felt very close to the character and it’s the film she’s proudest of.
The extras on Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray include 2002 interviews with Corneau and Marie Trintignant, and a new hour-long making-of and discussion by various participants and critics. They all mention the fact that Corneau originally wanted to adapt Thompson’s Pop. 1280 (1964) and discussed it with Thompson before the author’s death in 1977; that project stalled and the book would finally be filmed by Bertrand Tavernier as Coup de Torchon (1981).
Corneau’s affinity for American pulp crime was established with Police Python 357 (1976), based on Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock (1946), previously filmed brilliantly in 1948. Your reviewer hadn’t been aware of this French remake and now wants to see it toute de suite.
Despite announcing itself with such a generic title, Série Noire almost perversely avoids the elements of detectives and gangsters we associate with such tales, and the alleged femme fatale feels devoid of malevolent schemes, more victim than victimizer. The film comes across as almost a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one, and above all as a character study of a man mocked by fate. The film’s ending doesn’t spiral into the novel’s extremity, but it’s not really more forgiving, for the final image remains a kind of spiraling that bodes no good.