Série Noire [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Film Movement
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (25th April 2020).
The Film

Palme d'Or: Alain Corneau (nominated) - Cannes Film Festival, 1979
César (Best Actor): Patrick Dewaere (nominated), Best Supporting Actor: Bernard Blier (nominated), Best Supporting Actress: Myriam Boyer (nominated), Best Editing: Thierry Derocles (nominated), and Best Screenplay, Original or Adaptation: Alain Corneau and Georges Perec (nominated) - César Awards, 1980

Franck Poupart (Hotel America's Patrick Dewaere) is a door-to-door salesman for a shady goods company that seems to carry everything for kitchen goods (domestic and industrial) to quilted robes to heavy duty padlocks. He turns up at a rambling old house in a run-down part of the city to shake down Andreas Tikides (Executive Decision's Andreas Katsulas) who is delinquent on his payments only to learn from its elderly owner (Mortelle randonnée's Jeanne Herviale) that Tikides has taken off without doing the labor for which she paid him in advance. She directs Franck to Tikides nearby hangout but also makes her niece Mona (Betty's Marie Trintignant) available when he makes a crude remark about the girl's attractiveness after sighting her through an upstairs window watching him. No sooner does he enter the house ostensibly to sell the girl a robe but also to seduce her than Mona strips off her clothes. Flustered, Franck dresses her and makes conversation, promising to come back after dealing with Tikides who she claims has raped her. Franck makes off with four hundred francs from Tikides boxing trainer. When Tikides gives chase, Franck proves he is scrappy and can be violent when pressed, leading to a truce between the two. Things come to a head between Franck and his wife Jeanne (Un Coeur en Hiver's Myriam Boyer) when he comes home; him dissatisfied with the way she keeps house poorly and she tiring of the string of dives they have lived in, the lack of money, and the lack of excitement in their lives. She walks out on him after trashing the house and shredding his clothes. Franck has also lied to his boss Staplin (The Stranger's Bernard Blier) about not finding Tikides and pockets the money save that which he gives the man claiming it to be from a cash sale; however, Staplin has noticed various "discrepancies" and threatens Franck with jail time if he does not pay off the arbitrary figure of 1,500 francs, carrying through with the threat with the help of crooked police inspector Marcel (Charlie Farnel). Franck sits in jail for days until Marcel suddenly releases him and Staplin informs him that his wife paid off his debt. He discovers, however, that the wife in question is actually young Mona who tells him that her seemingly impoverished aunt has been squirreling money away and offers him ten million francs to kill her aunt. Franck comes up with the idea of setting up Tikides to make it look like the old woman was killed during a burglary. Things, of course, do not go smoothly as Marcel realizes Mona has lied about Tikides raping her, Staplin seems to suspect a connection between the deaths of two of his clients, and Jeanne comes back into his life.

Based on the novel by America's last noir author Jim Thompson titled "A Hell of a Woman" – retitled "Cliques and Cesspools" by the French publisher – Série noire from director Alain Corneau – transports the action to France and trades the darkness of noir for a sculpted squalidness of under overcast skies and sickly lighting (the film was shot on fast Fuji film with a hint of a green cast) that seems to represent the dead end worldview of the character (only after his wife leaves does their apartment look tidy only for the mess to encroach upon her return). The familiar noir story is cast with the usual sleazy caricatures and is brought to life solely by Dewaere's neurotic characterization in which he works of nervous energy by listening and dancing to music, has little mental or physical patience for other characters attempts at subtle needling, and is prone to sudden violence that it is completely believable he would kill in a rage – he accepts that Mona's aunt pimps her out but not anyone's insinuation of Mona's promiscuity – or that he would handle gun he intended to use in a murder and only think afterward to wipe off his fingerprints, and generally make situations worse with impulsive acts and words. Boyer is the only other actor who makes much of an impression, with Trintignant wearing a blank stare and saying little so that Franck (and by extension, Dewaere) might project onto her. The tone vacillates constantly between comedy and drama, mirroring Franck's moods, culminating in a climax of murder, impotent rage, and pathetically desperate optimism in the final shot. Although Thompson would write prolifically in literature and to a lesser extending in film and television between 1942 and 1973, Série noire was only the third cinematic Thompson adaptation – following The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me – but Hollywood would look to Thompson intermittently throughout the eighties and nineties (although usually to the same handful of novels). Director Corneau returned to crime and noir throughout the rest of his career, culminating in his final film Love Crime (subsequently remade by Brian De Palma as Passion). There is no score but the film is underscored throughout with pointed use of popular songs from Duke Ellington's "Moonlight Fiesta" (the subtitle on Corneau's screenplay) to Boney M.'s then-current cover of "Rivers of Babylon" or disco numbers by Sheila B. Devotion and Shake oddly but effectively used for dramatic accompaniment.

Video

Distributed theatrically by short-lived arthouse label Putnam Square Films, Série noire was more heard about than seen, unavailable but for a non-anamorphic French DVD (its black minimalist cover in the style of a Gallimard noir paperback) followed in 2013 by a Studio Canal Blu-ray, neither of which were English-friendly. Film Movement's Blu-ray boasts of being from a "new 2K digital restoration" although some of their other releases making such claims usually utilize the same master as the Blu-ray releases in the film's country of origin; however, in this case, the film was the recipient of a new 2K restoration by Rialto Pictures last year, and the results in this 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray are stunning. Gone is the green cast, although I am unsure if one can call this revisionist or more faithful, and the film's overall color scheme manages to look incredibly subdued without any real pop by design while detail is fine thoguhout, bringing out the textures in the crumbling, cluttered settings, unglamorous skin tones and textures, and the frizziness of clothes and Dewaere's hair.

Audio

The French LPCM 2.0 mono sounds spectacular throughout from Franck's mutters and outbursts to the near-constant use of popular songs as underscore. Optional English subtitles are also included.

Extras

Film Movement's Blu-ray drops the archival "Ciné Regards" TV segment shot on the set but carries over the French Studio Canal Blu-ray's other major extras starting with the 2013 documentary "Série noire: The Darkness of the Soul (52:31) in which Boyer, producer Maurice Bernart (Bye Bye Monkey), cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn (Death Watch), and Nadine Trintignant (The Honeymoon Trip) – Corneau's widow and mother of actress Trintignant with actor Jean-Louis Trintigant () along with critics and Dewaere's biographer. They note that Corneau had been planning to adapt Thompson's "Pop. 1280" with plans to shoot it in America, and even went to Los Angeles to work on the script with Thompson but the project fell through. Corneau found "A Hell of a Woman" to be more adaptable to a French setting, and brought in Georges Perec (The Man Who Sleeps) to write the dialogue because he was an expert on American noir, although Boyer says that Perec had reservations about adapting Thompson and expected the actors to rewrite their own dialogue but they kept to it instead finding his playful innovations suited to Corneau's approach. They discuss the design of the film, shooting on location, making clothing choices from cheap local shops (apart from Trintignant's Chanel skirt which she claimed was a cheap garment and did not reveal the truth until after the film finished shooting), and Glenn's use of fast film and lighting for mood rather than subject since they shot both reverse angles at the same time using two cameras and letting the actors move about within the frame without blocking. The 2002 interview with director Alain Corneau and actress Marie Trintignant (30:05) is fascinating as Corneau discusses adapting Thompson – the abandoned "Pop. 1280" project would be taken up two years later by Bertrand Tavernier as Clean Slate where the action was moved to Africa – and the differences between American and French noir with the latter drawing on a combination of Gothic elements from England and German and Viennese traditions from artists fleeing the Nazis while French noir derived more from the psychological and analytical approaches of French detective fiction by way of Georges Simenon in literature and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique) in film.. He cites French noir as well as the innovations of the unusual American thrillers Mean Streets and Dog Day Afternoon along with the use of music as influences. Trintignant turns up after the fifteen minute mark to remark on the shoot intercutting with Corneau's discussion.

Packaging

Packed with the disc is a booklet with an essay by film historian Nick Pinkerton which discusses Thompson in the context of American noir and compares the film to the details of the source novel (the American protagonist Frank's nickname is "Dolly" while the French Franck's nickname is "Poupée" as in "puppet") as well as Corneau's crime filmography and the tragic lives of Dewaere and Trintignant.

Overall

Years before director Alain Corneau's Love Crime was adapted to Brian De Palma's stylstics for Passion, Corneau took Jim Thompson's "A Hell of a Woman" to the "cliques and cesspools" of Paris with Série noire.

 


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