Koch-Lorber is a distribution company for domestic (U.S.) and foreign art films. This is a report on six French films that I received from them over the recent past. All except one are worth renting from your local video store or from Netflix.
Let me get to the runt of the litter first. Made in 1997, “Sombre” is both the title of the film and an implicit reference to the director’s decision to use what appears to be a constantly shaking hand-held camera to film scenes illuminated by a cheap flashlight. I squinted throughout the entire film but probably would have been better off with my eyes closed.
Jean, a serial killer/puppeteer
“Sombre” has three characters: a serial killer named Jean who makes his living as a puppeteer (!) and two sisters named Claire and Christine that he hooks up with. Since he prefers to slash prostitutes, he more or less spares them for the time being. The three drive aimlessly around the French countryside until he finally snaps one night on the side of a lake and tries to rape Christine who has just returned from skinny-dipping. Christine, who is promiscuous and attracted to Jean’s obvious dark side, is saved by Claire, who is a virgin. Claire then sends Christine home and decides to stick with Jean in order to “save” him. In an interview with the famous French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, director Philippe Grandrieux explains his approach to film-making:
What do we seek, since the first traces of hands impressed in rock the long, hallucinated perambulation of men across time, what do we try to reach so feverishly, with such obstinacy and suffering, through representation, through images, if not to open the body’s night, its opaque mass, the flesh with which we think – and present it to the light, to our faces, the enigma of our lives.
He nearly got it right. He created an opaque mess.
I only knew Claude Chabrol as a veteran French director and a member of the New Wave before watching “Comedy of Power” and “Violette.” Regarded as the French Alfred Hitchcock, his favorite themes are crime and murder as these two films demonstrate.
Made in 1978, “Violette” is a biopic about Violette Nozière, an eighteen year old girl who turns tricks in the Latin Quarter in the evenings behind her middle-class parents’ back. In 1933 she kills them in order to get her hands on their household savings, which she intends to turn over to her dissolute, handsome boyfriend Jean Dabin. Violette, who is played by Isabelle Huppert, testifies at her trial that her father had abused her sexually from a very young age but this does not persuade the judges to be lenient.
Violette and client
The film is much less courtroom drama than it is an exploration of the demimonde subculture of the 1930s. For Chabrol, Violette is a kind of Lolita who is very good at getting what she wants from men until she runs into Dabin (Jean-François Garreau), who is even more exploitative than her. The general ambience will remind you of Weimar era decadence of the sort found in “Cabaret.” Huppert is brilliant as Violette and makes this rather cynical, icy film rather appealing.
Isabelle Huppert turns up again in the 2006 “Comedy of Power” as the magistrate Jeanne Charmant-Killman, who is determined to bring down a group of white-collar criminals who are up to their eyeballs in corruption and juggled books in the Enron style. Despite the title, this is no comedy. Once again, as in “Violette,” we are presented with a very cynical view of society. Charmant-Killman is very much a careerist who sees her targets as prey. Once they are “bagged,” she can move up to a higher notch in the French legal system.
Once again, Chabrol’s film is based on a true-life crime incident, namely the investigation of Elf-Aquitaine, the French state-owned energy company that was Enron-like. The chief investigator was Eva Joly, who inspired the Jeanne Charmant-Killman character. The best scenes in the film show her interrogating the crooked executives who find all sorts of ways to rationalize their behavior, including one man who quips that bribery is the lubricant that makes business work. We have not traveled that far from Balzac, who began “Pere Goriot” with the observation that “Behind every fortune lies a great crime.”
Like “Comedy of Power,” the 2005 “Le Petite Lieutenant” also features a woman in charge, in this case the middle-aged Commandant Caroline “Caro” Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye), who runs a police station in Paris that the young Antoine Derouère (Jalil Lespert) has just picked to work in. (In France, graduates of the police academy can choose their own workplace.)
Derouère, the “Petite Lieutenant,” is little more than a boy in a man’s body. When he is driving down the street with the siren on, he beams like a child. At night he fondles his gun while lying in bed. Eventually he is knifed by a Russian immigrant worker during an arrest, while his partner is off drinking beer in violation of departmental regulations. The remainder of the film consists of Commandant Vaudieu and her men trying to track down the Russian and his partner, who have been responsible for robberies and killings in their precinct.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, the film is resolutely unromantic. The cops are seen as flawed human beings including the Commandant who likes to smoke pot on the job and tries unsuccessfully to seduce Derouère. All in all, it is a more sophisticated version of “nitty-gritty” TV shows like NYPD Blue, The Wire and The Shield. It makes for lively viewing, but leaves one a bit troubled by the choice of bad guys. With Le Pen and Sarkozy on the rise when this film was made, the decision to make a couple of immigrant workers thieves and murderers seems ill-timed.
Made in 1963, “Muriel” is one of the first films to take up the question of the war in Algeria. (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le petit soldat” was made two years earlier.) Directed by Alain Resnais of “Last Year in Marienbad” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” fame, it is focused on four characters. Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) is a middle-aged antique dealer who has invited her old flame Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) for a visit. He inexplicably brings his young mistress Françoise (Nita Klein) along with him but continues to try to get Hélène into bed. After she keeps refusing him, he asks–reasonably–why she ever invited him. She confesses that she really doesn’t know–par for the course for this rather mystifying film. Bernard (Jean-Baptise Thiérrée), Hélène’s stepson, has just returned from serving in Algeria where he has participated in the torture of a woman named “Muriel” and is suffering from posttraumatic stress, although his symptoms fall more within the category of capricious behavior rather than depression. In some ways, it is difficult to figure out whether his strange behavior is a function of his experience in Algeria or Resnais’s esthetic, which is reminiscent of Buñuel’s drawing room surrealism.
To give credit where credit is due, Resnais signed the 1960 Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the War in Algeria along with Sartre and other prominent intellectuals. Surprisingly, Godard’s name is not among the 121. The surrealist touches in “Muriel” are somewhat dated, but the horror over Algeria is not.
To conclude on the note of dated surrealist techniques, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1983 “La Belle Captive” is an entertaining but somewhat unintentionally funny experimentalist exercise. It stars Daniel Mesguich as Walter Raim, a gangster of some sort who we meet in a nightclub getting soused as couples dance the tango, including the fetching Marie-Ange van de Reeves (Gabrielle Lazure). Later that night Raim is sent by his boss, the motorcycle-riding Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Claire), to deliver a message to a certain Ambassador.
Rene Magritte, La Belle Captive
On his way, Raim discovers Marie lying unconscious in the street and brings her to a nearby house where he is greeted by a group of very strange men. He spends the night with Marie, only to discover that she is a vampire. Periodically, an image of a Rene Magritte painting appears like a leitmotiv, although its exact connection to the vampire Marie is not clear. Par for the course in surrealism, I suppose. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Robbe-Grillet is best known as a novelist and screenwriter, having worked with Resnais on “Last Year at Marienbad”. All in all, the film is beautiful to look at and diverting in its own quirky way as well–rather like a Ridley Scott Chanel commercial.