The French Collection Vol. 2: Thrillers Review
Historically French cinema has tended to make a wider international impact in waves, usually delivering a unique or particular style that is uniquely French – from the coolness of the Godard, Rohmer, Truffaut and the French Nouvelle Vague of the 60s to the cinéma du look of Besson, Carax and Beineix and the super-productions of Claude Berri and Jean-Paul Rappeneau in the mid-80s to the early 90s. Of late, wider UK and international success for modern French cinema has tended to be restricted to a limited few directors (Besson, Leconte, Jeunet) rated more highly abroad than they are at home, and a few US-influenced blockbusters. There are two areas however in which French filmmaking has traditionally always excelled – the crime thriller and the relationship drama – and unsurprisingly, the influence of both can be found in nearly all of the above types, even in the likes of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Their success in these areas is often down to the strong character driven nature of French cinema and the ability of some of the best acting talent in the world. Those strengths are highlighted in two DVD collections released by Artificial Eye in two French Collection box-sets. Volume 1 contains three films featuring one of the finest French actresses Juliette Binoche, and Volume 2 contains three recent French thrillers that have gained a great deal of international interest and acclaim.
The French have always adopted a healthy attitude towards the pulp entertainment of the crime thriller – both in its literature and its cinema - and has traditionally it has taken a great deal of its influence in this from the United States. The adventures of American detective Nick Carter were developed into a serial between 1908 and 1910 by Victorin Jasset, and Louis Feuillade - now considered one of the founding fathers of French cinema - developed several crime and detective serials, the most famous of which are the classics Fantômas (developed from the pulp novels of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain), Les Vampires (forthcoming from Artificial Eye) and Judex, the stories often gaining in daring by siding with a ruthless villain with his own set of (a-)moral values. The spirit of these early crime thrillers and others based on the works of Gaston Leroux and Marcel Leblanc continue to inspire modern French thrillers, with recent years seeing new interpretations of Vidocq (2001), Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (2003) and Arsène Lupin (2004).
The crime thriller and particularly the policier remained popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s and is particularly well-served by the works of Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear), and by adaptations of the novels of the prolific Georges Simenon. His creation of Maigret in particular has long been a perennial favourite for TV movie serials, but his other crime novels continue to be revisited for feature film adaptation - Monsieur Hire (1989), In All Innocence (1998) (previously filmed in 1958 as En Cas De Malheur), Red Lights (Feux Rouges) (2004) and most recently by Béla Tarr in The Man From London (2007).
American B-movies thrillers, film noir and particularly the work of Raoul Walsh and Samuel Fuller were all held in high regard by the critics of Les Cahiers du Cinéma and accepted as valid auteur cinema long before the genre had similar recognition in the United States. Their influence can be felt in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, regarded as the godfather of the Nouvelle Vague, and indeed in the early films of Jean-Luc Godard and his colleagues themselves when they started making their own films, inspired by the creative liberties of their lawless adventurers and the dark human stories that lie behind the violent impulses of the crime thriller.
Godard was one of the first directors to directly confront less than admirable activities being carried out during the war in Algeria with Le Petit Soldat (1963) and, inspired by the more violent and exploitative hardboiled série noire novel, the French thriller would take on a stronger political dimension in the 1970s, as in Chabrol’s adaptation of J-P. Manchette’s Nada. Shady secret service dealings, government and police cover-ups, political abductions, torture and anarchistic plots against the state were often depicted in their full brutality. The spirit of the political thriller has been evoked more recently in I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed (2005) and in Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché) (2005).
It is this darker exploration of human nature that would seem to most interest the makers of French thrillers, and in that area it is inevitably the master Alfred Hitchcock – venerated by French movie makers and critics alike - who wields the greatest influence over modern polar. The most marked aspect of the modern French thriller is its slow-burning quality, an accumulation of detail and psychological development, building up into dark tales of revenge with a violent denouement providing a shocking twist and a bitter sting in the tale. Hitchcock’s influence is most evident in the films of Claude Chabrol, but the dark designs of twisted characters can be found in films like L’Appartement (1996), The Page Turner (2006) and particularly in the films directed or scripted by Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand - Harry He’s Here To Help (2000), Feux Rouges (2004), Who Killed Bambi? (2003) and Lemming (2005).
A large number of those films are available on DVD from Artificial Eye, who have for a long time been instrumental in bringing French cinema and the sophisticated French thriller to the UK public. Three of those films are included in their box-set release of The French Collection Vol. 2: Thrillers.
Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Television presenter Georges Laurent finds himself the victim of an unknown and seemingly invisible stalker who is watching his house and sending him video tapes of the surveillance. Since there is no direct threat made, the police are powerless to intervene, so Georges is forced to investigate the little clues in the tapes by himself. In the process he is taken on a journey back to a shameful event in his past that threatens to destroy his career and his family.
Haneke’s highly controversial and much debated 2005 film is brilliant and frustrating in equal measure. The first half Hidden is a dazzling piece of cinema that flirts with thriller elements in a tense and visceral manner, effectively disorienting the viewer with manipulated video images and shock flashes of unexpected violence that twist one’s perception of reality to show how miscommunication can exist between classes and cultures. The latter half of the film however descends into obfuscation, preachy social critique and sanctimonious finger-wagging, expanding the theme of cultural confrontation from small scale to global significance drawing on imagery from the Algeria, Iraq and 9/11. If nothing else however, Caché’s open-ended conclusion leaves the viewer with many points to consider and discuss.
Full review - Hidden (Caché)
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
A French remake of James Toback’s 1978 film Fingers starring Harvey Keitel, De Battre Mon Coeur C’est Arreté has all the characteristics and advantages of those hard-hitting US thrillers of the 1970’s, but with the added sophistication of a very French treatment and delivery. The film stars Romain Duris, who delivers a charismatic and manic performance as a thug with higher aspirations trying to break away from a life of crime on the mean streets of Paris by becoming a concert pianist.
A tense thriller, meticulously paced and superbly performed, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is also a compelling character study. The detail put into the characterisation and the sheer intensity of Romain Duris’ performance ensures that the somewhat sensationalised and improbable storyline never fails to convince.
Full review - The Beat That My Heart Skipped
Lemming (Dominik Moll, 2004)
The ever troubled and much put-upon Laurent Lucas plays Alain Getty, a Home Automation Designer whose job that has taken him and his wife to a fashionable area in the south of France. A model couple, living in a model home, things however start to go wrong for them when Alain finds a small rodent, apparently dead, in the water pipe of their kitchen sink. When it begins twitching, his wife takes it to the vet and discovers that it is a lemming, a creature indigenous to Scandinavia and never found in France.
Again focussing equally upon characterisation and delicately revealing the social background of its characters and their personality flaws, Lemming is a well-crafted little thriller whose dark drama and horror effectively exposes the little flaws and cracks of guilt and jealousy that can undermine a relationship. The film doesn’t signal its intentions too far ahead and keeps the viewer hooked with an impeccable mise en scène that takes its time to reveal where it is going.
Full review - Lemming
The French Collection Vol.2: Thrillers is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. A three-disc set, each DVD is in PAL format, on a dual-layer disc, and is encoded for Region 2. Each of the three films have already been released in individual editions, so with the specification of each of the DVDs included here is identical to their previous editions, with the exception of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which was previously released as a two-disc set. With only the feature film disc included here, the numerous extra features, including interviews and deleted scenes are omitted in this set. Please refer to the full reviews linked above for details on the A/V specifications and the extra features on the other titles.
With a wide selection of French thrillers at their disposal, both new and old, the three films included in Artificial Eye’s The French Collection Vol.2: Thrillers are perhaps not the best examples of the French polar. Caché in particular only has tenuous links to the genre, refusing to deliver a conventional resolution to its thriller elements – but each one of these films has certainly attracted more press and critical acclaim in recent years than most French features and, although all equally flawed in one respect or another, in terms of production values, characterisation, performance and an impressive mise en scène, they each in their own way show the unique qualities of the best of the French thriller.