French Film Noir #4

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le Fou was booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and shortly afterwards, it was similarly unsuccessful at the box office when it was released in Paris in 1966.

With hindsight, the film now looks like Jean-Luc Godard’s farewell blast to the part of his career whcih was madcap and romantic. 

Symbol-oriented and more surreal than any crime film should be, Pierrot le Fou does however rely on many of the tropes of film noir to cut its path. If you think the neo-noir genre is big enough to absorb these idiosyncracies, then add this to your list of essential French Film Noir.

It might be comedy, it might be high art, and it might just be purely libertine film-making, but either way it has to be high on any list of French neo-noir, because it tips its hat to just about everything, in as silly a fashion as it can. 


Plein Soleil (1959)

Also known as "Purple Noon" , Plein Soleil is an unmistakably classy precursor to the films of Chabrol, and does what French crime films do the best ... it pays.

Alain Delon and Maurice Ronnet play an exciting duo of cruelty in a story that we all know better now after Anthony Minghella remade it as The Talented Mr Ripley. 

But Minghella did not have Alain Delon on set, with his beauty and inviting eyes, and good as it is, The Talented Mr Ripley doesn't truly disturb, seeking only to entertain and present a standard-issue morality that can never be fully anti-heroic, no matter what Matt Damon tries.

The two films are worth seeing back to back, most strikingly for the amorality run amok in the former. Finally there's a lack of anything gimmicky in Plein Soleil, just beautiful backdrops and photography, there to contrast the inner evils of the cast, and the deep unhappiness that can only arise when you get two men and one woman alone on a yacht in the middle of nowhere. For that, see also "Knife in the Water" (1962) and of course, "Dead Calm" (1989)


Le Salaire de la Peur (1953)

The Wages of Fear, along with Les Diaboliques, may have earned Henri-Georges Clouzot the reputation as a kind "French Hitchcock."

Properly, Clouzot's capacity to sustain suspense may have exceeded Hitchcock's, as in this truckload of dynamite inching its way over a deadly mountain.

Le Salaire de la Peur may also be more than simple French film noir. It's a reeking bandana of a film, it's cruel, suspensful and anti-capitalist, and includes tension-fraught passages of the purest cinema, replete with greed, pride and a white-knuckle ride in a medley of claustrophobic relationships.

All in all Wages of Fear has an atypical setting, but still a distilled and harrowing odyssey of flawed masculinity, as it inches its two trucks loaded with nitro-glycerine over a tortuous terrain of plot twists and sordidness. The subject is fear, both real and manufactured, and despite the tension, the fascinating long set up scenes are just as good, and push the needle towards the 'downbeat' end of narrative.


Le Samouraї (1967)

Le Samouraї  a 1967 neo-noir French classic, expresses a certain loneliness, a certain male loneliness at that, and is perhaps a lonely person's dream of Hollywood crime cinema, with the various accoutrements intact, such as the trench coat and the smoky card games.

It's reverse romance, a world where murder is just a habit, where the amoral underbelly pumps a lazy and ugly feed of inverted honour, and the film making is deliberately bleak.

In a philosophical capacity, this could only be French noir, and only French noir would even try to achieve these cool moments, the slow burn and the methodical precision of everything, all as grey as could be, opting for 'skilled direction' instead of emotion, Jean-Pierre Melville has seen a fistful of film noir and knows which buttons to press.


Thérèse Raquin (1953)

Lead actress, Simone Signoret, may be better known from Les Diaboliques, made a year after this film. But she plays a similar conflicted strong type of woman in a sordid world in this grim drama Thérèse Raquin (1953).

It is based on a novel by Emile Zola and is still a kind of The Postman Always Rings Twice type of affair. 

The plot is familiar anyway: Thérèse is disgusted by her wimpy husband and so has an affair instead with a violent trucker.

Eventually the two decide to kill the hapless husband but a witness begins blackmailing them as a result. The sordid business of love 'n' murder continues, and the lead lady decides she might not be totally immune to murder, and its charms.

The filming and the location work is of the first quality, and the plot is slow by modern standards, but this is French film noir. It's slow Euro-style melodrama, with a fearsome focus on the psychological damnation of its characters.

Marcel Carné really does tap into the mechanics of American film noir and the Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity bending elements of the story are clear borrows.

More French Film Noir

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