Friday, November 19, 2021

Noirvember: Jen Johans on 5 Fantastic French-Language Neo Noirs

When my good friend Jed Ayres asked me to contribute something for Noirvember, I was both immediately honored and immediately stumped. Not only had I submitted noir lists to Hardboiled Wonderland in the past but we have so many brilliant friends in common that I knew that most of my selections would turn up in their posts (and for very good reason, because they have impeccable taste). In starting to think about the films, directors, and stars that I most frequently recommend to others, however, I discovered one big pattern, which is that most of my favorite neo-noirs or noir adjacent titles of the past few decades are French-language films.

C'est la vie, c'est la noir. From Malle to Dassin to Truffaut to Melville and beyond, France is a country that knows how to chronicle superb crime sagas. Frequently producing the best Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell adaptations, in their storied history of filmmaking auteurs, they've produced some of the most stunning crime movies of the past several decades in works that have and continue to inspire directors from Paul Schrader to Michael Mann and beyond.

'60s and '70s France has been on my brain a lot over the past year because my friend Kate Gabrielle has been introducing me to Alain Delon deep cuts like Any Number Can Win, The Sicilian Clan and Borsalino. And in taking a cue from her in making sure I don't miss the films that have been largely forgotten, today I thought I'd serve up five titles I love from the past thirtyish years that – despite contemporaneous critical acclaim – haven't received the lingering attention they so richly deserve in the United States.

While two of the films are made by directors who were born in Germany and one – crafted by their country's Alfred Hitchcock aka Claude Chabrol – takes place in Switzerland, instead of his native France, all of these thrilling neo-noir and noir adjacent films have the French language in common. Also, none require a passport

Caché (2005)

Much like the anonymous videos left for Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette in David Lynch's Lost Highway, suspense starts similarly for Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil in writer-director Michael Haneke's masterpiece Caché as the two find an anonymous videotape in a plastic shopping bag left outside their Parisian home. Seemingly shot from a location roughly a half a block away and capturing not only the residential street view but all of their comings and goings, including Auteuil's, who walked right by the location of the camera without noticing it earlier in the day, everyone and everything in this film is suspect as soon as it starts.

Filled with long static takes, including the opening sequence (which reveals we're watching the tape that's been left), that scene is book-ended by another long static shot at a different location that might or might not unveil something shady about two characters we hadn't considered before. Centered on karma, class, and the sins of the past, this film is one that begs to be screened, discussed, and then screened and discussed again, as each time you press play, you'll see or hear something different than you did before.

From the very pointed films playing at a movie theater in a key alibi scene that Jed Ayres sleuthed out for a recent Pandemic Movie Club discussion – which all seem to have something to do with the plot of Caché – to my paying much closer attention to its décor, costumes, and production design (especially in the couple's home), this film rewards its viewer's intellect and curiosity mightily. Additionally, it continues Haneke's fascination with voyeurism in the electronic age and again questions both what it means to watch something unspeakable, and the effect that it has on the viewer who in his eyes is complicit. It's a through-line that goes from Benny's Video to Funny Games all the way up into some of his most recent work.

Definitely a film to be avoided if you need everything to be wrapped up in a neat little bow or dislike the way it traffics in ambiguity, particularly in that final sequence that might not offer as definitive of an answer as western audiences believe it does, Caché delves in as much uncertainty as Lynch's brilliant Lost Highway. However, I appreciate the way that this one interrogates its male character's past behavior more than Lynch is interested in exploring in his modern work of horror. While this film, I hope, will make you more curious about Haneke's filmography (be sure to seek out The White Ribbon), there's something to be said for playing Caché and Lost Highway together as the ultimate double feature of middle class surveillance paranoia.

Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000)

As a total Francophile who grew up seeking out as many French films as I could possibly find, I know I'd seen Isabelle Huppert many times before I saw this one play at the Scottsdale International Film Festival. However, this was the movie that made me instantly realize that I needed to make a conscious effort to see as many of her films as I possibly could (including Haneke's frightening The Piano Teacher, which monopolized the post-film discussion at the screening I attended).

Based upon the novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong and released overseas as Nightcap, (and indeed, both of those titles are infinitely preferable to the clunky sentence that Claude Chabrol's film got saddled with here in the states), regardless of its name, Merci Pour le Chocolat, is a frightfully good throwback to Chabrol's early New Wave noirs. (Side Note: And although Truffaut and Godard get all the glory, it was actually Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge that historically kicked off my favorite filmmaking movement, even if Chabrol was fiscally unable to jump headfirst into crime until his sophomore effort Les Cousins.)

Constructed with some of my favorite thriller tropes, Merci Pour le Chocolat features amateur sleuths and Huppert as an immediately suspicious Swiss chocolate heiress/femme fatale who might just be killing people with kindness or roofie laced chocolate. From its earliest scene, Chabrol throws us immediately off-balance by introducing us to Huppert on her wedding day to the famous pianist she'd been married to decades before. Leaving it up to the audience to quickly piece together that this is a remarriage (and in between weddings A and B, there had been another wife who'd tragically died), Chabrol then jumps to a different gathering altogether where a quartet of seemingly unrelated characters meet up for a meal.

Seeing the wedding announcement in the paper, one brings up their connection to this couple in the form of a baby girl born at the same hospital on the same day as the pianist's son and the potential mix-up that might've taken place roughly twenty years earlier. Studying to be a pianist as well, upon discovering the link between the two families, the young woman (Anna Mouglalis) decides to contact the newly remarried couple and finds herself in the middle of more than one mystery that just might cost her her life.

Of course, Huppert's potential involvement in at least one death doesn't exactly come as a surprise to veteran French film fans because she intimidatingly acts everyone else off the screen, like she always does. And in reuniting with a director who knows how to use her to her fullest potential, Chabrol seems to be taking a similarly spectator's level of delight in just letting her unsettle whoever's unlucky enough to share a scene with her. Still, impressively matching her intensity, Mouglalis is quite good in Merci and it's still a great little out-of-print thriller that you should definitely track down on used DVD that fans of both actresses (as well as Chabrol) are sure to enjoy.

Monsieur Hire (1989)

In writer-director Patrice Leconte's brilliant first drama, reclusive tailor Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is a peeping Tom. But as this richly hypnotic yet stomach-churningly apprehensive film continues, we discover that he is far from the only voyeur populating Leconte's frames as Hire is hounded by an obsessive police detective, and suspicious neighbors who gawk, sneer, and recoil because they suspect him of a young woman's brutal slaying. And indeed, they're right to worry. There is most definitely something off about Monsieur Hire as soon as we meet him but what is it and who's to blame?

Based upon Belgian author George Simenon's novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, which was first brought to life in the 1947 film Panique by Julien Duvivier, after seeing the original film on TV, Patrice Lecone's imagination was sparked by something he couldn't let go of until he decided to act. Yet rather than remake the French classic (which you can often find on The Criterion Channel), he decided to go back to Simenon's source material and start from there and the result is an unexpectedly erotic, undeniably peculiar film that paved the way for his work that followed.

Centered on a lonely outcast, in Leconte's film, Blanc's eponymous Hire grows bolder thanks to his love for Sandrine Bonnaire's Alice, whom he watches obsessively every night (and who gets turned on by his prying eyes herself, in a surprising turn of events). But although it's Alice who serves as the muse that makes Hire venture out into the world as her bold lustful ways give him confidence, this same set-up of two strangers – out of step with society – who find the right rhythm in one another can be found in countless other superlative Leconte films, including The Girl on the Bridge, Man on a Train and Intimate Strangers.

An official selection at Cannes that introduced Leconte to the world and went on to be listed as one of Ebert's Great Movies, although it's woefully out-of-print, for Leconte devotees eager to see his first foray into his favorite subjects of erotic desire and human connection, Monsieur Hire is well worth locating as I did, on used DVD and/or on Kanopy, where it's currently available to stream.

Tell No One (2006)

In my eyes, if you use a song by Jeff Buckley or U2 in your movie, you damn well better earn it, and that actor turned director Guillaume Canet most certainly does in the frenetic, fast-paced, twisty neo-noir thriller Tell No One based on the titular novel from Harlan Coben. At the start of the film, we're introduced to a deliriously happy married couple – formerly child sweethearts – whose relationship is cruelly upended in the worst way possible by the appalling murder of his wife by a serial killer, which leaves pediatrician Dr. Beck (François Cluzet) knocked out, left for dead, and slightly suspicious in the eyes of the law. Following this shockingly dramatic set-up, Canet's film jumps ahead eight years in time.

On the eve of the anniversary of the death, Beck receives an anonymous email link to what appears to be CCTV surveillance footage of his wife looking very much alive and well. With new evidence to the original crime cropping up that might implicate Beck as well, soon the Parisian doctor finds himself evading law enforcement as he works to unravel the mystery. Along the way, he learns that the people he thought he knew better than himself (including his wife who may or may not be alive) might have deep dark secrets that are threatening to come to light.

Increasingly convoluted, sometimes to the point where you might just need to rewind a scene ortwo to try to figure out exactly what's going on, this film starts out slowly and methodically, as we watch Cluzet's doctor go about his day but then, just like a roller-coaster creakily making its way to the top of that first steep hill, without warning, the film's action takes hold and doesn't let go for the rest of its riveting 131 minute running time.

From an unfathomably scary female villain who can inflict harrowing pain just by applying pressure to the wrong places at the right time to a breathlessly photographed multi-location foot-chase, it's a nerve-jangling, yet surprisingly tenderly moving, romantic thriller that sneaks up on you with its well-earned, devastating finale. Featuring terrific supporting performances, includingone by Kristen Scott Thomas who's done some of her career best work of the 2000s in the French language, Tell No One is a must-see. Additionally, it marks one of only a few times in film where the hook of U2's “With or Without You" and Jeff Buckley's “Lilac Wine” are not only completely effective but also completely earned.

With a Friend Like Harry (2000)

If you fell in love with writing at a young age, you undoubtedly reached that moment where you had to decide whether or not you wanted to share your work as well as whether or not you wanted to stop or continue on. If you were comfortable letting other people read your writing, you might've had that friend or teacher who believed in you, or perhaps that newspaper, class chapbook, or literary magazine where you first saw your words in print. But just like most teens in garage bands dreaming of becoming the next Kurt Cobain eventually set down the guitar and focus on other things after high school and/or college when they join the work force or start a family, so do a majority of young writers. And this includes the protagonist of the unspeakably eerie film from director Dominik Moll With a Friend Like Harry, in the form of Michel (Laurent Lucas) who last saw his poetry in print in a school literary magazine back when he was younger and felt like he had his whole life ahead of him.

Currently in his thirties and on a headache inducing road trip with his wife and two daughters, Michel is unnerved by a stranger staring at him in a rest stop bathroom who, as it turns out, is not a stranger at all but an old classmate named Harry (Sergi López).  Asking him almost right off the bat about his writing, we soon realize that Harry is not just a former acquaintance but also a serious fan whose keen interest in what he considers Michel's artistic genius grows increasingly obsessive over the course of the film as the two men reconnect. Going even further, soon Harry takes it upon himself to solve each and every problem that he perceives are impediments to Michel's future literary success.

A shockingly comic, extraordinarily nerve-wracking macabre affair, With a Friend Like Harry, which was released overseas as Harry, He's Here to Help, feels perhaps the most truly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre than any of the films I'm recommending in this list. In Harry's potentially homoerotic charged affection for Michel, despite his voracious sexual appetite with his sweet if slightly naive girlfriend, you can see flashes of Strangers on a Train, Rope and more, which is all evident in López's extraordinary César award-winning performance.

Such a critical hit for that time that it's been long said to be on the cusp of an American remake that hasn't happened as of yet (though Joel Edgerton's The Gift feels like it could be this film's second cousin), Harry is sure to be particularly haunting to viewers who had those former literary pursuits that Michel did when they were young. But, more than that, it's bound to unsettle viewers of all backgrounds into maybe thinking twice about hanging out with someone they come across by chance that they haven't seen or thought about in years. After all, friends are one thing but friends like Harry are something else entirely.

A three-time national award-winning writer, when Jen Johans isn't reviewing movies at or releasing new episodes of her podcast Watch With Jen, you can find her on Twitter @FilmIntuition.

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