Serie Noire

Love makes you do crazy things
Alain Corneau
Patrick Dewaere, Myriam Boyer, Marie Trintignant, Bernard Blier
The Setup: 
Man ends up committing a series of crimes in order to run away with an underage prostitute.

This is the last adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel that I hadn't seen, and that was because it's not available on video in this country. And one of the things one has to appreciate about New York is that the film will be shown here, at highbrow Lincoln Center, and not only that, but it'll be sold out, because there's a number of savvy film fans here who are hip to such things.

Which, in a way, is also the downside. Whereas in a smaller town you might be the one cool guy who is hip to Jim Thompson, in NYC you have to face that you are one of a thousand cool guys who are hip to Jim Thompson. Which leads people to act in bizarre ways to assert how very special they are, and creating scenes such as the one I witnessed that night. This fellow was standing in the front row, talking to a fellow seated in the second row. A woman apparently told him to sit down in a way that did not include the word "please," and he said something dismissive in return. This caused an unrelated fellow in the third row to call the standing guy rude, and an enormously childish altercation followed, including utterances of "YOU shut up" and "Just mind your own business." The standing guy felt it necessary to assert at several points how very important he is--displaying the sign assigning him his seat [he is not just some casual filmgoer, you see, he is a VIP... and this licenses him to treat anyone as he wants], and at one point throwing up his hands and declaring loudly: "Look, I'm too well-educated for this." Meanwhile the woman and man are arguing that the reason she wants him to sit down is so she can read the pre-movie slideshow ADVERTISEMENTS, which have been repeating several times, giving her plenty of time to read them--even with man standing in front, partially blocking a tiny portion of them. And plus, come off it, no one wants to read those things. So it all came off as another instance of New Yorkers, who get worked into little self-generating batteries of rage at the constantly depersonalizing aspects of the city, looking for the thinnest of pretexts to vent their rage and assert their specialness on strangers. I'm afraid it's not all that uncommon. And by the way, all of the people in this story are over fifty and are the civilized patrons of snooty Lincoln Center!

I'll leave you to form your own judgements about that. Anyway, this is a 1979 movie by Alain Corneau, who also made Tous les Matins du Monde, and is an adpatation of one of Thompson's lesser-known works, A Hell of a Woman. We open with this guy, Frank Poupart, parked in a vacant lot, standing in the rain, miming that he has a gun, then that he's a musician, and generally aimlessly and childishly fantasizing. He then goes to visit one of his clients, looking for a fellow, Tikides, that defaulted on a payment. Frank goes door to door selling cheap crap out of hs suitcase, a job that also includes becoming a bit of a bounty hunter when people can't pay. He's just a low-life, in a crappy, hustling job.

On the way to this house, he sees a beautiful girl in the window upstairs. An old woman answers the door, saying she wants revenge on Tikides, who screwed her over earlier. Frank asks about the girl upstairs, and the woman asks if he has a mohair robe. Frank does--and the woman send him upstairs to meet the girl. The girl is nearly silent, and takes her clothes off. Suddenly it becomes clear: she is the payment for the robe. And it doesn't seem like the first time this has happened. Frank is a little put off by how aggressive the girl is, and at one point makes a comment about going away together. It doesn't mean a lot to him, but it means a lot to her.

Then Tikades finds him. Frank beats him up over the money he owes, then sympathizes with him--he knows the suit he sold Tikades was garbage, and Frank just isn't cut out to be a tough guy--and ends up recklessly giving Tikades his money, even though he knows he'll be short when he returns to his boss. He's with that boss soon, telling him he didn't make enough money, when we know--and his boss knows--that he did, but is skimming his profits. And guess what? There's a policeman right outside, waiting to take Frank to jail.

One thing that's not coming through in this review is the desperately comic hapless tone around Frank's character... he is presented as manic verging on insane, and caught up in grandiose fantasies that are both comic and pathetic. He lurches from scene to scene with barely a clue where he's going next, or what the goal of it all is. He is touched by the young girl under the control of her Aunt, while he's also under the control of his boss, both with seemingly no way to escape. Frank in the movie is presented as much more ostensibly comic than in the novel, where he was just a desperate, dangerous low-life. Another thing the movie is employing that is quite effective is a blanketing of French bubblegum pop, which serves to underscore the cheapness and disposability of these characters and their lives.

A few days later, Frank is sprung from prison. He soon learns that it was the young girl, Mona, who did it. Now earlier in the movie we have met Frank's wife, a mumbling depressive who sits aroud all day, making messes and never cleaning, never cooking, nothing. She and Frank have had a huge fight and she has walked out--but not before dyeing all of his clothes blue and shredding his suits. She is also presented as much more comedic and relatively good-hearted compared to her appearance in the novel, where she is a frozen-hearted cunning snake. Anyway, as far as Frank knows, she's gone, allowing him to start a secret affair with Mona, who knows a little something about $25,000 her Aunt has stashed away, and which they could make off with and start another life.

By this time, the movie makes clear that Frank has not had sex with the girl [I'm pretty sure he does in the book], but has a funny line here about her: "You're not just sizzling, you're the towering inferno!" They concoct a plan that involves Tikades, who is known to have a beef with the Aunt, and setting up a scene of his attempted robbery and the Aunt's murder. The plan works out, messily and with several complications.

But as usual, it proves to quite so simple to get away with the money, and several people reappear from the ether to complicate things, but I'll let you discover those for yourself. The ending is a brilliant statement that nothing is free and easy in this milieu, it's impossible to get away with anything without complications... and while it has a lot of integrity and is well-done, it's also highly unsatisfying from a traditional story standpoint, and made me really agitated. Then I remembered that I had found the ending of the novel--quite similar--really agitating as well. Honorable--but irritating.

On the one hand, this movie is one of the most complete expressions of Thompson's world, in which we're squarely among greedy scum trying to scrape what little they can for themselves, but hampered by their own distorted morality and lack of intelligence, not to mention questionable sanity. For example, midway through, one has cause to wonder why Frank is doing all this anyway--he doesn't seem to want Mona that bad. One senses that he made that one flip comment about them running away together, and now he's set into following that course of action for no greater reason than that's what he said he wanted. This novel is among the most bleak and desperate in Thompson's ouvre, which makes it admirable, but also makes it a bit unsatisfying in terms of straight story. Frank, his wife, and Mona are all made into much more comic figures here than in the book, which works here to make the tone so incredibly bleak it has to rub up against humor, but also because the novel is so horrifyingly bleak it would make for a really unpleasant movie.

So I'm glad I saw it, and it is definitely among the better attempts to translate the particular moral morass of Thompson's fiction to the screen. And it's well made and wonderfully acted. It's also irritating.

Should you watch it: 

If you're a fan of Jim Thompson, or just like movies about low-lifes in general.