Thursday 2 January 2020

A New Film a Day in 2020 (2) - SÉRIE NOIRE (Alain Corneau, France, 1971)

There have been at least ten film-makers who have had a crack at adapting Jim Thompson. Stephen Frears did The Grifters  from a script by Donald Westlake. Bertrand Tavernier did Coup de Torchon. The two versions of The Getaway figure prominently. And there is Alain Corneau’s Série Noire an attempt to give a generic title to Thompson material. George Simenon’s novels were apparently self-classified into Maigrets and ‘romans durs’ and I often wonder whether the impulse to classify Thompson material as modern noir, seemingly as Corneau does, does the author a disservice. Maybe ‘romans durs’ and the ‘films durs” that they generate is more apt. Not that important anyway. Just a badge…

Série Noire  is a showcase for the flamboyant Patrick Dewaere. He is never off the screen or out of a scene. Dewaere began acting as a four year old and had 50 film and TV credits before his untimely death at the age of thirty five. Dewaere was 26 when he appeared in Bertrand Blier’s Going Places and 29 when he appeared in Claude Miller’s The Best Way to Walk. After making Série Noire  in 1979 Dewaere made nine more films in three years, including for Claude Sautet, André Techiné, Luc Beraud and Blier again. 

Série Noire opens with Dewaere as Franck Poupart, a sleazy door to door salesman driving his car onto a wasteland and miming a series of actions, most of them derived from movies we know ("Are you talking to me?") involving some form of violence. He heads off to make a collection, searching for a miscreant who owes him money, and comes across an old lady who offers her fifteen year old niece for sex in exchange for some cheap goods. We are in seriously sleazy territory here, added to shortly thereafter in a scene between Franck and his slovenly wife in their unkempt apartment. The action in Franck’s life takes off but notwithstanding the later acquisition of a pile of money he is heading downward fast towards an ironic ending where his complete self-delusion has taken over.

Patrick Dewaere, Série Noire
Without Dewaere’s preparedness to perform all this in a totally hyperactive and uninhibited fashion, a performance of great technical agility, it could fall apart – the subversive comedy would be wildly wrong, the coincidences all the more improbable. Cornea, a post-New Wave craftsman,  director of some 21 films which weaved in and out of the genres and whose biggest hit was the mediaeval musical Tous les Matins du Monde  clearly enjoyed playing with the stereotypes. With Dewaere he used an actor prepared to go far beyond the enigmatic poker faces of the crime genre. An interesting movie but maybe not much more.

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