FRENCH NOIR (1943 to 1962) is a portrait of a broken nation, where male solidarity – be it in the gangster milieu or the bourgeois living rooms – relegated women to the second tier – or even worse, featured them as cold blooded killer. But the defeat in the WWII to the Germans on the battlefield, was nothing compared with the moral degradation as the result of the collaboration between the huge majority of French citizen with the Nazis, until their liberation by allied troops in 1944. To blame women for this seems odd, but the tendency of the female as perpetrator is already clear in the only pre-war film of this retrospective, Pierre Chenal’s LE DERNIER TOURNANT (1939). This is the first film version of James M. Cain’s novel ‘The Postman always rings twice’, three years before Visconti’s “Ossessione”. Nick Marino (Simon), the elderly husband of Cora (Luchaire) runs a petrol station, and talks the drifter Fernand Gravey (Maurice) into helping him with the work. Cora, who hovers over the two men like a dark shadow, when they discuss the deal, soon falls for the rather empty Fernand, and begs him to kill her husband. The deed done, Cora is punished, dying in a car crash, whilst Fernand gets the death penalty. DoP Christian Matras always shows Cora as the leading light in this sordid undertaking, she towers physically over both men, and her burning eyes show a malicious intensity. Chenal goes much further than Visconti, for whom the sexual angle was most important – Chenal does not show much passion, but scheming dominance on Cora’s part. Leading actress Corinne Luchaire, who was just eighteen when the film was shot, died at the age of only twenty-eight of tuberculosis.
There are many examples of gross violence against women, considering the era, not much is shown, but this makes matters even worse: the audience’ imagination is like a magnifying glass. And the perpetrators are often shown as victims, like the young Pierre (Philipe) in Yves Allegret’s UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE, a moody film set in a third rate costal resort in Normandy. Pierre has returned to the town where he grew up, after spending time in the orphanage. On his return, be befriends another orphan, who works in the same hotel as Pierre did. Later we learn, that Pierre murdered a singer, who picked him up in the hotel – but he could not stand the moral degradation of making love to a much older woman. The beautiful black-and-white images of the great Henri Alekan seem to be wasted on this deeply misogynist tale.
Violence against women seems to be the norm: in Jules Dassisn’s RIFIFI CHEZ LE HOMMES, the story of a great heist, the hero Tony (Jean Servais) is introduced by beating up his ex-girl friend Mado (Sabouret) in a cold and calculated way, because she had an affair whilst he was in jail. This matter-of-fact violence is much worse than any emotional punishment. DoP Philip Augustino’s silent images of the heist are part of film history, but the casual violence melted out to Mado is still alarming, and somehow reduces HUAC victim Dassin’s achievement. But Julien Duvivier’s VOICI LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS somehow manages to outdo all examples when it comes to the description of violent women: Catherine (Delorme) is the daughter of the drug depending Gabrielle (Bogaert), and tries to escape from the milieu by marrying the restaurant owner Andre Chatelin (Gabin), who has divorced her mother. Telling him, that Gabrielle is dead, the scheming Catherine succeeds in marrying the much older man, who soon learns that his wife is lying about her mother. He more or less imprisons her with her mother Antoinette (Bert), also a restaurant owner, who kills her chicken with a whip – which she also uses on Catherine. The frightened woman asks Andre’s friend, the student Gerard (Blain), to kill her husband, but when he refuses, she kills him. Her end – by the fangs of a particular vicious animal – is particularly gruesome, even though/or because, it is acted out in the off. Again, the images of Armand Thirad are undeserving of such blatant ideology.
Jean-Pierre Melville, the grandfather of the Nouvelle Vague, also shows what happens to treacherous women: in LE DOULOS, the gangster Silien (Belmondo), best friend of Maurice (Reggiani) is suspected, to have sold his friend out to the police. But the true culprit is Maurice new girlfriend Therese (Hennesy). And she suffers heavily (and graphically) for it: Silien first beats her up to get the address of a new burglary, than he kills her brutally, making it look like an accident. Later, Melville shows how brave and honorable Silien and Maurice are dying for each other – Nicolas Hayer’s cold, grainy images very adapt to this this drama of male solidarity to the death.
Jacques Becker’s usually more poetic style shines through in TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, which translates roughly to ‘keep your hands off my loot”. Here, one of the gangster molls, Josy (Moreau), girl friend of Riton (Dary), best pal of the boss Max (Gabin), is “interrogated”, but compared to the above examples, her treatment is rather light. Overall, Becker’s gangster behave more like gentlemen of an old era, violence is strictly limited to the male protagonists.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU sees the misery and deceit of small town France under occupation as the responsibility of both genders. The film brought Clouzot an unjust work ban from the resistance, by arguing that the film was defeatist and therefore not patriotic. But violence is more of the psychological than the physical kind when a village doctur becomes the target of a poison-pen letters accusing him of affaires and malpractice.
QUAI DES ORFEVRES is best known film of this retrospective is a deliciously dark drama and a fine example of traditional French Noir. Clouzot is best remembered for The Wages of Fear yet his real forte was the thriller. QUAI DES ORFEVRES conflates tragedy, romance and music in a bleak vision of France in the late 19th century. Slow to get going – the music hall shenanigans almost railroading the main plot – this is a gripping thriller about a married couple brought to their knees through hardship, who then find themselves embroiled in a murder. Clouzot brilliantly evokes the squalid low-life of the era in glowing black and white. Jouvet’s detective cunningly works his way to the truth through a series of grimly-set vignettes reflecting human tragedy at its most pitiful but always with dark humour. AS/MT
THE FRENCH NOIR SEASON IS UNDERWAY AT BFI SOUTHBANK | OCT/NOV 2016