What more delicious—not to mention cheap—way to pass the dog days of a New York City summer than by taking a vicarious plunge into the French underworld from the safe comfort of an air-conditioned cinema? Starting with the bleak contours of the period preceding the German Occupation and its aftermath’s anxious confusion to the stylish rebellion of the New Wave and today’s slicker psychological studies, French film directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Becker, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol refashioned the tropes of American B-movies to create enduring masterpieces of good and evil. And if not all 38 noir films and thrillers (spanning six decades) in Film Forum’s “French Crime Wave” series are rave-worthy, each is rich in defining the moments and ironies of our ongoing struggle against those terrifying yet fascinating unseen forces that bat us about.
Melville adapted the conventions of the American noir novels and movies that flooded post–World War II France to create mesmerizing filmic metaphors for the era’s politics of paranoia. See: Roger Duchesne in Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955), followed by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos (1962) and Le Cercle Rouge‘s (1970) perfect trifecta of Yves Montand, Alain Delon, and Gian Maria Volontè, all struggling in vain to outwit their own flawed natures and the hidden agendas of mysterious powers-that-be. Great cinema seduces us with details, and Melville’s a masterful image maker, prone to deeply shadowed, ravaged faces and urban landscapes, barren hotel rooms and dazzling nightclubs. His damaged but honorable thieves, uniformed in trench coats, fedoras, and cigarettes, are betrayed by interchangeable femme fatales sporting cat’s-eye maquillage, pencil skirts, and stiletto heels as they act out their unvarying role: agent of fate in the protagonist’s inevitable destruction.
There would be no Godard if there hadn’t been Melville, but Godard outdid his master in Breathless (1959), aptly described by writer Richard Brody as “a high-energy fusion of jazz and philosophy.” Godard pulls off that impossible high-wire feat via an emblematic tale of star-crossed young lovers, never lapsing, as he would more recently, into didactic rant.
A cleverly matched double bill features a young, achingly gorgeous Delon drowning Maurice Ronet twice, first in the Mediterranean for René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), and then in a jewel-like pool for Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969). Both films are smorgasbords of desire—all glistening azure water, bewitching blue eyes, and supple, tanned limbs, with lots of money and sex tossed in—but the psychology is far more tantalizing in Noon, in part because of its source, Patricia Highsmith’s gleefully nihilistic first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. The always convincing Ronet is eclipsed yet again in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1957), memorable for the 24-year-old director’s stunning imagination and control, and perhaps even more so for Jeanne Moreau’s slightly worn, extraordinary face—that mouth, those eyes!
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s excruciatingly nerve-wracking Diabolique (1955) could serve as a primer for today’s would-be horror meisters. Since then, some audiences have come to crave increasingly explicit violence, while others have caught on to cinema’s lingo and don’t need to be told as much. The latter will appreciate the series’ most contemporary and smoothly ambiguous films, and this time, enfin, it’s all about the women. Chabrol’s taut and merciless La Cérémonie (1995) features wonderfully chilling performances from Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, while Jean-Pierre Denis’s audacious Murderous Maids (2000) pivots on Sylvie Testud’s shocking embodiment of a damaged killer.
Thankfully, each film is subtly complex enough to bear the freight of what could serve as this festival’s raison d’être—Georges Braque’s observation that “the more one probes, the more one deepens the mystery; it’s always out of reach.”