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Jim Thompson's Série Noire, translated

Pucker your nostrils

If it wasn't for Série Noire, Franck would have no luck at all.
If it wasn't for Série Noire, Franck would have no luck at all.

When a sock to the chin connects in a Jim Thomspon novel, it does so with such force that you’ll be reaching to condole your jaw. A quick turn of the page, and the stench of the room Thompson describes wafts up to pucker your nostrils. There was no one grittier than Thompson. But despite the many American adaptations to choose from (two versions of The Getaway, two versions of The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, etc.) it was a pair of French suspense classics — Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (from the novel Pop. 1280) and Alain Corneau’s Série Noire (from A Hell of a Woman) — that best brought to onscreen fruition the seed of Thompson’s rot.

The long out-of-print Tavernier DVD maintains spine #106 in the Criterion Collection and, unless I’m mistaken, is not legally downloadable. (A rental copy can be found at Netflix’s DVD.com.) Happily, Film Movement Classics just made tracking down the Corneau a whole lot easier, thanks to last week’s release of a 2K digital restoration available on Blu-Ray for the first time in North America.

We all have favorite sneak getaways, spaces in which our workaday souls formulate opportunities for on-the-job respite and recovery. A deserted lot on the outskirts of town may seem an odd place to begin a sinister character study, but it is here —alone and in mid-downpour — where door-to-door salesman Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere, the apotheosis of Thompson’s durable neurotic crumblers) outlines the day’s events through shadow-boxing. Like all of Thompson’s characters, Franck fights a never-ending battle to suppress the killer inside him.

One can’t help but admire the unrepentant unlikability of Thompson’s characters, and the lengths to which their lies go toward determining a code designed to help circumnavigate the status quo. Franck’s first call of the day puts him in touch with a wealthy old conniver eager to prostitute her underage niece Mona (Marie Trintignant, in her sixth film — and first not directed by mother Nadine Trintignant) in exchange for a dressing gown. The comely young actress’s performance consists of two facial expressions — indifferent and slightly-less indifferent — and a willingness to strip down before the camera.

Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s muted shades, shot as if through pink pumice stone, gently exfoliate the eyes to reveal an underbelly of decay and corruption readily associated with Thompsonland. In public, Franck adopts an exemplary air of normalcy. But get him alone behind a steering wheel, or in the solitude of his open field, and thew viewer quickly becomes apprised of the boundless depths of his derangement.

When it comes to capturing the look and feel of a Thompson dwelling, the shanty that Franck and wife Jeanne (Myriam Boyer) share is a triumph of pigpen production design. Corneau doesn’t hit you with it all at once; the newspaper-strewn living room gradually (and comically) gives way to weeks’ worth of dirty dishes in the kitchen, a refrigerator door that refuses to close, and a bathtub, half-filled with soggy sheets. It’s only when a slap to his wife’s face lands her in said tub that Jeanne decides to call it quits. When his boss (Bernard Blier) has him arrested for skimming cash, it’s Mona and not Jeanne who posts Franck’s bail.’

If Franck has but one saving grace, it’s his refusal to immediately jump into bed with a 16-year-old. But it’s harder for him to resist her conciliatory offer to kill her auntie in exchange for a share of the loot. And with two women vying for Franck’s vile affections, it’s certain that one (both?) must die.

What sets this entry apart from the standard big-screen transcription generally afforded the writer’s work? Crucial to Thompson’s style are the voices that explode like steeple bells inside the heads of his protagonists. And it’s a trait that all comers — save Tavernier and leading man Philippe Noiret — fail to capture. Read The Killer Inside Me, Thompson’s ultimate statement on decayed souls. Then, for a good laugh, check out Casey Affleck’s colorless, mealy-mouthed impersonation of Lou Ford, the most deplorable and combustible of all Thompson’s creations. You won’t find any of that attitudinizing here. Thanks to Corneau and Dewaere, every action, every gesture, every moment of rehearsed spontaneity draws us closer inside Franck’s thought patterns. The feeling is infectious. This is one hell of a picture, one that’s certain to give your brain a boost. ★★★★

VOD New Release Roundup

Corona Zombies — The plague that began at the Scramble’s Bat Soup Co. in Wuhan washes up on American shores, instantly turning all who come in contact with the invisible enemy into a horde of flesh-eating ghouls. A little over a month under lockdown, and already a feature-length attempt to novelize the novel coronavirus for small screen consumption? How, you ask? Technically, this exceeds the 60-minute running time needed to call it a feature by 60 seconds. It’s also what folks like to call a “Frankenstein picture,” tidbits plucked from various sources — one part Italian horror oldie (Hell of the Living Dead, 1980), one part instant titty-teaser (Zombies vs Strippers, 2012) — and scattered amongst a smattering of newly-shot bridging sequences. All but the extant footage has been redubbed to include a laundry list of newsworthy references (washing hands, social distancing, toilet paper squirrels, etc.) as well as an abundance of never-less-than-topical ogling. Funny and imaginative, you ask? Not in the least bit. Charles Band is the only one of three directors involved to receive screen credit. 2020. —S.M. ●

Pahokee — Husband and wife directing team Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan make their feature debut with this fly-on-the-wall, narration-free video diary that ostensibly documents the lives of four students — none of whom are interviewed — from the 2017 graduating class of Pahokee High School. (I say “ostensibly” because the surplus of anonymous football footage adds minutes to the running time, if not enlightenment to the viewing experience.) BJ is looking for a career in sports medicine, just in case his dreams of playing football fall through. Jocabed works at her parents’ taco shop, longing for the day she gets accepted to college. Junior is a proud father and drum major in the school band, while Na’Kerria learns the hard way that popularity and a good personality are no match for so-so grades. With all the footage expended on capturing the school’s senior year, it stands to reason that something of interest will befall this predominantly black and Hispanic agricultural town located in the Florida Everglades. Sure enough, Career Day at the Harvard table scores dirty looks from an old white recruiter. Later, a data error robs the school of its football championship. And it doesn’t get more dramatic than a peaceful Easter Sunday interrupted by an active shooter situation. 2020. —S.M. ★★ (Now Playing in the Digital Gym Cinema @ Home Virtual Theatre.)

The Rhythm Section — We open on a portrait of a happy family waiting to combust. Three years earlier — before she was forced to groom her locks with a patented K-Tel Hair Magician — finds Stephanie (Blake Lively) skipping out on the ill-fated family vacation flight that claimed the lives of those closest to her. In no time, she’s prostituting herself to support a heroin addiction. Cue a crusading journalist, seemingly seeking her services as a hustler, when in truth, he has a story to write. News that the crash wasn’t an accident is enough to sober Stephanie, who, with the help of a former MI-6 agent (Jude Law), trains to track down the bomb-maker. The process of “doing something over and over again until you feel nothing at all” opens new doors, making Stephanie the perfect candidate for a career in contract killing. The same can be said of screenwriter Mark Burnell’s “repetition is the key to learning” method of telling a story. This might have worked had Reed Morano’s snail-paced direction not taken itself so seriously. 2020. —S.M. ●

Stray Dolls — Una (Cynthia Nixon) has a big heart — just ask her. Why else would the Eastern European motel owner hire Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a seemingly manageable Indian immigrant looking to shake a delinquent past? A single-take walk through of the grounds, led by an irritatingly impersonal Una, offers breathing room before holding its characters captive inside the scurvy motor court. Riz is forced to bunk down with Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), whose motto is, “Steal for me and I’ll return what I stole from you.” Riz strikes gold the first time out, in the form of a brick of cocaine hidden in a guest’s valise. Why would Dallas trust Jimmy (Robert Aramayo), her caricature of a ne’er-do-well boyfriend (and Una’s son), with that much dope? And with a kilo of coke valued at over $20,000 in their possession, why fart around with knocking over a school pharmacy, no matter how stylish the execution? Nixon’s muscular performance, along with our two leads’ ability to plaster the cracks in a screenplay co-written by newbie director Sonejuhi Sinha, make it worth your time. 2019. —S.M. ★★

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If it wasn't for Série Noire, Franck would have no luck at all.
If it wasn't for Série Noire, Franck would have no luck at all.

When a sock to the chin connects in a Jim Thomspon novel, it does so with such force that you’ll be reaching to condole your jaw. A quick turn of the page, and the stench of the room Thompson describes wafts up to pucker your nostrils. There was no one grittier than Thompson. But despite the many American adaptations to choose from (two versions of The Getaway, two versions of The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, etc.) it was a pair of French suspense classics — Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (from the novel Pop. 1280) and Alain Corneau’s Série Noire (from A Hell of a Woman) — that best brought to onscreen fruition the seed of Thompson’s rot.

The long out-of-print Tavernier DVD maintains spine #106 in the Criterion Collection and, unless I’m mistaken, is not legally downloadable. (A rental copy can be found at Netflix’s DVD.com.) Happily, Film Movement Classics just made tracking down the Corneau a whole lot easier, thanks to last week’s release of a 2K digital restoration available on Blu-Ray for the first time in North America.

We all have favorite sneak getaways, spaces in which our workaday souls formulate opportunities for on-the-job respite and recovery. A deserted lot on the outskirts of town may seem an odd place to begin a sinister character study, but it is here —alone and in mid-downpour — where door-to-door salesman Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere, the apotheosis of Thompson’s durable neurotic crumblers) outlines the day’s events through shadow-boxing. Like all of Thompson’s characters, Franck fights a never-ending battle to suppress the killer inside him.

One can’t help but admire the unrepentant unlikability of Thompson’s characters, and the lengths to which their lies go toward determining a code designed to help circumnavigate the status quo. Franck’s first call of the day puts him in touch with a wealthy old conniver eager to prostitute her underage niece Mona (Marie Trintignant, in her sixth film — and first not directed by mother Nadine Trintignant) in exchange for a dressing gown. The comely young actress’s performance consists of two facial expressions — indifferent and slightly-less indifferent — and a willingness to strip down before the camera.

Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s muted shades, shot as if through pink pumice stone, gently exfoliate the eyes to reveal an underbelly of decay and corruption readily associated with Thompsonland. In public, Franck adopts an exemplary air of normalcy. But get him alone behind a steering wheel, or in the solitude of his open field, and thew viewer quickly becomes apprised of the boundless depths of his derangement.

When it comes to capturing the look and feel of a Thompson dwelling, the shanty that Franck and wife Jeanne (Myriam Boyer) share is a triumph of pigpen production design. Corneau doesn’t hit you with it all at once; the newspaper-strewn living room gradually (and comically) gives way to weeks’ worth of dirty dishes in the kitchen, a refrigerator door that refuses to close, and a bathtub, half-filled with soggy sheets. It’s only when a slap to his wife’s face lands her in said tub that Jeanne decides to call it quits. When his boss (Bernard Blier) has him arrested for skimming cash, it’s Mona and not Jeanne who posts Franck’s bail.’

If Franck has but one saving grace, it’s his refusal to immediately jump into bed with a 16-year-old. But it’s harder for him to resist her conciliatory offer to kill her auntie in exchange for a share of the loot. And with two women vying for Franck’s vile affections, it’s certain that one (both?) must die.

What sets this entry apart from the standard big-screen transcription generally afforded the writer’s work? Crucial to Thompson’s style are the voices that explode like steeple bells inside the heads of his protagonists. And it’s a trait that all comers — save Tavernier and leading man Philippe Noiret — fail to capture. Read The Killer Inside Me, Thompson’s ultimate statement on decayed souls. Then, for a good laugh, check out Casey Affleck’s colorless, mealy-mouthed impersonation of Lou Ford, the most deplorable and combustible of all Thompson’s creations. You won’t find any of that attitudinizing here. Thanks to Corneau and Dewaere, every action, every gesture, every moment of rehearsed spontaneity draws us closer inside Franck’s thought patterns. The feeling is infectious. This is one hell of a picture, one that’s certain to give your brain a boost. ★★★★

VOD New Release Roundup

Corona Zombies — The plague that began at the Scramble’s Bat Soup Co. in Wuhan washes up on American shores, instantly turning all who come in contact with the invisible enemy into a horde of flesh-eating ghouls. A little over a month under lockdown, and already a feature-length attempt to novelize the novel coronavirus for small screen consumption? How, you ask? Technically, this exceeds the 60-minute running time needed to call it a feature by 60 seconds. It’s also what folks like to call a “Frankenstein picture,” tidbits plucked from various sources — one part Italian horror oldie (Hell of the Living Dead, 1980), one part instant titty-teaser (Zombies vs Strippers, 2012) — and scattered amongst a smattering of newly-shot bridging sequences. All but the extant footage has been redubbed to include a laundry list of newsworthy references (washing hands, social distancing, toilet paper squirrels, etc.) as well as an abundance of never-less-than-topical ogling. Funny and imaginative, you ask? Not in the least bit. Charles Band is the only one of three directors involved to receive screen credit. 2020. —S.M. ●

Pahokee — Husband and wife directing team Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan make their feature debut with this fly-on-the-wall, narration-free video diary that ostensibly documents the lives of four students — none of whom are interviewed — from the 2017 graduating class of Pahokee High School. (I say “ostensibly” because the surplus of anonymous football footage adds minutes to the running time, if not enlightenment to the viewing experience.) BJ is looking for a career in sports medicine, just in case his dreams of playing football fall through. Jocabed works at her parents’ taco shop, longing for the day she gets accepted to college. Junior is a proud father and drum major in the school band, while Na’Kerria learns the hard way that popularity and a good personality are no match for so-so grades. With all the footage expended on capturing the school’s senior year, it stands to reason that something of interest will befall this predominantly black and Hispanic agricultural town located in the Florida Everglades. Sure enough, Career Day at the Harvard table scores dirty looks from an old white recruiter. Later, a data error robs the school of its football championship. And it doesn’t get more dramatic than a peaceful Easter Sunday interrupted by an active shooter situation. 2020. —S.M. ★★ (Now Playing in the Digital Gym Cinema @ Home Virtual Theatre.)

The Rhythm Section — We open on a portrait of a happy family waiting to combust. Three years earlier — before she was forced to groom her locks with a patented K-Tel Hair Magician — finds Stephanie (Blake Lively) skipping out on the ill-fated family vacation flight that claimed the lives of those closest to her. In no time, she’s prostituting herself to support a heroin addiction. Cue a crusading journalist, seemingly seeking her services as a hustler, when in truth, he has a story to write. News that the crash wasn’t an accident is enough to sober Stephanie, who, with the help of a former MI-6 agent (Jude Law), trains to track down the bomb-maker. The process of “doing something over and over again until you feel nothing at all” opens new doors, making Stephanie the perfect candidate for a career in contract killing. The same can be said of screenwriter Mark Burnell’s “repetition is the key to learning” method of telling a story. This might have worked had Reed Morano’s snail-paced direction not taken itself so seriously. 2020. —S.M. ●

Stray Dolls — Una (Cynthia Nixon) has a big heart — just ask her. Why else would the Eastern European motel owner hire Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a seemingly manageable Indian immigrant looking to shake a delinquent past? A single-take walk through of the grounds, led by an irritatingly impersonal Una, offers breathing room before holding its characters captive inside the scurvy motor court. Riz is forced to bunk down with Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), whose motto is, “Steal for me and I’ll return what I stole from you.” Riz strikes gold the first time out, in the form of a brick of cocaine hidden in a guest’s valise. Why would Dallas trust Jimmy (Robert Aramayo), her caricature of a ne’er-do-well boyfriend (and Una’s son), with that much dope? And with a kilo of coke valued at over $20,000 in their possession, why fart around with knocking over a school pharmacy, no matter how stylish the execution? Nixon’s muscular performance, along with our two leads’ ability to plaster the cracks in a screenplay co-written by newbie director Sonejuhi Sinha, make it worth your time. 2019. —S.M. ★★

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