CSI Paris: French Crime at LACMA

Serie Noire

Hot on the heels of the Cannes Film Festival, where director Jacques Audiard’s epic prison drama A Prophet copped the Grand Jury Prize, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art pays tribute to the rich history of French crime cinema with a monthlong, 14-film retrospective. Bookending the series are two films by occasional L.A. Weekly contributor Bertrand Tavernier, who recently returned to the world of cops and criminals with the very fine Tommy Lee Jones thriller In the Electric Mist, and whose career has been marked by several excellent film noir. On Friday, LACMA will screen Tavernier’s debut feature, The Clockmaker (1974), set in his native Lyon and starring the great Philippe Noiret (with whom Tavernier would go on to make seven more films) as a clockmaker whose only son is arrested for murder; following on Saturday, June 20 is Tavernier’s Oscar-nominated Coup de torchon, which cleverly transposes Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 from the American South to French colonial Africa, with Noiret as the washed-up local police chief (and 2009 Cannes jury president Isabelle Huppert as his cheating wife). Another Thompson pulp fiction, A Hell of a Woman, is the basis for Alain Corneau’s darkly comic Série noire (1979), also screening this Friday, with the barnstorming Patrick Deware as a door-to-door salesman twisted ever tighter around the finger of a malicious teenage prostitute (Marie Trintignant). (On Saturday, I will interview Corneau onstage at LACMA following a screening of his 1976 Police Python 357, starring Yves Montand as a cop framed for murder.)

Not surprisingly, three titles by French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville fill out the program, beginning with the June 5 double-bill of the casino-heist caper Bob le Flambeur (1956) and the fatalistic underworld thriller Le Doulos (1962), and culminating on Friday, June 12 with Le Cercle Rouge (1970), a film whose original, uncut French-language version remained unreleased in the U.S. until 2003 (when it was, coincidentally, the first film I wrote about in these pages). Like all of Melville’s best films, Le Cercle Rouge has a breathless, nearly airless consistency. From its opening scene, a prisoner’s daring escape from a speeding locomotive, the movie wraps itself around you like a pleasurably constricting vise, so that long before its climactic gambit — a dialogue-free robbery in a Place Vendome jewelry shop — you find yourself rapt, on the edge of your seat, unable to blink. Set in the director’s trademark terrain of tan trench coats and charcoal fedoras slicing through foggy, sea-blue streets, Le Cercle Rouge is Melville’s ultimate mythologizing of the criminal lifestyle, of the self-aware hood as modern-day cowboy, operating by his own rigid code, unable to conform to the standards of “civilized” society. It’s also a coded portrait of Melville himself, with his preference for mood and style over plot, and his triumphant fetishization of processes, so that a glass cutter and the disassembled pieces of a gun become, arguably, the real stars of the movie. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; through Sat., June 20.)


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