Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

Gallic Noir

I just got back from a few days in Paris (and if that doesn’t make you even a little bit jealous, then I can only suppose it’s a place you’ve never visited yet).

As soon as I got to my hotel room I did what comes naturally to every visitor to a distant city. I picked up the remote and spent a few minutes wallowing in the sights and sounds of strange telly.

There was a TV Guide in the room and, to my delight, I discovered that the much anticipated second season of Engrenages began on Canal Plus this month.

Engrenages is a French cops’n’justice drama, the first season of which was made in 2005. It aired in a subtitled version under the name of Spiral on BBC4 in 2007, and was popular enough to merit an instant repeat. I watched both showings, and then I borrowed a friend’s off-air recordings and watched it again. It was my absolute favourite TV piece of last year.

But then, I really love a good French policier. I find them stylish and atmospheric and downbeat-romantic. I think the film that probably hooked me was Bob Swaim’s La Balance, recently reissued in a sparkling-sharp DVD that, but for the dated visual style of the credits, could easily have persuaded me that I was looking at a movie no more than five years old. In a class with La Balance is Bertrand Tavernier’s tense, funny and moving L.627, both films featuring credible and human police teams operating in a morally murky environment.

More formal and classical in style is the work of Jean Pierre Melville, whose Le Cercle Rouge received the full Criterion treatment on DVD. It sent me on a Melville jag in which none of the director’s other films – Le Samourai, Bob le Flambeur, L’Armee des Ombres – ever quite managed to match the kick of that first viewing.

I did better with Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose 1947 film Quai des Orfevres looked as if it was going to be dated but proved to be sharp and surprising and superbly well-crafted. Clouzot is best known for Les Diaboliques and La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear); Alfred Hitchcock paid him the compliment of viewing him as a rival, taking style tips from Les Diaboliques and nabbing the rights to the next novel by the same writers and making it the basis for Vertigo.

Although not strictly a policier, I think my favourite French crime thriller of recent years has to be Sur Mes Levres, aka Read My Lips. It was the film that Jacques Audiard made before the better-known (but, in my humble opinion) not-as-good The Beat My Heart Skipped. It features Emanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel, as a deaf secretary and a convicted prisoner on work-release. They’re a misfit pair of outsiders who join forces to rob the company that employs them.

Cassel I consider a magnetic performer and a natural, albeit unusual, leading man; he’s made several English-language movies but has always been cast without imagination as an accented, unpleasant villain. But see him in this, see him in La Haine, see him in the batty but beautifully-made Les Rivieres Pourpres with the ever-watchable Jean Reno.

(and skip the sequel, which was an absolute stinker)

But back to Engrenages… after the reception of the first season, a subtitled UK airing of the second must surely be a no-brainer. I loved the casting, I loved the fluid, easy Continental camera style, with a lot of high-quality handheld work and none of that faux-naif camera shake meant to imitate a spontaneous vitality.

(And which I hate. It’s lame. Frederic Wiseman, the great documentary observer to whom such camera styles owe everything, never shook the camera or made a virtue out of hosepiping around a scene or in-shot reframing; he simply picked up his camera and observed, using as little obvious technique as he could.)

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6 responses to “Gallic Noir”

  1. The first season aired in France in 2005, and on the BBC two years later. It’s the second season that’s airing in France now — I hope it doesn’t take as long to get a UK showing this time.

  2. SPIRAL is available for pre-order at Amazon and, based on your review, I’ve snagged it. Thanks for the heads up! does the BBC often air subtitled TV series? I know it’s done all the time in Sweden, Belgium and Holland (only because I’ve seen it with my own blue eyes)…but I wasn’t aware it was common in the UK, too.

  3. Screenings of subtitled TV shows are still comparatively rare but have been on the increase since the creation of the digital channel BBC4. Before that I can recall Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom and Edgar Reitz’s Heimat, both on BBC2 – I’m sure there must have been others but they’re the ones that spring to mind.

    Spiral was BBC4’s first, and then earlier this year they ran The Poisoner from France and an Italian six-parter called The Best of Youth. Controller Janice Hadlow said she was “actively looking at other European crime dramas to see if they might work for us”.

    I suspect BBC4 was created as a quiet corner for nerds and eggheads, but it’s become the first place to look for signs of intelligent life at the BBC. What I liked so much about Engrenages was that it wasn’t the usual arthouse piece, but high-end popular drama.