Friday, October 23, 2009


By Russel D McLean

I figure I been writing a lot about writing lately, and since I’m supposed to be doing the writing instead of yakking about it I figured I’d take a break and let you in on what’s been entertaining me during the down time, the breaks between current redtafts…

My obsession of the moment…

French crime movies (and TV shows). I mean, seriously, its getting bad. The French seem to be writing stuff that hits me where it hurts. And yes, Mr White, I watch ‘em with the subtitles on. No dubbing chez McLean.

It started about a year ago with a random purchase of a movie called 36, Quai des Orfèvres. Billed as The French answer to Heat, I think that’s a strange comparison, but what it does do is take two of France’s biggest stars (Depardieu and Daniel Auteil) and put them in one hell of a crime drama as two Parisian police detectives whose personal war starts to bleed over into their professional lives. Its bloody brilliant as a movie, beautifully shot, wonderfully written and has two barnstorming performances in the lead roles.

It was from there, I started seeking out French crime movies where I could. At the moment, they seem to be on a role at taking what might seem typical Hollywood fare and twisting it round to make it pretty damn smart. Even Le Serpent, based loosely (and I mean loosely) on Plender by Ted Lewis, manages to engage the viewer (unless, like my agent, they’re expecting some faithfulness to the original material) through what is a pretty mental and OTT psycho movie. Its something to do with the way that the French ground the spectacular in the mundane. Their films have an undercurrent of reality that seems to play through the most ludicrous plot twists. Which is probably why Harlan Coben’s Tell No One translated so bloody well, despite a third act that was mostly a long explanation of what had happened before.

And then there was 13, Tzameti.

This movie blew me away. Black and white and foreign, it probably put off a whole swathe of people, but 13 is one of the bleakest and most tense movies I had seen in a long time. Its also tough to talk about without giving things away, but once you realise what’s happening, it’s a terrifying ride to the final shot (and yes, the director is Georgian, not French, but since much of the dialogue is in French and it was produced there…)

From here, I was jonesing, finding a whole swathe of stories I’d never considered before. The French crime fiction scene is a broad church, ranging from straight procedurals like 36, through to noir like 13 and even absolutely insane thrillers like the Jean Reno vehicle Crimson Rivers (a fascinating thriller right until the appalling third act where clearly the producers decided to emulate the worst of Hollywood). Even their social movies are infused with crime. L’Haine is precisely the kind of street level examination of culture I love to see, dealing with Paris’s darker side, and even the bizarre Hidden has much to recommend it, although I still don’t know whether I actually enjoyed or understood it.

Its funny, but since I started watching French crime movies – many of them on faith – I’ve started taking more chances with my DVD buying. Right down to trusting Daniel Auteille to deliver the goods in a PI thriller called THE LOST SON, which turned out to be a fairly schizophrenic and uninvolving British thriller with a French actor in the lead.

But the crowning jewel for me has to be Spiral – not a movie, but a TV show co-produced by the BBC, which far outstrips any of the BBC’s own efforts. A gritty French drama that takes apart the justice system and exposes its inherent corruption and self-interest while still delivering a commentary on drugs trafficking and illegal activity that could apply to almost any modern country. Spiral is a kind of beautiful mix between the case of the week crime shows that dominate US TV just now and the ongoing arcs of shows like The Wire which tells one story in a way that refuses to tie everything up in a neat little package. And it is Spiral that has cemented my obsessions with French crime fiction, policiers, as I believe they would call the genre (not noir, as some might expect!). We’re nearly finished season 2 just now, and while I loved the first go round, the writers and the actors seem to have suddenly found their rhythm; for the first time in years, last night I was yelling at the screen as events took a rapid… spiral… towards a violent and inescapable climax.

Here’s a thing, though, the name of the show actually translates (I believe) as gears and not Spiral. Its as good a metaphor, though, for the way in which its shows the characters and their effect on each other and of course the analogy for those gears of justice.

Of course, I know I’ve only been exposed to a cherry-picked selection of French crime and thrillers, but on the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, and given the column inches devoted to Scandinavian crime and thrillers of late, French crime fiction – at least on screen – is certainly, tres-bien.


John McFetridge said...

Sounds like fun.

Let me know when you get to the Quebecois stuff like Un Zoo la Nuit and Pouvoir Intime.

Even the Quebec TV series Omerta is pretty good.

Al Guthrie said...

One word: CACHE. Hanneke is a genius and about as French as the director of 13. Another well worth a look is THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED. And my gripe with LE SERPENT is that PLENDER's storyline is the superior one; I don't mind adaptations that improve on the original, not in the least, but why sabotage a good meaty plot only to replace it with tripe?

Unknown said...

"36" was on special to buy at my local blockbuster. On your recommendation be it, Russell. Guess what I'm doing tonight. Does it go with a cheeky wee whisky?

Karin M said...

I don't know about the movie Crimson Rivers, but I read the book and it was pretty awful. Suprise ending, OK, but a lot of unbelievable stuff in between.