Sunday Editor’s Pick: Serie Noire (1979)

by on November 13, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Nov 20 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Over the weekend, MOMI caps off the the New Literature from Europe Festival with the series “Crime Scene: Europe.”


They wisely include Alain Corneau’s little-known, utterly eccentric suburban noir, on which Glenn Kenny remarks “thoroughly staggering… Man, that’s a film that makes you want to take multiple showers after watching it.”


Cullen Gallagher and Mark Asch for Moving Image Source:

The title of Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979) nods cheekily at Gallimard’s très hip, Nouvelle Vague-devoured line of American pulp. Corneau and screenwriter Georges Perec’s version of A Hell of a Woman is the only Thompson adaptation to truly express the author’s deeply personal darkness, from its opening shot of Patrick Dewaere shadowboxing and miming a sax solo against an overcast sky to the final image of a desperate embrace swallowed up by the void of nightfall. Dewaere is Franck Poupart, a sleaze selling overpriced junk to the under-privileged; after a shrewish recluse offers her daughter, Mona (Marie Trintignant), as payment for silverware, Poupart and Mona plan “the perfect murder” and, in seeking an escape from their dreary surroundings, find themselves more entrapped than before.


Witness the film’s incredible opening sequence:


Gallagher and Asch continue:

Corneau trains his camera on his star, and Dewaere’s highly physical performance turns Thompson’s neurotic narration into a hurricane of volatile gesture. Improvising songs, dancing about with an air freshener and conversing with himself, Dewaere is the most kinetically unstable actor to have attempted a Thompson schizo. Poupart’s body is the manifestation of his psychosis—of an unspoken paranoia in conflict with the external forces of work, money, sex, home. Even his actions reveal this duality: as he honks his car horn to attract the attention of his customer (whom he is about to frame for murder), he prays out loud for his customer not to respond. It’s as if he is questioning fate, scared as he is about his newly found command over life and death. And he should be scared—like his brethren-in-despair in The Grifters and This World, Then the Fireworks, Pourpart’s final realization is that he isn’t the only crooked soul in town—crystallized in the unforgettable image of a murderer with his hands afire, and a young girl holding an armful of francs.


“Perhaps the power to rationalize is the power to remain the same. Perhaps the insane are so because they cannot escape the truth,” says Marty Lakewood. Thompson’s distorted, venal worlds are rendered by utter nutters, constantly telling themselves stories in order to live—and eventually the order they create descends into chaos. Dewaere’s body, like Thompson’s first-person narration, is never at rest, constantly reestablishing its relationship to the world in the hope of shaping it to his liking. Inevitably, the center cannot hold—three years later, at age 35, Dewaere shot himself dead with a rifle in a Paris hotel room.



Time Out (London):

Although the setting is changed from Big City USA to the dismal, wintry Paris suburbs, this neo-noir retains the outline of Jim Thompson’s source novel, following the trajectory of its door-to-door salesman until, with an almost audible ‘Voilà!’, he’s deposited in an abyss of hopelessness – thief, triple murderer and not a sou to show for it. But the characterisations are turned on their heads. ‘A hell of a woman’ is here an engimatically passive 17-year-old (Trintignant), while the weary hero is rendered hyperactive in Dewaere’s tornado-strength performance, hysterical rages, comical monologues and all.

David Fear for Time Out New York:

Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979) is a welcome blast from the past. Based on the Jim Thompson novel A Hell of a Woman, this semisleazy slab of hardboiled bliss follows a down-on-his-luck salesman (viva Patrick Dewaere!) who falls hard for a helluva dangerous dame (Marie Trintignant). Quicker than you can sing a verse of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” the object of our hapless hero’s desire has him embroiled in a murder plot. It’s easily one of the best, if not the best, adaptations of the pulp-fiction maestro’s work ever committed to celluloid; as it’s rarely screened and unavailable on DVD in the States, you’re advised to exécutez, not marchez, and check it out while you can


The blog Kinodrome:

The finest example of the moral rabbit-hole narrative. The ‘shared epiphanies’ that climax each scenario are often jarring realizations of the character’s ethical decisions, usually a moral struggle wherein his actions only make sense (they’re still reprehensible) within the specific context of the moment. The scenes never recall previous sequences (we must do that for ourselves) which are essential in understanding this post-modern Raskolnikov trapped in a Groundhogs Day of ethical choices. Série noire is greatly indebted to Buster Keaton, not only for Patrick Dewaere’s extraordinary nuanced pantomime, but for the empty sense of social mimesis and a tragic-comic engagement with a relative, rational modern world that is mostly tragic.

New York Magazine:

Corneau’s little-seen 1979 version of Jim Thompson’s novel A Hell of a Woman (with dialogue by cult novelist Georges Perec!) ranks as one of the best (and, indeed, one of the few good) adaptations of the beloved writer’s work—a clever blend of absurdist romance and noirish desperation.


Filmbrain for the blog Like Anna Karina’s Sweater:

This brutally dark film-noir is rarely shown in the states, and has long been out-of-print on video. Filmbrain has only seen it once — on a 20th-generation video copy that was practically unwatchable, and still it was an incredible experience.

A Hell of a Woman is easily the darkest (and greatest) Thompson novel, and Corneau’s take on it pulls no punches. The screenplay was co-written by French author Georges Perec, who does a wonderful job with the dialog. It stars Patrick Dewaere, who would probably now be France’s greatest actor had he not killed himself in 1982. His performance is nothing short of brilliant, and he’s in just about every scene of the film. His co-star is a very young Marie Trintignant (tragically murdered earlier this year by her rock-star boyfriend) who is also wonderful as Mona, the mute teenager and source of all the troubles. Director Alain Corneau is best known in this country for his 1991 period drama, Tous les Matins du Monde, though the two films couldn’t be further apart.


Set in a rather bleak looking part of France, the film is about Frank (Dewaere), a sleazy traveling salesman who meets Mona (Trintignant), a mute teenage girl who is prostituted by her grandmother. Darkness follows. (And how!) Many have called Série Noire one of the best films of the seventies. While Filmbrain might not be ready to assign it that honor, Dewaere’s performance is truly one of the most incredible ever captured on celluloid.


Simon Abrams for The House Next Door:

Série Noire, Alain Corneau’s seedy 1979 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, is considered by aficionados of Thompson’s work to be one of the best movies based on the bleak novelist’s work. Certainly, when compared to something like Michael Winterbottom’s recent adaptation of The Killer Inside Me, Corneau’s film stands apart, though largely because of its atonal sense of humor. Punch-drunk though Franck Poupart (Patrick Deware), Série Noire‘s protagonist, may be, especially when compared to The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford, he’s ultimately just as desperate and manic. The key difference is that Lou Ford is almost a two-timing sadist while Franck Poupart is a sadist that thinks of himself as a masochist.


Série Noire begins with a deceptively comic scene of Franck dancing by himself in a barren lot. This desolate tract of land is a place that Franck will return to a couple of times over the course of the film, but this time it’s the site where we’re introduced to him. We don’t have enough information to judge him beyond this act of self-absorbed clowning around; he strikes action poses with a portable radio and flounces around for his own entertainment. This scene might be funny if it didn’t last as long as it does and wasn’t set in the middle of nowhere underneath an overcast sky.


That line between self-appointed Atlas and desperate man that can’t see his own shadow is one that Dewaere’s Franck walks and frequently trips over in Série Noire. The film’s greatest achievement as a monumentally misanthropic film noir is embracing Thompson’s playful sense of spite and encouraging the viewer to laugh with Franck as he jokes about the stupidity of everyone around him and the insanity of the untenable situation that he keeps willfully throwing himself further into. Corneau’s film is so rich and satisfying that it makes what might have otherwise been an indeterminate but relatively happy ending seem downright hopeless. At that point, Franck could run away and live with Mona but none of it would matter because even with her, he’s just as ugly and insane as ever.


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