Blu-ray Review: Série noire

STUDIO: Film Movement | DIRECTOR: Alain Corneau | CAST: Patrick Dewaere, Myriam Boyer, Marie Trintignant, Bernard Blier, Jeanne Herviale, Andreas Katsulas
RELEASE DATE: Available now | PRICE: DVD $14.99, Blu-ray $22.99
BONUSES: Featurette “Serie Noire, The Darkness of the Soul”; interview with director Alain Corneau and actress Marie Trintignant
SPECS: NR | 116 mins | Foreign language crime drama | 1.66:1 | mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Finally making its U.S. home-entertainment debut, Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979) can best be described as a low-key triumph for its star, the late Patrick Dewaere (Going Places) and the single best film adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel ever made. It captures perfectly the off-kilter tension that Thompson created in his psychotic noir novels while also perfectly translating the post-war bleakness of its source novel (A Hell of a Woman) to the Parisian suburbs of the 1970s.

When the film was made, none of this quintessentially American writer’s books were in print in the U.S. As Bertrand Tavernier did in Coup de Torchon (derived from the novel Pop. 1280), Alain Corneau figured out that the best way to resurrect Thompson was to change the setting and time period. Thus, Serie Noire is set in the present in an equally dead-end environment. (Of all the American film adaptations of Thompson, only James Foley’s 1990 After Dark, My Sweet comes close to this film in keeping the essence of his style.)

What Corneau ended up making is a low-key masterwork that has as much dark humor as suspense. The plot is a classic scenario that Thompson borrowed from James M. Cain — a sleazy con man, Frank Poupart (Dewaere), works as a door-to-door salesman who devises a plan to kill an old woman (Jeanne Herviale) with a fortune hidden in the house. His accomplices are the woman’s nearly mute niece (Marie Trintignant, Betty) and a boxer (Andreas Katsulas, Someone To Watch Over Me) whom he intends to frame for the theft and murder of the old lady. The obstacles standing in his way are his curious wife (Myriam Boyer) and his corrupt boss (Bernard Blier, Les Miserables).

Corneau beautifully weaves a quiet web around his perpetually chatty antihero. His surroundings are grim and ugly; the people around him don’t understand his brilliance, and are always obstructing his poorly constructed plans. Thus, the visuals reflect Frank’s clearly doomed journey to wealth. The script uniquely keeps us inside his head without using a voiceover narration — we know everything that he’s thinking because he never stops talking. (Except when he does little dances to music on the radio.)

The cast is a sterling lot that perfectly incarnate their characters. Boyer and Trintignant beautifully represent Frank’s present and (desired) future, while Katsulas and the old pro Blier – father of director Bertrand Blier, who made Dewaere’s biggest international hits, including Get Out Your Handkerchiefs — play new twists on characters that are very familiar from the later (1950s) American noirs, including Kubrick’s The Killing (which was coscripted by Thompson).

Patrick Dewaere in Série noire.

And Dewaere? Simply put, he gives one of the best performances in Seventies French Cinema. Looking to Americans like the younger brother of Stacy Keach, Dewaere was an incredibly accomplished performer who was equally deft at farce and tense drama. His suicide at age 35 was a major loss to the world of film, and his filmography (which was well-represented on VHS in the U.S. in the Eighties) needs further “excavation” on DVD and Blu-ray in this country.

In Serie Noire, he is the whole show. Frank presents the perfect vehicle for his talents and seems to uniformly reflect the real Dewaere – a young man who has humane feelings for some (Trintignant’s teenaged character, whom he does not sexually exploit, although he has been encouraged to do so by her aunt) and had a “nervous nature” that could turn “electric” (as described by those on the set of Serie Noire) on a dime.

The two invaluable supplements found here spell out both Corneau’s brilliance at adapting Thompson’s work and the powerhouse performer that was Dewaere. A documentary made in 2013 for the French release of the film on disc runs through Corneau’s collaboration with Thompson on a script (based on Pop. 1280) and his unusual discovery that Marie Trintignant was the perfect actress to play the near-mute niece.

Nadine Trintignant, the former wife of Jean-Louis Trintignant and mother of Marie – and, most importantly here, the long-time wife of Corneau — explains that Corneau’s coscripter, avant-garde novelist Georges Perec, made the suggestion. After being dissatisfied with several actresses they’d seen for the role, Perec visited Corneau in his home for a story conference and noted that the girl they had been looking for was right under Corneau’s nose, when Perec saw a photo of Corneau’s 16-year-old step-daughter Marie in the house. (A crew member notes how Corneau averted his eyes while Trintignant’s nude scene was being shot.)

The crew members also discuss the “mood shots” in the film, which were the result of  Corneau telling them to be prepared to follow Dewaere around the locations. They also discuss the success of the film upon its release and the fact that it was nominated for several Cesar awards, and lost all of them (a fact that immensely bothered Dewaere).

The second video supplement, shot in 2002, offers the reminiscences of both Corneau and Marie Trintignant. Corneau discusses Thompson as a man and an artist. He also elaborates his low-key choices for the visuals (including the use of a new film stock) and soundtrack.

His decision for the film’s music was to have the characters listen to pop music on the radio and let those songs be the musical soundtrack for the film. This situates the specific era of the film’s creation for French viewers and adds another aspect of sparseness to the picture, as the tinny, remote sound of AM radio tunes is a fascinating “distancing effect.”

Marie Trintignant, who sadly died in 2003 at age 41 when she was murdered by her romantic partner, reminisces about her first significant acting experience and discusses Dewaere at length, saying at one point that he was “excessive in many ways, but we can’t hold it against him because the result is beautiful.”

She had strong memories of the film shoot and declares without hesitation, “It’s the greatest film I’ve done. The movie’s incredible.”

Buy or Rent Série noire

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”