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Flash Review, 3-9: Repartir a Zero
"Service Entrance" & "Serie Noire": Facing fear at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Natalia Verbeke and Fabrice Luchini in Philippe Le Guay's "Service Entrance." Courtesy SND.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- J'etait bouleversé par le film "Serie Noire" d'Alain Corneau, surtout le performance de Patrick Dewaere. I begin in French because the word 'bouleverse' is hard to translate in English ('shaken' comes closest, but doesn't quite have the same rhythmic impact in translation), but seems the 'juste mot' to apply to how devastated one is after viewing this classic 1979 Franco-American film noir -- Corneau worked from noir progenitor Jim Thompson's novel -- as I was last night at the Walter Reade Theater, where it struck just one of the spectrum of moods evoked by the Film Society of Lincoln Center's contribution to the city-wide Rendez-vous with French Cinema, playing at the Walter Reade through March 13. If you think you've previously seen Dewaere, who plays a door-to-door salesman on the brink in the seedy peripherie of Paris pushed over the brink when he's tempted by the nubile Mona (the late Marie Trintignant in her first major role) and her aunt's hidden cache of $25,000, it may be because he became the prototype for a new brand of alluring, frazzled, ADHD young truants whose desperate descent into hyper-violence seems inevitable, most recently embodied by Vincent Cassel in the two Mesrine films. To learn afterwards that Dewaere committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 35 is almost not surprising, given the over the top unbridled passion he unleashes as Franck Poupart in "Serie Noire." Adding to the poignancy of watching Trintignant's electrifying freshness -- was sulking ever so seductive? -- is the awareness that she too would die a violent demise, in 2003, after a fight with her rock star lover. Thompson called his book "A Hell of a Woman," and Trintignant embodies the part, even when she isn't saying anything.

As for Dewaere, he imbues the state of being 'unhinged' with new levels of nuance. After embarking a friend and client (Andreas Katsulas) on a two-day drunk in an effort to set him up as the fall guy in the scheme he's hatched with Mona -- he plans to kill the aunt, then shoot his friend and plant the gun in the aunt's hand, making it look like they offed each other, before running away with the loot and the girl -- he tries to warn the man off by telling him, sincerely, "Don't you realize I'm setting you up?" And when Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), the wife who's returned to him -- she'd trashed all his clothes when she took off, a great excuse for Franck to parade around in a shredded top-coat when delivering one of his tirades -- confronts him with her suspicions that he's responsible for the murders, he clearly loves her so much that we're 'bouleverse'd' once more when he chokes her to death, not stopping even after she begs him not to kill her and adds that she's pregnant. Mercy does eventually arrive, after a fashion -- believe me, for a French film noir, this is almost a happy ending -- when, unable to kill the boss who extorts the aunt's money from him because the man's left a note with a friend so this time he can't solve it with murder, he still retrieves Mona, the film ending with him spinning her around and and around and shouting, "Finally we have nothing to fear."

There were some disturbed 'ugh's in the theater during the carnage, and while I was repelled as well, "Serie Noire" is the kind of film the French would call a 'beau film.' When they say this, they don't mean it's beautiful to watch people be murdered, what they mean is that *the film* is well-made and that even if its heroes are in effect murderous anti-heroes, they nonetheless revel in a passion for life. Corneau's film definitely qualifies, starting with its ambiance, which is not simply that of a seedy Paris, but the grainily seedy outskirts of Paris, starting from the get when Franck pulls up at a 'terrain vague,' on a drizzly Paris late afternoon and practices his gangster feints and romantic moves -- it's really a sort of overture to the film, a dry run for the action about to ensue -- as the impersonal sky-scraping housing projects of the Paris suburbs ("Serie Noire" was shot in Creteil, as well as Saint-Maur) loom impersonally in the background. It continues in the forlorn neighborhood where he stops at the aunt's house, looking for Tikedes, the Greek giant of a client (he owes Franck money) he'll eventually kill. He can't resist trying to sell something to the old lady (Jeanne Herviale). When she finally accedes to the temptation of a mohair coat, Mona greets him, takes him into her bedroom, disrobes and flings her arms around him; this is how the aunt intends to pay for the coat. Franck, though, insists on throwing Mona's robe back over her body every time she flings it off, refusing this set up and setting up the ambiguity in his character which helps make his slide into evil all the more devastatingly tragic, because he's already won us over.

Of course, anti-heroes are also revealed by the way those around them reflect and catalyze them, and here Myriam Boyer -- yet another interpreter who brings a tumultuous personal history to the table (she got her start dancing on tables in the poorer districts of Lyon) -- is phenomenal, essentially authoring Franck's torment over what to do with her by transforming herself from alienated dispassionate spouse to vulnerable waif and devoted housewife; he genuinely loves her, all the more reason we don't entirely anticipate he'll kill her too. Rounding out the cast are yet two more legends, Bernard Blier, as Franck's clever and manipulative boss, and, in a rollicking cameo as a queeny Hell's Angel a la francaise complete with dreadlock fright-wig, producer-actor Alain Chabat.

More familiar to cinephiles in this country than the French film noir is the French romantic comedy. What many might not know is that to find gems like Philippe Le Guay's new (we're getting it not long after its French opening -- 'chapeau!,' Film Society of Lincoln Center!) "Service Entrance," which I also saw yesterday and which repeats today at 6 p.m. at the Walter Reade, you have to sort a lot of wheat from chaff. A majority of the comedies one sees on French screens are formulaic predictable bon-bons. How lucky we are, then, to get "Service Entrance." The French title, "Les Femmes du 6eme etage," or "The Women of the 6th floor," refers to the top floor of the typical Hausmanian Parisian apartment building, in times of old made up of small chambers where the middle-class families who inhabit the lower floors typically stowed their servants, the owner of each lower apartment being allotted one upper room for the purpose. These days, those rooms are typically rented to students or struggling young people. (You have to be young to mount the stairs; what the French refer to as the sixth floor is actually the seventh. I lived on the fifth in my building; my friends on the 6th lived in very cramped quarters, some even having to stoop to go to the bathroom.) In the 1962 of "Service Entrance," the maids who inhabit the sixth floor of this building are all Spanish, refugees of Franco. When a new arrival, Maria (the luminous Natalia Verbeke) enters the lives of a 'bourgeoisie' couple, Jean-Louis and Suzanne Joubert (Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Kimberlain), the husband, an investment banker, soon finds his perspective and life changing. Moving some things up to storage on the sixth floor, and horrified to discover that the toilet the ladies share is stopped up, he immediately takes steps to get it fixed and, subsequently, to help repair the lives of some of the maids. When he discovers one is beaten by her husband, he finds her relatively luxurious lodging in the empty concierge's apartment of a building owned by one of his colleagues. When his wife kicks him out, refusing to believe that he's been out all night at a paella party given by that same maid to celebrate the betrothal of another, insisting instead that he's having an affair with a notorious marriage-breaker, the husband takes refuge in a miniscule room on the maids' floor, finding a new freedom and happiness. "It's the first time I've had my own room!" he explains to a rabidly Communist maid (the captivating Lola Duenas) suspicious about his intentions.

If a lot of this sounds formulaic -- repressed French bourgeoisie investment banker encounters irrepressible Spanish women and finds a new freedom -- what elevates the film from the trite comedies I've alluded to above is that the heroes in fact don't take the predictable turns, chiefly Suzanne, who at the end gets it, telling another bourgeoisie wife who offers to find her a divorce lawyer that, "In fact, Jean-Louis is right. We all have need of our sixth floors." In effect, Philippe Le Guay and Jerome Tonerre's script allows their characters the maneuvering room to be transformed, and Kiberlain in particular expands that room even more. Even if her lines, especially early on, might suggest a certain disdain for Maria, she eventually treats her like a human being, relating woman to woman. The presence (as Maria's aunt, also working as a maid) of Carmen Maura, the original Almodovarian femme supreme (you saw her in "Women on the verge..."), also probably adds an element of Almodovarian unpredictability and a fairy-tale quality.

Verbeke's Maria (the Jouberts' maid) is also transformed. "At the start," says Verbeke in the program notes, "when she arrives in Paris she is shy and doesn't know much, but little by little she discovers things, she dares to act, she takes risks, she learns and also comes to terms with her own story. When faced with Monsieur Joubert, surrounded by her colleagues and near her aunt, Maria slowly begins to become her own self."

While "Service Entrance" is not a political film, Le Guay does not ignore the political circumstances in which it's situated. "The film takes place in France during a very difficult time in Spanish history," Verbeke points out. "Lots of people came to France as refugees looking for work. That's not the subject of Philippe Le Guay's film, but he has really managed to communicate the motivations and mindset of those people through his characters. All these women turned up having left everything behind. They started from scratch, didn't know the language and often found themselves in harrowing solitude. They had to be brave."

In the end, if "Service Entrance" will tickle your funny bone and tease your romantic juices, in its fashion it's also a brave film, not so much in showing what happens when a conventional man encounters some very unconventional women, but in breaking the conventions of its own genre.

A not so side note, worth noting for U.S. audiences at a time when Congress is threatening to totally cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: "Service Entrance" was co-produced by France 2, one of the publicly funded national French television networks, not an unusual practice, and which also usually means the film will be shown -- without commericials -- on French television. In effect, not only does funding public television in France help to ensure quality (though not always) on the air-waves, it also contributes to quality on the silver screen.

And a not so unimportant note on the quality of the theater-going experience at the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade: Those who sometimes hesitate to go out to popular events because they don't want to deal with lines will be re-assured to know that the Film Society has come up with a civilized way to deal with them: When you enter the theater's lobby, a friendly employee writes a number on your ticket. You're then asked to wait, comfortably, in the adjoining lounge, where you can actually sit down, until the house manager calls the numbers in sequences of 15, the audience entering the theater 15 at a time -- kind of the airline model. If only other NY theaters would follow this model!

For more on the Rendez-vous with French Cinema's projections at the Walter Reade Theater, visit the Film Society at Lincoln Center's web site.

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