Though the French New Wave is said to have receded by the end of the 1960s, that freewheeling spirit seen in the films of such iconoclasts as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut can still thankfully be glimpsed here and there in contemporary French cinema. Case in point: Tip Top, the latest beguiling genre-scrambling wonder from Serge Bozon. At the beginning of the film, an Algerian police informant living in a French suburb is found dead; internal-affairs investigator Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) is appointed to look into the case, and she in turns brings a recent addition to the department, Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain), to accompany her. Judging by that setup, one might understandably assume that the film will shape up to be a standard-issue detective procedural. That, however, isn’t at all how Bozon’s film shakes down.
Tip Top, in fact, often plays like a screwball comedy, with an emphasis not on rough grit, but on its characters’ foibles, with Bozon uncovering gags at seemingly every corner to exploit the eccentricities of, say, Esther’s outrageously rough-leaning sexual predilections, Sally’s penchant for voyeurism, and local detective Mendes’s (François Damiens) hilariously terrible Arabic. And yet, such scenes of whimsical comic invention sit alongside more serious moments that evoke real anguish and pain: a police chief gravely watching television footage of riots in Algeria; a new Algerian informant, Younès (Aymen Saidi), who yearns to join his brothers in solidarity back at home; and the wife (Karole Rocher) of the previous informant still grieving for her murdered husband.
Instead of finding one consistent tone and sticking to it, Bozon allows the wildly hilarious and the grimly serious to uneasily coexist, exulting in the resultant clash. This is only to be expected from the filmmaker of La France, the 2007 film in which he boldly pitted the war-movie genre against the movie musical, with characters spontaneously bursting into musical numbers amid the general gloom of its World War I backdrop. Tip Top offers a similar moment of ecstasy as Younès randomly breaks into an exuberant dance number set to a Turkish pop song in front of a flirtatious Sally. Bozon is hardly the first to scramble genre expectations in this way, of course; much of Godard’s early-1960s work basks in such brazen juxtapositions, and in that regard, Bozon similarly tries to channel some of that restless spirit. Much of the pleasure of Tip Top lies simply in its sense of volatile unpredictability, the joy of seeing not just what happens in the next scene, but how it happens.
Is there ultimately a point to the film other than its relentless playfulness? Well, Bozon is certainly not shy when it comes to evoking a sense of anxiety over lingering postcolonial tensions between France and Algeria; with half the cast made up of Algerian characters and extended shots of television news broadcasts reporting on violent clashes in Algeria, it’s clearly a thematic concern. Even if the implications of its undercurrent of topical political commentary can be said to be somewhat mitigated by the film’s surface insanity, however, that hardly means such issues are trivialized. In Bozon’s world, the perverse and the tragic sit side by side, as surely these elements do in real life; like Godard before him, however, Bozon filters his mishmash vision of life through genre strictures in ways that are not only raucously entertaining in the moment, but also subtly profound. From private vices to public outpourings of anger, Tip Top captures an entire emotional world. Fittingly, then, it doesn’t so much come to a neat finish as simply stop, a sudden cut to black suggesting, in hilariously breath-catching fashion, a sense of life continuing on, warts and all, even if the camera itself has decided not to follow.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2014 runs from March 6—16.