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 title sequence is the perfect introduction to Franck’s mindset: As a debt collector and door-to-door salesman, he bounces off the wall for nobody’s sake but his own and naïvely tries to lie and charm his way into the good graces of everyone around him. Unfortunately for him, he’s also unable to keep a pleasant façade on for very long, especially when it comes to his wife Jeanne (Myriam Boyer). Nevertheless, it’s Franck’s misguided attempt at chivalry that initially makes him attractive to Mona (Marie Trintignant), a nubile nymphomaniac that’s kept locked up by her abusive aunt (Jeanne Herviale), who pimps her out for money. Franck doesn’t take advantage of Mona the first time he meets her, even after she drops her nighty and pounces on him (at one point, Franck mocks how hot to trot she is by calling her “The Towering Inferno”).
For whatever reason, Franck thinks he’s a good guy, even while spreading himself wafer-thin to carry out Mona’s scheme to kill her aunt, steal the money that she made by prostituting Mona and running away with her. Franck does this by enlisting the help of Andreas Tikides (Andreas Katsulas), a migrant worker and a debtor that Franck doesn’t particularly like but nevertheless pitied enough to give money to once. That gesture of good will is especially bizarre considering that Franck is the one responsible for getting Andreas fired. But still, Franck plans on using Andreas as the fall guy and tries to get him drunk enough that he’d be willing to come with him so that they can both confront the aunt, who owes Andreas money, and screw Mona.
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.
Top Floor, Left Floor will play on March 5 and 8 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.