Cannes Crime 2017: Top 5 Noir Film and Television Series

The two most promi­nent sto­ries at the 70th iter­a­tion of the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, the ulti­mate com­pe­ti­tion and mar­ket for cin­e­ma, were the increased pres­ence of the stream­ing cable ser­vice Net­flix, which sel­dom even opens films in the­aters, and Ser­i­al Tele­vi­sion and the con­tin­u­ing chal­lenge it pos­es to auteur and mid-lev­el film pro­duc­tion. Net­flix was rep­re­sent­ed in the main com­pe­ti­tion by two films, the bet­ter of which was Okja by the South Kore­an genre direc­tor Boon Joon Ho (the sem­i­nal ser­i­al killer film Mem­o­ries of Mur­der). Joon Ho’s char­ac­ter­is­tic streak of social activism this time express­es itself as a children’s anti-cor­po­rate fable about an agribusi­ness grow­ing a super­pig, a pig­no­cer­ous, that man­ages to cross ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s exam­i­na­tion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age the every­day grind of a slaugh­ter­house inflicts. Ser­i­al Tele­vi­sion, at least in its Anglo vari­ety, made its first appear­ance at the fes­ti­val in two fol­low-up works by auteur direc­tors: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: Chi­na Girl. Giv­en that the series were screened at Cannes, both raise the ques­tion of whether what we were watch­ing tele­vi­sion sec­ond sea­sons or cin­e­mat­ic sequels. If it appears that the tra­di­tion­al art house and com­mer­cial cin­e­ma may be under attack, this is indeed the case yet there was still at Cannes a healthy out­pour­ing of films that com­bined a of social real­ism height­ened by genre cin­e­ma influ­ences either by Hol­ly­wood direct­ly (the occa­sion­al­ly Tar­enti­no-esque Bul­gar­i­an film Direc­tions and the Mar­tin Scors­ese exec­u­tive pro­duced Ital­ian migrant film A Ciambra) or by glob­al cin­e­ma gen­res (the 70’s spaghet­ti West­ern look and feel of the Indone­sian Mar­li­na the Mur­der­er in Four Acts). The dom­i­nant pat­tern then for Cannes noir, cir­ca 2017, a pat­tern that despite Net­flix and tele­vi­sion still has life in it, is a foun­da­tion of Bel­gium film­mak­ers the Dar­d­enne Broth­ers (mul­ti­ply screened and hon­ored at Cannes with such films as Roset­ta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night) up-close fol­low­ing of down-and-out char­ac­ters with crime and mys­tery genre ele­ments enhanc­ing the mood. Indeed the Dar­d­ennes pro­duced one of the most unclas­si­fi­able and crit­i­cal films of the fes­ti­val West­ern, whose title is less a genre indi­ca­tion than a social impli­ca­tion about the glob­al and eco­nom­ic pow­er of the West in Europe to oblit­er­ate the East.

  1. Direc­tions

Poso­ki is the Bul­gar­i­an word for this film about the break­down of social rela­tions in Sofia, the cap­i­tal, in the post-Sovi­et, post-cap­i­tal­ist era. The direc­tions are the tra­vers­ing of the cap­i­tal by cab dri­vers whose series of most­ly noc­tur­nal encoun­ters col­lec­tive­ly describe a soci­ety in tur­moil where fel­low-feel­ing has col­lapsed. The film begins with a besieged dri­ver, who has just lost his busi­ness and is indebt­ed to the banks, drop­ping off his daugh­ter at her high school and pick­ing up anoth­er teen who claims to be going to see her grand­moth­er but who is actu­al­ly a “work­ing girl” at a lux­u­ry hotel, where she makes far more than the cab­driv­er. He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just dou­bled his debt in what is just the open­ing gam­bit of a series of humil­i­at­ing encoun­ters between bedrag­gled, world­weary but still basi­cal­ly hon­est dri­vers and the cus­tomers in the class­es above who prey on them. A rever­sal of how the busi­ness is usu­al­ly per­ceived, more Daniel Blake in the way that the dri­vers, as every­men and women of a soci­ety on the brink are exploit­ed than Taxi Dri­ver.

  1. Mar­li­na the Mur­der­er in Four Acts

Fem­i­nine fight-back was a sub­theme of the fes­ti­val in this sum­mer of Won­der Woman. This Indone­sian film by Mouly Surya fus­es the rich her­itage of Indone­sian folk tale–detailed so vivid­ly in last year’s Beau­ty Is A Wound, Ika Kurniawan’s nov­el about a pros­ti­tute sur­viv­ing Dutch, Japan­ese and Indone­sian militias–and the visu­al and icono­graph­ic her­itage of the 1970s Ser­gio Leone Ital­ian Spaghet­ti West­ern. The land­scape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her prop­er­ty is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sum­ba, far from the usu­al trop­i­cal rain­for­est that is the image of the coun­try. Mar­li­na tri­umphs over the men in a way sim­i­lar to that of the tri­umph of the Girl’s School in Sophia Coppola’s com­pe­ti­tion film The Beguiled but that is only the begin­ning of her tale which fea­tures equal­ly the awak­en­ing of a preg­nant com­pan­ion along the way. This strug­gle takes place in the face of the inert fig­ure of Marlina’s mum­mi­fied hus­band, no help in con­fronting wan­ton male ener­gy in a cru­el land­scape where the human scale is reduced to a sin­gle hori­zon line in shots that sig­nal the majesty of a major direc­tor emerg­ing onto the world stage.

  1. A Ciambra/Cuori Puri

While the head­lines are grabbed by fawn­ing and innocu­ous direc­tors like Pao­lo Sor­renti­no (the Acad­e­my Award-win­ning The Great Beau­ty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the bel­ly of the Ital­ian Cin­e­ma a more social­ly con­scious move­ment which knows that in a soci­ety with high unem­ploy­ment and increas­ing social ten­sions crime, as John Hus­ton pro­claimed, is just “a left-hand­ed form of human endeav­or.” We’ve seen Gomor­rah, the film and tele­vi­sion series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower; Romeo in Juli­et set in a Milanese prison. This year we have the Mar­tin Scors­ese exec-pro­duced A Ciambra direct­ed by Jonas Carpig­nano who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediter­ranea, a dis­tinc­tive immi­grant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the dif­fi­cult inter­ac­tion, once arrived, with Ital­ian locals. This film, shot and con­ceived in a stark­ly real­is­tic style, con­cerns a Roma, a gyp­sy boy’s bit­ter com­ing of age. It details his rela­tion with a Ghan­ian, Khoudas Sei­han from the pre­vi­ous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friend­ship Pio must bal­ance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pres­sures of the dom­i­nant Ital­ians who police the eth­nic hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture. A Ciambra, the title derived from the name of a tiny town in impov­er­ished South­ern Italy, is a kind of mul­ti­cul­tur­al updat­ing of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets fea­tur­ing a pread­o­les­cent De Niro. More in line with Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pur­su­ing each oth­er in what we learn is one of them try­ing to catch the shoplift­ing oth­er but which seems to sim­ply be their pas­sion which in the course of the film will tri­umph over the mixed back­grounds of work­ing class born-again Catholic, under­class pet­ty crim­i­nal­i­ty, and Roma caught between the two. Anoth­er Cannes irrup­tion of a move­ment worth cel­e­brat­ing.

  1. Wind Riv­er

The rape and mur­der of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indi­an Reser­va­tion is the occa­sion for an exam­i­na­tion of the inner lives of those caught on the res and a social­ly inter­est­ing and rel­e­vant indict­ment of con­tem­po­rary out­side forces which per­pet­u­ate that his­tor­i­cal mis­ery. The trail of the mur­der lead expert hunter Jere­my Ren­ner and inex­pe­ri­enced but com­mit­ted FBI agent Eliz­a­beth Olsen (paired pre­vi­ous­ly as Hawk­eye and The Scar­let Witch in The Avengers), apro­pos the Pine Ridge protests, to an ener­gy com­pa­ny whose shad­owy army of mer­ce­nar­ies impose them­selves on the natives. First direct­ing effort by Tay­lor Sheri­dan who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water about right­eous bank rob­bers in the impov­er­ished Texas Pan­han­dle. Con­clud­ing sequence of Wind Riv­er with two Native Amer­i­can fathers, one in warpaint, attempt­ing to assuage their sor­row and guilt proves this again to be more than just a capa­ble crime film though it is cer­tain­ly that in spades.

A frame from “Wind Riv­er”.

  1. West­ern

An excel­lent exam­i­na­tion of the glob­al and the local from New Ger­man direc­tor Vales­ka Grise­bach. The film details the spir­it of col­o­niza­tion with which a Ger­man crew and espe­cial­ly the fore­man, build­ing a hydro­elec­tric dam, treats the Bul­gar­i­an inhab­i­tants of the near­by vil­lage. The main pro­tag­o­nist is an ex-mer­ce­nary, as he says a Legion­naire, who, hav­ing served in Iraq and Afghanistan, dis­dains vio­lence and con­quer­ing and attempts to forge rela­tions with the vil­lagers. The con­struc­tion crew fore­man, on the oth­er hand, projects con­tem­po­rary Ger­man eco­nom­ic might as in direct rela­tion to its Nazi past, claim­ing that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.” The film, in deal­ing with the inhab­i­tants of Europe’s poor­est coun­try, refus­es the easy labelling of their peas­ant orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture as “mafia” and instead high­lights their col­lec­tive cus­toms. The legion­naire ulti­mate­ly, and some­what despite him­self, begins to exhib­it a more dom­i­neer­ing man­ner and the film leaves open the ques­tion as to whether these cul­tur­al pat­terns can be tran­scend­ed. The under­cur­rent of vio­lence in the film is pro­mot­ed not by the natives, as in say Straw Dogs, but rather by the mod­ern colo­nial­ists who fly the Ger­man flag as a sign of their eco­nom­ic dom­i­nance.

Out of Com­pe­ti­tion But Not Out of Mind

Top of the Lake/Twin Peaks

Both ulti­mate­ly a bit dis­ap­point­ing. The bet­ter of the two Top of the Lake, began well with

the female detec­tive Robin Grif­fin now back in her work­place of Syd­ney Aus­tralia inves­ti­gat­ing both the death of a Chi­nese sex work­er and mid­dle class exploita­tion of migrants as baby incu­ba­tors, sur­ro­gates. Both inves­ti­ga­tions are some­how tied to a frus­trat­ed phi­los­o­phy professor/pimp who ini­tial­ly holds the place of the drug lord patri­arch of the first sea­son. The series though dis­solves into a haze of ambi­gu­i­ty and con­fu­sion as the patri­arch becomes a frac­tured truth teller and the upper mid­dle class Nicole Kid­man char­ac­ter instead of being evil becomes is instead mere­ly obnox­ious, weak­en­ing what was a promis­ing begin­ning.

Twin Peaks unfor­tu­nate­ly has a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry. The ques­tion here was, would the series return to a refash­ion­ing of the “Who Killed Lau­ra Palmer” frame­work which made it the best and most influ­en­tial series ever on the air or would it lan­guish in the Demon Bob after­math of the mess that was the final episodes post the rev­e­la­tion of the incest behind and at the root of the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence and that car­ried over into the exper­i­men­tal but non­sen­si­cal Fire Walk With Me. There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return of many of the Twin Peaks char­ac­ters but also in a South Dako­ta sto­ry involv­ing a seem­ing­ly inno­cent high school prin­ci­ple, his lawyer, and his wife. But, there is also too much Demon Bob tak­ing over agent Coop­er non­sen­si­cal skull­dug­gery. Lynch’s explo­rations of the uncon­scious are always best (in Blue Vel­vet, Twin Peaks and Mul­hol­land Dri­ve) when ini­tial­ly ground­ed in the social world. Still much to like here though as a New York sec­tion quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watch­er of the now dig­i­tal sky­line of the city is then pun­ished for his watch­ing in a way that sug­gests we are all now couch pota­toes await­ing our come­up­pance.

The Vil­lain­ess

There is some won­drous blood­let­ting in this South Kore­an epic, screened as a mid­night film, whose sub­jec­tive cam­era open­ing, recall­ing the ‘40s noir Lady in the Lake, depicts the sav­age fight­ing skills of its gang-trained female assas­sin. She is then tamed and domes­ti­cat­ed as she moves to a legit­i­mate posi­tion inside a gov­ern­ment secu­ri­ty agency and falls for one of its oper­a­tives. Final­ly though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defy­ing armored car sequence that, along with the open­ing, is a tour-de-force set­tling of accounts for a whole cin­e­mat­ic and actu­al his­to­ry of male vio­lence against women. As she is cuffed by the police, the cam­era clos­es in on her and we watch a smile slow­ly cross her face; the smile seem­ing­ly her excite­ment at the pow­er she is capa­ble of wield­ing rather than the more sim­pli­fied sat­is­fac­tion in male action films of revenge.

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Dennis Broe

Posted by Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of: "Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir"; and "Maverick or How the West Was Lost". His current book, to be published in 2018, is Hyperindustrialism and Television Seriality: the end of leisure and the birth of the binge.

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