In French, the phrase “série noire” essentially translates to a run of bad luck – so really, what better title to give the 1979 film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s classic hardboiled crime novel A Hell of a Woman? (It also happens to be the name of the French publishing imprint that brought Thompson’s novel to French readers.)
Directed by Alain Corneau from a script by Corneau and Georges Pérec, Série Noire depicts the increasingly misguided and downright comical criminal activities of a door-to-door salesman who is convinced to commit murder by a sexy teenager. A madcap showcase for the unique talents of Patrick Dewaere, who died only three years later, Série Noire is being released on Blu-ray in a new 2K restoration from Film Movement, and it’s definitely worth checking out for any fan of film noir.
Murder Most Foul
When we first meet our anti-hero Frank Poupart (Dewaere), he is parked in a desolate lot in the outskirts of a sleazy Paris neighborhood; the bleak, grey skyline that stretches out behind him feels a world away from the glossy romantic visions of the French capital one often sees depicted in cinema. With music blasting from his car stereo, Poupart dances and emotes, hands gesticulating wildly as though he is trying to convince the audience (and himself) of his worth. In one of the classics from the height of the French New Wave, this opening scene would center on someone like Jean-Paul Belmondo and be the epitome of criminal cool; in the hands of Corneau and Dewaere, it is instead, frankly, quite sad. It’s also the perfect introduction to Poupart, whose frenzied attempts to rise above his pathetic circumstances result in him sinking only deeper into the mire.
Poupart stops at the home of an elderly woman (Jeanne Herviale) who he hopes can help him find a client of his who owes him money – and if he can also close a sale or two in the process, all the better. There, he meets the woman’s niece, Mona (Marie Trintignant), a teenage sexpot who has been forced into prostitution by her cruel and miserly aunt. Mona instantly tries to seduce Poupart, and while he escapes without succumbing to temptation, he can’t shake the image of Mona from his mind.
Shortly afterward, Poupart’s boss (Bernard Blier) – who works out of a delightfully sleazy little office with a poster of a fluffy cat inexplicably on the wall -gets Poupart thrown in jail for ripping him off. Poupart is bailed out, not by his long-suffering wife, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), who has announced she’s leaving him, but by Mona, who hopes that Poupart will help her kill her aunt and make off with the old woman’s surprisingly substantial fortune.
Enlisting a former client (Andreas Katsulas) as a sidekick-slash-fall guy, Poupart agrees to Mona’s scheme, but needless to say, nothing goes according to their admittedly haphazard plan. As the body count begins to rise, Poupart’s série noire sends him spiraling downward into an even more desperate place than where he started… that is, if that is even possible.
Epitome of Uncool
While the plot of Série Noire might sound quite bleak, the film is actually shockingly funny, with a rich streak of pitch-black humor running through it. Much of that is because of Dewaere’s wickedly wild performance as Poupart. With his cleft chin and high cheekbones, he gives the illusion of a man who was once quite handsome and charming, but whose unfortunate circumstances have since twisted into a caricature of his former self. Now, with a receding hairline masked by scraggly waves, a wiry frame that seems to be wasting away, and an electric current of anxious, rabbity energy running through his bones, Poupart appears to be on the verge of exploding – and his meeting with Mona is the final trigger.
Desperate to become the hyper-masculine conquering hero that Mona wants him to be, Poupart embraces every film noir cliche with such gusto that he crushes them all into dust and is left empty-handed, wondering where it all went wrong. It’s impossible to not find yourself laughing, albeit potentially uncomfortably and with great mutual embarrassment, at his exploits. In one particularly hilarious yet simultaneously horrifying scene, Poupart steps out of his car to scream at a retreating Mona, only to start banging his head repeatedly on the car’s hood in frustration; in another, he hides inside a phone booth shrieking while another character tries to break inside by using his own body as a battering ram.
Dewaere is supported by a perfectly curated ensemble of characters, from Trintignant’s sulky sexpot to Bier’s unapologetically selfish boss to Katsulas’ sad-sack sidekick – so sad that even Poupart gets the better of him. The Paris underbelly that they crawl about in is perpetually awash in grey and gloom, with a layer of grime coating every frame. Every detail on screen, including that aforementioned fluffy cat poster, perfectly sets the stage for the sleazy shenanigans to follow.
Yet despite the undeniable amusement to be found in the film, and particularly Dewaere’s performance, one cannot escape the shadow that hangs over Série Noire in the form of Dewaere’s death by suicide in 1982 at the age of 35. This knowledge leaves one wondering how much of Dewaere’s own inner darkness found its way into his role. Whatever the answer might be, it nonetheless remains true that Série Noire is a prime showcase for his talents, gone far too soon.
A satisfying slice of sleaze served up on celluloid, Série Noire is a deliciously good watch.
What do you think? Are you familiar with the work of Patrick Dewaere? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Série Noire was released on Blu-ray by Film Movement on April 28, 2020.
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