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It's No Mystery: France Does It Better

Psychological thrillers are the province of the French. Their ambiguity gets lost in the American translations.

October 06, 2002|ANDRE CHAUTARD

Like a stiff cognac or a soft camembert, the psychological thriller has long been a specialty of the French. This year alone has brought the almost unanimously well-reviewed films "Read My Lips," "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" and "Murderous Maids." They come on the heels of last year's suspenseful art-house hit "With a Friend Like Harry."

The latest acclaimed thriller to make it to U.S. screens is Claude Miller's "Alias Betty," in which a bereaved mother finds a replacement for her deceased child in a boy who's been kidnapped from an abusive mother. The film opened in Los Angeles on Friday. Meanwhile, plans have been announced to make English-language versions of "With a Friend Like Harry" (with Wes Craven attached) and the 1996 thriller "L'Appartement" (to star Josh Hartnett and be retitled "Wicker Park"). And current festival favorite "The Good Thief," starring Nick Nolte and directed by Neil Jordan, is based on Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 film "Bob le Flambeur;" the film will be released by Fox Searchlight early next year.

Why are the French so accomplished in this genre? Is there a certain kinship French filmmakers (and audiences) feel for the thriller? One reason may be more prosaic: money.

"We feel like we will never have the big budgets Hollywood has," says Remi Fournier Lanzoni, assistant professor of French and Italian at Elon University in North Carolina and author of the forthcoming book "French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present." Because psychological thrillers can be made on smaller budgets, it's a genre in which the French can compete with Americans and one that travels well across different cultures, he says.

For his part, Miller says he is attracted to the genre because of the extreme, passionate emotions stirred in the characters. "The genre is based on the feeling of guilt linked to crimes and murders, and that starts a chain of events that are based on vengeance and fatality and destiny that are absolutely fascinating. It's similar to what happens in ancient tragedy."

Director Claude Chabrol noted in the press notes for his film "Merci Pour Le Chocolat," "For a long time now, from Fritz Lang to Alfred Hitchcock, this genre is the best popular vehicle for [exploring] any abstract subject."

Two other well-received French films released this year, "Time Out" and "How I Killed My Father," stretch the boundaries of the genre---they are less thrillers than contemplative dramas in which crimes are committed.

"The French have always been more on the cutting edge of psychological conflict, of unusual sexual behavior," says influential American film critic Andrew Sarris, noting that they "have always had an interest in bizarre social arrangements."

"French thrillers tend to offer more than a mechanical intrigue," Lanzoni says. The filmmakers use a popular, "established genre to engage in deeper reflections on morality, on ethics, on human nature."

These films are also more willing than Hollywood thrillers to end on an ambiguous note. "Merci Pour Le Chocolat," in which Isabelle Huppert plays a wealthy matron who may be poisoning her family members, culminates in a "peculiar fatalism," Sarris observes.

"Not everything needs to be tied up, not everything needs to be resolved, not everything needs to be explained," Lanzoni says. "The sense is we're living in a world where morality isn't clear-cut."

The French, in fact, seem to have a higher artistic regard for the thriller genre. "There is a strong tradition of crime thriller fiction and film in France," says Dana Polan, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television.

Such authors as Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes have remained consistently in print there, while they have been less appreciated in the United States or seen as lesser literary figures, Polan notes.

In making "Alias Betty," Miller adapted the novel "Tree of Hands" by noted British mystery author Ruth Rendell, whose work he was introduced to after seeing Chabrol's 1995 "La Ceremonie," also adapted from a Rendell novel. For "Merci Pour le Chocolat," Chabrol found a book by the more obscure American author Charlotte Armstrong, "The Chocolate Cobweb," which he adapted with his "La Ceremonie" co-writer, Caroline Eliacheff, a child psychologist.

Early on, French critics wrote about the existential themes in American hard-boiled fiction, and they were the among the first to consider Hitchcock as a masterful artist. The films of the French New Wave in the 1960s were heavily influenced by the American film noir of decades prior, which in turn was influenced by the French "poetic realist" films of the 1930s.

"When those American films came to France, they had so much [impact] that they influenced a whole generation of directors," Lanzoni says, "and from that generation it just never stopped."

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