Saturday, 11 June 2011

Point Blank: the French do this so well

In previous ruminations on French cinema I have speculated that the school system must be fabulously unpleasant , and that France may not have any working elevators, but for some unaccountable reason I have never wondered aloud about the unrelenting awfulness of the French criminal justice system.

As some of you know, by law promulgated under Louis Napoleon, every year France is obliged to produce one superior costume drama. It is a more recent legal requirement that no more than 20% of France's total annual cinema production may exclude Gerard Depardieu. Finally, the 1981 Noir act made it mandatory for French cinema each year to produce one truly brilliant crime movie, in the hope that one day they'd somehow duplicate Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva. So far, all that's actually happened is that Luc Besson uses loopholes in the 1981 act to keep producing movies like From Paris With Love and Taken, when what we really want him to do is make another Leon or Nikita.

Point Blank is not a masterpiece; the last really good French crime movie I saw was the extraordinary Tell No One, and Point Blank doesn't measure up to it. But it's a damn good little movie, brought to us by the guy who directed the somewhat better Anything For Her, and sharing a lot of the same DNA; for starters they're both about ordinary guys having to go to extraordinary lengths to get their beloved wives out of terrible captivity. They both race along nicely, and they keep things wonderfully simple and grounded, so that the hazards seem scary not because they're immense but because they're quite real.

All in all, I preferred Anything For Her, because it set up a farfetched but pretty simple problem and let it work itself out. Point Blank has a nice simple problem at first, but then gets it all lost in a conspiracy which throws a huge chunk of needless backstory into the middle of the movie and breaks its narrative coherence a bit. But that's me; it still rockets along perfectly well, and ends satisfactorily.

But the movie really left me wondering how French people must feel about their police, because it's yet another one of those French crime films where the mcguffin behind all the violence and hazard is dirty cops doing their own thing and covering it up. It struck me as I was watching it that this is a recurring theme in half the French crime movies I've ever seen. Maybe it's just that France, like the rest of Europe, hasn't got the kind of armed lunatic criminals that America's got, and the only organised armed group big and competent enough to be scary is the police itself. I honestly don't know. But it comes back again and again.

All the same, you have to love French crime movies. I love the way the cops always look exhausted and baggy. I love the way that every single copper with a speaking part HAS to wear a black leather jacket of some kind. I love those orange armbands they pull on when they have to go chasing people and they need everyone to know they're police. France has to be the easiest country in the world to pretend to be a policeman in. And I love the chase scenes in French police movies, because they're exhilarating without being in any way flashy. There's a wonderful foot chase in Point Blank which is completely gripping without being in any way flashy. It's not quite as good as the foot chase in Tell No One, but it's pretty good. (The chase in Tell No One is a completely humdrum run through Paris, but it's done so well that when the hero has to decide to run across a six lane highway,  it feels every bit as scary as it would be to try to do it yourself, and when the cops decide not to bother following him, it seems like a perfectly sensible choice).

There's just something very satisfying about these policiers. The cops and the people they're chasing seem real and ordinary in a way that American movies can't manage. Even when it's all fundamentally silly, it's still gripping because these are not the glossy disposable people of Hollywood, but people you can imagine having real lives.

Still, Point Blank's a bit daft. The master plot is that a nurse's aide has to get a guy out of hospital, and to make him do it, the bad guys kidnap his wife. About halfway through, there's actually a moment where just about everyone could live happily ever after by just leaving the wife in the middle of a crowded train station and walking away. At that stage, everyone has what they need, and there's no need to keep the hostage. But since the movie's only half done, the hostage gets kept (at considerable inconvenience to the keeper) and the movie gamely plugs on. That kind of bugged me; from there on out, it's a movie which is running on an idiot ball plot, something which is particularly bothersome when just about everyone in the movie is actually being played as someone with an ounce of sense.

So, I'd have to say, by all means check it out, but if you can, go find Anything For Her instead. And either way, watch Tell No One. And dig out Diva again. It's been too long since you watched it.

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