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It’s No Mystery: France Does It Better

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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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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Filmmakers like Henri-Georges Clouzot and Rene Clement followed in the Hitchcock mold in making films like, respectively, 1955’s “Les Diaboliques” (remade here as “Diabolique” in 1996) and 1960’s “Purple Noon” (remade as “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in 1999, based on the Highsmith crime series).

“There’s been a constant interaction between Hollywood and France,” Lanzoni says. “It’s a French cinema that’s reacting to and trying to find the best in American popular culture.”

“Once upon a time, we used to make great thrillers ourselves,” Sarris says. “We don’t lead the way so much [anymore], at least the mainstream doesn’t.”

When Hollywood tries to remake the French thrillers, however, the new versions usually suffer by comparison. This summer’s “Unfaithful” was a reworking of Chabrol’s 1969 “La Femme Infidele,” and 2000’s “Under Suspicion,” with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, was a remake of Miller’s 1981 “Garde a Vue.”

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Most critics agreed that the originals were more psychologically nuanced than the new versions.

Miller says that though he’s happy the remake kept the themes of morality from the original, he notes that they aged the little girl victim in the original to a 12-year-old. “I think it was fear. Hollywood was not daring enough,” he says.

The studio impulse is usually to smooth down the edges. “A lot of big stars here will not play certain roles that are completely unsympathetic,” and that limits the range of behavior Hollywood films can explore, Sarris says.

Polan adds, “A friend of mine said one of the ironies is Hollywood will always go to a foreign culture, incorporate it, and then specifically eliminate the thing you would have thought they went to the foreign culture for. So basically [they’re] taking out of these films everything that made them interesting as ambiguous thrillers.”

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A steady stream of new French psychological thrillers will be flowing stateside next year.

Coline Serrau’s “Chaos” is scheduled to open in January, and “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,” a romantic comedy spin on the genre starring “Amelie’s” Audrey Tautou, is slated for February.

Patrice Leconte’s “L’Homme du Train” (The Man on the Train), about two strangers who decide to swap identities after meeting on a train, will also open next year, and the controversial Cannes entry “Irreversible,” with Monica Belluci and “Read My Lips’ ” Vincent Cassel, arrives in March.

After somewhat of a migration to television in the past two decades, “there seems to be a comeback of this [thriller] genre in recent years in France in terms of popularity with the movie audience,” Miller says.

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Andre Chautard is an occasional contributor to Calendar.


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