Video: A tour through French noir

What makes French film noir French? Dive down to the lowest depths with our video abstract, charting six key Gallic characteristics of cinema’s most alluringly brooding genre.

Cristina Álvarez López , Adrian Martin

As Ginette Vincendeau reminded us almost quarter of a century ago in The Movie Book of Film Noir, “Noir is also a French word.” The intermixing of the poetic realism of the 1930s (in the films of Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir, among others) with traditions of crime drama both homegrown and imported led to the rich flowering of a French noir tradition that would strongly endure for at least four decades.

Some elements of French noir we recognise retrospectively, looking back (as it were) from vantage point of the later, almost over-adored American version: fatalism, doomed lovers, a melancholic portrait of city life and a visual style that borrows and develops lighting effects and camera angles from German Expressionist cinema.

But other elements strike us as being very different from Noir USA: the emphasis on everyday life and labour; a sharper analysis of fraught racial and cultural relations, even within the most exotic Kasbah; an earthier, sometimes infinitely more perverse sexuality; and a refusal of last-minute, happy-ending resolutions.

Our video essay offers a tour through French noir. In this montage, it matters little if you cannot recognise each individual film as it appears in the montage, or have yet to see it for the first time. What counts is to soak in the atmosphere, to bask in the radiant faces, and to note the recurrent tropes, moods and themes. That’s what any film genre is, after all: a pool of shared details that can be combined and varied in multiple ways, according to the wit and inventiveness of those filmmakers drawn to the task. And French noir, from Renoir’s A Night at the Crossroads (1932) to Jean-Pierre Melville’s ultra-stylish, retro films of the 1960s, is unflaggingly inventive.

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