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2004-12-06 10:40 AM
Ni Pour Ni Contre
This review originally appeared in issue #2 of CRIME SPREE magazine.
I'd watched AMELIE about thirty times and transcribed it into Final Draft--there was no choice; the screenplay wasn't available--so I went looking for other movies made by the same people. The cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, had a bunch listed at IMDb, but only one other Delbonnel title was available in the US on DVD: CAT'S MEOW, a 2001 Bogdanovitch movie in which Eddie Izzard plays Charlie Chaplin.
Ordered it, watched it, went hunting again. Amazon France had something called NI POUR NI CONTRE (BIEN AU CONTRAIRE). In English: NEITHER FOR NOR AGAINST (QUITE TO THE CONTRARY). Expensive. I ordered it.
What isn't complained about widely (because it doesn't affect anyone but obsessives, and they're too busy to complain) is that DVDs from one country often don't work in DVD players from another. This isn't because (as with videotapes) they're recorded on incompatible equipment. It's because a "region code" can be inserted on each disc to prevent people in certain parts of the world from watching it on local DVD players.
Which is why the first two times I watched NI POUR NI CONTRE, it was on my laptop, which would allow me to "switch regions" only five times before it locked my choice. Even on a 15" LCD screen, at less-than-optimal resolution, this is a cool little movie--but when CRIME SPREE asked me to write something about it, I bought a hackable region-free DVD player (long story, different article) so I could see it on an actual television. Which is still a long way from seeing it in the theatre, but CRIME SPREE wouldn't spring for the trans-Atlantic airfare and the time machine voyage. Bastards.
I have to give you the spoiler warning, which is this: Because you're not likely to go to the considerable trouble of finding this movie and getting it to play on a US system unless I make it sound really interesting, I'm going to spill beans of the variety that critics should never spill. If you like the beans, maybe you'll go through the hassle of finding and viewing the movie. (If you've already got plans to go to the movies in France three years ago, stop reading.)
NI POUR NI CONTRE is one of the niftiest little psychological crime movies I've come across. Cool and stylish are part of the story; it's also very funny in parts, disturbing in others, and sometimes both simultaneously. The top-notch casting and acting and the restrained, edgy music work perfectly with a rougher-edged visual feel than an AMELIE fan might expect from cinematographer Delbonnel: In darker moments, people become silhouettes against points or patterns of dim light.
But as viscerally effective as they are, these things are oregano and parsley: you probably don't want to eat entire bowls of them straight. You probably want them used to enhance the flavor of actual food. It's the story of NI POUR NI CONTRE that kept my test audience (three women, me) talking about it after it ended. The main point of discussion and contention was sparked by the question "Why would she go with Creepy Guy in the first place?" In an email a couple days later, Denise wrote this:
I think that's astute, and reason enough to track down the disc even if you're not a crime fan. What none of my audience brought up, though--probably because they haven't spent a lot of time being corrupted by mystery people--is that NI POUR NI CONTRE is a modern film noir gem.
Criminals, fatal misjudgements, darkness, a bleak view of humanity, the femme fatale--we've seen these before, and in their usual proportions and mixtures, they're played out. It wasn't until afterward, though, that I realized I'd been watching noir at all--but an inside-out version. The main character is the femme fatale, but this isn't at all obvious at first. We watch her transformation from "plain vanilla chick" (okay, the English subtitles are a little wonky in spots) to someone resembling what Lisa Hordnes calls "the dark, sexual, and active spider-woman." Unlike her classic predecessors, however, this femme fatale isn't punished or destroyed. Or at least, not in the way you might--
Well, that would be telling.
The noir angle seemed a good angle for CRIME SPREE, but the truth is, it's not why I like this movie. I like it because it's great. I like it because it's cool, stylish, and interesting. I like it because Marie Gillain is perfect and likeable as the unexpected Caty, and everybody else in the ensemble of thugs is perfect as well. I like it because the cinematography, production design, costumes, and music are all excellent, and because that all adds up to an excellent director: CĂ©dric Klapisch, new subject of my current DVD quest. But really, as is the case whenever anybody tries to say why they like something, I just like it because I like it. It's good. I want you to see it.
There are plot contrivances and nitpicks, but they're far less glaring than the dead chauffeur in THE BIG SLEEP. They mattered to two of my test screeners, but not enough to dim anyone's interest or enjoyment.
Maybe I just don't realize that in France they're cranking stylish, thought-provoking little crime thrillers out like escargot picks. Let me know. I'll move.
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Thanks to Gary Niebuhr and the Queens test audience: Kathleen Haaversen, Fran Toliver, and Denise Broadhurst.
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