From Honest Thief to Media Sociopath

American Culture through French Film Noir

The relationship between France and the USA has never been easy. From 1944 on, despite and also because of their military alliance, it has been one of constant tension and mutual attraction-repulsion. Echoing the passionate dichotomy of many intimate personal relationships, political and cultural relations between the two trans-Atlantic powers echo Catullus’ classic phrase : odi et amo. French ambivalence towards the US during the post-war period has been analysed from many angles (eg. Kuisel 1993 ; Gildea 2002 : 8-12 ; Revel 2003 ; Ross 1995). This article examines the on-going evolution of this love-hate relationship through the refractory prism of classic and contemporary French film noir. I begin with a definition of noir style and justification for my approach. Next, I briefly review four key texts in order to demonstrate how evolving French attitudes to and visions of American culture have been embedded in the plots and thematics of French noir. The main thrust of my argument will be presented through an analysis of Bertrand Tavernier’s 1993 feature, LAppât/The Bait, a film which has been read as a scathing indictment of American media-materialism and cultural hegemony.

Noir is often defined in relation to specific historical moments, as with classic American noir, for black and white Hollywood noir-style films made during the 1940s and 1950s (see Hayward 1996 : 116-121) and neo-noir for more recent examples. However, for the purposes of this paper, I shall define noir more broadly, as a cinematic sensibility, a trans-cultural, trans-historical trans-genre phenomenon. This broad definition places in the noir canon, films that display the following stylistic and thematic features :

1) visually dark composition, at least for key moments in the narrative

2) the association of crime and eroticism, or desire and death, often crystallising in the figure of the femme fatale

3) moral ambiguity, problematisation of boundaries between good and evil

4) an underlying sense of pessimism, fatalism and paranoia

5) absence of positive closure : good does not triumph.

In terms of the justification for seeing French film noir as reflective of French attitudes to American culture, the answer, as others have observed, lies in noir’s constitutive hybridity. Firstly, classic noir is a French critical construct of an American film phenomenon. French critic Nino Frank writing for LÉcran français coined the term in 1946, after viewing a considerable number of cynical American crime thrillers made during WWII. Panorama du film noir, the seminal work on classic noir, recently re-edited in translation, was written by two other French film commentators (Borde and Chaumeton 1955 ; 2002). Secondly, even before its inception as critical construct, film noir emerged out of a trans-Atlantic dialogue. While seen by many as quintessentially American, noir had its visual and thematic roots in European cinema : German expressionism of the 1920s and French poetic realism of the 1930s (Hirsch 1999 : 67-76 ; O’Brien 1996) the latter heavily inflected by the former during the political upheavals of pre-WWII fascist-dominated Europe. The link is cemented by the group of European émigré directors and technicians behind much classic noir. Most were Jewish, many had lived and worked in France (Wilder, Siodmak, Lang, Litvak), one was a French national (Tourneur). Closely linked to this phenomenon is the number of classic noir remakes of French poetic realist films, some of which were themselves adaptations of American hard-boiled fiction1. The French critics rightly recognized the social critique implicit or explicit in classic noir : the association of crime and lust represents the dark side of capitalism : the malaise inherent in the system. French noir in its turn, has often defined itself against the “classic American model”, and not infrequently, against the culture which that model implies (Wilson 1999 : 69). For all of these reasons, therefore, noir can be seen as the perfect cinematic vehicle for an examination of French attitudes to American culture.

The post-WWII period, which saw the baptism, if not the birth of classic noir, also corresponds to the confirmation of USA as the leading world power, both politically and in terms of film production. As mentioned, it is the beginning of a passionate love-hate relationship between France and the USA that endures to this day : viz. French opposition to the recent war in Iraq. The French attitude to the United States after the euphoria of the liberation in 1944 oscillates between two opposite poles. French gratitude for American intervention in WWII is tinged with bitterness at its erstwhile ally’s late entry into the hostilities and anxiety over its intended future role : protector or occupier. By 1947, uncertainties had crystallised into outright resentment, as details of the Marshall plan made the debt of gratitude seem more like the proverbial pound of flesh. In terms of the film industry, the infamous Blum-Byrnes agreements of 1946, reserving a mere 13 weeks per annum for local production, were seen as a betrayal. And indeed, the opening up of the French cinema market did result in a dramatic drop in French production’s market share : from 45% in 1944-47 to a mere 25% in 1947-50, while American market share rose from 40% to 50% over the same period.

In such a context, it is hardly surprising that French admiration for American technological know-how, military and economic might go hand in hand with jealousy, resentment and fear. The process of modernisation —inextricably linked, in the Gallic mind with America— thus represents, for many, a form of cultural imperialism or “coca-colonisation” (Kuisel : 52-69) and a phenomenon of future shock. From the 1950s on, French filmmakers, particularly those making French noir, have expressed aspects of this ambivalence in their work. It is clearly beyond the scope of this paper to retrace the phenomenon in detail, so the following summary will be perilously brief.

The positive pole is perhaps best represented by the Bob le Flambeur/Bob the Gambler (1955), the first in a long line of American-inspired French gangster noir movies directed by self-confessed Americanophile, Jean-Pierre Melville and recently re-made by Neil Jordan as The Honest Thief of my title (aka The Good Thief, 2001). In Melville’s original, American culture, equated with a positive process of technological modernisation combined with the ultimate cool of Jazz, blends harmoniously with the more classically bohemian chic of post-war Montmartre. The eponymous hero is a charming blend of the two cultures. Wearing the classic trench-coat, driving an enormous yet sleek American convertible, frequenting ultra-trendy jazz clubs, Bob is nonetheless the quintessential Parisian, born and raised a mile from Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge. The music score echoes the cultural blend, moving smoothly throughout the film from jazz to traditional French accordéon, strings and three-beat waltz. Likewise, the process of modernisation appears as a positive and harmonious one : neon signs, mechanized street sweepers and American sailors seem only to invest the old-world Parisian streets with even greater charm.

Other examples of 1950s French noir are more ambivalent. In LAscenseur pour léchafaud/Lift to the Scaffold (1957), Louis Malle seems torn between admiration and mistrust for this same process. The filmmaker chose to shoot in almost exclusively modern locations : concrete office buildings, neon-lit streets and France’s first motel, situated just outside Paris, off the equally new motorway, were intended to give a feeling of futuristic alienation. The protagonist, seemingly at home in this environment, is nonetheless ultimately betrayed by it. He is inadvertently trapped for two days in an ultra-modern lift, which almost leads to him being caught for a murder he has just committed. Meanwhile, his racy new convertible is stolen, which leads to his wrongful implication in another murder. And finally, when it seems he and his mistress (whose evil husband he has eliminated) will get off scot-free, they are implicated by a series of photos taken with his state-of-the-art camera.

Though dedicated to Monogram pictures and, on the whole, nostalgically celebratory of modernity and American culture, Godard’s first feature, the anti-noir classic À bout de souffle/Breathless (1960), nonetheless displays elements of a not dissimilar ambivalence. It is difficult to escape reading the relationship between the central couple of Michel and Patricia as a “transatlantic exchange” (Wilson 1999 : 71). Their somewhat ambivalent, I love you, I love you not interaction and Patricia’s final betrayal point towards the aggressive anti-Americanism of much of Godard’s later work.

In line with Godard’s increasingly negative view of things American, though stylistically less innovative, Chabrol’s 1986 suspense drama, Masques/Masks is the first French noir, to my knowledge, to openly denounce American inspired media manipulation and consumerism. In this film, Philippe Noiret plays Legagneur (The Winner !), a cloying, overbearing TV game show host whose affable mask hides a cruelly contemptuous sociopathic monster.

The conclusion one draws from an analysis of French noir from the 1950s to today, from the celebratory gangster films of Melville, through Malle and Godard’s ambiguous first features, to the more sombre contemporary works of Claude Chabrol and Bertrand Tavernier is that, the love-hate relationship remains as strong as ever. And although I would not want to suggest a simple, linear progression, by and large, images of American culture in French noir have become increasingly negative. Tellingly, even in the relatively pro-American period of the 1980s, American influence was still felt by the French public to be excessive in the areas of television and cinema in particular (Kuisel : 225). In the following section, I will look particularly at how current issues of American media-materialism and cultural hegemony are woven into Tavernier’s 1993 feature, LAppât/The Bait.

Loosely adapted from Morgan Sportès novel of the same name, recounting a news story (the Valéria Subra case) that had shocked the French nation in 1992, the film tells how three fairly ordinary French teenagers, Eric, his aspiring model girlfriend Nathalie, and not very bright side-kick, Bruno, become sucked into a downward spiral of criminality and cold-blooded murder. Apparently drugged on a cultural diet of American thrillers and an Americanised consumer-driven French media, their one ambition is to move to the States and make their fortune in the rag trade. The problem : money. The boys are both unemployed and Nat’s present salary as a salesgirl barely keeps them in food and cigarettes. The solution : they will use Nat’s contacts and charm to gain entrance to the apartments of wealthy middle-aged Parisians, whose bulging safes they will empty, all the better to finance their own American Dream. The dream, of course, turns into a nightmare : they end up torturing then murdering the victims, making next to nothing out of the “jobs” and are finally arrested.

On the surface, Tavernier’s film reads as an indictment of American globalising media-culture. Critical discourse around the film, in noting this, has generally fallen into two camps, according to whether or not the critic finds the characters plausible and the indictment worthwhile or justified. Chris Darke, reviewing the film for Sight and Sound, thinks not :

Tavernier’s teenagers are identikit victims of modern consumer society, and when it comes to assigning symptomatic reasons for their casual criminality it’s a matter of rounding up the usual suspects. American cinema, video culture and game shows are proposed as perpetuating a culture of celebrity and hyper-acquisitive capitalism. However, Tavernier’s take on these hardly qualifies as an analysis, condemning a soulless, international (read American) visual culture for having corrupted youth is more of a knee-jerk reflex of symptomatic moralism.
(Darke 1995 : 43)

On the other hand, Stephen Hay (who devotes a chapter of his monograph on Tavernier to The Bait) heaps praise on the filmmaker for

his most devastating attack on the alliance between commercial television and American capitalist culture, depicting a society in which the saturation of French youth with Hollywood’s message had created a generation whose identity relied totally on beliefs formed through conformist materialism masquerading as individualism.
(Hay 2000 : 170-71)

Hay also mentions Tavernier’s extensive knowledge of and admiration for American cinema : the filmmaker had previously co-authored a book on the subject (Tavernier and Coursodon 1991). In his passionate cinephilia and equally passionate relationship to American film and culture, Tavernier is the quintessential French filmmaker. I will argue that his film, beyond (rather than simply against) the critical discourse, reveals itself to be much more than an anti-American pamphlet. The film’s social critique targets elements that are every bit as European, as French in origin, if not universal, as they are products of American cultural imperialism.

Undeniably, The Bait points the finger at American mass-culture. From a surface reading, Eric, Nat and Bruno have been corrupted by Hollywood, by its images that seem to promote the normalisation of violence and the unscrupulous pursuit of individual gain. For the three, America represents the ultimate object of desire : things American are seen as always, already infinitely bigger, better, hotter, cooler than things French. Julia Roberts earns more than Isabelle Adjani ; Budweiser is superior to French beer ; hip-hop is naturally hipper than French rock ; no doubt, Steven Seagal would be seen as a better film-maker than Bertrand Tavernier… And over there, where there is no pesky bureaucracy to impose taxes on business, anyone with a few smarts and a bit of capital can make it rich. Hay’s chapter is deft and thorough in exposing the ridiculousness and superficiality of the characters’ belief systems. On another level though, the author seems blind to his text’s own internal contradictions. At several points, the media-driven consumerism of contemporary French society depicted in the film is described as an imported American capitalist conspiracy or disease :

The society they survive in is infested with a commercial ideology that equates success with the possession of specific items, driving French youth to buy, wear, eat, drink and watch, in particular, American goods, under the clear advertising warnings that lacking them represents a failure to acquire the only image which confirms your position as an accepted member of society.
(Hay 2000 : 172)

And yet, when one lists the many status objects mentioned in the film : Mont Blanc pen, Piaget watch, Mercedes cars, Hermès scarf, Cartier jewellery, Rolex, Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati, one cannot help noticing that all are quite conspicuously, well, un-American…

In Hay’s article, America functions as a sign for the perceived ills of media-driven consumer capitalism. (In this respect, I am more in agreement with Darke, however I hope to show that the film is ultimately less reductionist than this critic claims.) Moreover, this sign is in many ways a projection, firstly, of certain fears on the part of the French film industry at the prospect of a totally American dominated world film market, a point I will return to in the final section. Secondly, this America is a target for the projection of undesirable, aspects of French society, or, dare I say, of human nature. Hay reads the protagonists’ preoccupation with beauty, wealth, power and status, as the products of American-inspired consumer-capitalism. But to do so is confusing cause with effect. Such preoccupations are the underlying causes rather than the products of the consumerism and image-consciousness of contemporary society, on both sides of the Atlantic. In its enumeration of European status symbols, the film clearly reveals this.

The film shows that consumerism and image-consciousness are the products, not of American capitalism, but of a universal human desire for beauty, wealth, power, status and its symbols. Moreover, the basic plot highlights the fact that what underlies these obsessions is none other than the age-old human socio-sexual system built on the sexual division of labour : exchange of wealth by dominant males for sexual access to young, desirable (i.e. healthy and fertile) females. Men seek power, wealth and status because these are the prime attributes that will increase their chances in the mating game. Conversely, women are obsessed with their image because it is beauty, above all, that increases a woman’s chances of attracting a superior mate and gaining access to resources that have traditionally been controlled by men. Economic resources for sexual favours : this is the dynamic that enables Nathalie to play The Bait, setting the trap for her victims, apparently turning the patriarchal power-game to her and her boyfriend’s advantage. The irony is twofold. Firstly, the three friends will be caught in their own trap. Secondly, even if they had succeeded in their plan, the wealth they seek, their American Dream, is also shown to be the bait in another more universal trap, a point I shall return to presently.

So, Nat feigns attraction to further her career ; the men feign an interest in her career and welfare to get sex. It is a grotesque, banal and inherently dishonest commerce, each party attempting to dupe and exploit the other, each wanting to get out of the transaction more than they are prepared to put in. It is a game in which all parties are cheats. Because she is young, inexperienced and relatively powerless, trying to survive and make her mark in a still male-dominated society, Nat gains a certain amount of initial audience sympathy. This is counterbalanced by her somewhat vain superficiality. Still, to what extent can we blame her for using the only weapon she has ? In the expository restaurant sequence, where we see Nat and her friend “at work”, making contacts, Tavernier’s script, camera-work and mise-en-scène, all underline the fact that the young women are viewed by the men exclusively in terms of their physique (and the men exclusively in terms of their wealth and status).

In the relationship between the young protagonists, Nat and Eric, the dynamic is different, much more equal, in terms of age, economic status (both come from middle-class backgrounds and have yet to make a career) and sexual terms (the attraction is mutual). Nonetheless, Nat must struggle to assert herself against Eric’s often paternalistic, macho comments and behaviour. In one scene, he casually enquires of her boss whether “the kid is doing a good job”. In another, he takes his ironing to his grandmother’s, who enquires “doesn’t Nathalie know how to iron ?” Eric defends Nat saying that she works, however it never occurs to either that perhaps he might iron his own trousers ! In scene after scene, the young couple are shown to be caught up in age-old patriarchal socio-sexual power structures. It is these structures, combined with employment difficulties and breakdowns in their family relationships, that lead to their succumbing to the media-driven materialism which will ultimately lead them to murder.

At this point I will take a very brief look at the contemporary socio-economic issues depicted in the film. Firstly, the breakdown of the family : Nat’s parents are divorced and she has little contact with her father. Secondly, youth unemployment : Eric and Bruno’s slide into crime is precipitated by their failure to keep down a job. The early 1990s saw record highs in French unemployment : 11.8% by the end of 1993, second only to Italy in the developed world. Thirdly, the effects of globalisation on the French economy : the French clothing industry is portrayed as being in decline due to (perceived) excessively high taxes and wages which drive companies to manufacture offshore in the third world. Eric mentions Naf Naf, the French label that has made a killing in the States by following the same practices. The film thus alludes to the fact that French companies also have a stake in global capitalism and to their role in aggravating unemployment and by extension, crime, in the developed world. Finally, the film highlights French capitalist greed and dishonesty : Eric’s father is facing tax evasion charges, and an allusion is made to the corruption and scandals that dogged French political life in the 1990s in the televised images of the flamboyant and controversial Bernard Tapie2. In all the above examples, the film shows that the gangrene eating away at the fabric of French society is, in many respects, home-grown.

The three’s fixation with the States as the land of opportunity and their adulation of American cinema crystallise in their obsessive viewing of de Palma’s Scarface (1983). De Palma’s remake of Howard Hawk’s 1932 classic, is set in 1980, when Castro used an amnesty for would-be emigrants to empty out his prisons. Starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana, the story tells of the rise and fall of a Cuban immigrant, a small-time criminal who arrives in Florida with nothing but his wits, and manages to claw his way to the top as a gang boss and drug lord. The extract we see in The Bait comes at a pivotal moment in the protagonist’s rise to power. Realising he has been double-crossed by his gang leader, he will turn the tables, have him eliminated and take his place. For audiences unfamiliar with de Palma’s film, the reference will signify the boys’ desire to fulfil their own American Dream by emulating a violent and unscrupulous American gangster. The extract would thus appear to function as a kind of mise en abyme (a miniaturised reflection) of Tavernier’s film. I will argue that the relationship between the two is far more disjunctive and that the significance of the Scarface reference, in its points of contrast with Tavernier’s text, is to underline the protagonists’ misreading of their fetish film and the culture it embodies.

Indeed, the element of misreading is already implied by the mode of viewing. The three watch a dubbed French tape, i.e. an inferior third-hand (even subtitles are never perfect) version of the original. In France, English-language films are available in both dubbed and subtitled versions, so the choice indicates a level of ignorance, pointing towards the protagonists’ failure to accurately read the film. Moreover, there happens to be a translation error in Nat’s favourite line, which she repeats in one scene. Pacino says in French : “Je suis, comment vous ditesparanoïaque”, which the subtitles faithfully render as “I’m, how do you say… paranoid”. But in the original, what Pacino says is “I aint how you say… paranoid” (my emphasis). A detail perhaps, especially since the character clearly is paranoid (he has to be to survive) but the point of de Palma’s dialogue in this scene is Montana’s denial and lack of self-knowledge. So, the French text of the dubbed extract, blithely assimilated by the three, is shown to be inherently subject to cultural mistranslation.

It is a misreading that extends to the film as a whole, namely that Scarface is an illustration of Hollywood glorification of crime and violence. Anyone familiar with this film will remember it as an unequivocal critique of the falseness and emptiness of the American Dream when it is a) reduced to wealth, image and status, since even when the character has it all, happiness eludes him ; and b) built on crime and violence, since he who lives by the sword will inevitably die by the sword.

Which brings us to the central character, Tony Montana. Given that he is the principal role model for our protagonists, what is it that makes this character a hero ? It is neither his overwhelming ambition nor the fact that he is a violent gangster. What makes Tony Montana the hero of Scarface is above all his courage and sense of honour. As the character puts it : “I got two things, my balls and my word”. These are the qualities that set him apart : guts, street-wise intelligence, loyalty and personal values, an integrity that his adversaries in the film blatantly lack. Tragically, it is this integrity that will be his undoing. The downward spiral that ends with Montana’s death is set in motion when he refuses to go ahead with a bomb attack because the intended victim is accompanied by his wife and children. My point, in relation to The Bait, is that when the film’s aspiring gangsters are put into situations in which they face similar existential and ethical choices to those of their hero, they fail entirely to live up to his example. Neither smart nor brave, Eric doesn’t really have the stomach for murder, preferring to let his partner Bruno do the dirty work. But in the end, Eric will stab to death, in cold blood, a fellow Jew, a “brother”, and father of a young child, who has done him no personal harm. Finally, the three also fail to see the moral lessons implicit in their Hollywood screen hero’s trajectory : money as the greatest trap of all. Even when crime does pay, it does not buy love, happiness and peace of mind.

Hay’s reading of The Bait’s protagonists is that “they have been anaesthetised by their cultural diet”. For cultural diet, read American-driven consumerism. For American-driven consumerism, read American cinema, namely, violent action and horror movies and noir-inspired thrillers like Scarface. But Scarface, as we have seen, is not a film that would anaesthetize in this way, unless misread by spectators already in some way lacking in knowledge and/or moral values. As Tavernier explains :

I try to show that there is no single culprit. No single explanation. The fascination with American images wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t go hand in hand with a certain impression of collective disengagement and loss of values […] We live in a world that has lost its safeguard mechanisms : education, religion, political commitment, trade unionism, family.
(Le Nouvel Observateur, 2 mars 1995. In Dehée 2000 : 278 ; my trans.)

What I hope to have shown is that Tavernier’s portrayal of both American culture and the underlying causes of contemporary French social malaise is indeed more complex, more nuanced and less self-righteously moralising than has been recognised. As we have seen, the film highlights the difficulty in accurately reading and representing the cultural Other. Just as the protagonists’ vision of Les States is a fantasy projection of their own desires, the negative vision of American culture portrayed in The Bait is as much a projection of certain fears and failings of French society itself as it is an analysis of the impact on that society of American consumer capitalism. The film shows that while coca-colonisation is still a major concern, the ills that plague contemporary France are anchored deeper within its own society and, to some extent, in the human condition. I do not mean in any way to suggest that these are therefore unsolvable. What I do mean is that no real progress is made by their wholesale projection onto mythified images of American crime and violence or American-led globalisation.

This said, I will move on to examine the reasons behind the indisputably negative vision of American mass-culture offered in The Bait. As I have suggested, these clearly relate back to broader issues in Franco-American relations, namely French and European fears of American-dominated globalisation and monopolization of the world film market. For the last 60 years, one might even say 80, the popularity and sheer mass of American film product has been a constantly growing threat to national film industries in Europe. And as European film industry leader, France has been particularly sensitive to Hollywood domination. The French response has been a multi-pronged defensive-counter attack : a series of fiscal measures including taxes on box-office, compulsory funding of local film production by French television companies, quotas, subsidies and trade barriers that continue to support and protect its local film industry to this day (Fournier Lanzoni 2002 : 351-57). Without state support, in a totally free-trade environment, the French film industry could not hope to maintain its position, indeed its very survival would be jeopardised (witness the decline in the British film industry following dismantlement of its state-funded financial support system late 1970s). French filmmakers are acutely aware of this. Tavernier himself has played a particularly active part, before during and after the making of this film, notably in campaigning for lexception culturelle (the exclusion of film and other cultural products from global free trade agreements) in the GATT negotiations of 1993.

Tavernier’s personal battle with Hollywood continued long after the making of The Bait. In 1999, he was involved in a very public dispute with Steven Spielberg, neatly summarised by Australian critic Neil McDonald as :

pretty spectacular, nothing less than a complaint from the American that French support for their film industry violated the principles of the free market. Tavernier’s reaction had been explosive. He pointed out that France had only a fraction of its own market, which was swamped by American product. Tavernier was a formidable adversary.
(McDonald 2001 : 65)

In this case, the Americans were forced to back down on the issue, lexception culturelle won the day and France has continued to foster and protect its national film industry, though for how long, is unsure.

The battle for French and other European cinemas to maintain their national specificity and cultural integrity against the Goliath that is Hollywood is thus a very real one and surely, one worth fighting for. While less simplistically anti-American than has been argued, Tavernier’s agenda in The Bait, conceived during a period of GATT negotiations, when American share of the French box-office was just under 60%, and almost double that of local production, when cinema attendance in France was at an all-time low, is thus explainable in terms of national cinemas’ fight to survive in an increasingly free global market context. It is also defensible in terms of cultural diversity, in that the loss of national cinemas, as the cultural equivalent to the extinction of species, would result in the further impoverishment of our global cultural heritage.

  1. 1Eg. Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945), after Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) ; Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night (1947) after Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939) ; Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), after Pierre Chenal’s Le dernier tournant (1939).
  2. 2A prominent public figure, Tapie rose to fame in the 1980s, as an entrepreneurial wiz-kid, later becoming involved in politics, and more recently, television, cinema and theatre. But in the 1990s, his career nose-dived, and at the time of The Baits release, his name and image had become synonymous with financial and political hubris, dishonesty and scandal.