Sunday, May 12, 2024

Un Flic (1972)

Un Flic (A Cop) was Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film. It’s sometimes described as a neo-noir but I’d be more inclined to see it as an existentialist crime thriller.

The opening sequence is extraordinary. It’s a very long build-up to a bank robbery. It was shot in a seaside town out of the tourist season. The streets are entirely deserted. The weather is bleak. It’s raining and there’s a driving wind. And there are these incredibly long vistas of sterile modernist architecture. The mood of alienation and utter emptiness is overwhelming. The robbers’ car (a big American car) appears to be the only automobile in the entire town. In fact, apart from the people in the bank, you could well believe that the town is uninhabited. The robbers are like dead men in a dead town.

Intercut with the robbery are scenes of a senior police detective, Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), driving through the streets of Paris in a police car and being called to various crime scenes. But the first crimes we see him investigating have no connection at all with that bank robbery.

The key details of the plot and the relations between the characters are revealed very slowly and very gradually.

This is a very minimalist film. We don’t get any backstory on any of the characters, we don’t find out how they come to be connected, we get only the sketchiest outlines of the plans of the criminals. We discover nothing of the motivations of any of the criminals. By the end of the movie all we really know about Commissaire Coleman is that he’s a cop. We’re told only what we absolutely need to be told.

Simon (Richard Crenna) runs a night-club and he’s also the leader of the criminal gang. He and Commissaire Coleman are friends although we have no idea how that friendship came to be. Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) is Simon’s mistress. She’s also Coleman’s mistress. We have no idea how this romantic triangle developed and we have no idea of the extent of these emotional attachments.

The gang is planning a much more ambitious heist, on a train.

Coleman has a lead that suggests that something criminal is going to take place on the train but he doesn’t know that there’s any connection with the bank robbery and he doesn’t know that Simon is involved in any way.

Eventually the police get a break and Coleman starts to put some of the pieces together.

What’s interesting is that apart from the main characters we see very few people at all. It’s as if the central characters are just actors on an empty stage set.

Everything in this film seems to take place in slow motion. There are two major heists and while there’s plenty of suspense there’s no sense of action or excitement. The build-up is extraordinarily slow and there’s virtually no action pay-off. At every point where you’re expecting action it just doesn’t happen.

Again all of this would appear to be deliberate. This is a heist movie but if you’re expecting anything resembling an action thriller you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. This movie has the feel of a stately European art film rather than a thriller.

The most notable thing about this movie is the extreme level of emotional detachment. The triangle between Simon, Coleman and Cathy involves all sorts of betrayals. Simon’s criminal career could be seen as a betrayal of his friendship with his friend Coleman the cop. Coleman’s determination to push ahead with the case without being swayed by his friendship for Simon could be seen as a betrayal of that friendship. Cathy’s affair with Coleman could be seen as a betrayal of Simon. Cathy’s involvement in Simon’s criminal activities could be seen as a betrayal of Coleman who is after all her lover.

But there’s no indication that any of these things matter to any of these three people. They don’t seem to be driven to any significant degree by either love or friendship. They also don’t appear to be driven by lust. The Coleman-Cathy relationship is curiously un-erotic. In fact there’s not the slightest indication of any real erotic attraction between any characters in this movie. At no point in the movie is there any emotional or erotic connection between any of the characters. Simon and Coleman are supposed to be friends but they behave like casual acquaintances. Coleman and Cathy are supposed to be lovers but the one time we see them together there’s as much emotion as you’d get between a high-class hooker and a client.

As a result the characters are more or less puppets. We see them doing things but we have no idea why they’re doing those things. Perhaps they don’t know. Perhaps they really are empty inside. My impression is that this approach is very deliberate. It’s one of the reasons I see this as an existentialist movie. The lives of the characters seem to have no meaning or purpose. There’s also more than a hint of absurdism. All of the characters are absurd and pathetic.

The train heist is a very very long very intricate sequence but it’s irrelevant to the plot. These criminals have already made an unrecoverable error by bungling the bank job, after which it’s inevitable that the police will catch them. This whole sequence conveys a sense of utter futility, of people doing very complicated things that are in fact meaningless.

All of which strengthens my conviction that this is very much an existentialist movie. I kept being reminded of Camus’ The Stranger. These are three people who are all very much alone. I think the title, Un Flic (A Cop), is very significant. Coleman is a cop. That’s all he really is. That’s all he’s got. He does his job efficiently and without emotion. If people let him down he discards them and moves on. The meaning of his life is that he’s a cop.

Some critics have fallen for the temptation to see this as a movie about problematic masculinity. In my view that says more about modern film critics and the obsessions of the 21st century than about the actual movie and the obsessions of the 1960s and 70s.

The performances are completely flat. Catherine Deneuve projects a kind of Hitchcock ice blonde vibe. There’s a bit of Kim Novak in Vertigo in her performance.

I’ve already mentioned the stunningly brilliant opening sequence. The train heist is elaborate but totally artificial in its clumsy use of miniatures (I like miniatures work in general but in this case it really is clumsy).

That’s not to say that I hated this movie. It fascinated me in its radical rejection of every convention of the crime thriller genre, and its radical and uncompromising rejection of every convention of movie-making. It’s not a thriller. It’s a remorseless exercise in absurdism, existentialism, alienation and complete aloneness.

This is not a movie for thriller fans. It’s not a neo-noir. This is very much a movie for fans of highly and coldly intellectualised European art-house movies. If that’s your thing then Un Flic does it very well. So, recommended with some caveats.

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