There’s a man dancing in an edgeland. It’s a damp, empty landscape made of grey, sticky mud. There’s a burst tire next to a large pool of water where the man has parked his car. It’s a cheap car that fits in with the hopelessness of the surroundings. Paris high-rises haunt the skyline in the distance; this is the very edge of the city, forgotten vistas where no one comes. And yet here’s this man. At first he seems nervous, looking around with the wide eyes of an animal as if expecting to be attacked. He runs back to his car like he’s running for cover from the firing of a gun, slowly stepping back out into the mud, about to reach for something hidden within his coat. A gun of his own? He pulls out a personal stereo player and hits the play button. He begins to bop to the rhythm of the music that it plays, putting the stereo onto the car bonnet as he dances a waltz through the rubbish with a woman who isn’t there.
This is the opening of Alain Corneau’s Série Noire (1979), an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s noir novel, A Hell Of A Woman (1954). Unlike Thompson’s novel, the film opens with a sequence that suggests nothing but the sadness and desperation of the lead character. Corneau had help with the adaptation from Georges Perec and I believe that this marks one of the reasons for this opening; where the linking of an edgeland marks the loneliness and attitude of the main character, soon be shown as unstable, violent and manipulative. The film follows this character, Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere), a desperate door-to-door salesman, as he hatches a plan with an underage prostitute, Mona (Marie Trintignant), to steal the money she has earned from her Aunt (Jeanne Herviale) whose house she lives and works from. The plan becomes complicated by both the character’s suspicious boss and the fact that the young girl is playing games of her own (whilst falling in love with him, so he believes).
This opening scene is, however, a concoction of Corneau’s and Perec’s alone rather than Thompson’s. The writer opens his novel with a scene further on into the film when the man finally meets the girl and builds her trust by not sleeping with her; people are at the heart of the film and, therefore, take centre stage straight away. What is it about this scene that made it ripe material for opening the film rather than sticking with the novel? This landscape is returned to regularly, always in the character’s car as it is far out in the suburbs, still then being built as the cranes in the shot shows. It is a landscape of planning and scheming. The first problem that concerned the screenwriter and director was how to transfer the tone of this typically American novel to France without too much rupture. Perec was enlisted to work specifically on this problem as detailed in a behind the scenes news report that interviewed both the writer and the director. Perec seems at first an unusual choice, especially as his role specifically relates to dialogue and considering how often his novels are devoid of it. But Perec needed money quickly and turned to cinema for a more regular income than publishing novels.
Yet there’s something very much Perec-esque about this opening; it’s pointlessness to the narrative showcasing a detailed quirk of the main character, essential to understanding his mentality. Everything that occurs in the film can be considered as a knock-on effect of this character’s instability. Therefore, a scene showing the range of his deluded nature and fantasies arguably foreshadows the whole of the film. Perec suggests in the interview to coincide with the film’s production that there was a certain zooming-in narrative effect that, though now present in novels (and his work) thanks to post-modernism, was actually something more owing to cinematic narratives; the audience subjected to a closer and closer inspection of a particular problem. It mirrors his own narrative practice, especially Life A User’s Manual (1978) which gradually builds interconnecting narratives into a housing block by getting closer and closer to the lives of the individuals who live there (and in a level of extreme detail). Film arguably does this too albeit in a far more accessible and less experimental way as description of the surroundings and action is not needed. The right mise-en-scène can detail what would take pages of prose in a novel.
I like to imagine, however, how the opening of Série Noire would look in the style of Perec’s prose if it was to be reproduced on the page. The amount of detail would be spectacular; the information of the area in which it’s taking place, what is happening there (including an itinerary of the building plans currently in place), what was there before, the make and design of the man’s car and where he bought it, the history of the music that plays on the little stereo and a detailed description of the dance that the man performs. Broken down into what is actually shown, the viewer not only gets a sense of how isolated the character is and his own potential social position as an outcast, but a huge array of information that has certain accumulative effects as the film progresses. The rest of Corneau’s film is more typical of that period of noirs; what I sometimes call ice-noir. It’s a genre perfected by Jean-Pierre Melville, especially with Un Flic (1972) but also found as an aesthetic in quieter films, including Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). Série Noire uses this aesthetic throughout but adds extra layers to it through Perec and his influence of detail; where a man dancing in a forgotten muddy patch of land outside of Paris gains meaning, humanity and necessity in ways almost impossible to fully relate.