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- Author: Philippe Met x
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This overview charts the evolution from the 1950s to the 1980s of the French detective or crime film (le polar). Proto-noir films shot before World War II had been primarily centred on Paris, a trend furthered in post-war works which regularly conjoined seedy Pigalle and the glamorous Champs-Elysées as two sides of the same coin. From Jacques Becker (Casque d’or, 1952; Grisbi, 1954) to Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Doulos, 1962; Le Samouraï, 1967) via Jules Dassin (Rififi, 1955), a gradual shift toward suburban locales takes place around new genre conventions and motifs. The suburbs variously lend themselves to hideouts, shootouts and executions; to the sale of all things illegal or counterfeit; to the gloomy atmospherics of railway tracks, deserted roadways and abandoned villas. A subsequent generation of directors would exploit the multi-faceted social and geographical reality of the modern housing estates that encroached upon traditional allotments of single-family homes and pockets of suburban wasteland; Henri Verneuil’s mainstream caper Mélodie en sous-sol (1963) thus portrays a disorientatingly mutating Sarcelles. Most decisively, Alain Corneau’s naturalistic noirs Série noire (1979) and Choix des armes(1981) add a sociological dimension to the genre by broaching questions of violence, alienation and devastation.
Long before the emergence in the 1990s of a ‘cinéma de banlieue’ on the heels of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), French filmmakers looked beyond the gates of the French capital for inspiration and content. In the Paris suburbs, they found a vast reservoir of architectural forms, landscapes and contemporary social types in which to anchor their fictions. From the villas and vacant lots of silent serials of the 1910s and the bucolic riverside guinguettes of 1930s poetic realism, to the housing estates and motorways of the second post-war, the suburban landscape came to form a privileged site in the French cinematographic imaginary. In keeping with directorial vision, the prerogatives of the film industry or the internal demands of genre, the suburb could be made to impart a strong impression of reality or unreality, novelty or ordinariness, danger or enjoyment. The contributors to this volume argue collectively for a long history of the suburban imaginary by contrasting diverse ‘structures of feeling’ (Raymond Williams) that correlate to divergent aesthetic and ideological programmes. Commenting on narrative, documentary and essay films, they address such themes as class conflict, leisure, boredom, violence and anti-authoritarianism, underscoring the broader function of the suburb as a site of intense cultural productivity.