Tip Top: Cannes Review
Cannes (Directors’ Fortnight), May 19
Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Kiberlain, François Damiens, Aymen Saïdi, Karole Rocher
The French screen queen Isabelle Huppert works hard for deadpan laughs in this artfully deconstructed crime comedy.
A goofy French murder mystery combining broad farce with topical social commentary, Tip Top is one of the most unorthodox local productions in the Cannes lineup this year. Based on a crime thriller by British author Bill James, it evokes both vintage Jean-Luc Godard and the Coen brothers in its mix of deadpan comedy with genre-busting stylistic tics. But it is more Burn After Reading than Fargo, an overwrought experiment in cerebral slapstick that misses more targets than it hits. Only on his second feature, writer-director Serge Bozon clearly has original and ambitious ideas. But even with a strong cast led by French screen queen Isabelle Huppert, this eccentric misfire feels too bizarre to score much international interest.
On paper, the plot feels like a fairly routine police procedural. A small-time underworld informer has been killed in Villeneuve, a suburb in the northern French city of Lille with a large Algerian immigrant population. Two eccentric female detectives from the Internal Affairs department are brought in to root out rotten apples at the local precinct, inevitably arousing hostility among colleagues and suspicion in the local Arab community. As the case deepens, one high-level police officer commits suicide while another resorts to murder to cover his tracks. Meanwhile, the wife of the dead man seeks revenge on the local drug kingpin, who she suspects of orchestrating his execution.
In a bizarrely counter-intuitive move, Bozon treats this genre-style material as knockabout farce, concentrating more on the sexual kinks of the two detectives than the criminal case. The hyperactive, hard-edged Lafarge (Huppert) enjoys brutal sadomasochism sessions with her violinist husband that leave her bruised and battered but clearly savoring the erotic thrill of licking up drops of her own blood. Her ditsy partner Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a pathological voyeur, spending her lonely nights in Villeneuve spying on a naked male neighbor. The comic heart of the film is local detective Mendes (Francois Damiens), a slobbish maverick who brazenly flirts with Lafarge and Marinelli while obstructing their investigations.
French racial politics is woven into the story, sitting rather oddly alongside cartoonish characters and pointedly theatrical artifice. Most of the main characters appear to be in mixed-race relationships, with Lafarge even speaking fluent Arabic and Mendes studying Islamic teaching. Bozon sprinkles the narrative with whimsical asides about the Arab Spring, anti-Islamic racism and famous Arab figures in France, notably the French-Algerian politician Rachida Dati. Many of the jokes will be too culturally specific for foreign audiences, but some just fall flat, notably an unexpected song-and-dance interlude that tries too hard and lingers too long.
Shot in precisely composed frames, with recurring visual motifs and an eye-pleasing color palette that accentuates blue hues, Tip Top is commendably ambitious in its Godardian attempts to deconstruct the police thriller format, but it's only partially successful. Huppert’s performance is typically excellent, recalling the cold fury of repressed psycho-sexual mania she conveyed in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, but she appears to be in a different film than the other characters. Bozon combines bold ideas with a fine cast, but he lacks the overarching vision to deliver more than a fascinating failure.
Production company: Les Films Pelleas
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin, Nicolas Steil
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Kiberlain, Francois Damiens, Aymen Saidi, Karole Rocher
Director: Serge Bozon
Writers: Axelle Ropert, Serge Bozon, Odile Barski, from the book by Bill James
Cinematographer: Celine Bozon
Editor: François Quiqere
Music: Roland Wiltgen
International sales: Rezo Films
Unrated, 106 minutes
Sundance: On the Scene