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A film that’s so noir you may want to watch it with the lights on, Black Tide (Fleuve Noir) represents a partial return to form for writer-director Erick Zonca, whose The Dreamlife of Angels remains one of the more memorable French art house efforts of the late 1990s. Zonca followed that up with the underseen Le Petit Voleur and a forgotten English-language debut, Julia, starring Tilda Swinton. He’s now back a decade or so later with a moody, grimy and gratuitously over-the-top crime story about an unhinged alcoholic cop trying to solve the case of a missing teenage boy.
The cop is played by Vincent Cassel, whose outré performance borders on ridiculous yet can also be addictive to watch, with the actor channeling a Gallic version of Orson Welles’ corrupt and boozing Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil — that is, if Welles had grown out a scraggly beard and decided not to shower for several months.
Cassel manages to anchor a movie that can be gripping in stretches, with a solid mystery at its core and strong supporting turns from Romain Duris, as a creepy upstairs neighbor, and Sandrine Kiberlain, as a mother with secrets to spare. But the story is sometimes too excessive to stomach, while a third act filled with multiple twists feel a bit truncated — as if the film had been cut down for commercial reasons. A midsummer French release should yield modest returns, although Zonca’s reputation and a name cast could help Black Tide rise in limited overseas engagements.
While he may not be as bad as the Bad Lieutenant, commander Francois Visconti (Cassel) is hardly a reputable police officer. A binge drinker with a preference for Ballantine’s, a deadbeat dad whose own son is turning into a drug dealer, and a detective who not only seems to miss the mark on several occasions but also doesn’t mind sleeping with a victim’s mother, Visconti is lucky to still be holding a badge.
And yet he’s been placed in charge of an investigation involving a high school student, Dany, who vanishes one morning on his way to school, leaving his mom (Kiberlain) in disarray and a bunch of false leads behind him. Drunk but still functional, Visconti starts sniffing out various clues, with one taking him in the direction of international terrorism and another, more probable one, on the heels of a neighbor and tutor, Yann Bellaile (Duris), who seems to have been way too fond of his pupil.
Much of the story — which was adapted by Zonca and Lou de Fanget Signolet from Israeli writer Dror Mishani’s book The Missing File — focuses on the long cat-and-mouse game between Visconti and Bellaile, with the latter acting so shady that you’re just waiting for a body to pop up behind his bookshelf. But what seems at first like a clear case of guilt turns out to be much more bizarre and complicated, and Bellaile’s ambitions as an existential novelist (with a predilection for Kafka and Camus) wind up clouding both his sense judgment and our suspicions as to his criminal intentions.
Zonca tosses a few other red herrings into the mix, which help keep the guessing game going for nearly two hours. At the same time, Visconti’s outrageous behavior sometimes makes the action hard to buy, with certain sequences — including the one where he has sex on the job — drawing laughs during a recent Paris screening. When the truth eventually comes out, it feels like we’ve already been through the ringer several times, and Black Tide loses credibility rather than gaining it by the final act.
Still, Cassel truly puts his all into the role, with the actor offering up a deeply committed and extremely overzealous performance that teeters on camp yet somewhow remains convincing. (If France ever needs its very own Nicolas Cage, Cassel is the guy.) Duris is more subdued as the sly yet unstable Bellaile, while Kiberlain is strong as a mother forced to work with a maniac cop and dubiously succumbing to his charms. The one sane person seems to be Bellaile’s wife, Lola (played by The Dreamlife of Angels star Elodie Bouchez), who is the sole character to openly question Visconti’s habit of drinking while on duty.
Tech credits are good, with Italian lenser Paolo Carnera (who shot the TV series Gomorrah) making the most of a few locations (Pigalle, the Paris suburbs, a forest) and plenty of darkness. The only drawback is the editing, which seems to forget whole sections of the story at one point, including the subplot involving Visconti’s son and all the bureaucratic mayhem of the police precinct. In the end Black Tide offers too much (in terms of human angst and misery) and too little (in terms of plausible storytelling), so that by the time the lights come up you’re both overwhelmed and unsatisfied by Zonca’s vision.
Production companies: Curiosa Films, Mars Films, France 2 Cinema, Versus Production, Voo And Be TV, Playtime Production, 120 Films
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, Sandrine Kiberlain, Elodie Bouchez, Charles Berling, Hafsia Herzi, Jerome Pouly, Laurena Thellier
Director: Erick Zonca
Screenwriters: Erick Zonca, Lou de Fanget Signolet, based on the novel The Missing File by Dror Mishani
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Director of photography: Paolo Carnera
Production designers: Djamil Mostefaoui, Christophe Couzon
Costume designer: Nathalie Benros
Editor: Philippe Kotlarski
Composer: Remi Boubal
Casting directors: Annette Trumel, Stephane Touitou
Artistic collaboration: Lou de Fanget Signolet
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