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10 Great European Neo-Noir Films

10 Great European Neo-Noir Films

This month, “The American Friend,” a classic from German director Wim Wenders that until now was probably lesser known than his touchstones “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire,” comes to the Criterion Collection. As you’ll read below, it’s a grubby little story of antiheroes and their patsies and we, predictably, adore it, and while its particular mix of independent gritty ’70s aesthetic, European setting and director, American star and Patricia Highsmith source material makes it feel highly singular, it in fact belongs to a long, packed tradition: the European neo-noir.

If the precise definition of film noir is a consistent cause for debate, the categorization “neo-noir” is even looser. It’s generally accepted to apply only to the post-noir “proper” heyday (which ran from the early ’40s to the late ’50s, or in filmic terms, from “The Maltese Falcon” to “Touch of Evil.”) Classic noir encompasses elements like directional lighting, ’40s/’50s settings, cynical heroes, femme fatales, crime/murder stories, distrust of authority, fatalism and as much moral ambiguity and investigation into psychological perversions as the Hays Code would allow. But neo-noir, which really started to flourish in the more permissive and experimental 1970s, was liberated from some of these constraints, while finding in others a useful conduit into commenting on contemporary society. 

And so neo-noir often looks and feels very different to classic noir: less artificial, looser and less tightly plotted — all of which holds true for “The American Friend”— but the genre’s heart remains dark and its outlook on inevitability, dumb luck and the fatal flaw remains just as deliciously bleak. At the same time (if you can refer to such a vague affiliation as a movement), neo-noir was spearheaded by filmmakers who had come of age consuming the (largely Hollywood-produced) noirs of the mid-20th Century, and so it’s one of the genres that is manna to cinephiles: this is second-wave noir in which the filmmakers are often as much commenting on the archetypes of classical filmmaking as they are telling their seedy little crime stories. 

This feels especially true of the many European auteurs, of whom Wenders is one, who came to the genre with not just a generation or two, but also the Atlantic Ocean separating their sensibilities from those of the classic Hollywood noir filmmakers (even if many of those guys were European emigrés themselves). It gives rise to a fascinating, endlessly dissectable shift in perspective, as some of Europe’s brightest talents co-opted and repurposed this most Hollywood of concepts, thereby contributing so much vitality to the evolution of noir into neo-noir. As a result, it’s a genre that is thriving all over the planet (just look at recent Korean cinema), to this day. 

Here’s a curated selection of just ten European neo-noirs (out of many hundreds)  for your consideration, all of which we can recommend from the bottom of our black, black hearts. 

“The American Friend” (1977)
An adaptation of “Ripley’s Game” (which was made under that name by Italian director Liliana Cavani in 2002), Wim Wenders‘ version is perhaps the most convincingly de-glamorized of Patricia Highsmith’s better-known big-screen outings. Without the rich chiaroscuro of “Strangers on a Train,” or the sun-dappled beauty of “The Talented Mr Ripley” and “The Two Faces of January,” let alone the glowing gorgeousness of “Carol,” the look and spirit of “The American Friend” feels closer to that of then-contemporary American independent cinema. Some of that is down to the fact it stars Dennis Hopper, one of the defining actors of that movement, here bringing his own unique presence to the oft-essayed role of Tom Ripley. That any one character could have been played by such different actors as Hopper, Alain Delon, John Malkovich and Matt Damon suggests a lot about Ripley’s chameleonic nature, but Hopper’s interpretation of him here is one that Highsmith herself (on a second viewing, mind you) embraced. He’s ably abetted by Bruno Ganz playing Zimmerman, the ailing picture framer whose life Ripley pretty much ruins in petty response to a perceived slight, before reconsidering when the two men start to become friends. The U-turn in Ripley’s attitude toward Zimmerman is really what elevates a narrative that is rather convoluted otherwise, turning “The American Friend” into a surprisingly successful portrait of a character whose defining trait may be his uncategorizable nature. Trundling around gray Hamburg locations and marked by the grimy realism of the film’s fight and killing scenes, Wenders evokes perhaps better than any other Highsmith adaptor (he also wrote the script) the sour-tasting desperation of these little people, scrabbling around for advantage and self-interest in a monolithically uncaring, mostly ugly world. 

“Le Samourai” (1967)
Almost any of French visionary Jean-Pierre Melville‘s later films could qualify for this list, and almost any would probably be the best thing you’ll see all week (here’s our Melville Essentials if you want to find out more). But his “Le Samourai” is an iconic piece of work, a crime thriller so sleek and streamlined that it feels like it’s been pared back to nothing but the barest essentials: Alain Delon’s cheekbones and his impassive scowl. He plays Costello, a trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing hitman of the taciturn, efficient and silently lethal variety (influencing numerous incarnations since from Ryan Gosling in “Drive” to Chow Yun Fat in “The Killer”). Early on, a job goes awry and he is suspected by the police and pursued by his former employers who want him dead. Throughout, his magnificent aloneness (though he has a girlfriend and a caged canary) and Melville’s slippery, lean direction makes the film move with stealthily lethal precision, and yet it evokes so much outside its spartan frames and pristine compositions. Costello is an immovable object, a paragon of masculine unsentimentality and stoicism whose journey toward a kind of redemption (which is really just the strict adherence to the quid pro quo code he’s lived his life by) is almost wholly internalized. Famously, Melville shot a different version of the ending in which Delon smiled, and intended to use it until he discovered that a different film of Delon’s had already employed this trick. As neat and delicious as that might have been, the purity of the film remains intact with the ending as is: there might be occasional flashes of tenderness, but nowhere in this world populated by aloof characters going mechanistically through the motions of survival is there room for joy —not in redemption and not even in death. 

“The Element of Crime” (1984)
Whatever its particular stripe, noir is perhaps the coolest of genres, and not only in the sense of being hip. Its propensity for gritty, seedy locales, flawed psychologies and philosophical determinism (if not fatalism) make it among the least warm and fuzzy of cinema genres. Sometimes that emotional remove can be a barrier to engagement, especially when it’s coupled with an arthouse auteurist sensibility that takes almost perverse pleasure in complicating and fragmenting the narrative. Which is the long way of saying we can’t blame anyone for not immediately clasping Lars von Trier‘s debut feature “The Element of Crime” to their bosom. And yet, dense and manically allusive as it is, the film also dazzles with a kind of deranged cinephile reverence —it’s a little like what might result if, in a fit of existentialist despair, Guy Maddin took a bunch of cold medicine and watched Tarkovsky‘s “Stalker” on repeat. With a cast made up of mostly British film and TV actors (plus von Trier himself), the film tells the story of gumshoe Fisher (Michael Elphick) who, under hypnosis and guided by the crime-solving principles of a disgraced mentor, tries to pick up the threads of his last case in which a serial killer was hunting down girls who sold lottery tickets. But that’s only the bare skeleton on which von Trier gets to hang his extraordinary visuals —lit with sodium lights to give a sepia/monochromatic effect throughout, bar the occasional overlay—and which gives him license to play in the noir sandbox, using and subverting archetypes like weary voiceover, faithless women, ruined postwar locations and an adversary whom the hero very much fears he’s turning into. 

“Breathless” (1960) 
If the European neo-noir has a granddaddy, it is of course “Breathless” (or “À bout de souffle”), the directorial debut of Jean-Luc Godard and a movie that revitalized the future of the crime genre by nodding to its past. The filmmaker, alongside fellow French New Wavers Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (who’d penned a treatment that the film was based on), were devotees of pulp fiction and American movies, and it shows utterly in the movie, which sees Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Bogart-idolizing petty criminal killing a policeman and attempting to flee with the help of his American lover Jean Seberg. Chaotic, full of energy and mixing a documentary-like realism with a formal experimentalism, this film is punch-drunk in love with cinema (“I love it, yet at the same time I have contempt for it,” Godard said in an interview at the time), right down to being dedicated to Hollywood B-movie producers Monogram Pictures, and featuring a cameo from another great Gallic crime director Jean-Pierre Melville. Appropriately, it was a shot heard around the world: few films can be said to have changed the artform as much as “Breathless” (far more so than “The 400 Blows” the year before), and the film carries the same power to shock for new viewers over half a century on. Apart from its impact, the film nevertheless works beautifully as a hardboiled noir that Cagney or Edward G. Robinson would have been proud of, hitting some familiar beats but delivering them in utterly fresh ways.

“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1971)
Elio Petri‘s Foreign Language Oscar-winner manages to be both a chilling, intellectual thought experiment in terms of its story and a visceral blunt force trauma in terms of its brilliantly bold filmmaking. With unswerving focus on lead Gian Maria Volonte, whose whole performance feels, appropriately for a sociopath, like he’s constantly only working out how he should appear the moment before the emotion registers, Petri almost hounds him, as though the camera itself were his shadow, or perhaps the conscience he ignores but cannot fully escape. Volonte plays a tellingly unnamed police inspector, who in the opening scene casually murders his mistress during sex, then wipes the place clean of most traces of his presence while deliberately planting others. He then is put in charge of the investigation and tries to steer it first one way, then another and then finally to point to himself. As we discover early on, despite the sex-and-murder games he and the victim used to play and despite his admitted arousal around murder scenes, this crime is less a thrill-kill than a icily premeditated, semi-scientific inquiry into whether he is just as untouchable as he believes he is. Its closest kin in this regard might be Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Rope,” but where in that film the eradication of that particular victim was the point, here the murder is merely the vehicle by which the inspector gets to test his hypothesis. It is not subtle: Petri shoots Volonte delivering a speech equating homosexuals with terrorists as if he’s Mussolini addressing a rally. The nervy editing and jauntily abrasive Ennio Morricone score add to the unease, and it all combines to make ‘Investigation’ one of the most emotive of neo-noirs —the emotion is fury, and it is Petri’s at the grotesque corruption and cronyism he sees as endemic to Italian society.

“Insomnia” (1997)
Anticipating the international explosion in popularity of Scandinavian noir by a decade or so (Stieg Larsson‘s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” first appeared in English translation in 2008), Erik Skjoldbjærg’s “Insomnia” is now better known stateside in its remake form, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Al Pacino. But while the Norwegian original doesn’t have the same stylistic sheen, it’s perhaps even better than Nolan’s very good remake, especially in terms of a truly extraordinary central performance from Stellan Skarsgard that somehow suits the material better for being unclouded by the star vehicle baggage that’s inevitable when you cast Pacino (and an against-type Robin Williams). As the Swedish cop sent above the Arctic circle in Norway to investigate the murder of a teenage girl, Skarsgard is brilliantly ambivalent, a character who seems more interesting for being almost calculatedly complicit in his own moral degradation after he accidentally kills his partner and then lies to cover it up. As our hero is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with the girl’s killer (the only one who knows the true circumstances of the partner’s death), Skjoldbjærg keeps the aesthetics unobtrusive, but the creeping sense of madness-level exhaustion and the almost malevolent power of the inescapable daylight burns constantly in the background throughout. It’s a twisty, very noir plot given a modern edge of believability by the unadorned style, which further helps other subthemes bubble to the surface, like the Scandi-noir staple of how, despite the region’s reputation as a progressive culture, it’s a society that represses rather than addresses a virulent strain of misogyny that can explode into violence at any moment. 

“The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005) 
It’s since been overshadowed by the director’s subsequent work —such as cult classic “A Prophet,” the starry “Rust & Bone” and Palme D’Or winner “Dheepan”— but “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” might still stand as Jacques Audiard’s finest work a decade on. As Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and co. had done with classic American gangster films, Audiard here tips his hat to ’70s crime cinema, with the film serving as a loose remake of James Toback’s 1978 Harvey Keitel starrer “Fingers.” Here, it’s Romain Duris who has the lead as Thomas, a young man working as a low-level criminal having followed his father into shady business territory, but who starts to consider the possibility of a different life when he finds an opportunity to return to his one-time dream of being a concert pianist. There’s as much of Dassin or Melville in Audiard’s film as there is of Toback’s original, with a taut take on the crime genre that straddles pulp and realism neatly. Niels Arestrup (who’d also star in “A Prophet”) does very fine work as Duris’ father, and there are terrific supporting turns from, among others, Jonathan Zaccaï and Linh Dan Pham (keep an eye out for a young Mélanie Laurent too). But it becomes much more, with the film driven entirely by the internal crisis within its lead, a cultured bruiser whose sensitive inner soul can’t be entirely dampened down. Audiard sometimes makes it a little too convenient —of course Thomas’ mother was a pianist too, setting up a kind of “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me” dynamic— but there’s such thematic rigorousness, such immense feeling, tenderness and brutality within Duris’ performance, and such muscularity and smarts in Audiard’s direction, that it doesn’t matter if you know where it’s going. 

“The American Soldier” (1970)
The third of a loose “gangster” trilogy and the fifth of ten features the famously speedy filmmaker made between 1969 and 1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s “The American Soldier” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, often viewed as part of a continuum, a kind of rolling palimpsest of story strands from previous projects interspersed with seedling ideas that would be developed in later movies. Indeed, one monologue here forms the basis for one of his masterpieces, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” But if “The American Soldier,” in which Karl Scheydt‘s German/American Vietnam vet Ricky returns to Munich and is promptly engaged as a hitman by a group of corrupt cops, has a standalone manifesto (and it can be hard to glean one from a film so characterized by abrupt mood swings and shifts in tone), it’s the inseparability of sex and death. As such, Fassbinder runs through the gamut of gangster noir archetypes to create a depersonalized world where women are casually pushed out of cars, acts of fornication almost always end with gunshots and life is cheaper than a bottle of Ballantines (Ricky’s tipple of choice). But classical as it sometimes feels, this is still Fassbinder, and the experimental, amateur theatrics vibe still emerges at times, especially in newcomer Scheydt’s blocklike performance and almost comical impassivity. And yet it all builds to a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts, a film best summed up by its audaciously absurd four-minute unbroken closing shot. Like that extended moment, the film is a kind of roiling slo-mo orgy of violence and eroticism, all in service of a filmmaking imagination so penetrating and ravenous that it seems like Fassbinder is taking movies apart to see how they work.  

“The Consequences of Love” (2005)
One of the reasons that the splashy, ill-disciplined “Youth” proved such a disappointment to many of us round here is that this 2005 film, more so even than his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” established that Paolo Sorrentino‘s exquisite eye (in collaboration with regular DP Luca Bigazzi) can create films in which the inarguably romanced visuals are put in service of a compelling and insightful character study. A quiet, meticulous story that is lent a grandly operatic air by the fluidity and richness of the images, the film concerns Titta (the invaluable Tony Servillo), a lonely man living a chilly life of little human contact in a grand hotel. We gradually discover his secrets and his history: he’s been forced into exile from his family by a blunder he committed as an investment broker with money belonging to the Cosa Nostra. Now he passes the time with his heroin addiction, doing their bidding, but this simple if lonely existence becomes complicated when he starts to fall for the hotel barmaid Sofia (Olivia Magnani, Anna‘s granddaughter). If the pace is measured, the twists are revealed with such cleverness and the characters’ psychologies feel so believable that it becomes entirely, sensuously absorbing. It’s helped in no small part by an inspired soundtrack that mixes classical music with rock and electronica (Mogwai, Boards of Canada), while Bigazzi’s camera glides around its subjects like a figure skater. The grand decay of antiquated social hierarchies is evoked here too (much as it was in “The Great Beauty”), especially in the aging aristocrats who live in a room of the hotel they used to own, but here that milieu is notable for the amorality, alienation and desperation it hides behind a genteel facade. 

La  Cérémonie (1995)
A brilliantly unsettling film and the arguable peak of the fruitful collaboration between French director Claude Chabrol and French actress Isabelle Huppert, “La Ceremonie” is based on the Ruth Rendell novel “A Judgement in Stone,” but transposes the book’s themes of murderous social envy and class distinction in ’70s Britain to rural Brittany in the early ’90s. Chabrol lets the film unfold like the slow-burn anatomy of a crime-in-waiting, as Sandrine Bonnaire‘s resentful, secretive Sophie, hired as a maid by a wealthy family, meets the touchpaper of Huppert’s postmistress Jeanne, a creature of bizarrely banal malevolence. It’s a thrilling film, even in its early stages when nothing much appears to happen except for Sophie ungraciously declining her employers’ well-meaning gestures, like offering to buy her glasses or paying for driving lessons. It’s the revelation of Sophie’s illiteracy that makes sense of her ingratitude, and Chabrol spins his web so skillfully that we understand how those kindly intended offers could seem like humiliations in a malformed mind. The film’s most impressive facet is that without its two protagonists ever making a play for our sympathies (they remain uncompromisingly unlikeable throughout), somehow we start to find the family’s bourgeois complacency and unconscious elitism despicable. What family sits uncomplainingly together to watch an opera on TV? What teenage girl has a “favorite part” of “Don Giovanni“? It builds slowly to an excruciatingly tense finale, and it’s a mark of true genius that though there is only one way this story can go, we are nonetheless shocked. As the murderers-to-be roam around the house, we wait for Sophie’s horror to register at each new escalation of Jeanne’s. But that horror never comes, and instead the pair live out their sullen revenge fantasy in a ghastly fit of girlish giddiness. 

As we mentioned, there are literally hundreds of other titles in the loosely-defined European neo-noir category that you could move on to if these have whetted your appetite, but a few that we nearly included here include: “Shoot The Piano Player” — the absence of any Truffaut film (several of which fit the bill) is probably the biggest omission above, but we wanted to feature countries other than France; ditto Bertrand Tavernier‘s “Coup de Torchon,” also starring Isabelle Huppert and based on a Jim Thompson novel (“Pop 1280″ one of his seamiest and best); Rene Clement‘s “Plein Soleil” is the “Talented Mr. Ripley” adaptation starring Alain Delon referenced above; “Alphaville” is Godard’s sci-fi noir mindfuck experiment; while more recent films like Matthieu Kassovitz‘s “The Crimson Rivers” starring Vincent Cassel and Jean Reno, and Chabrol’s “Merci Pour Le Chocolat” have kept the neo-noir fires burning brightly in France. But there are also further hybridizations, like Czech animation “Alois Nebel,” Serbian film “The Trap” and British entries like “WAZ” with Tom Hardy and Stellan Skarsgard that prove the genre’s going strong all over the place —if you really want to dive in further, there’s a hugely comprehensive list of 650+ titles drawn up by an IMDB user here

In the meantime, let us know if you’ve checked out any of these, and what you yourself would recommend next to anyone bitten by the Euro noir bug.

—with Oli Lyttelton

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