La Balance

February 14, 2013

balanceThe French seem to love American police thrillers almost as much as Americans do, and they regularly make movies that imitate the hard-hitting American style.

The gritty, roughhouse French thriller La Balance, however, does not really have to imitate an American style—because the writer-director is himself an American. He’s an expatriate named Bob Swaim, and his movie is lively, violent, and something of a mess.

The first part of the film is seen mainly from the viewpoint of the cops—especially the police captain (Richard Berry) who wants to sting the city’s underworld kingpin (Maurice Ronet). To do that, he’s got to find some informers who will help set the crime czar up for a fall.

He finds a prostitute (Nathalie Baye) and her pimp (Philippe Leotard) and bullies them into setting up the sting. Soon, our sympathies are with Baye and Leotard; the twist here is that the genuinely love each other, and are blackmailed into helping the police.

There is still a tattered honor about these unlikely heroes, which is a far cry from the belligerent, amoral police. Even the jaded captain is impressed—and although he reneges on initial promises to the couple, he may be stating to like them.

The world of La Balance is a world of betrayal, on various levels: in love, in crime, in business. Swaim conjures a convincingly ratty Paris underworld in which to set this tale of shifting loyalties, and the ugly cinematography adds to this.

The film has a lot of ideas floating around, and most of them don’t quite come together. The air of confusion may be appropriate for the sense of moral ambiguity that Swaim clearly wants to communicate, but it makes a cop thriller considerably less streamlined.

But the story works well enough, in large part thanks to an appealing cast: Baye is fine as the prostitute, and Berry does well in the tough part of the unshaven, world-weary detective. There’s probably no actor around who looks less like his name than Philippe Leotard; his boxer’s face gives him a streetwise authenticity, but he also carries an odd nobility.

And La Balance itself has an authenticity, possibly due to the Gallic setting being filtered through an American mind, and seen afresh. Whatever the reason, it turns out to be a truly French French Connection.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1984

Swaim got a Hollywood stint out of this, doing the awkward Half Moon Street and the better Masquerade. This was a good period for Nathalie Baye, a delicate-looking actress with a distinct gravity.

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Half Moon Street

October 10, 2012

The bare bones of the plot of Half Moon Street suggest a promising, if convoluted, spy thriller. It’s based on Paul Theroux’ novel Doctor Slaughter and begins with a youngish American (Sigourney Weaver) landing a job in London with an Arab affairs bureau.

She’s hobnobbing with some high mucky-mucks, but she’s making almost no money. Then an anonymous videophile sends her a tape espousing the advantages of prostitution.

Why? She hasn’t got a clue. But it makes a practical impression on her, and before long she joins the ranks of a high-class escort agency.

She finds this unusual double career acceptable. One night, she is the companion of a bona fide Lord (Michael Caine), who is one of Her Majesty’s most important politicians. They hit it off and keep seeing each other; at the same time, he’s working on a delicate Middle Eastern peace treaty.

The threads that will tie up the plot may already be apparent; be assured that Weaver’s Arab associates and Caine’s peace efforts are going to intersect somehow. It’s a typically convoluted process—you know how these spies love to be complicated.

On paper, all this sounds like the makings of a nifty little espionage piece. But it doesn’t work out that way on film. Half Moon Street steps off on the wrong foot almost from the first moment.

A lot of clunky exposition gets shoved at us in the opening scenes. But there is a more serious and sustained problem, too: a graceless lack of style. Director Bob Swaim flounders in search of some kind of fluency. The actors are inexpressive, the camera always seems to be in an uncomfortable place, and much of the dialogue is delivered in a dead-voiced monotone (a lot of the hollow-sounding dialogue sounds as though it were post-synchronized).

In fact, the film sounds and moves like one of those uncertain efforts that result when foreign directors make their first English-language films. This is ironic, since Swaim is an American who made some successful movies in France (notably La Balance, a hard-driving cop flick). Evidently Swaim flourished in French, but twisted his mother tongue.

The film is saved from being a disaster by the innate perverseness of the basic idea (when Caine spots Weaver at a party, he has to ask her what hat she’s wearing that evening: Is she a diplomat or a hooker?), the sturdy professionalism of Caine, and the watchability of Weaver.

She has lately carved a spot for herself as one of the glorious women of the current cinema—and yet, something is wrong here. Either Swaim wanted her character to come off as hollow, or she and he missed connections somewhere; either way, her performance does not begin to work until she wins you over by sheer presence (she’s onscreen most of the time—Caine is assigned a supporting role).

Swaim even commits the incredible feat of making Weaver’s frequent nude scenes curiously non-erotic. And if that’s intentional, I think it goes without saying that the guy needs to have his head examined.

First published in the Herald, September 1986

There is great variability in Weaver’s performances over the years; she can be smashing, and she can be toneless, her vocal limitations being a particular challenge. Swaim did Masquerade after this and then went back to French cinema.