Second Time Around

Four French Thrillers
Many casual viewers think of the heavy cuisine of art or the fluffy pastry of farce when they think of French cinema. But the fact is that the land that coined the term "film noir" has a long tradition of sweatily nasty thrillers, suspense dramas as grinding as a dental drill, and policiers as glumly realistic as a rock in your shoe.

Three examples of these films, plus a noir/science-fiction hybrid, screen in the Bay Area this week. San Francisco's Alliance Française -- a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting French culture that screens French-language videos every Tuesday night in its comfortable theater on Bush Street -- continues a series of thrillers with Gerard Pires' L'Agression (1982). Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Louis Trintignant star in this film about a man driven to the edge of insanity until he hatches his plan of revenge. Only the French would make the reedlike Trintignant, who looks like a cross between Bob Balaban and an IRS accountant, an action hero. But Bardot's co-star in And God Created Woman did indeed star in such films as Jacques Deray's The Outside Man (1972), screening at the Fine Arts Theater in Berkeley for five days starting this Tuesday. Trintignant plays a hit man adrift in Los Angeles in this enjoyable period curio, which co-stars Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, and Angie Dickinson.

The celebrated French fondness for pulp American thrillers famously carried over into the art cinema of the nouvelle vague, not just in passing tributes, but as the source for entire films. Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid (1969) -- screening at the Fine Arts with The Outside Man -- is based on a novel by "William Irish" (Cornell Woolrich) about tobacco planter Jean-Paul Belmondo and his mail-order bride (Deneuve again), who's not what she appears to be. An auto-destruct cycle follows in this brightly lit, moody film, which Truffaut called "a tale of a degradation through love." Finally, Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), screening Monday at the UC Berkeley, sends a Bogart-like detective on a spy chase through modern Paris -- thinly disguised as a futuristic techno-dictatorship -- in one of Godard's most enjoyable (and, oddly) romantic films.

-- Gregg Rickman

L'Agression screens Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. at Alliance Francaise, 345 Bush (at Polk), S.F. Admission is $5; call 775-7755. The Outside Man screens Tuesday through Saturday, Feb. 23-27, at 7:15 p.m. (with Mississippi Mermaid at 9:25 p.m.; also Sat at 4:55 p.m.) at the Fine Arts Cinema, 2451 Shattuck (at Haste), Berkeley. Admission is $6; call (510) 848-1143. Alphaville screens Monday, Feb. 22, at 7:15 p.m. at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $6.50; call (510) 843-3456.

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