Starring Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain as investigating judges looking into the murder of a police informer in a predominantly Algerian-French suburb of Lille, Serge Bozon’s Tip Top may be the most enigmatic film in this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Bozon’s third feature traffics in provocation (Belgian comedian François Damiens starts the film and a brawl with a flurry of racist epithets), political critique (spoiler: the “bad guy” usually sits beneath a portrait of Nicolas Sarkozy), and flat-out weird slapstick (Huppert repeatedly sticks her tongue out to catch the blood from a cut on her nose incurred during an S&M session with her violinist husband). This outré material is anchored by a rigorous sense of camera placement, a delectably jarring rhythm, and abrupt, playful dialogue courtesy of Bozon and his co-screenwriter Axelle Ropert (director of Miss and the Doctors, also in Rendez-Vous). As labyrinthine as The Big Sleep, and as wild as Jerry Lewis, Tip Top is undoubtedly a thing unto itself: a sly portrait of contemporary France disguised as a B movie.

Tip Top opens Friday for an exclusive one-week run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. During Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in the spring, Bozon, an occasional actor, critic, and leading tastemaker among the young set of hardcore Parisian cinephiles, told FILM COMMENT about the basic principles behind his complex film. 

If your previous feature hadn’t been called La France, you probably could have used that title for Tip Top, which paints a portrait of France today.

I agree. This is the first of my films to have a strong relationship to contemporary French society, and oddly that’s because there are a lot of Arab actors in the film. This is always complicated to say, because what I mean by “Arab” here is not someone who has a different passport than I do—they are as French as I am—but people who have an Arab background and darker skin. Anyhow, if we shot the same script and replaced all the parts played by Arabs with Franco-French actors, the film would lose that relationship to contemporary France. It would also lose its most unsettling, painful aspects.

Ironically, your film achieves this representation of France through a B-movie script more typical of American cinema.

Yes, but the B-movie element isn’t only in the script. You can apply the same principle to the sets, the costumes, the frame, and the editing. The film has limited locations, to which we return repeatedly, such as the hillock where the informer died, where the supervisor kills himself, and where Damiens’s character prowls at dawn. Despite the fact that the characters are very different because of their jobs or personalities, they keep returning to these places, not for practical reasons like having a bite to eat, but because they are obsessed with them. That makes for something disturbing. My film has a splintered quality, it’s not very linear. We needed something to counterbalance that nonlinear side so we didn’t wind up with something too fractured and coarse, even from an aesthetic perspective. The idea of limited locations can be linked to the fact that all the car scenes are shot head-on and that all the scenes in Huppert’s room are shot from the same angle with the same framing and lighting. We didn’t do this to follow Oulipo principles or to pay homage to B movies: B movies were shot fast for financial reasons, so angles were repeated, which gave the films an unsettling quality that stuck in your head. We needed principles like these to give the film linearity and an obsessive consistency.

Which also explains the role played by Arabs. Everybody in the film keeps coming back to the question of Algerians. The film is actually quite simple: for example, all the French people in the film are obsessed with Arabs, and all the Arabs are obsessed with the French. The women only sleep with Arabs. In the men’s case, it’s not libidinal, but François Damiens’s character is learning the language, while his boss is interested in the riots in Algiers. A lot of critics describe the film as madcap and over the top, but I find it more unsettling. I see Tip Top as a rather dark film.

But there’s a real comedic intent that goes quite far into slapstick at times.

Totally. Look, I don’t have many ideas at first. I participated in writing the script, but it was really Axelle Ropert who did it, so it’s not like I showed up saying, here’s what I want to do, this is what I want to say. Plus the film is based on a novel. So I don’t have a strong point of view I’m trying to express during the writing, I’m not trying to take a position. On set and in the editing room, I’m dealing with more practical concerns like what location we choose. It’s only once the film is finished and I see it along with everyone else that I start to have ideas, just like the ideas I have when I see other people’s films.

Of course, there are comedic aspects to the film, and I wanted them there. Take the beginning of the film: François Damiens goes into a bar and starts yelling out extreme racist insults. I find this comical, but at the same time, it’s typical. It’s not something I find madcap or crazy, it’s actually quite scary, it’s aggressive. It’s a peculiar type of comedy that resembles the effect of the film as a whole. It makes you a little ill at ease. It’s not gratuitous because if you make a film centered on Arabs, the first question that comes up is that of racism. That scene goes so far into it that it deals with it for all the scenes. You never even have to bring it up again because it’s been said to the power of 10. The film’s comedy is like that scene.

It’s also a kind of disenchanted comedy. You have a critique of French institutions, using comedy to show them as fossilized and trivial.

Yes. I was interested in questions of protocol because it connects to how you direct actors and to Isabelle Huppert’s acting style. Protocol also means institutions, and if you say “respect the protocol,” you know things aren’t very lively. Protocol is like burying the institution. But I didn’t really try to make a critique of institutions because I don’t know them so well. It’s more instinctive. Look, in France, the yokels will go see a Dany Boon film and the sophisticated set will go see Pascal Bonitzer—in the U.S., it would be Woody Allen. I wanted to make a movie in which the comedy wasn’t a way to tell the audience they’re watching a chic, cultured movie. I didn’t want to have any difference, I wanted the comedy to be as trivial as possible, with people eating rudely and making animal noises.

The worst thing about cinema today is ghettos. A film’s audience often recognizes itself in the film. I wanted to make a film whose audience was unidentified and that did not have that art-house/prestige or non-art-house/no-prestige distinction. Slapstick helps to equalize things. Frances Ha is the exact opposite of what I want to do. People see it and tell themselves, oh great, we’re post-students, we’re vaguely marginal, we don’t make a lot of money, but we’re fragile and touching and we all have artistic desires. The relationship to the audience is very demagogical. It’s an insider, nostalgic film, with a very negative relationship to cinephilia and the New Wave used as pleasant identifying signs that rub you the right way.

Another example: I like rock. But when you go to a festival anywhere in the world, after a certain time of night people are going to talk to you about drugs and rock and it will always be the same. There’s a kind of adolescent culture purring all over the world because it’s so proud of being marginal, of having dropped out. I’m like Rohmer, I think dropping out is sad. My positions are violently against this kind of elegant saudade of loserdom. 

So do you agree with Huppert’s character’s statement that the unemployed are parasites?

No, no, no! [Laughs] That’s different. I’m not talking about the social fact of being unemployed. I’m talking about films which take comfort in being underground and apart, in which the viewer, who is himself a post-student loser, is being flattered for being a loser. I’d rather film the people who work at Air France or someone working in a bank. But you have to be sharp: look at Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel. At first glance, it’s similar to Frances Ha. You’ve got two losers, black-and-white film, the Sixties vibe, all those identifying signs, same audience. But strangely the film has something more aggressive and acerbic to it. Plus there’s the incest. So that film goes beyond its prettiness. We drifted away from my film, but it’s because you asked me about slapstick, and I wanted to make clear that the comedy in Tip Top was not at all related to chic identification.

What about the relationship of comedy and politics? The “bad guy” sits beneath a picture of Nicolas Sarkozy and an unknown woman. Are we supposed to make a literal connection between wrongdoing and Sarkozy or is it simply a comic conceit?

It is kind of funny, because we’re mixing Sarkozy with this unknown woman, but at the same time it’s not gratuitous because the most important scene for that character is the last one between him and Huppert, in which Huppert realizes that the heart of the investigation is love. All the women in the film deeply loved their husbands. And the “bad guy” loved his wife so much that he became corrupt for her. So he’s corrupt, but there’s also a deep romanticism at play. The book by Bill James was totally different. Like many books that attempt to be provocative and somewhat antisocial, it falls prey to that “no one is innocent” shortcut I hate. I wanted to keep the novel’s aggressive humor, but not the cynicism. On the contrary, in the film you realize that people really love each other. So in the end, you realize that the picture of the unknown woman is not just a gag but a revelation about the depth of love, which also relates to the informer’s son Aurélien. His part isn’t fundamental, but he’s crucial because as soon as he’s in the shot, we realize the film has a dimension that isn’t funny at all. There’s something very unsettling and tender, which people often don’t notice the first time around. The shots of the child are like the final one of the bad guy’s wife: they make you realize that there is a “pure at heart” side to the film, that the characters aren’t corrupt in the usual sense.

Earlier you said you don’t take a strong position going into making the movie. What made you want to make it?

In general, I think filmmakers have too many positions, starting with me. The only difference is that my positions are as a critic and are ideas that come to me after the fact. I made Tip Top because I felt like doing something different from my other films, in a contemporary setting. Axelle Ropert brought me the book because she thought I’d like the humor, female protagonists, and final scene. I didn’t necessarily like the book as a whole, but I could tell there were things that would be good for me. Then we had to remove the cynicism and transfer the action from a bourgeois English setting, which did not feature a single Algerian. I knew the film had to have a social uneasiness, which is nearly its cement and is completely absent from the novel. Once we had adapted the film, I searched for economy. It needed to be head-on, a little brusque. Instinctively, I felt this project needed a form that wasn’t ceremonious or suave, but raw. Not in a stupid sense—I didn’t want it to be ugly. But it needed to be more graphic than pictorial.

In Tip Top, the police beat people and watch them. In a more subtle manner, we’re also aware that the media is watching. The film begins with a shot from a TV journalist’s balcony, which is the same point of view as that of the cameras shooting the Algerian riots we see on the TV news in the film.  

Absolutely. That’s the balcony principle. The French critic Jean Douchet pointed it out to me. He liked that we avoided sinuous, gauzy tracking shots with lots of depth of field and filmed more head-on. Douchet observed that the film either consists of people against walls or on balconies, so the only depth of field in the film is when we’re on the balcony: we’re only on the balcony when there’s voyeurism, and the voyeurism is always connected to the media. From a balcony, you can watch a guy doing his dishes across the courtyard or people making a revolution in the street.

But one makes mistakes from the balcony: when the TV journalist sees Damiens’s character recover an envelope from his boss’s body, he assumes they’re having sex. Does that mistake call into question the images of the Arab Spring shot from the same perspective? If you’re clearly questioning the media, it’s hard to believe that you have no position.

Films always do better by being simple and straightforward and going straight to the heart of the matter. I insist: I have no position. It was Jean Douchet who pointed out what I just told you, I hadn’t even noticed. But what I can say is that despite my lack of interest in documentary film, for the first time in my life I used images that were really raw. They don’t come from TV, they’re images of the riots which people in Algiers shot from their balconies. These images on an obscure local TV channel make something very raw appear on screen suddenly. Those images of riots in Algiers have a power of authenticity. It’s a basic Bazinian concept: something bursts into the fiction and burns it a little. It’s different than the TV journalist making a mistake when he sees the cop trying to get the envelope from his dead boss, which looks like a fully dressed act of sodomy. I like that kind of gag because it’s related to a plain police procedural question—how do you retrieve an envelope from a body lying face down without leaving any traces—but is also vulgar and aggressive.

It’s an abrupt tonal shift, which comes from people like Paul Vecchiali and all those directors who fought the real and the entire idea of biographical, depressive cinema in the name of fiction and tonal shifts. It’s the old story at the heart of French film: when Jacques Rivette directed his major documentary about Renoir, Renoir, le patron, Eustache was his editor. When they finished editing, they asked themselves what Renoir had taught them. Eustache said that Renoir says you should only film what you know, i.e., your life. And Rivette answered that what he understood was that you should film what you don’t know at all, what you’ve never experienced and could potentially never experience. Since then, French cinema has always been split between those like Eustache and Garrel who filmed their own lives and those like Rivette and Vecchiali who wanted to hold onto the risk of fiction, as well as abrupt tonal shifts and comedy. I belong in the Vecchiali category. I’m deeply in favor of narrative, with secrets, reversals, and surprises, which is a minority position nowadays. Take Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Justine Triet’s Age of Panic, or Kechiche’s films: many more films are based on an immersion in the real, with a documentary background, which isn’t to say that they are all the same.

We started by talking about another potential title for the film. I’d like to close by asking your interpretation of its actual title.

I like short titles: L’Amitié, Mods, La France. Why? It’s similar to what I was saying about economy regarding sets, angles, and costumes. It’s more likely to stay in your head. Tip Top also has a comedic ring to it, in the sense of a duo: Tip and Top. The film centers on a female duo, which is quite rare. It’s a subtle duo, too. It’s not like Laurel and Hardy, the fat guy and the skinny guy. It’s that one wants to be the other. Sally [Kiberlain] wants to be Esther [Huppert]. The film’s hourglass, its rhythm, is her transformation. Sally gradually dresses, talks and behaves like Esther and once she manages to imitate her boss in her sex life, the film can come to a close. The mimetic trajectory is finished—there’s nothing left to be imitated. The end may seem abrupt, but it’s totally logical: there’s nothing left to be filmed; the transformation has happened. 

Translated by Nicholas Elliott.