Fun City Editions has brought together two early '80s crime stories from the streets of Paris, with female leads and female directors, under the banner Fatal Femmes. The first, Neige (1980), is a naturalistic street-life tragedy set in Paris's red-light district, Place Pigalle. It stars French New Wave mainstay Juliet Berto, who also co-directed with Jean-Henri Roger. The second, The Bitch (1984), fits this set's film noir branding a little more neatly, with Isabelle Huppert and Richard Berry starring in this psychosexual cat-and-mouse game from director Christine Pascal. Both films are gripping and stylish, presented in excellent new restorations. This double feature is Highly Recommended.
Neige is the French word for snow, but Juliet Berto and Jean-Henri Roger's film isn't set during Christmas. Instead, heroin is the unbilled star of their Pigalle-set film. The character Berto plays, Anita, isn't a user or a dealer, but she gets mixed up in the local heroin trade just by trying to be helpful. Anita is a bartender with a seemingly overactive mothering instinct. She learns that Bobby (Ras Paul Naphtali), a dreadlocked teen she's known his whole life, is being targeted by the cops for dealing. She tries to warn him, but he ignores her. He's survived this long on his wits, right? She can't help but try to shadow him and make him see but to little effect.
Similarly, Anita spots Betty (Nini Crépon), a young cross-dressing cabaret star and sex worker, strung out on the street. Unable to bear seeing Betty's pain, Anita makes a promise to find Betty a fix to keep her from getting sicker. She turns to her friend, West Indian pastor Jocko (Robert Liensol), who shares Betty's "social worker" attitude, to help her find the drugs. Betty's Hungarian ex-con boyfriend Willy (Jean-François Stévenin) is a bruiser who tries to join the cause to prove his love, with disastrous results.
Neige is stylish but naturalistic, looking at the whole ecosystem of the red-light district with sympathies to the poor and immigrant populations who turn to crime to survive. It's a film of moments, where meaning is created in how people behave with each other. The main characters are something like heroes for the way they care about their down-at-the-heels community. In contrast, the villains are undoubtedly the two narcs who just use people and whose machinations set off the swiftly increasing tragedies that play out in the film.
Meanwhile, The Bitch is a decidedly more hardboiled neo-noir in the vein of Jim Thompson or David Goodis (the film's French title, La Garce, is the same title used for Goodis's 1947 novel Behold This Woman when it was released in France). Actor-turned-director Christine Pascal takes a pulpy premise and amps up the uncomfortable psychosexual dynamics to an exquisite degree. Isabelle Huppert, whose five-decade-plus career is full of enigmatic and sexually transgressive work, is the perfect femme fatale for this story. She is first seen in the film being tossed out of a moving car by her gangster boyfriend into the rain. Her character, Aline, is "rescued" by cop Lucien (Richard Berry), who agrees to drive her home. Are their sparks in their furtive conversation, or just awkwardness? When Lucien parks, drags Aline out of the car, and then mounts her from behind, is assault or the consummarion of an unspoken desire? Pascal stages this encounter straightforwardly but with more than enough ambiguity to provide evidence to support either claim.
Aline, who is age seventeen by the way, brings a charge of rape against Lucien, and he is sent to prison for six years. When he gets out, his old cop buddies set him up with a gig as a private investigator. A client asks him to follow the proprietor of a dress shop named Edith. He quickly realizes that Edith is Aline and that something stinks about this assignment. He's compelled to continue, out of some mixture of continued attraction or need for revenge. This film is all about attitudes. Huppert projects delicacy and aloofness, with the subtlest confounding suggestion of calculation in her seemingly innocent eyes. Berry is tough and rugged, but with a slight hint of wounded vulnerability. Vittorio Mezzogiorno, who plays Aline/Edith's gangster boyfriend Max, is coolly brutal, as if the character is affecting the typical mob boss veneer.
It's less explicit than Neige in its social politics, but The Bitch also offers some sympathetic commentary on immigrants drawn into a life of crime in Paris. Lucien's ex-con pal Rony (Jean Benguigui) is an Algerian Jew with black market contacts. Even our femme fatale Aline is supposed to be a Jewish orphan. Both of these films tackle life outside the law with intensity and style. Fans of the stars -- and this era of French cinema -- will be pleased.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Each of the two films in Fatal Femmes gets its own Blu-ray, stored on either side of a standard keepcase. Cover art is reversible with a new design highlighting both titles as one option or the original French posters as the other. A limited-edition slipcover features the same new design, plus illustrations of the "fatal femmes" behind the camera, Juliet Berto and Christine Pascal, on the back. A booklet with essays by Steve Macfarlane, Jessica Felrice, and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is also included. Each disc loads to the FCE logo and some disclaimers before the full-motion menu appears.
Both films' AVC-encoded 1080p 1.66:1 presentations are sourced from new 4K restorations and look absolutely outstanding. It doesn't hurt that the films are shot by two of the finest cinematographers France ever produced, William Lubtchansky (Neige) and Raoul Coutard (The Bitch). Neige has a slightly less sculpted look to it, to serve the naturalism of the story, but doesn't lack for balance and polish in its lighting and composition. The Bitch leans more into its pulp narrative with a mixture of high-contrast sequences and high-key close-ups on Isabelle Huppert that make her radiate like an old-time movie star. Both transfers feature rich, saturated colors with realistic skin tones. Both films were sourced from their respective 35mm OCNs, so it's no surprise there is strong fine detail and excellent shadow detail in darker shots. No noticeable encode hiccups and the film grain is resolved in an utterly organic fashion. Top notch!
Both films are presented in French DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mixes, with optional English subtitles. The sound design of both are well-preserved and nicely supported. Dialogue and street-life ambience come through just fine in Neige, reinforcing the naturalistic approach to telling this story. Also, there are few brief moments of gunfire that are well-integrated into the soundscape of the film. The Bitch is a little more traditional for a fiction film in its sound design, but the dialogue and ambience feel realistic and not overly stylized. Both films have somewhat jazzy scores, although Neige weaves in plenty of diegetic reggae needle drops as well. Meanwhile, The Bitch leans heavily into the whole neo-noir vibe with lots of saxophone solos. The mono mixes leave a little to be desired in terms of immersion, but for their era, they get the job done.
Fun City Editions is always good about commissioning new extras to compliment their features, and this set is no exception.
The Bitch Disc
Fun City Editions' double feature of French female-led '80s crime dramas is a must-see. Neige uses lived-in grit to evoke life of its streetwise outsider community, while The Bitch embraces the tropes of the noir detective story to explore its characters' twisted psychology. Juliet Berto and Isabelle Huppert are incomparable as the films' respective "fatal femmes." The A/V restoration is impeccable. The supplemental materials are well-researched and thoughtful. A great package. Highly Recommended.