Reviews: "Police Beat"; "The Page Turner"

Dennis Harvey April 3, 2007

A cop movie by Indiewood’s Alexandr Sokurov?

It’s taken over two years for “Police Beat” to go from being one of the most praised films at Sundance to a theatre near you. This is understandable enough, for largely the same reasons that director-coscenarist Robinson Devor is one of the most talented, distinctive and truly independent U.S. filmmakers working today. He’s made three features to date — “Police Beat” is the middle one — and each have been strikingly original. Though it’s quite possible you haven’t seen any of them yet.

2000’s “The Woman Chaser” was a B&W neo-noir laden with perverse wit, starring Patrick Warburton as a very Charles Willeford/Jim Thompson type protagonist — a sociopathic early 1960s L.A. used car salesman. It picked up awards, a theatrical release, and a cult following, but still seems drastically underseen. Attracting attention (and at least some ticketbuyers) won’t be a problem for his new “Zoo,” which was financed with a distribution already in place. This is perhaps surprising for something as “wha?”-inducing as a semidocumentary look at a real-life recent case in which a Seattle man died from injuries incurred during sex with a horse. But what Devor makes of this lurid subject is so arresting, unexpected, even beautiful, as you will see when it arrives in May.

Those adjectives could apply just as well to “Police Beat,” which hardly sounds like it would invite, support, or require enigmatic lyricism — though both “Zoo” and “Woman Chaser” also made something spectral from rather sordid themes. Co-written by Devor with Charles Mudede, a Zimbabwe-born journalist who writes a “Police Beat” column for Seattle’s weekly The Stranger, the film of that same title is not exactly your standard cop action flick or procedural. Its central figure “Z” (played by Pape Sidy Niang, who hardly seems a first-time actor, let alone a mere 21 years old) is a bicycle-patrol man in blue pedaling around the city’s waterfronts and leafy residential districts.

That almost paradisiacal look — heightened by the distortive color palette and gorgeous compositions of Devor’s invaluable cinematographer, Sean Kirby — renders near-surreal the various crime and public-disturbance scenes Z is called to. There are drownings, suicides, crazy people acting out, an adult-bookstore shoplifter, freaky sex gone wrong, and several purely weird incidents, like a man forcing two plus-sized women to do sit-ups at gunpoint.

Seemingly surrounded by arbitrary, sometimes violent behavior, Z operates as both calm “problem solver” and bewildered witness to what strikes him as an incomprehensible culture. Part of that perception is because he’s a conservative, Muslim, West African émigré (whose voiceover musings are in English-subtitled Wolof), part because he’s in emotional turmoil over the girlfriend (Anna Oxygen as Rachel) whose approach to their relationship escapes his understanding. In fact, for most of the film she’s off camping with a male housemate, a decision Z finds disturbing at the very least. Meanwhile, his patrol partner Swan (Eric Breedlove) is crossing a different line by getting over-involved with a prostitute/masseuse/negligent mother (Sarah Harlett).

“Police Beat” is a “cop movie” a lot closer to the spirit of such metaphysical film poets as Alexandr Sokurov than it is to, say, anything Jerry Bruckheimer would produce — or even a thoughtful Hollywood investigative drama like “Zodiac.” Where most movies with similar subject matter want to pummel you, this one is like a disorientating dream, eluding firm grasp but all the more fascinating for it.

“Police Beat” opens Fri/6 at Roxie New College Film Center, 3117 16th St., SF. Showtimes 7 & 8:45 p.m., also Sat.-Sun. and Wed., 2:30 & 4:45 p.m.

Off-key: Denis Dercourt’s “The Page Turner”

[Editor’s note: This “Reverse Shot” review was originally published in indieWIRE March 19, 2007]

Any director working from as thin a premise as that which tries to undergird the nominal thriller “The Page Turner” better have style to burn, or at least the good sense to get the film over with as quickly as possible. Denis Dercourt’s sadly lacking in the former department, though, having managed to dispatch his tale of an aspiring pianist’s revenge on the famed performer who unthinkingly crushed her dreams in a brief eighty minutes, seems to have realized, to a certain degree, the limitations of his material.

Deborah Francois, who, after her stunningly unself-conscious debut in the Dardennes’ “L’Enfant,” seemed destined to enter into the orbit of those singular Bressonian heroines (plucked from obscurity and offered the chance to burn the screen brightly before fading into obscurity, like Florence Delay, Nadine Nortier), instead seems to be actively consolidating her status as ingenue. Instead of the reckless, headlong abandon of her Sonia, thwarted musician Melanie Prouvost is a model of icy calculation; blonde hair pulled back, eyes lowered and inscrutable, mouth pursed below eerily symmetrical cheekbones. Her target for ruination is Catherine Frot’s acclaimed concert pianist Ariane Fouchecourt, who, years prior, in an opening sequence notable mostly for its ham-fisted overdetermination, distracted young Melanie during her conservatory audition, thus ending the girl’s music career forever. Francois, at only nineteen, and graced with her second Cesar nomination for “The Page Turner,” is already an actress to reckon with, and her scenes with Frot, which Dercourt increasingly sexualizes as the film wears on, are a mild treat unto themselves, even as the narrative they’re enslaved to grows increasingly less plausible.

Melanie begins insinuating herself in Ariane’s life through an internship at the law firm run by Jean Fouchecourt (an always game Pascal Greggory). It’s not long before she’s shyly volunteered herself to care for Ariane and Jean’s son for a month, and has been relocated to the Fouchecourt estate outside of Paris. Ariane, injured in a hit-and-run accident a few years prior (Dercourt leaves the question of M