The French have always had an admiration for hard-boiled American fiction and a talent for translating it to the screen. The gloss of existentialism they have managed to coat over the genre has resulted in some of the best films made anywhere: Bob le flambeur, Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player and The Moon in the Gutter. The street-smart police thriller La Balance is not strictly American hard-boiled fiction, but director Bob Swaim, an expatriate American, obviously wishes it were. Set in Paris’ sleazy Belleville district, the film deals with prostitutes and their pimps, drug dealers and a police department as kindly as the KGB. But for all its fast-paced atmosphere, La Balance is curiously uninvolving because the characters are seldom engaging.
Although the setting may seem exotic to North Americans, La Balance, beyond a few quirks and attitudes, is little more than Starsky and Hutch spoken in French. The balance of the title is slang for “informer,” and the movie begins with the shooting of one. Desperately in need of another informer to break a criminal gang, the police seek out Dédé (sleepy-eyed Philippe Leotard), once a gang member and now a pimp for Nicole (Nathalie Baye), who betrayed him by sleeping with the gang’s leader. By leaning on both of them, and especially taking advantage of Nicole’s protective feelings for Dédé, police Insp. Palouzi (Richard Berry) eventually has his way.
La Balance displays a carefully cultivated ambivalence toward its characters: Palouzi and the other police are at times unbelievably brutal, yet more than cardboard goons, and the two lovers are never entirely sympathetic. The tone is casual, edgy; the humor is practically flippant. And the obvious references to other works in the genre add a whiff of pretension. For all the carefully thought-out stagings, camera angles and editing strategies, the film does not have the crackling rhythms Swaim intended.
Swaim has a film-school sensibility, and it gets in the way of his telling a story. During the climactic shootout, the police stand around and gawk while a maniac guns down innocent bystanders. That makes no logical sense, but it does provide the director with the opportunity for staging a chase afterward. La Balance is so transparent that its storyboards show through. — L. O’T.
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