There is nothing like going in to a movie knowing exactly nothing about it. It can be like finding buried treasure, or a disastrous blind date, but usually it’s something in between: a satisfying entertainment, or an experience that makes you wish you had those two hours back. But the feeling going in… that’s something. For me, it must be related to my childhood, when I never knew anything about a movie going into it. I would go to every single movie that opened with my mom, and we’d talk about it afterwards.
It’s not true that I didn’t know anything about Tip Top when going into it; I knew that Isabelle Huppert was in it. So I might have ventured to the movie anyway, even if I wasn’t writing about it, because going way back to Heaven’s Gate, Huppert has been a redeeming force in movies which otherwise might have made me want my two hours back. About the director, Serge Bozon, however, I knew nothing. Apparently he’s French, has done a lot of acting, and has directed a few movies, most recently La France, a musical from 2007 that seems to have baffled more than a few viewers. All good signs.
Tip Top is the story of an internal affairs investigation of a French police precinct after the death of an Algerian informant. The screenplay, by Axelle Ropert, Odile Barski and Bozon, is based on a novel of the same name by David Craig, a pseudonym for crime novelist Bill James, which is in turn a pseudonym for Welsh novelist James Tucker — all of which sounds like a story in itself. The investigation is being conducted by Esther Lafarge (Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain) and there is immediate friction within the department as Lafarge’s aggressive, intimidating approach stirs things up. Assisting with the investigation is Robert Mendès (François Damiens), an undercover cop and the closest contact to the police informants. He is a puzzle: a clown who throws himself recklessly into situations yet is also sincere, and who’s interested in Lafarge and Marinelli sexually, though we don’t know whether it’s just to protect himself. We soon find out, by way of gossip, that it’s well known that Lafarge is into rough S&M, and that Marinelli has been demoted to her internal affairs position due to her weakness for window peeping.
This police procedural/sex comedy is played out against a backdrop of French-Algerian relations, politics and discussions of racism. Occasionally we see actual television footage of rioting in Algiers — watched on TV by one of the characters — which has a strange, unsettling beauty to it, particularly against the theatricality of the stylized comedic acting. There are scenes of the Arab community throughout the film, some of which are comic, as Mendès attempts to infiltrate himself, struggling with the language, constantly getting words wrong in his rough Arabic. And then there are scenes of the widow of the informant, questioned by Lafarge and Marinelli, and scenes of her son — the effect all this has on him — which are heartbreaking without being sentimental.
So what is Tip Top about, ultimately? Besides being a rather labyrinthine mystery set in the Arab community in France, involving racism, miscommunication, misunderstandings, corruption brought about by money, and the people and families tragically involved in all of this, the film seems even more interested in — or maybe this is what interests me — the weird, disorienting feeling you get when you watch a movie that throws you completely off balance. This is achieved by characters in familiar situations who act in unexpected ways, for one. The feeling of disorientation is also brought about by unusual compositions and off-kilter editing.
I feel like Bozon is presenting us with a kind of poetry based on minor actions and quirky, odd bits of dialogue, names and place names. A name that is repeated over and over becomes more than just that name, it becomes part of a collage poem, and when assembled with the other bits creates a composition that is unknowable in the real world. I thought of The Big Sleep, and the character names: Sternwood, Rutledge, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, Art Huck, Eddie Mars — and Sean Regan, who we never even see. The characters in Tip Top keep talking about, and returning to, these particular places, the Knoll and the Lake Beach, until those places become characters in themselves. And how does a little expanse of grass in a park become so sinister? It’s like the park in Blow Up, and how I, to this day, can’t be in a park without thinking of that film.
There is also the poetry in seeing something from a distance; that distorted view where we’re not sure of what we are seeing, or what it means — as we get in the opening shot of the movie. When Sally looks out her hotel window at a half-dressed man in a room across the way, we don’t know, is he looking back at her — or over at Lafarge’s room next door? Similarly, when the TV reporter sees Mendès leaning over the body of a dead man on the knoll, looking through his pockets for evidence, from a distance it appears Mendès is sodomizing him. Everything in the movie is seen through a distorting lens of confusion with language, confusion with characters’ motives, and the unknowable nature of the human heart.
Of course, what you bring to the movie will determine how you see it. For me, it’s about seeing things in the world played out over and over again. A celebrity freaks out, which we forget about when a tsunami becomes the focus of our thoughts. Then a school shooting makes us forget about the tsunami, but we forget when the global pandemic starts, which we forget when the police kill an innocent victim, which we forget when the new iPhone comes out, which we forget when the Cold War is rekindled, which we forget while watching graphic footage of shark attacks, which we forget when terrorists strike…. We are not capable of taking in the totality of the room we are sitting in, much less the world and its history. If love is in your life, all you can think about is love, and if death is in your life, you see nothing but death around you. I am thankful for movies, like this one, that are about something other than me congratulating myself for fitting in. Whenever I go to a feel-good movie that makes me feel like shit, I remember that out there — if you can find them — there some feel-bad, disorienting movies that remind me that I’m still alive.