Friday, November 02, 2018

Ossang’s 9 Fingers

Brace yourself for some film noir that takes a detour into Samuel Butler terrain. Instead of Erehwon, a motley band of rogues sinks into the morass that is “Nowhereland.” Whatever and wherever that is, it sure isn’t utopia. The film is also far from perfect, but admirers of F.J. Ossang, the French poet and experimental filmmaker-provocateur will eat it up with a big spoon and ask for more. For us mere mortals, Ossang’s throwback film noir imagery provides the thin edge of the wedge that lets us get some kind of handle on 9 Fingers (trailer here), which opens today in New York, at Anthology Film Archives (also available on MUBI for a limited time only).

Fleeing an i.d. check at a lonely train station, Magloire stumbles across a dying man, who gives him a wad of bills, most likely illicitly acquired. That brings him into the crosshairs of the gang that did in the unnamed man, but instead of doing the same to Magloire, they recruit him into their ranks—after duly taking the cash. Unfortunately, the first heist they pull with Magloire goes down badly. This rather surprises the leader, because the intel supplied by the shadowy mastermind known as “The 9 Fingers” is usually infallible.

Forced to lay low, the gang books passage on a dodgy boat to South America. Unfortunately, when their ship hits the doldrums off the coast of Nowhereland, so does the film. Admittedly, Ossang’s narrative, if we can even use the term in this context, is baffling right from the start, but at least the first act zips along at a jaunty clip.

Regardless, Ossang is undeniably well versed in mystery, noir, caper, and seafaring adventure genres. Viewers can easily catch echoes of John Huston, Fritz Lang, and Jean-Pierre Melville films, as well as the novels of B. Traven, Eric Ambler, and Joseph Conrad. They are all there in the mix, but their influence eventually gets bogged down in all the talk about floating garbage.

It is a shame, because for a while, 9 Fingers is on pace to be one of the most entertaining films to ever get tagged with the “experimental” label. Paul Hamy is suitably cynical and hardboiled. Lisa Hartman also makes a highly credible femme fatale as Drella. However, the real stars are Simon Roca’s arresting black-and-white cinematography and the evocatively seedy urban locations. Serious genre fans will find it intriguing for a while, but diminishing marginal returns will kick in hard. Best saved for Ossang’s admirers, 9 Fingers opens today (11/2) at Anthology Film Archives, in conjunction with a retrospective of his film oeuvre.