Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Détective’ on MUBI and free on Kanopy

Jean-Luc Godard’s Détective (France, 1985) is a modernist twist on the pulp movie conventions and elements that inspired such early films as Breathless (1960) and Band of Outsiders (1964).

Set almost entirely with in the Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare in Paris, the story involves a boxing manager (French rock legend Johnny Hallyday) in debt to the mob, a married couple (Claude Brasseur and Nathalie Baye) also trying to collect from the manager, and a disgraced hotel detective (Laurent Terzieff) working with his nephew (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to investigate an unsolved murder that cost him his job.

The original story is by producer Alain Sarde but Godard and his screenwriting partner Anne-Marie Mieville clearly use it simply as a foundation on which to riff their own take on the genre. They play with and deconstruct the clichés of classic crime thrillers while tossing in offbeat humor, philosophical asides, and literary quotes and references. The mystery itself threatens to become an existential conundrum while the dramas play out in fragments around it.

There are threats, affairs, older men with young girlfriends, a young boxer (Stéphane Ferrara) who trains without ever leaving his room, and a chaotic shoot-out. And, this being Godard, there is gratuitous nudity: a teenage Emmanuelle Seigner as the boxer’s frequently topless girlfriend. For an ostensibly politically engaged filmmaker, he has a glaring blind spot when it comes to the sexualization of women onscreen.

The images are bright and colorful and the soundtrack features fragments of classic and jazz compositions that come and go abruptly and unexpectedly, an experiment that became a favorite device of the director in the eighties.

It’s one of the most playful films that Godard made during his return to the big screen in the 1980s and, in gesture that recalls his debut feature Breathless, he dedicates it to John Cassavetes, Edgar Ulmer, and Clint Eastwood.

Not rated, features nudity and foul language, in French with English subtitles

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Détective [Blu-ray]
Détective [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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