There is no non-diegetic sound in Série noire, and yet there is music almost constantly (especially in the first half). When Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere) isn’t singing in his car, or singing drunk with Tikides (Andreas Katsulas) in his flat, there is the radio. And the radio is like a character all of its own. In the very first scene, we see Franck alone with his car in La Zone, the wastelands beyond the city, dancing with the radio in his arms to Duke Ellington’s ‘Moonlight Fiesta’.
Alain Corneau transposes Jim Thompson’s harebrained tale of love, larceny and multiple personality disorder A Hell of a Woman to the Parisian banlieue. With the change in setting comes also a change of rhythm, from Thompson’s frantic hard-boiled Americana to the quickened pulse of late 70s urban France. Novelist George Perec’s dialogue, itself a kind of wild music composed of rapid-fire fragments of verlan and argot, is syncopated to the rhythms of French disco.
The film then becomes a kind of extended riff on Noel Coward’s thesis on the potency of cheap music, the songs acting sometimes in ironic counterpoint to the action – as in the use of Dalida’s Francophone Cockney knees-up ‘Le Lambeth Walk’ behind a tense scene in the office of Franck’s boss in which he airs his growing suspicions – at other times heightening the tragic pathos of the scene – Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’ as the young girl Mona (Marie Trintignant), prostituted by her aunt, strips for Franck.
Sometimes the choice of songs seems even to predict the action. As Franck fights with his wife, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), in the bathroom we hear Sheila B Devotion’s ‘Kennedy Airport’, as if to suggest that Jeanne’s mind is already made up to leave – and that soon after she leaves she will start to think about returning (we hear the song one more time, later in the film, immediately before their relationship comes to a tragic end). But it is ‘Moonlight Fiesta’ that seems to represent the utopian element of the film. Both opening and closing the picture, it offers a glimmer of hope, the chance of escape, amidst the grim squalor of the banlieue.