Law and Disorders

Serge Bozon, Tip Top, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes.

IN HIS BREAKTHROUGH FILM LA FRANCE (2007), Serge Bozon created a singular anachronistic war movie/musical hybrid: A drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I in which soldiers intermittently break out into delirious songs that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds, the film celebrates 1960s-era pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. Tip Top, Bozon’s latest, similarly upends categories: This sui generis policier audaciously balances slapstick with a fiercely intelligent probing of the still-knotty legacy of France’s colonialist past.

Using Bill James’s 2006 mystery novel of the same name as a jumping-off point, Bozon cowrote Tip Top with his frequent collaborator Axelle Ropert (whose two features, 2009’s The Wolberg Family and 2013’s Miss and the Doctors, both exceptionally compassionate explorations of blood ties, have scandalously never received US distribution). Internal-affairs officers Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain) are summoned to the northern French town of Villeneuve to investigate the murder of an Algerian informant named Farid Benamar. The oddly matched cops—brusque Esther’s crisp teal suit contrasts sharply with reticent Sally’s oversize glasses and baggy white cable-knit pullover—are themselves surveilled by Robert Mendès (François Damiens), the local flic to whom Farid reported. Now grooming a new, younger informant, Younès (Aymen Saïdi), Robert is begrudgingly tolerated by Villeneuve’s Algerian residents, who must endure his horrible Arabic and his penchant for reading passages aloud from Are We Serious in Our Practice of Islam?

During his snooping, Robert will become aware of the highly unorthodox off-duty practices of Esther and Sally: The former is into heavy s/m, stashing a mason’s hammer under her hotel-room pillow until her beloved violinist husband (Sami Naceri) can join her, and the former is a compulsive voyeur. The bedroom behavior of this peculiar law-enforcement duo, mirrored somewhat in their dom/sub professional rapport, provides Tip Top with most of its bracing, askew humor—and allows its female leads to showcase previously underexplored talents. Huppert, a titan of French cinema best known for her performances in grave, somber works like Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), has rarely appeared in comedies (save for François Ozon’s kitsch musical misfire 8 Women from 2002). But in Bozon’s film, the actress displays perfect, if perverse, screwball timing—never more so than when single drops of blood, the result of the previous night’s rough play, slide down her nose to be caught by her darting, eager tongue. Although not as well known stateside as her costar, Kiberlain—who earlier this year fearlessly transformed Simone de Beauvoir into a living, breathing, if still formidable, mortal in Violette, Martin Provost’s intelligent biopic of Violette Leduc—expertly complements Huppert’s bumptious character with sly self-effacement.

Yet while Tip Top regards these two idiosyncratic cops with affection, Esther and Sally—both of whom, significantly, are married to Algerians—are nonetheless agents of a corrupt institution, and, by extension, a morally compromised nation. After introducing several plot twists and hatching a more than a few conspiracies, Tip Top ends abruptly, its case still unsolved. The investigation is ongoing, much like France’s uneasy reckoning with its own past crimes.

Tip Top opens December 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.