The sadomasochistic musician Isabelle Huppert played in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” seems positively parochial compared to her very physical cop in “Tip Top,” director Serge Bozon’s wildly off-kilter tale of two female detectives investigating murder and police corruption in a sleepy French town. An utterly brazen mix of screwball comedy, film noir and sharp social commentary that hits its own strange bullseye more often than not, Bozon’s third full-length feature (and first since 2007’s WWI musical, “La France”) benefits immeasurably from actors willing to go as far out on a limb as their intrepid director. Huppert’s arthouse cred notwithstanding, the pic reps a tough sell commercially, but should flourish at adventurous-minded fests and cinematheques while adding to Bozon’s small but fervent cult of admirers.
Working with usual screenwriting partner Axelle Ropert (“The Wolberg Family”) and new collaborator Odile Barski, Bozon adapted “Tip Top” from British pulp writer Bill James’ 2006 novel, transposing the setting from the U.K. to France and adding a pungent subtext about the country’s lingering postcolonial tensions with its large Algerian population. Primary holdover from the novel are the sexual perversities of the two main characters: Huppert’s Esther Lafarge, who likes it rough, and Sandrine Kiberlain’s Sally Marinelli, a classic voyeur. You could say that both officers enjoy taking their work home with them a bit too much.
Pic springs into motion with the death of Farid Benamar, a former Algerian cop working as a police informant in the town of Villeneuve, near Lille. After Benamar’s body turns up in a public park known as “Plage du Lac” (this movie’s Chinatown, if you will), internal affairs assigns Esther and Sally — the latter having been recently demoted for “incompatibility with police ethics” — to the case. Once on the ground in Villeneuve, the women spark a mixture of fear and indignation in the local authorities — to a one, white, balding, middle-aged men — and find themselves under surveillance by Mendes (Francois Damiens), the detective who was Benamar’s primary police contact.
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There is a conspiratorial plot at work here, surrounding the identity of Benamar’s assailant and the possible involvement of Rachida Belkacem (Saida Bekkouche), a local Algerian community leader whom Benamar may have been tailing on Mendes’ behalf. But it’s clear from early on that the film’s real concerns lie somewhere beyond “whodunit.” Just as the unseen videographer in Haneke’s “Cache” (a film to which “Tip Top” otherwise bears no resemblance) seemed to be a manifestation of the characters’ collective guilt over France’s “undeclared war” in Algeria, everyone here has the former French colony on their mind, until it seems to pervade the film like an invisible fog. A Villeneuve police chief stares dazedly at TV footage of riots in Algiers, while Mendes makes sincere but comically awkward efforts to understand the “other”; Sally enters into a flirtation with Mendes’ newest informant (the excellent Aymen Saidi); and Esther exchanges punishing bedroom blows with her Algerian violinist husband (Samy Naceri) — a sex scene that calls nothing less than Tyson-Holyfield to mind. By the end, everyone has blood on his or her hands — or, in Esther’s case, dripping like a leaky faucet from her nose on to her waiting tongue.
There is a strong sense in “Tip Top” of a vicious cycle of violence and retribution stretching across decades and borders, but rather than treating it in earnest, social-melodrama fashion, Bozon boldly hitches it to an unpredictable screwball engine. The resulting clash of tones initially seems jarring, but ultimately original and invigorating. If nothing else, Huppert and Kiberlain make for a wonderfully odd cop couple, suggesting a strange cross between Cagney & Lacey and Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie, Huppert’s fiery Esther barreling through the film in a starched turquoise suit that seems fused to her ramrod-straight body, while Kiberlain’s mousy Sally brings up the rear in a baggy white sweater and oversized spectacles. (In Bozon’s universe, characters very much are what they wear.) Meanwhile, Damiens’ hilarious Mendes blunders about like a leather-jacketed bull in a china shop, reading a book called “Are We Serious in Our Practice of Islam?” and speaking in horrible, self-taught Arabic.
That Huppert would be game for these antics is hardly surprising given her history of placing bets on maverick auteurs, but the tall, lanky Kiberlain (“Polisse,” “Mademoiselle Chambon”) is particular fun to watch here. She’s always doing something subtle and wry in scenes where Huppert seems to be consuming all the oxygen, just as Sally slowly seems to take on more and more of Esther’s personality traits, until the pupil threatens to eclipse the master. The deft casting of Naceri, who brings a fragile, haunted quality to his brief appearance, will have special resonance to French audiences familiar with the actor’s long personal history of violent incidents and police run-ins.
As in “La France” and the hour-length “Mods,” the pic’s stylized color palate and shallow-space compositions come courtesy of Bozon’s d.p. sister Celine. Those familiar with helmer’s previous work will not be surprised to learn that “Tip Top” also sports one full-on musical number, set to the Turkish tune “Ve olum,” doubtless sourced form vinyl.