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Not Quite Noir: Films to Accompany Your Summer Reading

Our “Noir with a Twist” collection features three novels from France, China, and Brazil that reinvent one of the most exhausted modern genres. We put together a list of international films to accompany your reading this summer.

We all know that thrilling new translated literature is like a hypodermic injection of adrenaline into a nation’s calm literary heart, and what genre is more in need of an infusion of energy than the time-worn noir? For those who want to take it there, we offer this package of noir-ish stories that go to unbelievable places. Whether it’s a hustler working at the margins of Beijing’s gray market, Brazilian lit meets David Lynch, or a nightmarish clash of class and ethnicity in France, these books reinvent one of the most exhausted modern genres:

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll, translated by Adam Morris

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump

Running through Beijing by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen

Spend your summer days in the worlds created by João Gilberto Noll, Marie NDiaye, and Xu Zechen, then cool off at night with these noir-ish films from around the world.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971, Germany)
Directed by Wim Wenders

There’s no better time than right after the World Cup Finals to try to get your hands on a copy of this 1971 Wim Wenders film about a goalie who loses his bearings. Based on the novel by the same name by Peter Handke (who co-wrote the script), this film is eerily similar to Quiet Creature on the Corner.

The goalkeeper Josef Bloch (Arthur Brauss) is sent off after committing a foul during an away game. This causes him to completely lose his bearings. He wanders aimlessly through the unfamiliar town, spends the night with the box-office attendant of a movie theater (Erika Pluhar), and strangles her the next morning. But instead of turning himself in or fleeing, Bloch then goes to his ex-girlfriend’s (Kai Fischer) place in the country and passively waits there for the police to come and arrest him.

Run Lola Run (1998, Germany)
Directed by Tom Tykwer

Those missing commas in the title of Run Lola Run aren’t typos, they’re an indication that this movie is all about adrenaline and forward motion, and it won’t stop for anything so much as a period, em dash, semicolon, comma, or any other piece of unnecessary punctuation. In its subtle braininess, its geeky inter-textuality, and its hustling brio, this film makes a great coupling with Running through Beijing.

Mixing dazzling editing, techno music and a film school’s worth of cinematic techniques — ironic for a filmmaker who was rejected from film school for being too traditional — director Tom Tykwer’s tight, time-twisting action-comedy-thriller energized the German movie industry, broke out as an international hit and seemed to embody the antic spirit of ’90s independent film.

The Long Goodbye (1973, USA)
Directed by Robert Altman

Altman perfectly captured the look and feel of a dingy-but-surreal, and perfectly star-struck, LA of megawatt lights, sandy beaches, corrupt cops, and lots and lots of seedy characters. Philip Marlowe has certainly seen better days, but this one last caper is definitely one to see, as is the move from Humphrey Bogart to Elliott Gould (some of the most inspired casting ever). Definite foretastes of David Lynch, enjoy this one with Quite Creature or My Heart Hemmed In and you won’t be disappointed.

Altman doesn’t appear to have been impressed by either the novel or Marlowe’s mythos. The most revered of American directors in the ‘70s before the passing decades revealed just how smug a filmmaker he was, and maybe how smug we were as audiences, he nonetheless made two pictures that endure the longer perspective: the murmuring Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye, where even Altman grasped just how cheap irony can be, before his integrity turned to sanctimony and rebelliousness to self-regard.

Black Swan (USA, 2010)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Character study of a tormented woman, ongoing nightmare, hyper-reality, Aronofsky’s dark ode to ballet, motherhood, and toxic inter-personal relationships that lead to madness works very well with Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In (like the filmmaker, the author has a thing for turning characters into birds). You may not want to enjoy either of these items too late at night—either that, or prepare to go to sleep with the lights on . . . and maybe experience some nightmares of your own!

Black Swan’s insistent attention to physicality proves to be only a bridge built to usher us toward the film’s destination, the realm of drugs and violent mental disorder, allowing Aronofsky to surrender his mise en scène completely to expressionistic subjectivity.

City of God (Brazil, 2003)
Directed by Alexandre Rodrigues

With its vivid cast of characters eking out an existence at the margins in a modern-day developing nation megacity, Alexandre Rodrigues’ thrilling, gritty City of God has got a lot to compare with Running through Beijing. Though the film definitely takes the cake in terms of violence (this is not a movie for the faint of heart), the stories of young men hustling to stay one step ahead from everything trying to drag them down certainly resonate with one another. Consider these two your summer thrill ride!

The movie was adapted from a novel called City of God as well, by Bráulio Mantovani, it has been nominated for 4 Oscars (which is a pretty big deal for a foreign movie) and won a BAFTA award. The story is basically about a boy named Rocket who grows up in the housing projects the government made called the City of God. Murders and gang violence are an everyday occurrence within the city, and it shocks you to realize that this is actually based on a true story.

Mother Joan of the Angels (Poland, 1961)
Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz

Who among us couldn’t love a creepy story of a young man sent to clean up a 17th-century convent where all of the young nuns have been possessed by a demon—and all based on an infamous historical occurrence? This intense film from Poland’s burgeoning postwar film industry won the Special Jury Prize at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, and we think few foreign films would pair better with Quiet Creature or My Heart Hemmed In.

The greatest set piece of the film is the exorcism scene. It begins with the nuns entering the frame one-by-one in a trance-like procession, as if floating on air, and ends with the juxtaposition of images of a flight of birds with the frenetic dance of the nuns agitating their white habits, symbolizing freedom and entrapment. In the middle everything is meticulously choreographed by Kawalerowicz to achieve a permanent state of doubt, repression, sin, guilt and pain, of love and loss in an unforgivable and soulless world.