The story of director Bela Tarr's extraordinary English language film 2007 film of Georges Simenon's 1934 novel, The Man from London, starring Tilda Swinton, is as strange as, well, fiction. However, do explore the novel firstly, it is the work of a crime master at the top of his game.
In this gripping 151-page policier, Maloin works the nightshift at a railway signal box, a small cabin that affords a view of comings and goings at the murky, foggy port of Dieppe.
From his high eyerie, Maloin can keep an eye on the ferry that comes across the channel from Newhaven, while the Dieppe-Paris train stops nearby, to await passengers disembarking from the ferry.
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One night a man in a beige raincoat – beige, of course, what else - arrives on the ferry and before it docks, throws a light suitcase to a man who has been standing on the quayside. The two men proceed towards a bar, but later return to the dockside, where the man in the beige raincoat pushes the other into the water after hitting him hard on the face. In the fracas, the wounded man grabs the suitcase as he falls in.
Maloin has worked on a trawler and he spent five years in the navy, he understands tidal movement and water and ports and he manages to retrieve the suitcase from the water. He discovers within pounds sterling to the value of 540,000 French Francs, nothing to be sniffed at in the mid-1930s.
So what does he do? To say any more would certainly be to spoil but, rest assured, this is Georges Simenon firing on all cylinders. The novel appeared as L’Homme de Londres just as the early Maigret series was beginning to make a name for the prolific Belgian novelist (1903-1989).
Crime was all very well, but Simenon rather fancied his romans durs or 'hard novels’ which he deemed to be more important, more existentially-minded, than the police procedural Inspector Maigret stories. Perhaps The Man from London is an early example of a roman dur, and if that is what it is, it is almost, if not actually on a par with great romans durs such as The Hand (Le Main) or The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue).
The novel has been adapted for film on three occasions, as The London Man by Henri Decoin in 1943, and as Temptation Harbour by Lance Comfort in 1947. The Man from London (in Hungarian, A londoni férfi) was also made into a film in 2007, directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, following an adaption by the Hungarian novelist-screenwriter László Krasznahorkai. The adaptation featured Tilda Swinton as Maloin’s highly-strung wife.
The French, German and Hungarian co-production was bedeviled by serial difficulties, beginning with the suicide of the film's French producer, Humbert Balsan in February 2005, days before shooting was due to commence.
Funding for the film duly stopped, but the remaining producers managed to secure stop-gap finance. Nine days of footage was gathered on the expensive Corsican sets but filming was then ordered to cease after legal action by the local subcontractor.
Following an impressive degree of vocal support from European film organisations, production companies and government bodies, a new co-production came into being in July 2005. However, it was discovered that all rights to the film had been ceded to a French bank under the original contract. Further changes were made and a deal with the bank allowed shooting to resume in March 2006.
The Man from London was the first of Tarr's films to premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, but it did not win a prize. The French distributor blamed this on sub-standard dubbing and a late showing, although critics were apparently disappointed by the extended shots and lugubrious pace. Following re-dubbing, it was shown on the international film festival circuit.
So much for the film, which is no doubt worth checking out, as its Hungarian director is revered as master of the slow-moving but absorbing. In the meantime, enjoy Howard Curtis's fluid translation into English.