A Trick of the Light
With Locarno’s retrospective this year focusing on the work of Jacques Tourneur, the inclusion of F.J. Ossang’s 9 Doigts in the international competition seems like a fitting parallel selection. Tourneur – alongside Melville, Murnau and countless other greats – is one of the many major inspirations for Ossang’s hyper-referential film, a rich and visually shining neo-noir that begins with the most classical of premises, a large sum of money that sends a fugitive on the run, before expanding outwardly into something else entirely.
“I try to surprise myself and drive into unknown territories” announced Ossang when addressing the press, and surprise is certainly something achieved by his film. Across the film’s multiple acts, 9 Doigts moves unpredictably, cycling through a number of unique, attractive environments from the moodily lit train station opening to the mid-section that sees the characters trapped aboard a cargo ship, lost at sea and losing their minds; and into the film’s conclusion on the picturesque terrain of Portugal’s off-coast Azores archipelago.
Shot in black and white 35mm with a deep consideration for the natural chiaroscuro of the nighttime locations, much discussion in the conference naturally surrounded the film’s visual qualities. Besides crediting the film’s costumer designer, Karine Chappentier, whose dramatic long coats, heavy set briefcases and round black sunglasses place the film immediately within a context of classic noir, Ossang remarked frequently on the relationship between filmmaking and painting, on the qualities of light and cinema’s relationship with dreaming.
His cast was no less high minded, with actor Pascal Greggory referring to his experience working with the director as like “building an artistic monument together.” Above all, however, it was the idea of mystery that drove discussion, the appeal of engaging with “the unknown factors.” Gaspard Ulliel noted slightly nervously that “when you work with F.J. Ossang, you know you are starting an adventure,” comparing joining the production with entering a dark, but enticing tunnel. “When we started the shoot, we were not sure we’d ever reach an end.”
Ossang’s adventure is lifted as much from 1940’s French and American noir as from the pages of a comic book or pulp paperback. Propulsive and action driven, the film’s early section is loaded with punchy zingers like “you bought a ticket for death, look it in the face!” Yet, the script quickly becomes more literary, more poetic, philosophical and ruminative. The characters begin to offer erudite, philosophical diatribes at every given moment, musings on mankind and its folly or wild political theories, and Ossang described his screenwriting process as treading through the “toxic fog of language.” He marked emphatically that to him “writing is paramount,” and that his films should be considered more as “poetry applied to cinema” than narrative vehicles, something detectable in the film’s mix of linear and more avant-garde moments. His actor Pascal Greggory added, with a few surrounding murmurs of agreement, that sometimes this is “a violent kind of poetry.”
“Cinema is life dreaming about reality,” Ossang concluded. 9 Doigts is an enigmatic, ambiguous film and the director was not keen to unravel it for the press, instead offering a number of codified, quixotic statements such as “it’s science-fiction, but the other way round” or “it’s a reverie for dreams” that seemed only to provoke further questions. When asked about the film’s title, 9 Doigts (9 Fingers), he offered a joke about counting fingers and codes, suggesting the answer could be found through the addition and subtraction of various figures relating to the number 9. The conference room looked puzzled. F.J. Ossang adjusted the collar on his black suit, Gaspard Ulliel raised his iconic black spectacles over his eyes, and the cast and director smoothly and silently exited the conference. A classic piece of misdirection from a filmmaker with a preoccupation with the spectacle of cinema.Matt Turner