Sunday, 20 June 2010

By Georges! Simenon on film

This blog takes its name from a 1934 Georges Simenon novel, which was made into a film by Béla Tarr a few years ago. (It was published by Penguin in Britain under the mundane title Newhaven-Dieppe.) A famously prolific author for four decades from the early 1930s, Simenon's work is still a favourite for adaptation to the big and small screens, not least thanks to his magnificent Maigret books.

Bertrand Tavernier chose to take his first film, The Watchmaker of St Paul, from a Simenon novel and is still a fan: 'I love Simenon, I think he's one of the greatest writers.' And Tavernier is someone you listen to on such matters. 'What I love in his books are things that go beyond the superficial: the mood, the fog, the wet cobblestones, dealing with what he calls the "naked man," this feeling of a man under the clothes of civilisation and society.'

This could almost be a description of Hungarian Tarr's The Man from London, which starred Tilda Swinton among a multi-accented cast. A version of one of Simenon's most famous novels, Stain in the Snow, is said to be in production. A couple of recent adaptations I'd like to see are a French TV version of The Little Man from Archangel (whose Jewish central character is replaced by an Algerian bookseller), and Mexican film La habitación azul (2002). The 1963 book it's based on (The Blue Room) begins with the image of a man contemplating his mistress, 'naked still on the ravaged bed, her legs apart, a few drops of semen clinging to the dark hair, shadowy between her thighs.'

One of my favourite adaptations from a Simenon book of the last generation is 1989's Monsieur Hire, starring a typically mournful Michel Blanc alongside the beautiful Sandrine Bonnaire. Though Simenon boasted he'd boiled his vocabulary down to 2,000 words he's surprisingly difficult to read (for the non-native French fan) in the original as he's all about atmosphere, and Patrice Leconte's stylish film reflects that.

That's one reason I'd love to see Nuri Bilge Ceylan tackle a Simenon novel. In my mind, Béla Tarr's foggy, claustrophobic The Man from London made a good pairing with his Turkish counterpart's Three Monkeys (2008). Having scripted all six of his tremendous films thus far, Ceylan is open to taking on an adapted script. 'I would like to make adaptations but it's not easy, sometimes writing yourself is easier,' he told me at the time of his previous film, Climates (2006). 'I have many novels or stories that I like but sometimes when you begin to work on it, it turns out to be more difficult. I couldn't make an adaptation yet but I want to do it some day.'

He could do worse than looking at the work of someone with whom he shares many concerns and conceits. A tasty early novel, The Window over the Way (1933), features a Turkish diplomat caught in a possible honeytrap in the Black Sea port of Batumi. Feeling under the weather, Adil Bey demands to see a doctor. 'What exactly is wrong?' he asks the physician. 'Nothing,' comes the lugubrious reply, 'and to some extent everything.'


  1. Weirdly, one of the Simenon adaptations I enjoyed least was the 2004 Cédric Kahn version of 'Red Lights', because I had just read the book and it was so faithful that I was completely unsurprised by the twists and turns (though it did move the setting from the US to France).

    I actually have a copy of 'La habitación azul' on disc, recorded from TV (but not cut in any way); if you're interested I can send you it.

  2. Does anyone know where I could find a copy of the film made in Concarneau based on Simenon's The Yellow Dog, Le Chien jaune ?
    C Mansfield