Eric Zonca’s ‘Black Tide’ washes over Haifa

Wide-ranging film includes the compulsion of writers to create at all costs

ERICK ZONCA attends the Haifa International Film Festival (photo credit: BARAK BRAUN)
ERICK ZONCA attends the Haifa International Film Festival
(photo credit: BARAK BRAUN)
Erick Zonca, the director of Black Tide, a psychological thriller and police procedural, which just had its premiere at the 34th Haifa International Film Festival (which runs through October 1) and which opened in theaters throughout Israel on September 27, knows his film is dark. It features an extraordinarily flawed main character, a plot that features sexual abuse and even victims who are complicit in some of the crimes.
But the director owns its darkness, and cares for his characters in spite of – and perhaps because of – their flaws. “There is something very disturbing in this movie,” he acknowledged. He was speaking both about some twists and turns of the plot and about the protagonist, Francois Visconti (Vincent Cassel), an alcoholic police detective whose own son is involved in selling drugs and who indulges in inappropriate sexual liaisons that could certainly get him into big trouble in the post-#MeToo world.
But Visconti’s relationship with his troubled, drug-dealing son is not the main plot, which instead focuses on the disappearance of a preteen who has been extremely stable up to that point. His parents are together, his father works and his mother takes care of his developmentally disabled younger sister. The one element that raises suspicion is the extreme interest of his former tutor and neighbor, Yann (Romain Duris). Yann is an aspiring novelist who works in a basement office, seems more comfortable with words than with people, ignores his young wife and baby and has more than a few secrets.
At the heart of the film, which is based on the bestselling Israeli novel, The Missing File by Dror Mishani, is a series of interrogations of the teacher by the detective that turn into wide-ranging dialogues about many issues that only have a tangential connection to the boy’s disappearance, including the impossibility of truly knowing another person and the compulsion of writers to create their work at all costs. The teacher isn’t afraid of going to jail, he tells the detective, because, “Writing is the real prison.”   
Zonca, an acclaimed director, burst onto the international film scene 20 years ago with The Dreamlife of Angels, an extraordinary film about two young women on the margins of society. That film won awards at Cannes and made stars of its actresses, Elodie Bouchez (who has a key role in Black Tide as the teacher’s wife) and Natacha Régnier. Since then, he has gravitated to neo-noir crime dramas.
He found the Dror Mishani novel by chance when a librarian recommended it, and he instantly recognized its movie potential, although he did some reshaping of the story as he turned it into a film.
“The reality is that this is not only the story of a disappearance, it is also the story of two men, of their fight, the policeman and the teacher,” he said, and of their philosophical argument over the material and carnal vs. the artistic and the intellectual aspects of life.
Originally, Gerard Depardieu, France’s leading but notoriously difficult actor, was set to play the detective, but was replaced by Vincent Cassel – a rugged-looking actor known for playing sexy leading men in such films as Black Swan and My King – who has an uncanny ability for making characters both unlikable and interesting at the same time. Cassel had a very short time to prepare for this film, but “he jumped into this character within one week, he picked out the coat he would wear, he understood that it works better if he has greasy hair” and looks completely wrung out.
One of the director’s main influences for this movie were the films of Maurice Pialat, particularly the 1985 movie, Police, an atmospheric, violent mystery, ironically starring Depardieu. The gritty and existential Coen brothers’ classic, No Country for Old Men, was also a film that impressed the director. Another, more unlikely inspiration was David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a movie Zonca said he has seen “more than 100 times.” Mulholland Drive is legendary for its ambiguous plot, which cineastes have been arguing over for nearly two decades.
Although the ending of Black Tide raises nearly as many questions as it answers, Zonca said that this was his intention.
“So many things are not resolved. It’s more interesting like that,” he said.