In Pigalle, the seedy porn hub of Paris, 1982, Franck (Guillaume Canet) and Serge (Gilles Lellouche) run a peep show called Le Mirodrome. Riddled with debt they decide to revive their fortunes they decide to produce and shoot short porn films showcasing their beautiful dancers. Unfortunately their rapid success draws out greedy competitors. One night masked thugs invade La Mirodrome, beating patrons and smashing everything in sight. What they do not know is that Franck and Serge are actually undercover police officers. Tasked by their superiors to probe a money laundering operation involving eccentric porn mogul Maurice Vogel (Michel Fau), Franck and Serge are drawn deeper into a seamy underworld of sex, drugs and sleazy misadventure.
The fourth feature from former Cahiers du Cinema editor Cédric Anger winds up telling a story very different from what the premise and opening scenes lead us to expect. Both the seedy milieu and drug-addled intros allotted our protagonists hint at a grueling descent into porno hell: exploitation, degradation and idealism undone by exposure to a sleazy industry. When we meet our undercover cops Franck is already a coked-up burnout while Serge struggles to reconcile his bestial street persona with a normal domestic life with a wife and kids he often forgets exist. Both men indulge in drugs to numb the claustrophobic tedium of diving daily into a cesspool. Yet from this low point Anger unexpectedly and quite remarkably fashions an upbeat, sweet-natured and disarmingly life-affirming comedy, laced with endearingly humanistic life lessons drawn from, er, porn.
Released on the English market as Dirty Cops, Paris Pigalle a.k.a. L'amour est une fête (Love is a Celebration) the film could be likened to a French Boogie Nights (1997) by way of Les Ripoux (1984): Claude Zidi's blockbusting comedy about cheerfully corrupt cops. As Boogie Nights did for the American smut industry of the Seventies, the film functions in part as an elegy for a bygone age in French porn filmmaking. Back when porn was shot on actual film with actual plots and glamorous stars like Brigitte Lahaie entered the industry in order to explore their sexual freedom. An opening montage of rouge light-bathed strippers gyrating sexily to "Cum On Feel the Noise" by Slade immediately grabs your attention right away, after which the film continues to ooze style. Anger assembles an array of eye-catching neon-drenched sequences scored by a selection of Eighties Euro-pop favourites and recreates 16mm Euro-porn clips with cheesy authenticity, though wisely without getting too explicit. Juxtaposing the raunchiness of porn movies with the mundane reality of their making, Anger mixes world-weary drama with absurdist comedy.
Certainly the film risks glamorizing the sex industry in a manner perhaps less than authentic. The milieu is sleek and attractive, the women (Camille Razat, Eliza Bachir Bey, Inge van Bruystegem, Valeria Nicov) all absolute bombshells. Yet the lack of misogyny both in the film’s portrait of the porn stars as vivacious, upbeat women bent on freely expressing their sexuality for fun and profit and the attitude of the male protagonists towards them is both refreshing and affecting. Franck and Serge genuinely care about their dancers and their collective camaraderie proves more positive and life-affirming than their relationship with fellow cops. Together with the array of dreamers and oddballs that assemble into a makeshift family that against all odds awaken Franck and Serge to the strange poetry and beauty of life. An unfolding romance between Franck and Virginie (Camille Razat), a bubbly, intelligent actress who ventures into porn as a means of heightening her profile, brings an additional element of sweetness and humanity.
The rambling plot yields some memorable moments (in particular a near-Hitchcockian sequence (what else would you expect from a former Cahiers du Cinema writer) where Franck’s paranoia about Maurice turns comedic when events take a turn for the crazy at his woodland retreat, involving cocaine, bikini babes and the disposal of a corpse) but also multiple loose ends. Nevertheless even as the third act segues into outright farce (with the crew shooting their magnum opus amidst the sylvan tranquility of a country estate right under the homeowners' noses) things end satisfyingly with our leads forced to choose between duty and a newfound 'porn family' with dreams and feelings.