Always game for anything, Isabelle Huppert spends the entire second half of Tip Top, in which she plays an internal affairs investigator for the Villeneuve police department, catching drops of blood with her tongue as they trickle down her nose. Huppert’s character, Esther Lafarge, is bleeding because sex with her husband, Gérald (Samy Naceri), involves the two of them repeatedly punching each other in the face. Esther’s new partner, Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain), on the other hand, has a more benign fetish: She’s a simple voyeur, prone to peering into other people’s windows and watching them get it on. This behavior has resulted in Sally being demoted to internal affairs, on the grounds that being a peeping Tammy is incompatible with police ethics. Shouldn’t the internal affairs division be even more concerned with ethics than is the regular department? It’s best not to ask such questions about this fitfully funny curio, which confirms director and co-screenwriter Serge Bozon as one of French cinema’s true oddballs.
That said, Tip Top sounds zanier in bare description than it actually plays. (That’s likewise true of Bozon’s previous film, La France, a WWI musical.) Loosely adapted from a 2006 novel by British author James Tucker (writing as David Craig), it’s primarily about Esther and Sally’s investigation of the death of an informant, found murdered at what the film’s subtitles awkwardly term “the lake beach.” The dead man’s handler, Detective Mendès (François Damiens), is none too happy about having his integrity questioned, and begins to conduct his own investigation of the two women, discovering their respective sexual kinks in the process. Furthermore, Bozon’s decision to transplant the story from England to France allows him to address lingering racism toward the country’s Algerian minority. The murdered informant was a former Algerian cop; an Algerian community leader (Saïda Bekkouche) seems to be involved somehow; and both Esther’s husband and Sally’s new fling (Aymen Saïdi) are of Algerian ancestry as well.
If the preceding two paragraphs seem to be describing two completely different films, well, that’s Tip Top in a nutshell. Unlike Michael Haneke’s Caché, which built an atmosphere of dread from free-floating guilt about France’s shameful past, Bozon’s reimagining of James’ novel focuses on present-day ugliness—one character spends most of his time impassively watching live TV-news coverage of riots on Algeria’s streets. Bozon’s efforts to mix pointed commentary with broad comedy, however, never really come off. Huppert and Kiberlain are fun to watch (especially if you know French—subtitles don’t really do Huppert’s heavily stylized performance justice), but their antics bear almost no relation to the sluggish procedural that unfolds whenever they’re offscreen, and it’s unclear exactly what Esther and Sally’s sex lives have to do with their job, or with France’s shameful treatment of its Algerian underclass. (Even Esther and Gérard’s bedroom fistfight is completely equitable, with both parties equally wounded; making Gérard Algerian adds nothing in the way of subtext.) Tip Top is certainly singular, but sometimes there’s a reason why nobody has tried a particular approach before. Bozon hasn’t quite figured that out yet.