What is Film Noir? A tentative definition

The most slippery, blurry, ethereal subjects of the film industry (#Noirvember)

Everyone knows a film noir when they see it, right? It is something so characteristic and so ingrain in our aesthetic sense that we don’t even think about it.
Still, film noir is one of the most slippery, blurry, ethereal subjects of the film industry. Nobody can even agree on what exactly film noir is. And to make things worse, no director, in the classic time of film noir, ever decided to make a ‘film noir’ since the concept didn’t even exist back then.

The term film noir was coined in France, after WWII, when many Hollywood films finally arrived in Europe. French critics noticed a new trend in the American crime films: they were grittier, dirtier, more disillusioned and generally more pessimistic than Hollywood films ever used to be. These critics noted a trend that seemed to have spontaneously emerged in Hollywood during the war and termed it ‘film noir’ (literary ‘black film’), creating a concept that previously hadn’t existed.

If film noir was never a goal or a guide for any of the filmmakers who made those films, its inspiration did arise from a very specific historical and social situation engendered by the war. Film noir tells of anxiety, of uncertainties, of shifting roles and lost morals, of people who can’t cope with society and often act against it, because society can’t offer what they need.
The world of film noir is a world marked by a World War that has destroyed everything, before anything is reconstructed. It’s a world of immingrants, scant means, personal resourcefulness and dark lances.

In these films, the world of men damaged by the war is in stark contrast with the world of women that the war has empowered. The film noir femme fatale is a powerful, wilful woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, a fascinating but unsolvable problem for a hero that is instead confused and wounded.
And here, in the unresolved ground of the unmatchable differences between men and women is where the anxiety of an entire era emerges. To the damaged hero of film noirs, the femme fatale is the unknown, inscrutable future.