French Film

The Film that knocked Hitchcock Off His Perch

If you ask anyone who is the master of suspense, you’ll likely get the same answer from most people: Alfred Hitchcock. Most people know that.

What most people don’t know, is that, for a few years in the 1950s, he was taken off that pedestal by a French director who is mostly forgotten today: Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man whose work we’ve already admired here, but who achieved international recognition with Les Diaboliques.

This is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time, particularly because it’s unpredictable until a few minutes from the end. It doesn’t torture you with the knowledge that bad things are coming in a precisely organized procession. After a while, you know the bad stuff is on its way, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess what form it takes.

And the end is greatly satisfying.

The only weak link here is the main actress, Clouzot’s wife Vera, who was not great, but the film is so strong it really didn’t matter all that much. The awkwardness in her acting actually fits into the personality of the character and you wonder if she was bad on purpose (apparently she wasn’t, but I only learned that when doing a bit of reading for this piece).

For those of you who read and enjoy my car stuff here, it’s fun to note that the characters crisscross France in an eminently unsuitable Citroen 2CV van.

I give this one a solid “recommended”. Hitchcock was only re-crowned with Psycho… and Clouzot has been mostly forgotten, at least by non-students of the seventh art outside of France.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novlist and short story writer whose own thriller is more of an action-driven exponent of the genre as opposed to an ambience-driven one. It’s called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

Ever Wonder Where Mr. Bean Came From? Here’s a Clue

We’re not strangers to weird French films here at CE. After all, there are french films on the 1001 Movies list, and French films are weird, so it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. But perhaps that over-simplification doesn’t take into account the reason we love the list so much. The selected French films might be weird, but each is weird in its own special way.

So they are delightful and unexpected, which makes ever the art films eminently watchable.

A case in point is today’s subject. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (released in English as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) caught me completely off guard.

The version I watched was in Italian and, while I can read Italian with few problems, catching dialogue is a different matter altogether.

Turns out it didn’t matter. The dialogue in this one is very limited, easily understandable and works as background music for spots where silence would be obtrusive.

You see, this is a silent film in all but actual silence. It has sound, but the sound is pure background. What this film does is serve as a bridge between the silent bumbling-but-well-meaning characters of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and the bumbling but well meaning Mr. Bean.

Hulot is precisely that kind of character, walking cluelessly through life without realizing what is about to befall him or understanding how his actions affect others while, at the same time transmitting that he is a nice guy.

Unlike the older films, there is no plot to this one. Hulot just goes about his holiday business in his inimitably clumsy way while others are annoyed or delighted by his presence. In tiny vignettes, the film criticizes the emerging french middle class… but little of the social satire reaches the modern audience except in the general sense of having stereotypes being mocked, which is always fun. In an era where Hollywood has gotten excessively political (and is deservedly losing its viewership), it’s nice to be able to watch a comedy without having to worry about the social message it attempts to transmit. Seventy years, apparently, is long enough for the boredom of political thought to fade and the enjoyment of comedy to remain.

This one is good. In fact, it’s easier to watch that the old silent films, even though the humor is much less over the top. The timing is moderns, the length of the elements is just long enough to be funny, but not excruciating or embarrassingly overdone (Mr Bean has a lot of that, unfortunately). Getting the balance of the humor just right in this kind of film is extremely difficult, and the perfect balance shifts with each viewer.

For my taste, this one got it exactly right, and has become my favorite Bumbling Character silent film. Even though it has sound in it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a series of linked stories about real people in real situations… but only in those situations which truly mark a life. By avoiding the boring bits, he shows the characters as they truly are when the chips are down. You can check it out here.

The Wages of Suspense

I had no idea what 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was about before I watched it, and my utter sense of not knowing what the hell was going on grew even deeper when the first scenes showed a group of polyglot expat Europeans in a dusty Latin American village (most sources say South American, but I’ll admit it seemed much more Central American to me). The village, like the men themselves is a dead-end thing, a place for losers with nowhere left to go.

The plot is as thin as paper: two teams need to drive a pair of trucks filled with nitroglycerine–that explodes if it takes any shock–over 600km of rough mountain roads for an enormous payday. That’s it.

So why is it a classic and a critical darling? Because within that paper-thin structure, live two solid hours of suspense and character-building (which, considering the film’s denouement, verges on the nihilistic). There’s not a lot to tell. Even if I summarized the film without missing any of the important events therein, you won’t be able to get the sense that it transmits to audience. One critic said, in his day, that he had the feeling the entire theater was about to explode.

My wife likened the sensation to that of The Big Carnival, in that the story itself is both extremely simple and also secondary to the message the director wished to convey. And the thread used to connect the dots in each is the audience’s concern for the plight of certain cast members who are in mortal danger.

And as a comment on the weirdness of the film, Yves Montand, the older driver from Grand Prix also, interestingly, plays one of the drivers in this one. Fun stuff.

It’s not a film I’d watch a dozen times, but it’s definitely one that is worth watching once for the brilliant management of the tension within. If you can, get a copy and enjoy it.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a sexy and modern take on the international thriller. You can check it out here.

Madame de… is one of the Weirder Films on the list

The 1001 movies list contains films of all kinds. Romances and westerns, comedies and horror. It’s even got some core science fiction on it.

Madame de… (translated into English as The Earrings of Madame de...) defies easy classification. If you go by the plot, it’s obviously a melodrama, especially considering the ending.

But that would be an oversimplification. The story is told in a way that would work much better for a romance even bordering on a romantic comedy, with an absurd coincidence involving a pair of earrings driving the twists and turns of the plot.

We see a love triangle in which a man of action is forced, by the indiscretions of his wife to first enter denial and then acceptance of the realities of their marriage. He responds in truly the only way open to him… with melodramatic results.

So the light frivolity of a period romance and the serious underlying reality occur in parallel with the result that the film never achieves the weighty, ponderous tension of true melodrama. The audience is carried lightly from scene to scene, more interested in the weird perambulations of the earrings than in the disintegrating relationship underlying everything.

Until it explodes in an obvious but still unexpected denoument.

Bringing an audience to the end the director did without making it obvious (despite there being very few other possibilities) is an act of genius, and Max Ophüls is to be commended.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel told in short story form which follows the intertwined lives of a dozen people who experience both love and death and show once again that these are the only two things worth writing about. You can check it out here.

The Golden Coach and Renoir Weirdness – in English

The Golden Coach (1952) is a gorgeous film. The color, the acting, the homage to the theater… it’s all wonderful. And make no mistake, this is an homage, unlike All About Eve’s colder, more realistic take on life on the stage.

I use the word “romp” quite a bit, but I don’t use it lightly. So many of the films that stay alive are ones that entertain in a somewhat over-the-top way that they can’t really be described any other way.

Well, this one is a romp. It concerns a fascinating actress, the headliner of a troupe that travels to a South American capital in early colonial times only to find that… well, they’ve traveled to a colony that is far from being a European capital of the time.

That, of course, doesn’t stop this actress from obtaining three different suitors, each of which exerts a different kind of fascination. It ends about as well as situations of that kind do, but we’re never heartbroken because the color and the action are much more farcical than dramatic. It’s a fun film as well as being gorgeous (it’s easily as beautiful as The Red Shoes, except with no serious dance).

Other than the film, what I found most interesting was that the only version I was able to track down was in English when I was expecting a French film befitting director Jean Renoir. In the end, I settled for the English-language version, thinking how well dubbed it had been… I only learned that it had originally been filmed in English when researching it for this post. Interesting.

I recommend this one. Watch it without expectations and you’ll be entertained in parts, and delighted in others.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, is also a romp, but one with monsters and Russian special forces soldiers in it. Whether that makes it better or worse than The Golden Coach is a question left to the reader. But you can check it out here.

Forbidden Games – A Poignant War Classic

If you’re trying to make a film about World War II, you need to be a truly gutsy director to cast two children in the leading roles.  But that’s exactly what René Clement did in 1952’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games).

Forbidden Games - Jeux Interdits

By showing the war through the eyes of simple country folks who are more concerned with one-upping their neighbors than with the geopolitics of the conflict around them, and also through the innocence of childhood, this film manages to create more emotional impact than any number of soldiers being killed on camera and calling out for their mothers.

In fact, after the opening sequence, there is one death in the film… and that one is caused by a horse kicking a man who dies later.

The magic comes from two sources: the somewhat bizarre plot on one hand and the acting of Brigitte Fossey on the other.  Her performance as the little girl is mesmerizing, hypnotizing and memorable.  It’s peaceful, paused and innocent, while surrounded by poverty, death and, ultimately, betrayal.  This is one that I think will stick with me for a while.

The nice thing about young actors in old films is that many of them are still with us.  Apart from Fossey, there’s another surviving member of this films cast still around, Laurence Badie, who played the daughter of the simple country folk who picked up the little girl after her parents were killed by the Germans.

The one sour note was the very first scene which is completely different in tone from the rest of the film.  Of course the film showing German planes was documentary stock, so inferior in quality, but what really jarred was that a refugee column got attacked by Stukas, then bombed by heavy bombers before getting strafed by Focke Wulfs in the course of five minutes.  While this might have happened at some point in the war, it certainly wasn’t standard operating procedure.  Yes, I know: it’s symbolic of the brutality experienced by civilians… but come on.

Funny note on this one is that the child actor who played the male role alongside Fossey is one of the men who was later involved in the famous Priory of Sion hoax, which eventually inspired The Da Vinci Code.

If you watch this one, you will not forget it.  The director’s deft touch increases the impact.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the genres. If you are fascinated with war, the psychology behind it and the effects on those involved, you will likely enjoy his novel Incursion… in which a suicide mission suddenly gets even more complicated.  You can check it out here.

Older School Art Film

There was a time when any film from 1951 would have been old-school enough for me.  But that was before I started watching the 1001 movies list.  Now, I can differentiate between a film that seems old from a film that seems old for its time.

Today’s entry is about a French film that feels old for its time, which is a weird feeling since the last French entry in this lest felt extremely avant-garde.

But Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) feels like something from the early 1930s, despite being a 1951 film.

Diary of a Country Priest.jpg

The main culprit is the cinematography, which, at times, is soft-focus, I think probably intentionally, because old-style filming is perfect for a film about the inner life of a priest.  No matter where in history one is standing, at least in the past 150 years, the Catholic Church always seems to be regarded as remnant of an earlier age.  This is clearly how the 1950s saw it and this film treats the problems of faith and belief as something venerable, to be treated as an antiquity.

But that’s not all.  The quick scenes telling the story in choppy little pieces also brings out an earlier age (and works really well), the lack of color (this film would have been a disaster in color) also add to the sense.

Most of all, however, the stark nature of the background and sets, a truly rural setting which, had it not contained 1930s cars (adding to the sense), would have felt like the action took place in the 1910s due to the prominent role or railroads and bicycles.

This is a truly interesting film, one of those that sticks with you, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of cinema.  It made Robert Bresson’s reputation, and deservedly so.  It certainly was very different from anything else on screen in its day (and before or since, too).  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books span the genres from pretentious literary mainstream to monster horror. A good chunk of his incisive literary fiction which gets right to the core of modern life is collected in a series of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  Those who enjoy realistic looks at reality without falling into navel-gazing or losing the sense of humor one needs to face life will enjoy this book.  You can check it out here.

Greek Myths, Death, Rockers and Mods

OK, so the rockers and mods were still a decade away when Jean Cocteau released Orphée (Orpheus) in 1950, but the film gives a rockers and mods vibe, with the poets playing the mods and the sinister motorcycle cops cum Death’s assistants playing the rockers.

Orphee Film poster.jpg

Deepening the mod and rocker theme, the different factions are represented by their choice of different exotic vehicles.  The main character, a successful poet that is beyond the “mod” phase of his peers (played by Jean Marais, who looks like he could walk out of the film and into a modern day Lacoste ad with no updating whatsoever) drives English cars while Death and her minions prefer French machines.

Of course, anyone who’s seen this film knows that Death steals the show.  Played by María Casares, she is both sinister and tender in her portrayal of an elemental force.

Normally, a semi-surrealist, existential retelling of one of the less pleasant Greek myths would be something I’d run from at breakneck speed, but since I’m on a mission to watch the 1001 films list, my hand was forced.

And I’m glad it was.  This is not just a great film,  it is a good film.  Wonder of wonders, the artistic sensibilities don’t get in the way of a compelling, emotionally gripping story.

We enjoyed this one enormously, even if it doesn’t have a traditional happy ending (when death is dressed as a dominatrix half the time, you might expect other kinds of happy endings, but it doesn’t have one of those, either).

It also exudes a sense of moving into a more modern era, foreshadowing the sixties before anyone imagined the sixties were coming, but in a very different way from On the Town.  While the American film seemed to break tradition, this one simply drags the art film into the present and even pushes it into the future without breaking the central tenets of the genre.

Recommended to pretty much everyone, but especially to serious cinephiles who will be appreciative of the nuance (look at me, pretending to know about cinema!).  A good one.

Also, shouting out to ons of the stars of this one, Juliette Gréco, who is still among us.  Thanks for being a part of this!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often goes off in strange directions.  His collection Pale Reflection is a great introduction to his writing which should appeal to people who like Orpheus.  You can buy it here.

Inspiring Disney Since 1946

beauty and the beast 1946 poster

If you’re anything at all like me, you will often find yourself watching a Disney film and shaking your head in disbelief at the sheer talent and creativity on display.  Where, you’ll ask yourself, do they get all these amazing ideas?

Part of it is the source material, of course.  By borrowing from humanity’s most beloved myths and legends, the company is assured a product that, for whatever reason, is a proven commodity that pushes the buttons of audiences, and often has been doing so for hundreds of years.

That’s incredibly smart, but it’s just a base on which they then unleash some of the most talented directors, artists and animators on the planet.  The results speak for themselves.  I still remember watching Aladdin (first Disney feature I saw in a cinema as a teenager after years of disdaining cartoons) and being completely blown away by it.

But at least in once case, I know where they got most of their ideas and aesthetic, and that one is Beauty and the Beast.  Simply stated, the 1991 Disney edition is a remake of Jean Cocteau‘s 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête.

This is a huge relief to me because the excessive talent of the people working on modern films was driving me to drink, so it’s a bit of a relief to know it isn’t all down to their own creativity.  It’s nice to know that they are inspired by someone else every once in a while, and that they are humble enough not to mess with perfection… only to animate it!

There’s no need to summarize the plot of the 1946 film.  It’s the Beauty and the Beast after all, but it has to be acknowledged that what Cocteau pulled off in immediate post-war France was extremely impressive.  Dark, moody sets, an ever-present sense of utter magic and the feeling of being immersed in a fairy tale that looked just how a peasant in 1800 would have imagined it to look must not have been easy to achieve.

But most of all, it was interesting to see just how many of the elements were familiar to viewers of the 1991 animation.  The creative teapots, candelabra and other living elements were included, albeit not as characters in their own rights.  Despite being made nearly fifty years later, it is clear that the Disney film was more than just inspired by the earlier movie–they simply updated it.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

They also chose to leave the beast as he was–they are remarkably similar in concept, considering the huge leeway allowed by animation versus having to apply makeup to an actor using what was available in Europe in 1946.

It was an inspired decision–the old film is still the definitive B&B, so messing too much with the formula would have been unwise in the extreme, and thanks to that, the animated version is now a classic in its own right.

There have been other takes on this legend, both on stage and on screens big and small.  None have stood the test of time as well as these two (the awful TV series, especially), essentially because the most important elements–the visuals of the beast and his castle–are identical in every significant way.

And now, I’m even more impressed with the Mickey Mouse guys.  Knowing when to leave well enough alone is just as difficult as knowing when to solve problems in the most creative way possible.  But for my money, I’ll still take Cocteau’s version.

Not much strangeness surrounding the production of this one, so we’ll drop in a racing driver piece (at Classically Educated, we enjoy auto racing, mainly because of its social unacceptability): it seems like one of the actresses, Mila Parély was married to multiple Le Mans entrant Taso Mathieson.  We approve.

Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

carne-les-enfants-du-paradis-poster

Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.

robert-le-vigan

Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.