French Film

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.

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.