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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Devlin in a Blu Dress

For what seems like no reason in particular (no centennial birthday to celebrate, no special anniversaries of landmark films), 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock. The master’s nine surviving silent films have all been restored by the British Film Institute and will soon be re-released to the public with newly commissioned musical scores. A large quantity of Hitchcock’s sound films have also been released this year on hi-def Blu-ray for the very first time. These include Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious from MGM, Lifeboat, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, and To Catch a Thief from Paramount. (Additionally, The 39 Steps will drop from Criterion next month and it has been strongly rumored that The Birds and Strangers on a Train will also be released before the year is over.) Finally, The National Film Preservation Foundation will soon be streaming online, free of charge, the recently discovered, previously thought lost 1924 film The White Shadow, which Hitchcock wrote, assistant directed, edited and designed the sets for, an important stepping stone on his path to becoming a director himself. In order to raise funds to record a new score and to host the film on its website, the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon is being hosted by the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon for the first time. My contribution is a review of my favorite of the new Hitchcock blu-rays.

Being a film studies instructor has afforded me the invaluable opportunity of watching and re-watching classic movies with students, mostly in the 18 – 20 year old range, who are seeing these films for the very first time. This has led me to realize that a widespread misconception most of these students have about black and white film stock is that they think of it as something like a deficiency, as if “black and white” is nothing but the absence of color, rather than a style choice in its own right with its own aesthetic properties. It is particularly gratifying to teach students to appreciate black and white cinematography by showing them films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca and hearing them discuss afterwards how they can’t imagine these same films being made in color. For this reason, I plan on screening MGM’s new Blu-ray of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time in a class this summer. Not only is it one of Hitchcock’s most amazingly photographed films, I cannot imagine a better home video release to introduce the sheer glamorousness of black and white movies to students.

Blu-ray is an ideal format for Notorious, a masterpiece of suspense that is chock-full of the trademark bravura set pieces for which Hitchcock has become so renowned. In Notorious, Hitchcock, with the aid of the great cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, executed the most complex and elaborate camera choreography of his career up to that point. One example is the famous kissing scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman where their characters talk to and passionately kiss each other while walking from one room to another in a single unedited take lasting several minutes. Another is the famous crane shot that begins as an overhead long shot of dozens of guests at a party and that ends as an extreme close-up on a key in Bergman’s hand. Finally, there is Hitchcock’s unique penchant for composing memorable shots that don’t feature actor’s faces, a rarity in Hollywood’s studio system era. One of the best tributes to the master of suspense can be found in an episode of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema titled The Control of the Universe; in a montage of shots from Hitchcock films in which actors are not featured but that are nonetheless instantly identifiable, Notorious is represented by a shot where a wine bottle full of uranium falls and breaks on a cellar floor. It is an impressive testament to Hitchcock’s genius that Godard could use a shot of an object like this to succinctly conjure up, in one deft stroke, a film that also prominently features two of the most attractive stars to ever work in Hollywood.

Yet Notorious is also the first Hitchcock film to which I would point to indicate that Hitchcock is not just a technical virtuoso or a mere manipulator of audience emotion (as is often claimed), but a profound moral thinker as well. The story involves a love triangle between government agents set against a backdrop of WWII intrigue. Cary Grant, in one of his best and most subtle dramatic roles, plays Max Devlin, a U.S. government agent who is tasked with enlisting Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, playing against type as a bad girl), the daughter of a Nazi spy, into becoming a double agent. Her assignment is to ingratiate herself with her father’s old pals in Rio de Janeiro in order to retrieve top secret information from them. Devlin and Huberman embark on a love affair, which is immediately complicated by the fact that she finds herself also being romanced by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy Nazi businessman. The moral complexity of this scenario, written by the peerless Ben Hecht, marks Notorious as the first true grown up spy thriller; Devlin, for political reasons, acts cold and indifferent to Alicia, the woman he is falling in love with, who, in turn, feels compelled to marry Alexander, a man she abhors, for her duty to her country. The film asks how far should one be willing to go in defiling oneself personally for the greater good of humanity, and then refuses to offer any comforting or clear-cut answers.

The other important character in this chamber drama/thriller is Madame Sebastian, Alexander’s mother, the first in a series of domineering mother figures in Hitchcock’s American films (which would of course reach its apex in Psycho). Madame Sebastian disapproves of Alicia as a mate for her son from the get-go and, after her daughter-in-law’s identity as a double agent is discovered, she and Alexander conspire to make the young bride die slowly by poisoning her coffee every day. At the end of the film, when Devlin does come belatedly to Alicia’s rescue, he carries the sickly woman down a flight of stairs in the Sebastians’ palatial mansion and out of the home for good. He does this in full view of Alexander’s Nazi cohorts who, realizing Alexander’s error in judgement, will certainly kill him just at the point where Hitchcock ends the film. This final scene, although a “happy ending” because Devlin and Alicia are reunited, is also tragic, ironic and infinitely complex because Hitchcock and Claude Rains have courageously made the “villain” Alexander such a sympathetic and even pitiable figure.

MGM’s high-definition transfer of Notorious is a significant improvement in terms of image and sound over all previous releases, including the standard def Criterion DVD and MGM’s own previous DVD, the copious extras of which are carried over here intact. Among these features are two informative commentary tracks (by scholars Rick Jewell and Drew Casper) and several documentaries about Hitchcock and the making of the film. But the real reason to pick up this Blu-ray, ahead of all of the other Hitchcock Blu-rays that have recently flooded the market, is the superior image quality. Notorious is a perfect representation of the romantic magnificence of what could be achieved in a black and white film from Hollywood’s golden age and this blu-ray brings us very close to the thick, film-like textures of a real 35mm print. Notorious can be a dark film at times, literally and figuratively, and MGM’s transfer gives us a very contrasty look, with rich, velvety blacks that discerning cinephiles should find very appealing. If some shots look less sharp than one might expect, that is likely only a result of the large number of process shots Hitchcock used in the film (i.e., what we are frequently looking at are portions of shots that have been “re-photographed”) and this is probably the best they can possibly look.

For the past several years I’ve been holding my breath that Universal will bring out Blu-rays of the most wanted Hitchcock titles, Rear Window and Vertigo . . . but with so much hi-def Hitch to go around right now, perhaps they would best be saved for another year.

Donations to the NFPF can be made through their website here: https://npo1.networkforgood.org/Donate/Donate.aspx?npoSubscriptionId=1001883&code=Blogathon+2012.

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A Classic French Cinema Primer, Pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential pre-Nouvelle Vague French sound era movie titles that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1946 – 1959.

La Belle et la Bete (Cocteau, 1946)

Jean Cocteau, with an uncredited assist from Rene Clement, directed this beautiful and poetic adaptation of the well-known fairy tale about a young woman, Belle, who sacrifices herself to a grotesque half-man/half-beast creature in order to save her father’s life. But the more she gets to know the beast, the more she realizes his hideous exterior conceals a sensitive soul . . . This was a belated follow-up to Cocteau’s Surrealist classic debut, The Blood of a Poet, and it was worth the wait. A million miles from the Disney-fication of such material, Cocteau’s film begins with the unforgettable title card “…and now, we begin our story with a phrase that is like a time machine for children: Once Upon a Time…” and then proceeds to capture the true essence of fairy tales, with all of the darkness that implies.

Jour de Fete (Tati, 1949)

Jacques Tati’s underrated first feature is a delightful slapstick comedy about Francois (Tati himself as a forerunner to his beloved M. Hulot character), a rural postman who becomes obsessed with delivering mail efficiently after viewing a documentary on the high-tech U.S. Postal Service. Although there is dialogue in the film, it remains secondary to Tati’s incredible sight gags, which rival the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their sheer ingenuity (the runaway bicycle scene is a standout). This was shot in a primitive color process known as Thomson Color though not seen that way until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. A revelation.

Le Silence de la Mer (Melville, 1949)

Jean-Pierre Melville was a spiritual godfather to the Nouvelle Vague not only because his work expressed such an obvious love of cinema but also due to the fierce independence evidenced by the low-budget/shot-on-location/documentary-style aesthetic of his early films. This self-financed World War II drama concerns a German soldier (Howard Vernon) who takes up residence with an elderly Frenchman and his niece while convalescing from a wound. Neither of the French characters speak a word as the German regales them with verbose monologues but the niece eventually falls in love with the soldier, a feeling on which she will never be able to act. This austere and intimate chamber drama is played out as a series of carefully orchestrated glances aided by a use of voice-over narration that would clearly influence not just the New Wave but Robert Bresson as well.

Casque d’Or (Becker, 1952)

Jacques Becker’s magnificent recreation of La Belle Epoque is an exquisite romantic melodrama about a gangster’s moll (a terrific Simone Signoret) who also becomes the object of affection of two other men – with predictably tragic results. But Casque d’Or (the film takes its title from the nickname of Signoret’s character) is less about plot than atmosphere. All of the period details feel correct but it is the beautiful cinematography of Robert Lefebvre that elevates this to the front rank of the best French movies ever; the almost overly-bright, poetic, Impressionistic images lend the movie a nostalgic tone even when, or perhaps especially when, the story is at its darkest.

The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find their perfect complement in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, 1953)

Jacques Tati’s classic comedy, the first outing for his legendary M. Hulot character, opens with a sly title card asking the viewer not to expect a plot since the movie is about a holiday and holidays are meant to be fun. From there we follow the bumbling title character as he arrives at a beach-side resort hotel and, in a series of plotless and near wordless scenes, proceeds to comically wreak havoc everywhere he goes. (Especially memorable is Hulot’s riotous visit to the tennis court.) Not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well.

The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953)

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of machismo details the harrowing adventures of four down-on-their-luck European expatriates in Venezuela who agree to the extremely dangerous job of transporting truckloads of nitroglycerine across South American mountain roads in exchange for a large sum of money. This is a gritty, tense, brutal and undeniably exciting adventure movie that also offers, in the character of an anti-union American oil company boss, an intriguing critique of capitalism besides. The Wages of Fear deservedly made Yves Montand an international star and went on to exert a big influence on Sam Peckinpah who tipped his hat to the opening of this film with a similar children-torturing-insects scene at the beginning of The Wild Bunch many years later.

French Cancan (Renoir, 1954)

After a 15 year exile, in part due to the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Renoir’s homecoming saw him reunite with actor Jean Gabin to create the most distinctly Gallic film of his famed career. French Cancan tells the story of Henri Danglard (Gabin at his most charismatic), the womanizing impresario who founds the Moulin Rouge and helps to inaugurate the Cancan dance craze while staying just a half-step ahead of his creditors. Françoise Arnoul and Maria Felix play Danglard’s rival romantic interests, both of whom realize that they will have to take a back seat to the scoundrel’s true love: his career. Renoir’s gorgeous visual style takes its cues from the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, most impressively in the Cancan climax, which I’ve described elsewhere on this site as a “near orgiastic riot of form and color.”

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Becker, 1954)

Jacques Becker segues from the underworld of La Belle Epoque in Casque d’Or to the gangsters of the modern world in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a massively influential crime/noir film that laid down a template for Jean-Pierre Melville and many others to follow. The plot centers on Max (Gabin again, this time in world-weary mode), an aging gangster whose retirement after a last big score proves short-lived when his former partner is kidnapped and he is asked to put up their loot as ransom. Marvelous black and white cinematography compliments what is essentially a love story between two men, plus Gabin gets to slap a lot of people around. Look sharp for future stars Lino Ventura and Jeanne Moreau in minor roles.

Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955)

The true story of the infamous slut of the title (Martine Carol) whose sexual appetite was so voracious that she wound up becoming a 19th century circus attraction. As Rafael Nadal once said, “How crazy is the life?” Max Ophuls’ great final film features an ambitiously non-chronological structure, a la Citizen Kane, that alternates between present day scenes where the circus ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) recounts Lola’s exploits with flashback scenes to her youth, beginning with a tryst with Franz Liszt and continuing through many other men. Ophuls’ trademark bravura visual style is taken to an almost freakish extreme with the addition of Eastmancolor but Carol’s performance is the key here; she and Ophuls conspire to make Lola a figure of intense sympathy and identification throughout. Unfortunately, Lola Montes was a commercial disaster upon release and was soon heavily recut from its original 140 minute version. The recent restoration, which can be seen on Criterion’s magnificent 115 minute blu-ray, is the most complete the film is ever likely to be.

Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1956)

The film where Melville became Melville. With a tip of his fedora to The Asphalt Jungle, the brilliant French writer/director tells an irresistible shaggy dog heist story about one Bob Montagne, an aging gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak. Eventually, Bob’s bad luck causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. Melville’s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it and his mise-en-scene, with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black and white checkerboard patterns, set a new standard for cinematic cool.

A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French Lieutenant’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearably intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)

Robert Bresson’s loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment transposes Dostoevsky’s novel to contemporary Paris, replacing Raskolnikov’s senseless murder of an old woman with the story of a young man who drifts into a life of crime for which he was not made. What remains the same are the hero’s confused Nietzschean beliefs, the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the local police inspector and the hint of spiritual rehabilitation that is triggered by the love of a young woman. The actual pickpocketing sequences are virtuoso pieces of camera choreography but, as in all of Bresson’s movies, the sum is greater than its individual parts, resulting in a deeply moving, spiritually exultant work of art.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Offside (Panahi)
2. Cairo Station (Chahine)
3. A Simple Life (Hui)
4. The Enforcer (Walsh/Windust)
5. Regeneration (Walsh)
6. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi)
7. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
8. David Wants to Fly (Sieveking)
9. Zodiac (Fincher)
10. Le Boucher (Chabrol)


An Intriguing Trend in Contemporary Film Distribution

This past Monday afternoon I went to the AMC River East theater in downtown Chicago to catch a matinee screening of A Simple Life, the latest film from veteran Hong Kong director Ann Hui. This low-key, naturalistic drama features Chinese superstar Andy Lau in an impressively de-glammed and un-showy turn as a movie producer who takes care of his elderly maid after she’s had a stroke. Hui, a terrific director of actors, has a long track record of taking charismatic actors known for flashy performances and guiding them into subtler and more nuanced territory. (See for instance the brilliant performances of Anthony Wong as a kindly priest in Ordinary Heroes or Jackie Cheung as a high school teacher going through a mid-life crisis in July Rhapsody.) But A Simple Life ultimately belongs to Deannie Yip who plays the maid, a performance for which she deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Unfortunately, I do not have time to write a proper review (I’m in the middle of finals for all seven classes I’m teaching and the other posts that will appear here in the next couple weeks have already been written in advance) but I can heartily recommend the film, especially to lovers of Chinese cinema; it is a movie about compassion made with compassion, qualities that are always refreshingly welcome. I would however like to note a few things about the movie’s incredibly odd theatrical distribution, which I think are emblematic of our times but which should also be oddly encouraging for cinephiles.

A Simple Life‘s distributor, an outfit named “China Lion,” booked the film at the River East, one of the Loop’s most popular multiplex theaters, without bothering to place print advertisements nor hold press screenings (call it the “anti-Avengers“). It appears they didn’t even have any movie posters created for the engagement. There certainly weren’t any on display inside or outside of the theater when I was there. The only advertising the film has received that I am aware of is through China Lion’s facebook page. Further, the film was projected digitally, probably from a blu-ray disc, which means the company was also spared the expense of striking prints. In other words, virtually no money was spent to distribute and promote A Simple Life in Chicago. This strikes me as an unprecedented instance of movie exhibition where the traditional duties of a “distributor” have essentially been eliminated from the process. China Lion’s thinking appears to be that they will simply book the movie in North American cities with “large Asian populations” and then rely solely on social media and word of mouth to draw in audiences. I myself would have never become aware of the release had it not been for Ben Sachs’ recent blog post about it at the website of the Chicago Reader. This entire phenomenon fascinates me because it could have only occurred in the 21st century, after the rise in popularity of both social media and digital projection.

What I find most intriguing about the unusual distribution of A Simple Life in Chicago however isn’t so much the lack of traditional promotion but the fact that it’s playing at the River East (China Lion apparently has an exclusive deal with the AMC chain.) I feel this speaks to the by-now familiar notion that we are living in a world where “mass culture” is rapidly being replaced, for better or for worse, by countless niche markets. Instead of having to go to a “niche theater” to see a “niche movie” (as was always the case in the past), it now looks like the option of seeing a deeply obscure movie in a state-of-the-art multiplex may be the wave of the future. Several of my students at suburban colleges have informed me that it is common for new Bollywood and South Korean films to play suburban mutliplexes in areas where the immigrant populations from those countries is high. I’m assuming that film reviews and paid advertisements for those movies is likewise absent from the mainstream suburban press.

I hasten to add that if China Lion were to distribute certain movies in this under-the-radar fashion (like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s highly anticipated The Grandmasters), I would feel outraged because I would know that those films deserve a higher-profile release. But A Simple Life is the kind of quiet, small movie that was never going to get picked up for U.S. distribution otherwise and therefore I’m exceedingly grateful to China Lion for allowing me the chance to see it on the big screen. By contrast, keep in mind that Johnnie To’s masterpiece Life Without Principle, a film ostensibly more accessible than A Simple Life, was picked up by a U.S. distributor last September who still have no plans to release it and will probably end up dumping it straight to DVD. The moral to all of this is that if you consider yourself an adventurous filmgoer (and if you’re reading this blog post then you probably are), it may no longer be enough to rely on reviews or advertisements if you want to know what good cinema fare might be playing at a theater near you. You may want to closely scan the titles of the films playing at your local theater and then be prepared to do a little research to figure out exactly what the hell they are. And, of course, you should keep reading this blog.

You can visit the English-language version of China Lion’s website here: www.chinalionentertainment.com


A Classic French Cinema Primer, pt. 1: Beyond the “Tradition of Quality”

The pre-Nouvelle Vague French cinema remains unjustly neglected in a lot of critical and cinephile quarters today, in part due to the contempt shown for it by the Nouvelle Vague directors when they were still critics for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Francois Truffaut’s famous dismissal of the French cinema’s “tradition of quality,” which he contrasted with the more ostensibly personal and cinematic films coming out of Hollywood during the same period, has given an unfortunate and lasting impression that French cinema in the early sound era was a barren field. I would argue that, since the birth of the movies, France has consistently been one of the three greatest film producing nations – along with the United States and Japan. This list, which encompasses the early sound era through the birth of the New Wave (a separate silent French cinema primer will be posted in the future) is meant to spotlight just a few of the most essential and exciting French movies made during this period.

The list will be broken into two parts. Today’s post encompasses the years 1930 – 1945. Part two, to be published later this week, encompasses 1946 – 1959. As a self-imposed, arbitrary rule, each half of the list will contain no more than two films by the same director.

L’age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is this hilarious Surrealist portrait of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famously bizarre images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

Marius (Korda, 1931)

The first and best installment of Marcel Pagnol’s “Fanny Trilogy” (followed by Cesar and Fanny) is a sweet comedy/melodrama about the goings on in a Marseilles port-side bar. Marius is a young man who manages the bar owned by his father Cesar. He has an affair with local girl Fanny who, holding out hope for a marriage proposal, turns down the hand of the older, wealthier Monsieur Panisse. But, alas, like the song says, Marius’ life, love and lady is the sea. Hungarian born director Alexander Korda does a wonderful job of “opening up” Pagnol’s play, making a deft use of real Marseilles locations. Charges that the movie is “filmed theater” are misguided; Pagnol and Korda’s very subject is the theatricality inherent in human nature.

A Nous la Liberte (Clair, 1931)

Mostly known today as the inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times, Rene Clair’s classic comedy follows the exploits of two escaped cons, one of whom becomes a factory owner and one of whom becomes a worker in the same factory. Is there any real difference, Clair asks, between a prisoner and a lowly factory worker? The equation between capitalism and criminality is a bit heavy handed but this is never less than a total visual delight, from the slapstick humor to Lazare Meerson’s stunning Expressionist-influenced art direction (which, atypical for a “foreign film” of the time, received an Oscar nomination).

Zero de Conduite (Vigo, 1933)

Jean Vigo’s penultimate film, an unforgettable tribute to the anarchic spirt of youth, documents the rebellion of four pre-adolescent boarding school students and is based on the director’s own childhood memories. Vigo was way ahead of his time in blending experimental filmmaking techniques with narrative storytelling (check out the poetic use of slow motion during the pillow fight scene) and the end result is beautiful, strange, beguiling and unmissable.

L’atalante (Vigo, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo delivery trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. Vigo’s final film is one of the cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)

Grand Illusion is a comedy and a drama, a war movie and a prison break film and, finally, thanks to an 11th hour appearance by the lovely Dita Parlo, a very touching love story. There is also a healthy dose of social criticism in the story of an aristocratic German Captain (memorably played by Erich von Stroheim) who shows favoritism to an upper class French captive, indicating that the bonds of class can sometimes be tighter than those of nationality. But this is just one of many examples of Renoir explicating the “arbitrary borders” made by man in one of the few films that deserves to be called a true anti-war movie.

The Pearls of the Crown (Guitry)

In this witty, innovative, trilingual take on the history film, three narrators – an Italian, an Englishman and a Frenchman – each tell the story of how four pear-shaped pearls ended up in the British crown. Writer/director Sacha Guitry manages, in a head-spinning hour and forty one minutes, to trace the pearls from one owner to the next over five hundred years of European history, allowing hilarious cameos by famous figures like Pope Clement VII, Catherine de Medici, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, Napolean and Queen Victoria. But in a movie whose real subjects are language and storytelling the pearls themselves are nothing more than a MacGuffin. Guitry himself plays the French narrator as well as three other characters in the flashback sequences; as he wryly notes, “We always lend our faces to the heroes of the story.”

Pepe le Moko (Duvivier, 1937)

One reason why French film critics were so quick to identify and appreciate American film noir in the 1940s is because it distinctly resembled, tonally and visually, many of the great French crime films of the late 1930s. One such film is Julien Duvivier’s fatalistic Pepe le Moko, the story of a charismatic Parisian gangster (wonderfully played by Jean Gabin) hiding out in the Algiers’ Casbah, and the police inspector who attempts to reel him in. Algiers, an equally interesting Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, followed just one year later.

Le Jour se Leve (Carne, 1939)

One of the high water marks of the movement known as Poetic Realism (under which many of the titles immediately preceding and following it on this list also fall), Le Jour se Leve has it all: working class characters – with Jean Gabin as the doomed hero and Arletty as his love interest, atmospheric locations, a tragic crime plot, poetic dialogue by Jacques Prevert, and taut direction by Marcel Carne. Also like a ton of great French films of the era, this was soon banned by the Vichy government on the grounds that it was “demoralizing.” Maybe so but sometimes hopelessness can be romantic too.

The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and couples getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

Le Corbeau (Clouzot, 1943)

A series of anonymously written poison-pen letters are sent to various prominent citizens of a small French village. Chief among the targets of “The Raven,” the mysterious author’s pseudonym, is a doctor who is accused of adultery and performing illegal abortions. Both rumors and hidden secrets are brought to light by the letters, which threaten to tear the fabric of the community apart. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot made this for a German production company during the Nazi occupation of France. Sensing that the movie in some way allegorized them, the Nazis promptly fired Clouzot and banned the film. When the occupation ended, Clouzot was prohibited from making movies for an additional two years by the French government because he had collaborated with the Nazis! The director would go on to achieve much greater fame for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques in the 1950s but this refreshingly dark and bitter thriller, a film far nastier than its Hollywood counterparts of the time, remains my personal favorite.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson, 1945)

Robert Bresson’s second film features star performances (most notably a ferocious turn by Maria Cesares), an original diegetic musical score and relatively ornate dialogue written by none other than Jean Cocteau – all elements the director would soon eschew in the major movies for which he became best known. But Les Dames du Bois de Bolougne is still a terrific and very Bressonian film about a woman who hatches a revenge plot against her ex-lover that involves arranging a marriage between him and a prostitute. The timeless, dream-like atmosphere is alluring (the story takes place in the present but feels as if it could be taking place in the 19th century) and the ambiguously redemptive ending packs a wallop precisely because of Bresson’s de-dramatized treatment.

Les Enfants du Paradis (Carne, 1945)

The pinnacle of the Marcel Carne/Jacques Prevert collaborations is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi)
2. Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi)
3. Killer of Sheep (Burnett)
4. The Player (Altman)
5. Vampires (Carpenter)
6. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (McKay)
7. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
8. The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard)
9. The Man I Love (Walsh)
10. Alphaville (Godard)


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