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Tag Archives: Jean Renoir

Happy Bastille Day from White City Cinema

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012

In spite of the ever-increasing popularity of downloading and streaming (with their attendant inferior image and sound quality, suckas!), 2012 proved to be yet another year of movie-watching paradise for crazy people like me who want to feel a physical connection to the movies we love (not to mention the bitchin’ artwork, liner notes and “special features” on the discs themselves that tend to go along with the increasingly outdated notion of “physical media”). All of the great home video labels (Criterion, Masters of Cinema, et al) continued doing great work, and a few smaller domestic and foreign labels (Flicker Alley, Kam and Ronson, etc.) even stepped up their rate of Blu-ray production. Olive Films deserves a special thanks for combing through the Republic Pictures catalogue, judiciously selecting all of the titles that cinephiles most want to see and presenting them in high definition (e.g., Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rio Grande, Johnny Guitar, and, most exciting of all, a newly restored version of The Quiet Man set to drop in 2013).

Below are my top ten favorite Blu-ray discs of 2012 as well as 30 additional runners-up. (I purchased no DVDs in the past year at all.) Being fortunate enough to watch all of the below discs, some of which I was even able to screen in classes, single-handedly made 2012 a very good year for me.

10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Olive Films Blu-ray)

Olive Films has quickly established a reputation as a home video distributor known for putting out straightforward transfers (unrestored but also never overly manipulated) of classic Hollywood and foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray. They are also known for offering little-to-no extras (think of them as Criterion’s poorer little brother). While the new Blu-ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman fits this description exactly, I’m including it here because the movie is so friggin’ awesome and because it was only previously available in North America on VHS tape. Max Ophuls’ elegant, Viennese waltz of a movie is a devastating melodrama about a schoolgirl crush that turns into an unrequited lifelong obsession. A reviewer on a popular Blu-ray review site, who is apparently unaware of the conventions of the melodrama genre and should’ve known better, foolishly complained about the film’s plot contrivances and gave it 3.5 stars out of 5. I say this is one of the great American movies and if it doesn’t rip your heart out then I don’t want to know you.

9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, Fox Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, who have a good track record when it comes to their catalogue titles, released a superb Blu-ray of Howard Hawks’ immortal Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to curiously little fanfare last July. Over time this musical/comedy has become my favorite Hawks movie, in part because I’ve come to realize that comedy is what Hawks, the proverbial “master of all genres,” did best but also because of how he used the Marilyn Monroe persona: together, Hawks and Monroe slyly suggest that her dumb blonde act is just that – an act – which makes her Lorelei Lee character seem awfully smart, after all. What impresses most about this specific release is how much the colors pop (has red ever looked so red?) and how remarkably blemish-free it is; Fox’s restoration of the film involved creating a new negative from the original three-strip Technicolor elements. I cannot recall seeing another movie from Hollywood’s studio system era that looked this pleasingly pristine on my television.

8. Lonesome (Fejos, Criterion Blu-ray)

My vote for the best Criterion release of the year is their incredible Blu-ray disc of the George Eastman House restoration of Paul Fejos’ essential Lonesome. I had previously only seen this lyrical masterpiece, a portrait of urban loneliness and love comparable to Sunrise and The Crowd, on a fuzzy VHS tape as an all-silent film in black-and-white. This new version restores it to its original theatrical glory as a part-talkie (there are three brief dialogue scenes) with a color-stenciled-by-hand Coney Island climax. Even more impressive is how Criterion bundles the main attraction together with two other Fejos features: a reconstructed version of the 1929 musical Broadway (whose generic story of a chorus girl mixed up with gangsters is merely an excuse for Fejos to show off some astonishingly fluid and dramatic crane shots) and the recently rediscovered The Last Performance, a Conrad Veidt vehicle that belongs to one of my favorite subgenres – films about the sinister goings-on within a circus. Oh yeah! Taken together, these three films offer a compelling argument that Fejos may have been the most unjustly neglected major filmmaker to ever work in Hollywood.

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pasolini, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s greatest achievement received the home video treatment it has long deserved with this definitive edition from the UK label Masters of Cinema. The tone of this much-beloved biopic of Jesus, based upon the book of Matthew, alternates between the reverent (the Neorealist but respectful treatment of the Christ story in general) and the irreverent (a deliberately anachronistic score, one of the best ever compiled, that mixes Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with cuts by Mahalia Jackson, Blind Willie Johnson, a Congolese mass and even snatches of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky score). That score comes through loud and clear via the uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack, and the film’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography has the thickness and pleasing graininess of an authentic, well-kept 35mm print. Also, the English subtitles are thankfully optional, not “burned in” as on the old Image DVD release. Finally, there are many welcome extras, the most important of which is Sopralluoghi in Palestina, a feature-length documentary about scouting the film’s locations directed by Pasolini himself. Essential.

6. The Mizoguchi Collection (Mizoguchi, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

This terrific box-set from UK distributor Artificial Eye collects the four best-known Kenji Mizoguchi films that pre-date the great director’s most famous period (the late masterworks he created in the 1950s). Unfortunately, it has been damned with faint praise by some critics who complained about the overall “softness” of the images, and the fact that two of the titles (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) have already been released by Criterion’s Eclipse DVD label in transfers that were clearly made from the same source material. But this is Blu-ray, folks, and there is an improvement, and no improvement is too small when it comes to the legacy of a giant like Mizoguchi. Granted, these films, like all Japanese films of their era, are not in the best physical shape but they are among the cinema’s finest achievements (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums in particular) and cinephiles therefore owe Artificial Eye a huge debt of gratitude for putting them out. Unsurprisingly, the best-looking film in the set is also the most recent: 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, the only postwar title in the bunch, is a delightful, autobiographical and uncharacteristically light movie (at least for Mizo) about an artist’s relationships to his female models.

5. The River (Renoir, Carlotta Blu-ray)

2012 was a great year for admirers of Jean Renoir. Out of all of the Blu-ray releases of classic films that came out this year that were based on new restorations, two of the very best-looking were for his masterpieces Grand Illusion (released by Studio Canal stateside and in Europe) and The River (released by the French label Carlotta). My favorite between them is The River, not only because I think it’s the better movie but also because it boasts the more impressive restoration work. Funded in part by Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation, the film’s original vibrant Technicolor palette (marking the first time Renoir ever worked in color), which irresistibly shows off the The River‘s colorful Indian locations, has marvelously been brought back to life. The movie itself, a coming-of-age story about three adolescent girls who fall in love with the same American soldier, is one of Renoir’s best and most humane. There are no English subtitles on this French disc, which shouldn’t really matter to English-speakers because the film was shot entirely in English.

4. Les Vampires (Feuillade, Kino Blu-ray)

Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking and deathless mystery serial was originally released in 10 parts over a span of several months in 1915 and 1916. Blu-ray, however, is arguably the ideal way to experience this 7-hour silent film extravaganza (spread across two discs in Kino’s set): one can dip into it at any given point at any time to experience its proto-Surrealist delights. And for those who have heard of Feuillade, a kind of French D.W. Griffith, but are not yet familiar with his work, this is also the best place to start: Les Vampires, a supreme entertainment about an intrepid journalist matching wits against a gang of master criminals, exerted a big influence on Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films, the entire espionage genre, and even the nouvelle vague in its pioneering use of self-reflexivity (most obvious in the fourth-wall-busting comic performance of Marcel Levesque). Full review here.

3. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

Flicker Alley’s second ever Blu-ray release was this gem of a set combining both the restored black-and-white and color versions of Georges Melies’ classic A Trip to the Moon with The Extraordinary Voyage, an informative feature length doc about the making of the original film as well as the extensive restoration of the color version (the most expensive ever undertaken). The candy-colored hand-painted visuals from 1902 turned out to be a major revelation and a total delight: they radically change the experience of watching the film by providing greater separation between subjects within Melies’ compositions, providing a much greater illusion of depth, and subtly directing the viewer’s eye to important elements within single frames. Because the color version only comes with one soundtrack option, a space-age pop score by the French art-rock duo Air, some alleged cinephiles groused on internet message boards that they refused to buy this. If you are one of those people, you are an idiot. Full review here.

2. The Lodger (Hitchcock, Network Blu-ray)

The UK label Network released this sensational disc in September, which turned out to be in many ways the year’s most delightful home video surprise. The Lodger, Hitchcock’s first thriller, was originally released in 1927 and this version is based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it is until viewing this Blu-ray. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Herrmann-esque score. I normally include only one title per director in my “Best of” lists but it was impossible to leave off either The Lodger or the “Masterpiece Collection” for 2012. More here.

1. Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Hitchcock, Universal Blu-ray)

Universal Studios did the world a huge favor by releasing this “mother” of all movie box sets in late October. The 15-disc set, lovingly packaged with a 58-page booklet and beautiful artwork, contains 15 of Alfred Hitchcock’s best known and best loved Hollywood films, all of which are loaded with copious extras. The audio-visual quality varies from disc to disc but, fortunately, the very best films included here (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho) also tend to be the ones that have the most impressive image and sound quality. The colors of Rear Window and Vertigo in particular are more saturated and feature warmer skin tones that feel truer to their original Technicolor roots. The most pleasant surprise though is The Trouble with Harry, whose blazing autumnal color palette truly dazzles in 1080p. Below are my grades for all 15 films in the set. The first grade is for the movie, the second is for a/v quality:

Saboteur: B+/A
Shadow of a Doubt: A+/A-
Rope: B+/B+
Rear Window: A+/A+
The Trouble With Harry: A-/A+
The Man Who Knew Too Much: B-/B-
Vertigo: A+/A+
North By Northwest: A+/A+
Psycho: A+/A
The Birds: A/A-
Marnie: A-/B
Torn Curtain: B-/B+
Topaz: B/B+
Frenzy: B+/A-
Family Plot: A/B-

Runners-Up:

11. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)

12. Bande à part (Godard, Gaumont Blu-ray)

13. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Kino Blu-ray)

14. Center Stage (AKA Actress) (Kwan, Kam and Ronson Blu-ray)

15. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Criterion Blu-ray)

16. Chinatown (Polanski, Paramount Blu-ray)

17. David Lynch Box Set (Lynch, Universal UK Blu-ray) This ambitious set was unfortunately marred by technical problems on its original release (a couple of discs contained audio and/or video glitches, while others were released in 1080i instead of 1080p and with 2.0 stereo soundtracks instead of the promised 5.1 mixes) and was subsequently withdrawn by Universal UK. When replacement discs were eventually reissued, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway were still unfortunately in 1080i though Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet all look and sound terrific. Had it not been for the technical errors, this extras-laden set would have easily made my top ten list.

18. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

19. Film Socialisme (Godard, Kino Blu-ray)

20. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

21. Fort Apache (Ford, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

22. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)

23. Grand Illusion (Renoir, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

24. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here.

25. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Criterion Blu-ray)

26. Johnny Guitar (Ray, Olive Films Blu-ray)

27. La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Marker, Criterion Blu-ray) More here.

28. Life Without Principle (To, Mega Star Blu-ray) Full review here.

29. Die Nibelungen (Lang, Kino Blu-ray)

30. Notorious (Hitchcock, MGM Blu-ray) Full review here.

31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) Full review here.

32. Rio Grande (Ford, Olive Films Blu-ray)

33. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Criterion Blu-ray)

34. Sansho the Bailiff / Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

35. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, Warner Bros. Blu-ray) More here.

36. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

37. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

38. That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

39. Ugetsu / Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

40. Weekend (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)


A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.


Let’s Talk About Poetic Realism

Adrian Nambo, a former student of mine from Harold Washington College, asked to interview me on the topic of Poetic Realism for a paper he recently wrote for another class. Because our interview nicely coincided with my "Classic French Cinema" posts from last week, I thought I would post our interview here today as a kind of postscript.

AN: There isn’t really much said about Poetic Realism on Wikipedia (which is a horrible way to look things up anyway), but can you elaborate a little more on it?

MGS: Poetic Realism was a movement that existed in France in the early sound era. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, it is a movement that is easy to look at but hard to define. This is because the conventions aren’t as clear cut as those of, say, German Expressionism or Soviet Montage. Nonetheless, I would define the basic characteristics of Poetic Realism as a focus on working class characters and the theme of doomed love, the blending of comedy and tragedy, the use of long shots and long takes, and narratives that function as critiques of society.

AN: French Impressionism is an influence of Poetic Realism correct? What influences did it have on the movement (i.e. what techniques, stylizations, and subject matter did it contribute to Poetic Realism)?

MGS: Both Impressionism and Surrealism, which were avant-garde movements in France during the silent era, were big influences on Poetic Realism. Impressionism used stylized cinematography, optical effects and editing to render reality as it is subjectively perceived by the individual. Directors like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Dmitri Kirsanoff would use superimpositions and slow dissolves, or would shoot the reflection of a subject in a distorting mirror, in an attempt to show the inner lives of their characters. Surrealism, as in the early films of Luis Bunuel, was all about the aggressive use of bizarre, dreamlike imagery to subvert the conventions of Hollywood-style “narrative continuity” filmmaking.

The phrase “poetic realism” is kind of an oxymoron because we think of poetry as being the opposite of realism. That is to say, poetry uses the figurative language of metaphor to communicate thoughts and feelings that can’t be expressed in a straightforward way. Conversely, when we think of something as being “realistic,” we tend to think of something that is being communicated simply and directly. So the movement of Poetic Realism basically synthesizes these two different approaches. It takes the poetic innovations that we associate with Impressionism and Surrealism and then weds them to the more realistic style of narrative continuity filmmaking. To give you a concrete example of what I mean, Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’atalante tells the story of the tribulations of a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon on a barge delivering cargo along the Seine River. The film was shot entirely on location (with a lot of shots done on a real barge) and the milieu depicted is that of working class people. So there is an impressive quality of documentary-like realism to the film. But then there are also these very poetic interludes like the scene where the husband jumps into the river and sees his wife’s image superimposed all around him as he swims underwater. This incredibly poetic scene makes us identify with the husband’s emotions and Vigo does it purely through images.

AN: Some major figures were Pierre Chenal, Marcel Carne, Jacques Feyder and Jean Gremillion. Can you tell me a little bit more about them and their work?

MGS: Marcel Carne is the major director out of the ones you mentioned. He made these great atmospheric crime films in the late 30s like Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Leve (both of which star Jean Gabin). I’ve often said that the reason why the French film critics were the first to identify the new trend of “film noir” in America in the 40s is because they had already kind of done something similar a few years earlier. Carne’s masterpiece though is Children of Paradise from 1945. A lot of critics consider it the apotheosis of Poetic Realism and it’s a movie that everyone needs to see. It’s an epic tale of doomed love set in the world of the 19th century Parisian theater. It was made during the Nazi Occupation and there are all sorts of subversive aspects to the film where the Occupation is being criticized in an oblique, allegorical way. It’s sometimes called the French Gone with the Wind but I think that does it a disservice. It’s a better film than Gone with the Wind! Thankfully, it has just been re-released in theaters this year in a brand new restoration, which will also be released soon on DVD and blu-ray. You can read all about that here: http://criterioncast.com/2012/02/27/janus-films-to-tour-new-4k-restoration-of-marcel-carnes-children-of-paradise/

I don’t think that Chenal, Gremillon or Feyder are very important directors. They belong more to the “tradition of quality” that was much derided by a future generation of French film critics. To me, the other great directors of Poetic Realism are Jean Vigo (as I mentioned), Julien Duvivier, whose masterpiece is Pepe le Moko from 1937, and, of course, Jean Renoir.

AN: I know Jean Renoir is one of your preferred directors, can you tell me about him and his films?

MGS: Renoir is one of the greatest directors of all time. The films he made in the 1930s are just indescribably great: Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Chienne (which translates as “The Bitch”), The Crime of Monsieur Lange, La Bete Humaine and his two supreme masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. As I wrote about those last two films elsewhere on my blog, “Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale.” He never judges his characters. They’re all flawed and they’re all likable. The Rules of the Game is like a Shakespeare play; it captures timeless truths about the workings of the human heart. I think it will be appreciated as long as movies are watched.

AN: In your class you had said that Jean Renoir is still seen as a Major Figure in film history, what influence has he had on films that filmmakers look back on?

MGS: Well, he’s one of those people whose influence is so pervasive that it’s almost invisible. But, for starters, Orson Welles was very much influenced by Renoir. A lot of the pioneering deep focus cinematography that Welles did in Citizen Kane was inspired by a similar use of depth staging that he saw in The Rules of the Game. And I think the depiction of war in Grand Illusion, in particular the blending of comedy and tragedy to highlight the absurdity of war, was a big influence on all subsequent war movies. Finally, I would just like to say that the adjective “humane” is the one that seems to be applied to Renoir more than any other and I think this is very apt. There are a lot of French movies, even today, that deal with extended families getting together for holidays or weekend-long parties that have this same quality and they seem to me to have their roots very much in The Rules of the Game. See for instance Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours or Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale.

AN: What three films if you can name three, from this period do you think best represent the movement and why?

MGS: L’atalante (1934), The Rules of the Game (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945), for the reasons already cited above.

AN: What are your favorite characteristics and or techniques of this movement and why?

MGS: I love Renoir’s use of long takes and long shots. These are the “mise-en-scene” aesthetics that were famously championed by the critic Andre Bazin. Bazin thought that this style was the opposite of Soviet Montage, where the preference for rapid cutting was more conducive to propaganda and telling viewers what to think. Renoir has a lot going on in the foreground, middle-ground and background of his shots and, because he tends to hold his shots for a while without cutting, it gives viewers the freedom to kind of focus on whatever they want to. For instance, you can choose to look at a character in the foreground or one in the background. It’s like you’re “editing” the film yourself in your mind while watching it. This quality makes his films endlessly re-watchable for me.

AN: How did this movement influence Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave?

MGS: I think the focus on working class characters and the use of plots that revolve around social problems make Poetic Realism an influence on Italian Neorealism. (The key difference though is that the cinematography in Poetic Realism tends to be far more polished than the rawness of what you see in Neorealism.) The French New Wave was more obviously influenced by Poetic Realism. Remember that the directors of the New Wave started off as film critics and so they basically hero-worshipped the likes of Vigo and Renoir and explicitly quoted their films. (Truffaut’s 400 Blows, for instance, would be unthinkable without Vigo’s Zero de Conduite.) I would say that the New Wave directors were most influenced by how intensely cinematic and alive and personal the films of Poetic Realism are.

AN: Can you summarize real quick what Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave are if you haven’t already?

MGS: Italian Neorealism was a movement in post-war Italy where directors attempted to make films that were far more realistic, in terms of form and content, than what had ever been achieved before. The French New Wave was a movement of critics-turned-directors in France in the late 50s and early 60s who used filmmaking as a means of celebrating and critiquing the cinema itself. (That’s a bit reductive and simplistic but you said to “summarize real quick!”)

AN: Can characteristics of this movement be seen in film today? If so can you name a couple of modern films to reference from after that time period.

MGS: There isn’t much around today that looks like Poetic Realism. But, in addition to the French films I already cited above, I think that American directors as diverse as Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger) have been specifically influenced by Jean Renoir.

AN: Is there anything you would like to add that I may have forgotten to ask or mention?

MGS: See the restored Children of Paradise as soon as you have the chance. You will thank me for it.


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.


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 Top Fifty Directors of All Time

As a companion piece to my list of the fifty best living film directors, which I published last year around this time, today’s post concerns my highly subjective list of the top fifty directors of all time. Below you will find a countdown of my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As any reader of this blog knows, I love making lists and generating debates concerning all things cinematic. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

10. Jean Renoir (France)

Today Jean Renoir is thought of as the quintessential director of “classical” French cinema even though the films he made in the 1930s, the lofty high point of his career, are far wilder than this reputation would suggest. In the twin peaks of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale. He left France during the German occupation and became a U.S. citizen long enough to make at least one masterpiece in Hollywood (The Southerner) and another in India (the striking one-off The River). When Renoir returned to France in the 1950s, he embarked on a sublime trilogy of films centered on the relationship between life and performance that, fittingly, gave a trio of international movie stars some of their very best roles: The Golden Coach (with Anna Magnani), French Cancan (with Jean Gabin) and Elena and Her Men (with Ingrid Bergman).

Essential work: Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937), The Rules of the Game (La Regle de Jeu) (1939), French Cancan (1954)

9. Orson Welles (USA)

Orson Welles was the great synthesizer; in Citizen Kane he self-consciously appropriated techniques from most of the major historical film movements that came before him and wedded them to a revolutionary use of deep focus cinematography. More importantly, he pressed these techniques to the service of an epic story about the life of “one of the biggest” Americans that speaks volumes about the changes undergone by American society from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the second World War. This monumental achievement, coupled with the fact that it was the only time Welles had complete creative control over a movie, virtually guaranteed that his subsequent films would be seen as not living up to the “early promise” of Kane. Fortunately, Welles’ critical stock has risen considerably since his death in 1985 and masterpieces like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (my personal favorite) and F for Fake, not to mention various unfinished projects, are now more easily seen as part of a highly personal continuum stretching from the early-1940s to the mid-1980s, inside and outside of the Hollywood studio system, and from America to Europe and back again. With each passing year, his body of work looks more estimable for what he did achieve instead of deficient for what he didn’t.

Essential work: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Of all the great Japanese directors, Kenji Mizoguchi is the most expressive visual stylist. His hallmarks – elaborate tracking shots (in some films the camera is moving more often than not), chiaroscuro lighting and the subject of the oppression of Japanese women – were already evident as early as the mid-1930s when he made such gems as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. His first major masterpiece, 1939’s heartbreaking The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, about a wealthy young actor’s illicit affair with his family’s wet nurse, was enough to ensure his immortality. But the best was yet to come; after a handful of relatively safe films made during and immediately after the war, Mizoguchi’s career peaked in the 1950s with an extraordinary series of movies, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and the incredibly atmospheric and unusually poetic ghost story Ugetsu. Each of these films is a period drama, in which an earlier era in Japanese history is painstakingly and authentically recreated, that tackles human suffering with a clear-eyed honesty and compassion that is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Essential work: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953)

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

In the 1940s Roberto Rossellini helped to spearhead the revolutionary Italian Neorealist movement with his socially conscious, documentary-style War Trilogy (consisting of Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then, he shifted gears in the 1950s to make six remarkable melodramas starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman including Stromboli and Voyage in Italy. These films arguably marked the birth of “cinematic modernism” by eschewing plot in favor of a series of scenes of Bergman wandering a primordial landscape meant to evoke the interior journey of her characters (which would pave the way for both Antonioni’s L’avventura and Godard’s Le Mepris). Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s Rossellini turned to television for a series of de-dramatized, educational films about “great men” throughout history that arguably took the Neorealist aesthetic to its logical extreme. Very few filmmakers have gone through multiple phases as dramatically different as Rossellini. Fewer still have managed to create such groundbreaking work with each distinct chapter in their careers.

Essential work: Stromboli (1950), Voygage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966)

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Carl Dreyer was nothing if not exacting. The great Dane proclaimed cinema to be his “only” passion and proved it by making only the kind of films that he really wanted to make. His rigorous/perfectionist style is reflected in the fact that his final five features, as astonishing a run of movies as can be found in any filmography, were released in five separate decades: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). The evolution of his style over the course of these films is fascinating: from close-ups to long shots, from quick-cutting to long takes, from acting to non-acting, from music to no music. Genre trappings (the melodrama of Joan, the horror of Vampyr) also fade away as Dreyer moves relentlessly inward in pursuit of the capture of various “states of soul.” Equally fascinating is his naturalistic approach to ambiguously supernatural subject matter: a woman who communes with God, vampirism, witchcraft, the resurrection of the flesh and . . . romantic love.

Essential work: Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) (1943), Ordet (1955), Gertrud (1964)

5. F.W. Murnau (Germany/USA)

F.W. Murnau is often referred to as the best director to have only worked in the silent era and for good reason; he was the chief figure of German Expressionism, creating three major masterpieces with Nosferatu (the first and best vampire film), The Last Laugh (a movie with no intertitles but a lot of fluid camerawork) and Faust (a technically virtuosic take on the German folk tale that nearly bankrupted UFA, the studio that produced it), before answering the call of Hollywood where he made three more: Sunrise (a love story about the dichotomy between city and country life featuring highly innovative cinematography), Four Devils (a lost film) and City Girl (an exquisite melodrama that intentionally reverses the iconography of Sunrise). Unhappy with working conditions in both Germany and the U.S., Murnau went to Tahiti for his independently produced final film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. If Fritz Lang was the Tolstoy of German cinema (going “wide” with his ambitious, third-person societal portraits), then Murnau was its Dostoevsky (going “deep” with his take on the highly subjective psychological impressions of the individual).

Essential work: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director who was able to combine a high degree of creative control with a long and prolific career. Beginning in the silent era in England, Hitch successfully adapted to sound, the Hollywood studio system, color, widescreen cinematography and even 3-D. He looked at potential projects as logistical problems that he could utilize the latest technology to solve, frequently breaking new ground along the way. Furthermore, his ostensible “genre pieces” were highly personal in nature, more often than not studies of obsession with an emphasis on the duality of man. The fact that he could make such personal films on such a massive scale, using major stars and the resources of Hollywood, is impressive in the extreme. And his craftsmanship has never been bettered (Andrew Sarris has aptly referred to him as the “supreme technician of the American cinema”); the best of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds) are so well planned and executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Essential work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

Like Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was one of the most Catholic of all directors. But the theme of guilt that was present in so much of the Englishman’s work was not allowed to so thoroughly infuse the movies of his Spanish counterpart. Instead, Bunuel violently reacted against his upbringing (and against the rising tide of fascism of late 20s/early 30s Europe) with the wildest and most transgressive films of the French Surrealist movement (Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’Or). Following a lengthy stint of not being able to direct, Bunuel resurfaced in the late 1940s as a master of the subversive Mexican melodrama, dropping bombs like Los Olvidados, El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. After a brief sojourn in his native Spain in the early Sixties, where he made the scandalous, blasphemous masterpiece Viridiana, Bunuel returned to France for what is arguably the greatest last chapter of any director’s career; it was there that he married his distinctive Surrealist sensibility to more polished cinematography and glamorous movie stars, resulting in a series of droll comedies, full of hilarious non-sequiturs and bizarre, dreamlike imagery, that constitute his very best work: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Essential work: Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) (1972)

2. Robert Bresson (France)

The relationship between spirit and flesh has never been dramatized on screen as effectively as it has in the work of Robert Bresson because no other filmmaker has used sound and image so precisely to focus on material reality (and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, on the spiritual conditions underlying it). The great French director hit his stride early on with a “prison cycle” of films consisting of The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (the best prison break movie ever), Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film so austere it makes Dreyer’s Joan look like a soap opera). Then came Au Hasard, Balthazar, a soul-enchanting masterpiece about the life of a donkey, in which the title character is seen as a barometer for the sins of mankind. In the late 1960s Bresson began working with color, expanding his palette while refining his overall style to an increasingly “essentialist” extreme. Some observers find his late work pessimistic (virtually all of his last movies end in suicide and/or murder). Bresson himself rejected this view, opting for the word “lucid” instead. The redemption is still there if you’re willing to look for it; it’s just buried a little deeper beneath the surface. Robert Bresson more consistently made near-perfect films than any other director with whose work I am familiar.

Essential work: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), L’argent (1983)

1. John Ford (USA)

Simply put, John Ford is the American cinema. A few indelible moments: Shirley Temple singing “Auld Lang Syne” to Victor McLaglen as he lies on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame). Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, awkwardly dancing with and serenading his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O’Hara, exits the church after marrying another man. Fonda again as Marshall Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, leaning back in his chair on a hotel veranda, balancing himself on a post with his boots. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing in the doorway between civilization and wilderness, unsure of whether to enter, in The Searchers. Anne Bancroft’s resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: “So long, ya bastard.” And, as Johnny Cash once said, lots of other things.

Essential work: How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

11. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)
Essential work: L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

12. John Cassavetes (USA)
Essential work: A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Love Streams (1984)

13. Charlie Chaplin (USA)
Essential work: City Lights (1931), A King in New York (1958)

14. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
Essential work: Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

15. Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Ukraine)
Essential work: Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)

16. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)
Essential work: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

17. Federico Fellini (Italy)
Essential work: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963)

18. Louis Feuillade (France)
Essential work: Les Vampires (1915), Tih Minh (1919)

19. Sam Fuller (USA)
Essential work: Park Row (1952), Shock Corridor (1963)

20. Jean-Luc Godard (France/Switzerland)
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-1998)

21. D.W. Griffith (USA)
Essential work: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

22. Howard Hawks (USA)
Essential work: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Rio Bravo (1959)

23. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan)
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Three Times (2005)

24. King Hu (Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Essential work: Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971)

25. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
Essential work: Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

26. Buster Keaton (USA)
Essential work: Our Hospitality (1923), The General (1926)

27. Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
Essential work: The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

28. Stanley Kubrick (USA)
Essential work: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

29. Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

30. Fritz Lang (Germany/USA)
Essential work: M (1931), The Big Heat (1953)

31. Sergio Leone (Italy/USA)
Essential work: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

32. Ernst Lubitsch (Germany/USA)
Essential work: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

33. Vincente Minnelli (USA)
Essential work: The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)

34. Mikio Naruse (Japan)
Essential work: Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

35. Max Ophuls (France/USA)
Essential work: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

36. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)
Essential work: Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)

37. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (UK)
Essential work: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)

38. Nicholas Ray (USA)
Essential work: In a Lonely Place (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)

39. Satyajit Ray (India)
Essential work: Pather Panchali (1955), Charulata (1964)

40. Alain Resnais (France)
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

41. Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
Essential work: Black Girl (La noire de…) (1966), Moolaade (2004)

42. Douglas Sirk (USA)
Essential work: All That Heaven Allows (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

43. Preston Sturges (USA)
Essential work: The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

44. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)
Essential work: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979)

45. Jacques Tati (France)
Essential work: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Play Time (1967)

46. Dziga Vertov (Russia)
Essential work: Kino-Eye (1924), Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

47. Jean Vigo (France)
Essential work: Zero de Conduite (1933), L’atalante 1934)

48. Luchino Visconti (Italy)
Essential work: Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

49. Josef von Sternberg (USA)
Essential work: The Docks of New York (1928), Shanghai Express (1932)

50. Erich von Stroheim (USA)
Essential work: Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924)


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