Tag Archives: Jour de Fete

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2014

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2014 (and 20 runners up):

10. Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)


Director Antonia Bird tragically passed away last year at the too-young age of 62. While she is known primarily for the television and theater work she did in her native England, genre movie aficionados have a place in their hearts for her because of her extraordinary work on Ravenous, a cult classic about cannibalism at an American army post in California in the mid-19th century. Incredibly, Bird was brought in at the 11th hour to replace another director but managed to infuse this horror-western hybrid with a unique, darkly comedic tone and bring a welcome female perspective besides (she changed one crucial supporting part from male to female). A film of enormous political and philosophical interest masquerading as a B-movie, Ravenous is one of the key movies of the 1990s and one that looks better with each passing year. In terms of A/V quality, Shout! Factory’s release does the best it can with source materials that appear to not be in ideal shape but I would never want to be without this on Blu-ray.

9. Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)


F.W. Murnau’s greatest German movie makes the leap to 1080p with the staggering results one would expect from the Masters of Cinema label. In adapting the old German folk tale about the wager between an archangel and a demon over whether the latter can corrupt the titular alchemist’s soul, the legendary UFA studios gave Murnau a bigger budget and access to greater technical resources than he ever had before. The stylistic virtuosity that resulted — nowhere better evidenced than in a magic-carpet ride through an mind-bogglingly elaborate miniature set — trumped even the masterful mise-en-scene of Murnau’s own The Last Laugh. This Blu-ray edition bundles together the inferior international cut of the film (long thought to be the only one in existence) with Luciano Berriatua’s meticulous restoration of the definitive German domestic version. There is also a great, enthusiastic commentary track by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, both of whom are especially good at tracking Faust‘s considerable influence on subsequent filmmakers and films.

8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)


A very welcome addition to the growing number of Robert Bresson titles on Blu-ray (Criterion has already released A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) is UK distributor Artificial Eye’s exemplary Mouchette disc. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenaged girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that Bresson’s previous film, Au Hasard Balthazar, was “the world in an hour-and-a-half,” a remark that seems equally true of Mouchette. Both films have a shattering impact because of the director’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. The film-like textures of Artificial Eye’s transfer make this the version that you need to own.

7. The Epic of Everest (Noel, UK, 1924, BFI Blu-ray)


“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)


As someone who first discovered many classics of world cinema via VHS tapes of poor quality public-domain prints in the early 1990s, it has been a great joy to see the image and sound quality of certain titles improve over the years — courtesy of new restorations and new advancements in home-video technology. The most impressive instance of an absolutely jaw-dropping upgrade in a movie’s quality over time might be Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of psychological horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Long seen in faded, scratchy and often incomplete prints, the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s new restoration — based on the original camera negative — renders a ridiculous amount of never-before-seen detail in the film’s striking visual design, including the Expressionist makeup on the actors’ faces and even paint-brush strokes on the intentionally artificial-looking sets around them. I’m also a big fan of the new techno-ish score by DJ Spooky though Kino/Lorber also thankfully offer a more “traditional” soundtrack option for silent-film purists. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s influence is still very much alive (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, John Carpenter’s The Ward and Tim Burton’s entire career would be unthinkable without it). It was the big bang of both German Expressionist and horror moviemaking and if you care at all about cinema, you need to own this.

5. Hail Mary (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)


Cohen Media Group did the world a big favor by releasing Blu-rays of two of the best films from Jean-Luc Godard’s thorny post-1967 career: 1984’s sublime religious allegory Hail Mary and 1996’s ambitious and political For Ever Mozart. While For Ever Mozart has the better audio commentary track (film critic James Quandt’s invaluable insights into Godard in general and this film in particular, delivered in a conversational style, constitute the best such commentary track I’ve ever heard), I’m ultimately going with Hail Mary as the more significant release simply because the film itself is more significant. Controversial upon its initial release, Hail Mary re-imagines the story of the birth of Christ in a modern setting where Mary plays high-school basketball and works at her father’s gas station, Joseph drives a taxi and “Uncle Gabriel” arrives via jet plane to deliver the annunciation. While this may sound irreverent — and the film does indeed feature Godard’s characteristic absurdist humor — the end result is as serious and deeply spiritual as anything Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer ever did. The best of the special features here is Anne-Marie Mieville’s, The Book of Mary, a terrific companion short about a young girl grappling with her parents’ divorce.

4. The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Lewis, USA, 1963, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)


Warner Brothers finally gave Jerry Lewis the respect he deserves with this lavish box set commemorating the 50th anniversary, albeit one year late, of the master’s most enduring creation. The Nutty Professor, a surreal/comedic take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde legend in which Lewis transforms from the title nebbish into a satire of his own real life ladies-man persona named “Buddy Love,” looks better and funnier than ever. Lewis’s bold use of color in particular (dig that crazy purple!) benefits from the Blu-ray upgrade. Among the treasure trove of extras are DVDs of Frank Tashlin’s minor Lewis-starring comedy Cinderfella (1960), Lewis’s second film as a director, the self-reflexive masterpiece The Errand Boy (1961), as well as a CD of hilarious prank phone calls, “Phoney Phone Calls 1959-1972,” that puts the Jerky Boys to shame. I was also grateful for the new documentary short Jerry Lewis: No Apologies, which offers a snapshot of the still-sharp 87-year-old comedian in concert and in conversation with family and friends. If you do not think this live-action cartoon is hilarious, then I do not want to be your friend.

3. The Essential Jacques Demy (Demy, France, 1961-1982, Criterion Blu-ray)


Jacques Demy has always been the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors; the Criterion Collection’s essential new box set devoted to six of his best features (plus the usual welcome smattering of bonus material) will hopefully go a long way towards correcting that. Included are Demy’s seminal debut Lola (1961), his doomed romance about gamblers Bay of Angels (1963), a dazzling restoration of his best-known film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), my personal favorite The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), the subversive fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970), and the darkly beautiful, scandalously unknown movie opera A Room in Town (1982). To watch these films together is to realize how unfair it is that Demy has somehow accrued the reputation of being both lightweight and a sentimentalist. His penchant for the musical genre (even when directing non-musicals) and his love of candy-box colors mask what often amounts to a bittersweet if not outright tragic worldview. Among the extras are two excellent feature-length docs by Demy’s wife Agnes Varda (a major director in her own right): The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995).

2. Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Lynch, USA, 1990-1992, Paramount Blu-ray)


This extravagant box set is phenomenal for so many reasons: it contains all 30 episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved cult-classic television show from 1990-1991, plus Lynch’s 1992 feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (much derided at the time but clearly one of his greatest achievements when viewed today), plus the legendary “deleted scenes” from Fire Walk with Me, which have been a holy grail for Peaks aficionados for over 20 years. Best of all: because Twin Peaks was originally shot on 35mm film stock, this Blu-ray sports an impeccable 1080p transfer that perfectly captures the show’s buttery-warm color palette while revealing way more visual detail than anyone ever saw when the series first aired. Lynch and Frost’s daring “Blue Velvet crossed with a soap opera” formula was ahead of its time in the early 90s — the weirdest thing to ever play on network television — doomed to end prematurely but paving the way for today’s current “golden age of T.V.” (David Chase has acknowledged its influence on his own game-changing Sopranos). Fortunately, this box is not quite the entire mystery; Twin Peaks will be rebooted on Showtime in 2016 — where Lynch and Frost can take advantage of television freedoms they never dreamed possible 25 years ago.

1. Intégral Jacques Tati (Tati, France, 1949-1974, StudioCanal Blu-ray)


A lot of film writers on this side of the Atlantic have anointed the Criterion Collection’s “Complete Jacques Tati” Blu-ray set as the home video release of the year but I’m going to give the nod to Studio Canal France’s similar release instead. Criterion’s set dropped in late October but Studio Canal had already put out an almost identical (albeit “Region B-locked) set back in February, more than eight months previously. As great as Criterion’s “visual essays” and other supplements undoubtedly are, the most important aspect in a box set of this magnitude is its “completeness” in terms of the films themselves and in this regard there is no difference between the Studio Canal and the Criterion: both of them bundle together all of the Gallic comedic giant’s short and feature-length films, most of the latter of which are available in multiple versions. What a joy it was to revisit Tati’s entire filmography in such superb quality and to witness the evolution of his artistry in chronological order — beginning with the uproariously funny (and still underrated) Jour de Fete, climaxing with the staggeringly ambitious Play Time (one of the greatest movies ever made by anyone) and ending with the poignant, made-for-TV Parade (which saw the actor/director returning to his music-hall roots). Let’s hope Criterion doesn’t wait so long to announce their new titles in the future. Full review here.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

11. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974, Criterion Blu-ray)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944, Universal Blu-ray)
15. F for Fake (Welles, USA, 1973, Criterion Blu-ray)
16. For Ever Mozart (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
17. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
19. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA, 2003/2014, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
20. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984, Criterion Blu-ray)
21. Master of the House (Dreyer, Denmark, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Mauvais Sang (Carax, France, 1986, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
23. My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946, Criterion Blu-ray). More here.
24. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1939, TCM/Columbia Blu-ray)
25. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
26. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Spies (Lang, Germany, 1928, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
28. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958, Universal Blu-ray)
29. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
30. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, Iran, 1999, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)




Newly released on Blu-ray from Studio Canal France is Intégrale Jacques Tati, a box set collecting all six feature films by the greatest director of comedy in the sound era. (No? Then who?) Following on the heels of last year’s complete Eric Rohmer Blu-ray/DVD box from Potemkine, France has clearly become the go-to country for distributing career-spanning home video retrospectives devoted to important individual filmmakers. This is perhaps the result of French directors being more generally independent and often owning their own negatives in comparison to filmmakers from other countries. (By contrast, in the past decade there have been at least four different substantial DVD box sets put out by different American companies devoted to a single studio-hopping director like John Ford; a scenario like this can prove to be a nightmare for movie lovers/collectors.) But I digress. If you own a Region-B or multi-region Blu-ray player, you should own this complete Jacques Tati box set, an early frontrunner for best-of-the-year status. What makes this release so essential, in addition to being able to see all of the films again in superb quality, is Studio Canal’s impressive thoroughness in assembling the set: three of the titles can be seen in multiple versions — three for Jour de Fete and two a piece for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, resulting in a grand total of 10 feature films. There is also an entire Blu-ray disc of extras that includes all of the delightful but underseen short films that Tati made from 1934 to 1978. Intégrale indeed.


Jour de Fete, Tati’s underrated first feature, is a terrific slapstick comedy about Francois (the director himself as a forerunner to his beloved “Monsieur 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 although it was not actually seen in color until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a revelatory new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. Intégrale Jacques Tati bundles together three versions of Jour de Fete on a single disc: the original 1949 black-and-white release, the 1995 color-restored version, and a 1964 release that is mostly in black-and-white but with limited color tinting overseen by the director himself.


1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was the beloved first outing for the director’s legendary Monsieur Hulot character. The film 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 where he revolutionizes the serve.) Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well. Intégrale Jacques Tati bundles together the original 1953 version of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday with Tati’s 1978 re-edit of the film, which saw the inclusion of newly shot, seamlessly integrated footage (such as an anachronistic spoof of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws).


Mon Oncle won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1959 and yet, in spite of that honor and in spite of the fact that it remains a quintessential example of Tati’s unique brand of cinema, I don’t think it’s quite as great as what had come before nor what would come after. The plot, minimal as ever, has to do with Monsieur Hulot visiting the family of his brother-in-law, who live in a nightmarish, American-style post-modern home. A lot of the sight gags — especially those involving the malfunction of high-tech gadgets around the house — are brilliant and point the way towards similar gags in Playtime but, because the action is confined almost entirely to a single setting, this lacks the awe-inspiring epic quality of Tati’s supreme masterpiece. Still, it’s an important evolutionary step between Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime and remains crucial viewing. Included together on a single disc is Tati’s original 1958 version of the film as well as My Uncle, a version featuring American dialogue and signage (both of which are minimal) and running nine-minutes shorter.


Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent champion, has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?” The image quality of Studio Canal’s transfer is every bit as impressive as the one put out by Criterion a few years ago, although flesh tones are slightly warmer here (for those who care about that sort of thing).


Some commentators have complained that Traffic represents a concession to the marketplace: after the costly commercial failure of Playtime — with its radical everybody-is-a-star premise — Tati brought Monsieur Hulot back for more of a conventional leading role in this follow-up, which would also be the character’s last outing (his name actually precedes the film’s title in the opening credits). Taken on its own terms, however, this 1971 comedy is not only very funny but offers a Western civilization-as-traffic jam metaphor almost as potent as that of Godard’s Weekend. The road-trip premise has something to do with Hulot delivering a car from Paris to Amsterdam for an auto show and predictably engaging in roadside mishaps along the way but, as in all of Tati’s work, this is only a pretext for a series of comedic vignettes that are both self-contained and related by theme; I am personally inordinately fond of the stopped-car nose-picking montage.


Parade, Jacques Tati’s modest final feature, was made for Swedish television in 1974. Because it has primarily been seen only in a crude early video process (one of three formats on which it was shot) and because it features a single-location setting (a circus big-top), Parade has often been unfortunately dismissed as an unworthy swan song to an extraordinary career. But I would argue this gem is much better than its reputation suggests, not only summarizing a lot of the key themes of Tati’s work (including such democratic and utopian notions that anyone can be funny and that life itself is a performance), but also poignantly bringing it full circle: Tati himself plays the ringmaster of the circus and, at the age of 66, shows an impressive physical dexterity in recreating some of the slapstick gags of his pre-cinema, vaudeville career. The Blu-ray of Parade is happily the most revelatory title in this set in terms of image quality: it is based on a 2013 restoration that combines Tati’s use of video, 16mm and 35mm film stocks and is leaps and bounds better than previous home video editions. So, a lovely film then and a fitting coda to the career of one of the cinema’s true comedic geniuses.

Below are my ratings of all of the individual films in the Intégrale Jacques Tati set. The first letter grade is for the movie itself, the second is for the A/V quality.

Jour de Fete: A+/A
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: A+/A
Mon Oncle: A/A+
Playtime: A+/A+
Traffic: A/A+
Parade: A-/A-

Intégrale Jacques Tati can be ordered from Amazon in France here:

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.

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