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Tag Archives: Les Bonnes Femmes

A French New Wave Primer

In the entire history of cinema, the single movement to have exerted the biggest influence over contemporary movies is probably the eternally cool French New Wave, which began in earnest in 1959 with the release of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and lasted for all of the turbulent 1960s. Today, the New Wave is thought of as being synonymous with the early revolutionary films of the young film critics of Cahiers du Cinema who turned into directors (Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) but, as with most historical movements, it can be more fruitfully approached by casting one’s net a little wider. I do so here by including films by their “Left Banke” comrades (Resnais, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker) as well as more left-field entries like Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine.

The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)

The film that Francois Truffaut was born to make: a semi-autobiographical tale of juvenile delinquency in which social criticism, a love for the medium of cinema and a poetic but ruthlessly unsentimental depiction of childhood combine for a uniquely poignant and unforgettable experience. The fact that a young, first time director like Truffaut could win Best Director at Cannes for such a highly personal, low-budget and freewheeling movie signaled that a sea change had occurred in the French film industry.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)

The masterpiece of Claude Chabrol’s early career dissects the hopes, dreams and romantic entanglements of four young, attractive Parisian shopgirls. Characteristic of the New Wave is Chabrol’s use of documentary-style location shooting, the performances of a charming, youthful cast and an intelligent, deliberate mixture of disparate genres: comedy, melodrama, tragedy and, most unforgettably, the Hitchcockian thriller.

Breathless (Godard, 1960)

Jean-Luc Godard would go on to make many better films than this, his first, yet it is doubtful that any can be regarded as coming anywhere close to approaching its importance. The tale of a Parisian car-thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who kills a cop and then attempts to convince his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to flee the country with him, this is the definitive movie-as-love-letter-to-the-movies. With its charming amorality, off-the-wall humor, “anything goes” spirit and plethora of film references, Breathless is the definitive French New Wave movie, without which movies as we know them today would look very different.

Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961)

Anne, a literature student in late 1950s Paris, agrees to take part in a no-budget production of Shakespeare’s Pericles in order to get to the bottom of the mysterious suicide of an acquaintance and, in the process, uncovers a conspiracy that may or may not exist. Jacques Rivette’s first film contains all of the hallmarks of his more famous later work: extended running time, paranoid conspiracy theory plot, scenes of characters rehearsing a classic play and an almost inexplicably sinister tone.

Adieu Philippine (Rozier, 1962)

Unjustly unknown outside of France, Jacques Rozier’s uproarious comedy tells the story of a low-level T.V. technician who romances two aspiring actresses (who also happen to be best friends) while waiting to begin his mandatory military service. This satire of television, consumerism and “cold-hearted modern youth” effortlessly conjures up a spirit of youthfulness, spontaneity and fun that Truffaut’s more famous and similarly themed Jules and Jim has to labor mightily to try and equal.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)

Agnes Varda was the lone female member of the French New Wave and Cleo from 5 to 7 is, in the apt words of Pauline Kael, “one of the few films directed by a woman in which the viewer can sense a difference.” The plot details the adventures of the title heroine between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 pm as she awaits the results of medical tests that will determine if she has cancer. Clocking in at 90 minutes, this beautiful, astute character study also very nearly takes place in “real time.”

Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962)

Francois Truffaut’s comedy/drama about a menage-a-trois in World War I-era France was long considered a New Wave benchmark but, writing as someone who is not a Truffaut man, I don’t think it has aged particularly well; the filmmaking “playfulness” seems forced, the attempts at humanism and the shifts between comedy and tragedy too derivative of Truffaut’s idol Jean Renoir. Still, everyone should see this if only to understand how Truffaut represented the “mainstream face” of the New Wave, without which some of the movement’s less commercial prospects could never have been made.

Le Joli Mai (Marker, 1963)

Cinema vérité, French-style! The great cinematic essayist Chris Marker (who named himself after, you guessed it, the Magic Marker pen) spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness”; incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939. The epic running time (two hours and 45 minutes) allows Marker to probe deep into the hopes and fears of an entire society.

Le Mepris (Contempt) (Godard, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

Muriel (Resnais, 1963)

Two weeks in Boulogne with four characters – an antiques dealer (Delphine Seyrig again) and her stepson who are visited by her former lover and his alleged “niece” – all of whom are haunted by memories of the past. The culmination of Alain Resnais’ long running obsession with nonlinear editing and the difficulty of integrating the past into the present, this challenging film (arguably Resnais’ best) demands and handsomely rewards multiple viewings.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)

Jacques Demy’s delightful but freakish musical in which there is no dancing but every line of dialogue is sung. Teenage Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) must make tough decisions after being knocked up by her boyfriend who must deploy for a tour of duty in Algeria. The candy-box colors and attractive star cast consistently dazzle but this is a much darker and more serious film than its detractors would have you believe.

Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965)

A clear advance for Jean-Luc Godard as an artist, this mostly improvised romp follows an unhappily married man (Jean Paul Belmondo) who flees his bourgeois Parisian life and heads to the Riviera with a beautiful, mysterious stranger (Anna Karina) on the run from Algerian gangsters. Massively influential as a lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie and a work of postmodern Pop Art.

La Collectionneuse (Rohmer, 1967)

A man intending to “do nothing” while vacationing in St. Tropez is tempted by a promiscuous stranger, the “collector” of the title in this witty, intellectual comedy. A milestone for Eric Rohmer for several reasons: it was his first commercial success, his first film shot in color (courtesy of genius cinematographer Nestor Almendros) and the first of his Six Moral Tales to attain feature-length status.

Weekend (Godard, 1967)

Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic black comedy in which a bourgeois married couple’s weekend trip to the country begins with a traffic jam and ends in cannibalism. This provocative and angry satire of the barbarism lurking beneath the facade of Western civilization appropriately ends with the title “End of Cinema.” A cinematic equivalent of the novels of James Joyce.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, 1967)

My personal favorite Jacques Demy film is this wonderful musical, a sort of follow-up to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which twin sisters (real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) search for their ideal romantic partners in the colorful title town. Michel Legrand’s jazzy score is phenomenal and the tribute to golden age Hollywood musicals is made complete by an appearance from the legendary Gene Kelly.

The Smugglers (Moullet, 1968)

Luc Moullet’s delightfully amateurish slapstick comedy follows the misadventures of the title trio, an unnamed protagonist (Johnny Monteilhet) and the two girlfriends (Françoise Vatel and Monique Thiriet) he recruits to help him illegally transport packages (including Kodak film stock and LSD) and people (identified as artists and Jews) between two unnamed countries at war. There are a lot of deliberately fake-looking Godardian fight scenes as well as Tati-style gags involving sight and sound among the spectacularly beautiful mountain scenery. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I identify with this film — not on a personal level but as a director. More so than any other New Wave movie, seeing this made me feel that my own modest filmmaking efforts were justified.

La Femme Infidele (Chabrol, 1969)

A man suspects his wife of infidelity and has her followed by a private eye, setting off a suspenseful chain of events in which the lead characters find themselves “exchanging guilt” in the best Hitchcock tradition. Released in the midst of Claude Chabrol’s richest period (1968 – 1973), this simple, gripping thriller is perhaps the director’s most perfectly realized film.

L’amour Fou (Rivette, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, 1969)

A film that dramatizes Pascal’s “Wager theory” as Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Tritignant), a devout Catholic moves to a small town during Christmastime and decides to marry a beautiful blonde woman he spies while at mass. Later, he is introduced to Maud, a brunette divorcee who causes him to question his earlier resolve. Eric Rohmer was the king of intelligent, literate dialogue and this film, so profitably rooted in a specific time and place, is his finest hour. Also a great Christmas movie.

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Claude Chabrol RIP

The great French film critic-turned-director Claude Chabrol, one of the seminal figures of the revolutionary Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s, passed away yesterday at the age of 80. With the death of Eric Rohmer earlier in the year and widespread speculation that the most recent films of Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme) will be their last, it is beginning to feel more and more like the end of an era.

Chabrol was never the most respected of the major French New Wave directors; the quality of his amazingly prolific output probably varied more wildly from film to film than the work of any of his compatriots. But the man made more than his fair share of masterpieces, especially during an incredible six year run from 1968 – 1973, and he cultivated a style that was completely and unmistakably his own. Absorbing lessons in technical virtuosity from his heroes Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol made “classical” thrillers that were shot through with a vein of dark comedy, a scathing critique of the bourgeoisie (which, crucially, one always felt contained an element of self-criticism) and a legendary appreciation for fine cuisine.

Chabrol once wrote an amusing article honoring American genre master Robert Aldrich in which he named a “dirty dozen” of his favorite Aldrich films. Given Chabrol’s obsession with food and scenes involving eating, here is a “baker’s dozen” of my own favorite Claude Chabrol films.

In chronological order:

Les Cousins (1959)
Chabrol’s second feature, about a country bumpkin who moves to Paris to share an apartment with his decadent, city-bred cousin, is one of the most significant early French New Wave films and contains seeds of the director’s mature work; a darkly ironic tragedy contrasting two characters on opposite ends of the moral compass.

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
Chabrol’s first masterpiece follows a quartet of young women as they search for love in a modern, freewheeling Paris. What starts out as a charming and humorous document of a newly-swinging era gradually darkens until Chabrol delivers a shocking and unforgettable finale.

L’avarice (1962) / La Muette (1965)
One respect in which Chabrol absolutely schooled his fellow New Wavers was in the making of short films. The highlights of the omnibus films The Seven Deadly Sins and Six in Paris respectively, L’avarice and La Muette are like perfectly executed short stories, featuring droll, devilishly clever endings worthy of Poe, and guaranteed to stick with you for a very long time.

Les Biches (1968)
The beginning of Chabrol’s mature period is this elegant psycho-drama about a love triangle between Jean-Louis Trintignant’s architect and two bisexual women: the rich, beautiful Frederique (Chabrol’s then wife Stephane Audrane) and a street artist named Why (Jacqueline Sassard). Chabrol’s philosophy of “simple plots, complex characters” pays dividends in this mysterious but humanistic character study.

La Femme Infidele (1969)
One of Chabrol’s best loved films is this stylish and ingenious thriller about a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity and plots the murder of her lover. Chabrol expertly employs Hitchcock’s famous theme of the “transfer of guilt” so that the movie becomes a fascinating inquiry into the concept of moral relativism.

This Man Must Die (1969)
The story of a grieving father who hatches an elaborate scheme to find and get revenge on the hit and run driver who killed his only son, this is yet another beautifully crafted thriller that gains resonance through its examination of the weighty themes of solitude, grief, guilt and justice.

Le Boucher (1970)
My personal favorite Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.

La Rupture (1970)
As a pure genre piece, this may be Chabrol’s most entertaining film; in advance of an ugly divorce / child custody battle, a wealthy older couple hire a private investigator to “find dirt” on their daughter-in-law at all costs. Jean-Pierre Cassel is terrific as the slimy P.I. and the film’s psychedelic climax will blow your mind.

Wedding in Blood (1973)
The end of Chabrol’s golden age is marked by this brooding, sinister tale of marital infidelity and small town politics. Stephane Audrane plays the last in a series of cool, enigmatic Chabrol women named Helene, this time as a mayor’s wife engaged in an affair with her husband’s assistant, a perfectly cast Michel Piccoli.

Story of Women (1988)
Both atypical and a return to form, this Isabelle Huppert vehicle recounts the true story of a woman who performed illegal abortions during the second World War in Nazi-occupied France. A complex and riveting historical drama featuring one of Huppert’s very best performances.

La Ceremonie (1995)
The masterpiece of Chabrol’s late period, this pertinent study of contemporary class warfare centers on the relationship between Sophie (the great Sandrine Bonnaire), an illiterate maid, and Jeanne (Huppert again), the postal worker who spurs her on to stand up to her wealthy employers. In a career filled with memorable finales, Chabrol outdoes himself by ending La Ceremonie on a note of apocalyptic perfection.

The Bridesmaid (2003)
A lot of Chabrol’s post-La Ceremonie work was devoted to lightweight genre fare, agreeable but forgettable mysteries like The Swindle and Merci pour le chocolat, but he made a roaring comeback with The Bridesmaid. In this unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a salesman falls in love with the enigmatic title character and, unaware that she is mentally unstable, jokingly agrees to “exchange murders” with her. A deeply satisfying, multi-layered film, as fun to think about afterwards as it is to watch.


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