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Tag Archives: Pickpocket

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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Filmmaker Interview: Jonathan Hourigan, pt. 1

From January 21st through February 29th the Gene Siskel Film Center will hold a complete retrospective of the films of my favorite director of all time, the French master Robert Bresson. In anticipation of this happy event, I am pleased to present an interview with London-based filmmaker and teacher Jonathan Hourigan, who worked on the crew of L’argent, Bresson’s great final film.

Jonathan is a graduate of Oxford University and the National Film and Television School. His own short and feature-length films have played to acclaim at festivals around the world. In addition to his work as a filmmaker and teacher, he continues to be involved in preserving Bresson’s legacy. Jonathan and I became acquainted when he contacted me after reading a post on this blog about Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer.

I conducted this interview via e-mail and tried to avoid asking him about his work on L’argent (since he has already spoken about it at length in this great interview: Offscreen Interview)

MGS: You were responsible for organizing a Bresson retrospective in London in 1981 before you ever met and worked with the man. How did you first discover his films and do you remember what your first impressions were?

JH: At 18 or 19, during the year between school and university, my interest in photography began to be superceded by an interest in cinema. I was living in Worthing at the time, a seaside town on the south coast of England and that year I saw Altman’s A Wedding and both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now in the cinema. I also saw Victor Erice’s magnificent Spirit of the Beehive in 16mm, projected onto a white sheet at the West Sussex College of Art and Design, where my uncle was teaching. It was Erice’s film which kindled in me the initial desire to make films but there were, at that time, very few opportunities to see other films of this kind.

So I began reading books about the cinema and that’s how I came across Bresson, first through articles by Andre Bazin, Roy Armes and Gavin Lambert. Something about his formal concerns attracted me I think. And then, in my first term at university, I saw Au hasard Balthazar at the University Film Society. I was transfixed and still think it’s one of Bresson’s most seductive films, despite its very tough narrative. Soon afterwards I discovered that Une femme douce was being screened in London and so I went to London to see that film. It’s been a source of long-term regret that Une femme douce is not more widely available and better known, as I think it one of Bresson’s most expressive films and a particular favourite of mine. It was a big influence on my own first film. And with these two films, Au hasard Balthazar and Une femme douce, my love for Bresson’s films was secured.

I was drawn consciously, I think, to Bresson’s impeccable, austere aesthetic. But I can also see, in retrospect, that the Catholic and redemptive themes and inflection of his narratives must at least sub-consciously have attracted me, having been brought up Catholic, even if lapsed by that time. I organised the retrospective primarily so that I could see the remaining films. Actually, I did meet Bresson whilst preparing the retrospective. I visited him in Paris in, I think, the Spring of 1981 and I wrote both about the films (some of them, I now confess, unseen by me at the time!) and the meeting with Bresson in Paris in an early edition of Stills magazine.

MGS: Unlike Paul Schrader, I actually think Bresson’s movies got better over time, or at least the end results seemed to correspond more closely to what he was trying to achieve. (I’m thinking particularly of the way they became increasingly minimalist, with the last few movies featuring only diegetic music.) Of course, neither Bresson nor you could have been aware that L’argent would be his final movie but I think it does feel, appropriately, like a last testament. Were you aware while working on it that it would be a special film even within his extraordinary body of work?

JH: First of all, the later films certainly seem more austere, more closely corresponding to some of the rigours explored in Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, among them the exclusive use of diegetic sound but also including, for example, the use of a single standard lens, non-professional ‘models’ and the creation of flattened images.

But secondly, these elements, on their own, aren’t the summation of what Bresson was ‘trying to achieve’. Bresson contrasted his notion of Cinematography with conventional Cinema, with the latter indebted to theatrical traditions and methods. What, I think, Bresson pursued, in short, was what one might call a documentary of emotions, with the mechanical means of apprehension – camera and tape recorder – capable of capturing models’ authentic, unconscious states of soul. Hence, to some extent, the non-professional models and the numerous takes for which Bresson was renowned. And these fragments, captured in flattened and uninflected images, are then given structure and meaning – for Bresson, are transformed – through a rhythmic editing strategy and of course, with the creation of a resonant soundtrack – Bresson’s approach to sound, as you’ll know, is unique and noted by many commentators. This is all complex, subtle and far from self-evident stuff – and I’m only scratching the surface here – but one does not have to accept all of it in order to find Bresson’s films uniquely expressive. However, much of this territory is explored and clarified in Bresson’s short, aphoristic Notes on the Cinematographer which is, along with the films, a crucial source for those interested in Bresson’s films and his approach to filmmaking.

As to the improving quality of Bresson’s oeuvre, well, that strikes me as a third issue. There are certainly fierce debates around this issue, with Schrader and others suggesting a mid-career pinnacle, with the later films perhaps losing the redemptive or transcendental aspect of the earlier films. The shift to darker territory – Bresson might have said more “lucid” territory – does not alienate me, or, in and of itself, suggest a tailing off in the quality of the films. Leaving aside L’argent, which I will come to, Une Femme Douce and Lancelot du Lac, in particular, amongst the ‘later films’, seem to me to be masterpieces.

As for L’argent, for me it was my first experience of being involved in a film’s production and so quite hard to assess. But I was aware that it was a difficult film to make, with tight production parameters. Equally, viewing rushes and edited sequences suggested something very special, to my eyes and ears at least, from very early on and soon after the completion of Principal Photography, a first cut was screened which was already powerful and compelling. And the film only became tighter and sharper as post production continued.

I suspect that making a relatively small number of films in a long career ensures that each and every one of them feels ‘special’, at least at the time. On the other hand, at the time Bresson was hoping – even expecting – to make his long-cherished film Genesis in the near future and so there was no sense, in 82/83, of L’argent being his “last testament”. In addition to which, the film’s reception at Cannes in 1983 was less than fulsome.

Looking at L’Argent now, however, the film inevitably takes on the aspect of “last testament” and it’s certainly a remarkable and profound film, worthy of assuming that role. It is passionate, prescient, humane and quite simply, a truly great film. And after all, it’s not for nothing that it was the “Top Film of the 1980’s” in one of your own recent lists. There are any number of wonderful moments and sequences in the film but I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the film’s remarkable and ambiguous final shot, the crowd still looking into the cafe, although Yvon, flanked by police officers, has passed through the crowd and been taken away. It’s such a resonant image, so perfectly drawing together the thematic threads of this extraordinary film and perhaps, even, of Bresson’s entire oeuvre.

MGS: One aspect of L’argent that really sets it apart from Bresson’s previous work is the presence of Christian Patey as Yvon. When I think of Bresson’s male “models,” I think of them as typically being physically graceful, slightly feminine and possessed of a soulful, almost ethereal, beauty. Patey really bucks this trend and brings a masculine energy to the part, coming across almost like a monster at times. Why do you think Bresson chose to cast him?

JH: Christian Patey is certainly striking in L’argent and he has a powerful physical presence. His weight – physical and moral – is palpable throughout the film. But I wonder if he is really so different from Bresson’s other male models. Or, rather, I wonder if they are quite so homogenous as you suggest.

I suspect that the ‘typical’ Bressonian male ‘model’ might be Claude Laydu as the Curé d’Ambricourt in Journal d’un curé de campagne, or Martin LaSalle as the eponymous Pickpocket, perhaps even Francois Leterrier as Fontaine in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé. But even these three are somewhat different from one another. Graceful, yes. Soulful, yes, although in some cases only belatedly. Slightly feminine? Well, perhaps Laydu. LaSalle, by contrast, is almost feral – or perhaps feline and thus feminine? – for much of Pickpocket, whilst Leterrier has masculine – even martial – honour and conviction throughout.

Antoine Monnier as Charles in Le diable probablement and Guillaume de Forets as Jacques in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur both have a certain feminine beauty but at the very least, it seems to me that there’s no single dominant type for Bresson’s male ‘models’. I can certainly see some of Christian Patey’s sturdy masculinity in Luc Simon as the eponymous Lancelot du Lac and not simply because of Lancelot’s encasement in armour. There is physical and moral weight – flawed and burdensome – in Simon’s Lancelot, just as there is in Patey’s Yvon.

Why did Bresson choose Christain Patey? I don’t know. Intuition I suspect. Certainly it was inspired casting, as was Vincent Risterucci as Lucien, the thorn in Yvon’s side. And also Caroline Lang as Yvon’s wife Elise, Marc Ernest Fourneau as Norbert and Bruno Lapeyre as Martial, the young, bourgeois Parisian students, as well as Sylvie Van den Elsen and Michel Briguet as the woman and her father in the country. It is, almost throughout, a brilliantly ‘cast’ film, with the vibrant and differentiated presences of Bresson’s ‘models’ so luminous. It’s one of the things that really stands out about L’argent.

MGS: Funny, I was thinking of Leterrier specifically when I used the word “feminine” because of his slight physical stature and manual dexterity. I also think it’s significant that he describes making ropes based on memories of watching his mother braid his sister’s hair.

To be continued . . .


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