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Tag Archives: Sacha Guitry

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.

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Actress/Author Interview: Christa Lang Fuller

Christa Lang Fuller is an actress, author and producer who runs Chrisam Films, the company she founded with her husband, the late Sam Fuller, in 1981. She got her start acting in movies in Paris in the 1960s, working with such notable directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Pierre Chenal and Roger Vadim. After meeting him in Paris in 1965 she appeared in most of her husband’s films including, notably, 1973’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, where she played the starring role.

I developed an online correspondence with Christa when she wrote me to kindly correct some erroneous information I had posted in my blu-ray reviews of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss earlier this year. The following interview, conducted recently via e-mail, is by far my favorite piece that I’ve ever published on this site. I made no attempts to “normalize” Christa’s incredibly creative syntax and use of capitalization, which I believe accurately reflect the voice and speech patterns of an exuberant RACONTEUR. Anyone familiar with her husband’s work will understand why they were a match made in heaven by reading what follows.

MGS: So how does a young woman from Germany find herself acting in Paris during the height of the French New Wave?

CLF: My attraction to things French came from the fact that my grandmother on my father’s side had been of French Huguenot origin. TWICE a week I went to a French cultural center to study their beautiful language. Then I saw an ad about an au pair girl wanted in France. I left Germany at the age of 17 and remained in FRANCE. In ESSEN I had passed an audition for HELMUT KAUTNER at the theater school in BOCHUM —Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, but my mother did not approve of me being an actor. In Paris after various jobs –my last au pair was with the stunning and briliant comtessa MIRANDA de TOULOUSE LAUTREC who is still my friend, I did translations for a textile firm all the while taking acting classes at night. I posed for PAUL BELMONDO, the famous sculptor and MARC ALLEGRET liked my tests and was going to star me in a movie about a GERMAN au pair girl surrounded by the hot actors of the sixties SAMI FREY, JOHNNY HALLIDAY and a big article about Christa Lang in the papers with the bronze bust by BELMONDO got me working with CLAUDE CHABROL in LE TIGRE AIME LA CHAIR FRAICHE —an alcoholic dumb blonde and getting a great review by CHAZAL in FRANCE-SOIR had GODARD ask his friend CHABROL if he could see me for ALPHAVILLE…….I also did a play for many months by SACHA GUITRY called LA JALOUSIE —the director HENRY MURRAY was ANOUK AIMEE’s father and loved to repeat that DA VINCI only made one MONA LISA and that he only made one ANOUK……his real name was DREYFUS and he loved to also repeat with glee how he lifted the grey skirts of Nazi secretaries occupying la belle France and do it to them from behind……….the rest of the story —I let you imagine the rest. It gets really raunchy…….I learned a lot performing LA JALOUSIE by SACHA GUITRY and remember turning 20 years performing in VICHY the day on my birthday…….SACHA GUITRY’s comic genuis can be discovered via CRITERION ===A GREAT BOX SET……..

MGS: Your bit part in Alphaville as the Seductress who picks Akim Tamiroff’s pocket is great. Accounts of how Godard directed actors during this time vary wildly. Do you recall if he was very specific in giving directions or did he let you and the other actors just do your thing?

CLF: GODARD was very exciting to work for — he knew what he wanted, but left you free to improvise!!! He was distant, but professional during the three day shoot and even though he acted strange when I met him for the first time, he was fantastic on the set. I love the movie, KARINA, CONSTANTINE, TAMIROFF and the whole vibe of the movie……Godard is really a unique talent.

MGS: You met your husband, Sam Fuller, around this time. In his memoir, A Third Face, he writes very memorably about your first meeting – a dinner date with you and your friend Maria-Rosa Rodriguez, who also happened to be Miss South America. What were your first impressions of Sam?

CLF: He was mesmerising, told us stories and was so genuine a person that I fell in love, but he never went for his actors in a romantic way. “It’s against my religion,” he used to joke. However I seduced him by mentioning RING LARDNER, not knowing that he had been one of his mentors in his adolescence. He promised that he would get me the ENGLISH version at BRENTANO’S. AND HE DID —–he was a man of his word and not some bullshitter like a lot of the men in showbiz —-I was sweating out his call —and he DID call and we started dating………PARIS, mon amour……….

MGS: A Third Face, published posthumously in 2002, is one of the all-time great books about a film director. What was your role in the writing and editing of this book?

CLF: VICTORIA WILSON at RANDOM responsible for many bios including the KATHERINE HEPBURN one, called to talk to SAM about BARBARA STANWYCK since she was planning her bio. SAM coud not talk after his stroke, was very weakened, so I sat in the sun with him and started writing the way he talked and read every sentence like he had written it, which in a way he did —-I had close to 2000 pages when he left us ……..in 1998 my granddaughter SAMIRA was born and from taking care for over three years day and night of my husband, I had now a baby to help nurture. Like GARGAMELLE in RABELAIS: I cried with one eye and laughed with the other……….I had picked Jerome Henry RUDES because he had a good eye and was a minimalist to edit SAM’s almost hundred years on this planet.

MGS: I was blown away by “The Reconstruction” of The Big Red One when it was released a few years ago. The newly integrated scenes, including your scene as the German Countess, make the film a much richer experience. But I know some critics were skeptical of some decisions such as the voice-over narration being retained. Do you think Sam would have been pleased with this version of the film?

CLF: Of course, he would have been pleased………it’s a 90 percent improvement thanks to RICHARD SCHICKEL and BRIAN JAMIESON. The scene of the countess I liked was when SCHROEDER shoots her, her pearl necklace has pearls falling one by one on the floor. Don’t know where those rushes are, but at least the Hitler bad-mouthing countess is back in the picture like they say!!!! And a scene with an impotent Nazi at that, can’t get any better!!!

MGS: Sam’s final movie, Street of No Return, is full of great moments but it was sadly re-edited against his wishes. Is there any chance it too might be reconstructed in a cut that more closely resembles his original intentions?

CLF: SAM suspected JACQUES BRAL of having a hidden mimetic rivalry going on and even though he was kind and polite, to cut and recut a film for a whole year was strange. He is a good director himself………but here we go to what the French call L’espace du NON DIT……….maybe the film will get more or less SAM’s cut again and a new run………

MGS: I’ve managed to track down all of Sam’s movies even though a lot of them are difficult to see in the U.S. What can you tell me about the status of never released-on-DVD titles like China Gate, Run of the Arrow, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Les Voleurs de la Nuit and the wonderful Mika Kaurismaki documentary that you conceived and produced, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made? What are the chances these titles might see home video distribution soon?

CLF: AM WORKING on CHINA GATE —-the great song by NAT KING COLE with the same title CHINA GATE is available on itunes —-hope the dvd will be happening soon—-it’s INDOCHINA before it became VIETNAM —LES VOLEURS DE LA NUIT ==have no idea but it was fun to have scenes with the late, great CLAUDE CHABROL, one of the funniest directors ever —it’s not a bad movie at all…….CASSAVETTES liked it a lot when they booed it in BERLIN and he got the golden BEAR for LOVE STREAMS……ten years later we got the BERLIN CRITICS AWARD for TIGRERO, a real crowd pleaser that I am very proud to have brought forth into the light. SAM had shot those rushes of the incredible KARAJA indians in 1955 with the same BELL AND HOWELL camera that he shot the liberation of the camps with in 1945 and in 1975 the birth of our daughter SAMANTHA……….death — adventure—birth………..Returning with SAM, MIKA KAURISMAAKI and JIM JARMUSCH and SARA DRIVER to make this wonderful piece TIGRERO was one of my happiest moments ever!!!! THEY put it out on dvd, BUT NEVER really got behind it, the way they should have. Hoping for a new life of TIGERO as well —the young people should discover the life of the KARAJA INDIANS……Incas who migrated from the ANDES and settled on the foot of the amazon —their language resembles JAPANESE and no linguist can figure it out…….

MGS: I teach film history classes to a lot of young people who may have heard Sam’s name but might not be familiar with his work. What movies would you recommend for them to see to introduce them to the world of Sam Fuller?

CLF: all of the them —he really had to fight hard for most of the movies to retain his artistic integrity……..he loved being with students and they liked him in return, because he was without WAX —-sans CIRE —sincere—–

MGS: Thank you so much for your time.

CLF: THIRTY


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