Monday, January 7, 2013

Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960

PFA had a long series which ran from September 14 to December 9 called Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960.  At 35 films, it was the longest film series I can recall at PFA.

"A common canard of film history is that the French New Wave of the late 1950s swept aside the French cinema that had come before it, replacing a staid 'tradition of quality' with a new, breathless energy. But even for Truffaut, Godard, and their Cahiers du cinéma brethren, the history of film in France, from the passionate poetry of Jean Vigo to the magisterial ironies of Max Ophuls, was an essential source of inspiration."

Among the films I had previously seen were Hôtel du NordLola MontesChildren of ParadiseGrand IllusionThe Rules of the GameBeauty and the Beast & Such a Pretty Little Beach.

I saw 8 feature films.

Le jour se lève starring Jean Gabin & Arletty; directed by Marcel Carné; French with subtitles; (1939)
Casque d’or starring Simone Signoret & Serge Reggiani; directed by Jacques Becker; French with subtitles; (1952)
Le bonheur starring Charles Boyer; directed by Macel L'Herbier; French with subtitles; (1934)
L’étrange Monsieur Victor starring Raimu; directed by Jean Grémillon; French with subtitles; (1938)
La bête humaine starring Jean Gabin & Simone Simon; directed by Jean Renoir; French with subtitles; (1938)
L’Atalante with Michel Simon & Dita Parlo; directed by Jean Vigo; French with subtitles; (1934)
Port of Shadows starring Jean Gabin; directed by Marcel Carné; French with subtitles; (1938)
Eyes Without a Face starring Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli & Edith Scob; directed by Georges Franju; French with subtitles; (1960)

I also saw two short films which were screened as part of the series.  L'Atalante was preceded by Zero for Conduct.  Eyes Without a Face was preceded by Le sang des bêtes.

Zero for Conduct starring Jean Dasté; directed by Jean Vigo; French with subtitles; 41 minutes; (1933)
Le sang des bêtes; directed by Georges Franju; documentary; 20 minutes; (1949)


I was a little disappointed in the series.  The majority of the films I saw were from the 1930s and part of the Poetic Realism movement.  In some cases, I found them a bit of slog.

It's telling that my favorite film of the series was Le sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts).  A documentary about an abattoir.  I don't think I ever had cause to use that word except in discussion of Sideways.  Le sang des bêtes was very graphic in its documentation of the animals' slaughter.  Seemingly in the middle of a neighborhood, I can't imagine a slaughterhouse being situated similarly today.  Perhaps the French of the postwar era weren't as squeamish about their provenance of their animal protein.  Director Franju's camera captures the repetitive nature of the work and the indifferent attitudes of the workers towards slitting lamb's throats or skinning cows while they are still twitching.  The total effect is hypnotic.  It's like an industrial film or Victory at Sea where the repetition and weary faces have a certain artistic beauty.  I noticed some of the butchers even smoked in the abattoir which is très chic in my book.  Beefy men with leather apron and knives fix their dead eyes on their grisly task while a cigarette dangles from the mouth and the carcasses of countless animals hang around them.  This little captures the essence of what many of the French directors were striving for in the narrative features.

Casque d’or was my favorite feature.  With many elements of film noir, Casque d’or tells the story of a carpenter (Serge Reggiani) and a prostitute (Simone Signoret).  The program notes use the term gigolette which I had to look up in order to distinguish its definition w.r.t. prostitute.  I think it is one of those French subtleties; they have a whole slew of words for women who have sex with men with implied gradations.

Anyway the two become romantically involved but Signoret is involved with a loutish gangster.  Manda (Reggiani) eventually stabs the gangster in a fight and flees to the countryside where his romance with Marie (Signoret) flourishes.  Unfortunately, the local gang boss (Claude Dauphin) wants Marie for himself.  He frames Manda's best friend for the stabbing death.  Manda returns to confess his crime.  On the way to prison, Manda escapes, hunts down Dauphin and kills him in front of the corrupt policeman who was in cahoots with him.  This second killing earns Manda a date with the guillotine which is the finale.

Casque d’or is very dark and moody tragedy.  Honest carpenters shouldn't mix with whores & gangsters.


I also enjoyed L’Atalante quite a bit.  Director Jean Vigo, was diagnosed with tuberculosis and the cold, wet conditions on location didn't help his condition.  L’Atalante was Vigo's first and last feature film.  The final cut was edited by someone else as Vigo was bedridden for the last few months of his life.  He passed away soon after L’Atalante was released.  Even the production history sounds like a French film.

Jean Dasté is Jean, a barge captain who marries small town girl Juliette (Dita Parlo) as the film open.  The newlyweds take up residence in captain's quarter on the barge.  First mate is the old salt Père Jules (Michel Simon who was in his late 30s when the film was made but looked much older).  Juliette has a hard time adapting to life on a canal barge while Jean has a jealous streak which shows when Juliette is caught chatting with Jules in his cabin.  Simon's performance is triumphant as the inimitable sailor.  Actually, Simon & Parlo seem to have more on screen chemistry than Dasté & Parlo which fits nicely with Jean's jealousy and short temper.

During a layover in Paris, Jean is unable to show the eager Jules the City of Lights show she disembarks and wanders the city alone.  Having to leave earlier than planned, a resentful Jules leaves port the next morning without Juliette.  Abandoned in Paris, Juliette has to make her way as best as she can.  In the meantime, Jean quickly regrets his decision as his job performance and emotional health are negatively affected.  Eventually Jules (Jean is too stubborn) returns to Paris to find Juliette to return her to her husband.  Their joyful reunion is the finale.

This is one of these films which doesn't ring true anymore (if it ever did).  I can't imagine a wife, having been abandoned in strange city, being happy to be reunited with the husband who abandoned her.  L’Atalante (which is the name of the barge) is a fairy tale though.  Juliette tells Jean a folk tale about only being able to see one's true love under water which plays a role in Jean's erratic behavior later in the film.  The entire film has a lyrical feel which has undoubtedly elevated its status among film critics beyond the simple plot of the film.  I found the charm of the film undeniable.


Eyes Without a Face is another film which overcomes its horror genre facade.  I'm not able to articulate why it is more than a horror film but it certainly feels like something more.  Perhaps it is just a well made horror film.  Regardless of its genre label, Eyes Without a Face was a film I couldn't avert my eyes from.

Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his assistant Louise (Alida Valli, in a nice performance) lure young women to their deaths.  Génessier performs face transplants on the young women; removing their face and transplanting them to his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob).  Christiane's face was disfigured in a car accident and she is presumed dead.  Actually, Génessier murdered another woman and faked his daughter's death in order to conceal his medical experiments.

Christiane walks around with a lifelike facial mask which is pretty creepy.  It reminded me a little of a Twilight Zone episode.  Scob returned to that mask 40+ years later in Holy Motors which must have been paying homage to Eyes Without a Face.  The garish mask hides a kind and sensitive young woman who is increasingly uncomfortable with her father's efforts to restore her face which seems to be more about assuaging his own guilt regarding his role in the car accident.

After several young women are sacrificed and at least one transplant rejection, the police set up a sting operation.  They persuade a young shoplifter to be the bait.  The cops bumble the operation and the woman is just about to undergo the operation when they show up at the doctor's house (his lab and operating room is in the basement).  Christiane releases the young woman, kills Louise and releases the dogs which the doctor has experimenting on.  Stretching belief, the dogs attack the doctor and disfigure his face.

Eyes Without a Face reminds me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock's work.  The scenes where the earnest Louise disposes of bodies or lure young women to their deaths are played for humor.  An attractive woman with expressive eyes, Valli does quite a bit in her supporting role.  Pierre Brasseur also shines  as the obsessed and unethical doctor.  Scob has a more difficult role.  Only seeing "her face" for a few scenes, she spends most of the film behind an inexpressive mask.  Her emotions are communicated through movements and her voice (which is spoken in a language I don't understand).  Despite this, Christiane evoked sympathy from me.

There is one particular scene where the face transplant procedure is shown in an unusually graphic manner for the era which caused some in the PFA audience to walk out.  The gore is more implied than shown but I have to admit, it made me feel uncomfortable which only means Georges Franju skillfully directed the scene.


The other films in the series don't quite stand out in my memory.  Well regarded by critics, the films were not quite to my liking.  L’étrange Monsieur Victor was interesting in that a wealthy fence kills a man but shelters the man accused of the crime and being hunted by the police.   Port of Shadow has a noir look as Jean Gabin falls for the wrong woman (Michèle Morgan).

I seem to have misplaced a film.  I cannot find the title or the date & time which I saw the film.  I thought it was Port of Shadows but my handwritten note don't match that film.  The French film was set in post-WWII Paris.  A man arrives at a train station and meets with friends (a married couple with a young son).  The two men were resistance fighters.  The couple has some interesting neighbors.  One neighbor has tons of kids and a pretty daughter who helps the father sell newspapers and magazines at the same train station the man arrived at.  Another neighbor is suspected of being a Nazi collaborator during the war.  That man's daughter arrives and falls in love with the man from the train station.  She is married to an Englishman who drives a fancy car.  Eventually her brother arrives and needs money to leave the country quickly.  The lead actor had an Italian surname if memory serves me.

No comments: