On An Anniversary: Three Brief Pieces On The Classic French Cinema

None of the following pieces are new.  They were written about a year ago when I first began working at the Cinémathèque Internationale Of Philadelphia.  That experience has been one of the greatest in my life, which is perhaps why I still work there.  I do not write for them anymore since my duties have changed and taken me elsewhere.  But I feel some of my best work was written in those early days, which is why I am sharing them with you now on my one year anniversary.  The focus of these three short pieces is the classic French Cinema of the fifties and sixties.  By discussing individual titles, it is easier to present a clear portrait of French Filmmaking as it once was.

Diabolique: Layers of Cinema & Further Viewing

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique is a thriller, released in 1955; that said it is almost always compared to the works of Hitchcock, with whom its history is explicitly intertwined.  But upon a few more careful viewings, culminating with the screening last night at the Cinematheque International of Philadelphia, other layers to the film was exposed.  Which is to say Clouzot is drawing from a pool of cinematic ideas varied in a range that goes well beyond Hitchcock and may reveal him to be a rather self aware filmmaker.

Firstly, one cannot help but notice Clouzot’s use of mirrors and reflections throughout the second half of Diabolique.  Immediately, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee is called to mind with all its dream spaces and smoky mirror effects.  Cocteau is constantly confronting his audience with double images of his characters as they intern confront their double within the reflections he’s photographed.  Mirrors in the cinema of Cocteau are representative of the psychological conflicts going on within his characters, and it appears Clouzot, primarily in the climatic sequence of the film, makes use of this technique almost explicitly.

But to talk about the climatic sequence of Diabolique (in which Vera Clouzot pursues the ghost of Paul Meurisse) one must let Carl Theodor Dreyer into the conversation.  Where the Cocteau influence was a strictly visual one in Clouzot’s film, Dreyer’s influence in felt on the soundtrack.  An extensive use of diegetic sound was uncommon in cinema in the 1950s, but it’s best examples come from Germany of the early 1930s, right before the rise of the Third Reich.  The two films in particular I am thinking of are Fritz Lang’s M and Dreyer’s Vampyr.  I pinpoint Dreyer of the two because the diegetic sound of his film is often manipulated and exaggerated for dramatic effect, a mechanism Lang refrained from employing on his film M.  The sounds of Vampyr are strewn throughout the climatic sequence in Diabolique, and used toward great effect.

The incorporation of all these filmic styles and elements are instrumental to the success of Clouzot’s Diabolique.  After all, a master of an art can only learn from the passed masters logically.  But most of all, I hope these titles intrigue and that some of you do see them.

 A Meditation on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy is a colorful and musical film that offered escape to audiences throughout the world upon its initial release in 1964.  It was an escape from both the political and reflexive “French New Wave” and the mediocrity of Hollywood (which had been in slow decline since the late 1950s, and still awaiting the “New Hollywood” that would be ushered in by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967).  Yet, Demy combined aesthetics of the two with romantic whimsy and a nostalgia other French filmmakers of his day seem less inclined to offer in their films for the flamboyance and fantasy of Hollywood musicals like Du Berry Was A Lady, Singin’ In The Rain or Guys & Dolls. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also the film that made Catherine Deneuve an international star.

The narrative of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a familiar tale of romance and coming of age, but in its execution as a film presents something new and still innovative today.  Demy’s operetta film has a lush, rich color familiar to film buffs as the trademark of Hollywood glamour, and the visual palette of Jerry Lewis (particularly his film Cinderfella) and the dramatic use of color in the Powell & Pressburger films like The Red Shoes and The Tales Of Hoffmann.  The Eastman Color Process employed enabled Demy to transcend his audience to the film’s musical fairy tale setting.  Further, the cinematographer Jean Rabier was a long time collaborator of Demy’s, as well as with Demy’s wife filmmaker Agnes Varda, and perhaps that intimacy of artistic collaboration can be felt in the nuance of the camera moves as well as the iconic implementing of color technique.

Still, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is equally famous as a musical, impeccably scored by Michel Legrand.  One may even draw a parallel between Demy and Legrand with the director and musician collaboration of Brecht and Weill or Fassbinder and Raben.  The two artists worked together on the final sound, texture and overall meaning of the music in the film, perceiving each other as equals, a rare occurrence in the cinema when dealing with composers.  Regardless, Legrand had made a name for himself years earlier in the previous decade for his work as a performer and sometimes arranger with esteemed jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Stan Getz.  His work in the jazz medium made him an ideal choice for Demy, for not only has jazz always been in vogue in France, but also Legrand’s expertise at musical improvisation enabled him to work quickly and efficiently under the demands of the film making process.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is finally, in the context of Demy’s career, his masterpiece.  Unlike other “New Wave” films, and this is the root of my hesitation to call it such, it deals with film genres without the dry and esoteric manner of Godard, but is rather more entertained with its self, and becomes playful with the conventions of its genre. In this, Demy has been able to stand out from his peers, and has been able to make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a film accessible to all audiences.

 Putting Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai in Context

In 1967, Jean-Pierre Melville released his film Le Samourai.  It is not a “New Wave” film like the ones that dominated the French Film market of the day; it is a meticulous and objective study of behavior, criminality and existentialism.  The films lead, Jef Costello, is in turn played by Alain Delon, whose beauty sets him far off from the ruggedness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Albert Remy, Jeanne Moreau and other stars of the French New Wave.  It is these ingredients that make Le Samourai a picture of singular merit, both within its moment and onward to the present.

Five years before Melville shot Le Samourai, he withdrew from the New Wave filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard.  Until 1962 Godard and Melville shared a mutual friendship and respect, which was forever lost over a dispute with regard to Godard’s film Vivre Sa Vie (1962).  Vivre Sa Vie marked a new and more consciously Brechtian style to Godard’s filmmaking process, which Melville dismissed as not actually being cinema.  This fact is important in understanding the approach Melville had toward the material of Le Samourai; it’s isolation as a film within the height of the New Wave powers.  Melville’s divergence from the New Wave, and his understanding of France’s position in the Cold War gave his films a disillusioned edge from that point onwards, an emphasis on the existential crisis in the every day living of France.  Le Samourai is not often considered a remarkably dark film, but in the light of socio-political analysis, there seems no other way to view Melville’s film.

Le Samourai is a visually bleak film, as photographed by Henri Decae, lacking the Romance often attributed to Paris when it is photographed.  Instead, the city appears worn, tattered and desolately gray.  Melville wants the history of the films urban environment to be palpable, to be understood.  That Le Samourai is a film of the Post Second World War era, a film in the midst of the Cold War.  As seen in the film, it is a city of no secrets or illusions; void of any Romantic flare it becomes more real in the minds of the audience.  Thus, Melville’s narrative is endowed with a special sort of trust from his audience, a trust in the reality he has constructed.

In Melville on Melville by Rui Nogueira, the director describes the character Jef Costello as a schizophrenic.  Within the context of the film alone, such a fact is never made explicit.  In that case, much of the film prefers ambiguity to specificity.  It is in the rigorous objectivity that Melville finds any truth to his characters, slowly unfolding their motives and relationships through the film’s long scenes of criminal and judicial process, so that the characters manifest themselves as the starting point of their own existential crisis.  In that regard, the audience has no singular sympathy for one character; all characters are as sympathetic as they are despicable.  Only scene by scene do the allegiances of the audience change.  For instance, a scene in the beginning of the film has Costello shoot a club owner in a dressing room, only to be witnessed by Valerie (Cathy Rosier); and one wonders for a moment if he will kill her to.  But by the films conclusion, as Valerie stands guilty of betrayal, our sympathies have changed all together, turning against her character and for Delon’s character Jef Costello.  Thus, Melville has achieved a reality in this picture where even the innocents are guilty and the guilty have innocence, a reality within the confines of post-war existentialism.  The latter is a paradox that runs through much of Melville’s filmography from Les Enfants Terribles to Le Cercle Rouge.

The objectivity and obsession over process within Le Samourai are reminiscent to the modes and operations of Fritz Lang’s early sound masterpiece M (1931).  Though both films deal with criminal and judicial process objectively and thoroughly, M lacks the human realism of Le Samourai.  Melville has fewer characters to clutter his narrative, as he also has a definite focus on human behavior and realism.  Regarding realism in M, it would seem odd in Lang’s film, given his success with the unreal of German Expressionism with which he had his first career as a silent filmmaker.  Fritz Lang’s film M is populated by characters with a pulp dynamic as overt as Melville’s naturalism, which have clear and singular motives, desires and relationships.  But this difference of realism isn’t just an aesthetic one, by the time Melville had made Le Samourai there had been a Second World War, a German Occupation, a Cold War, and by the 1960s a cultural revolution.  So it begins to make sense that a filmmaker would wish to closely analyze objectively the behavior of the characters within his film.  If nothing else, it is behavior that is the universal language of man.  Melville’s interjection of human realism within the judicial and criminal processes depicted in turn becomes a parable for the existential problem of formulated process against the anarchy of human nature.

However, the style of realism and naturalism of Melville’s Le Samourai may have its roots in the melodramas of Douglas Sirk of the 1950s (particularly 1954’s Magnificent Obsession).  Sirk was always careful to give his characters layers of motive, and complicated relationships that transcend the judgment and sometimes sympathy of the audience as Melville has.  The credit of authenticity this realism affords the film is immeasurable, and equally as essential to the success of Le Samourai both as a human drama and an existential dramaWhich in the context of its moment made the film a bleak one.  The celebratory tone of the French New Wave by 1967 stands juxtaposed to Le Samourai’s ambiguity and coldness of manner.  Godard was as fixated on the unrealism of the cinema as Melville was determined to bring realism to his cinema of the existential.

I do not mean to isolate Le Samourai from the other films of French cinema, on the contrary, Le Samourai is as equally influential as Godard’s own Contempt, Rohmer’s L’amour l’apres-midi and Truffaut’s Jules et JimLe Samourai is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, and in 1972, Michael Winner took much of Le Samourai’s visual style and naturalist pacing as well as the lead Alain Delon and used them for his own thriller Scorpio (a film which also recast Burt Lancaster with his co-star from The Leopard, Alain Delon).  The passage of time has hence proven Jean-Pierre Melville to be as much a necessity to the development of French cinema as his younger contemporaries of the New Wave; rediscovered and celebrated posthumously.

-Robert Curry


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