Posts Tagged ‘French cinema’

By way of preface Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1946) is about theater. From the first repeated three knocks where the curtain goes up we are given to look into the lives of certain personages who are caught up in the currents where their lives entangle with the rest. Most of these are living on the edge- criminals, actors, prostitutes and beggars. The title ‘children of paradise’ clearly indicates they are the stars and their lives are as fascinating and rich whether they for the price of two centimes wish to be the purveyors of lives unfolding before them or boo the actors off the stage if annoyed. Theater within a theater as a form helps us to examine reality and wish fulfillment as relevant to people regardless of class or wealth. What they get to see at Theatre des Funambules may be stock Italian comic characters, fantastic props and situations but they can still hitch their humdrum lives to it.
Before narrating a great scene I shall quote the dialogue between two actors who have had their first taste of emoting before the footlights. Both have been preparing their lives for this break and they have the satisfaction that they did rather well.
Baptiste the mime speaks about the gods who crowd nightly to see their performers, thus:
Yes they understand every thing.They are poor people, but I am like them. I love them. I know them well. Their live are small, but they have big dreams…”
As an actor a mime he duly acknowledges he owes his art to them. Unless he hobnobs with them in their natural haunts and see life as performed by them in their unguarded moments he would be lost.
This explains why he stepped out mysteriously in the night causing the other actor to describe him ‘a real alley cat, Monsieur Baptiste!’
Baptiste’s solitary walk takes him to the scene with Fil de Soie the blind beggar beautifully essayed by Gaston Modot.
The beggar wonders why he is walking on tiptoe. Baptiste has no money to give him but he walks just the same he wants to see everything. Soon the mime and the beggar warm up to each other. The beggar shall treat him that night. They go to the next door, to the seedy ‘Robin Roundbreast’. The beggar says,’You who like to learn things, this’ll amuse you.’
Soon we see the blind beggar is as much surprised what happens there as the mime. The beggar who considered the street as his beat learns a few lessons he never thought possible. Even in low haunts life springs surprises for those have ‘eyes’ to see. The scene where Baptiste realizes the beggar is not really blind is beautifully shown.
Close shot of Baptiste still stupefied with astonishment. Then shot of both of them, Baptiste three quarters back view. The waiter brings two glasses and a bottle.
The beggar says,” You can’t believe your eyes, can you, actor? Smiling.But it is very simple. Outside I am blind…incurable and in here I am cured.. It is a miracle isn’t it?” There is another great acting when the Old clothes man approaches them. Fil de Soie as if by reflex turns away from the mime not to compromise his companion. The beggar then finds that he need not have worried. Jericho knows the actor and they have no love lost between them.
The two scenes at the Robin Redbreast is a key to understand the core value of the film. Art of theater and of course film, is enriched by life. Rich or poor is besides the point.
(ack:classic film scripts/pub:Lorrimer publishing Ltd.,-1968)Baptiste

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I can sum up this film in one line. It tells the story of 3 people on a barge satirically named for the fleet goddess. Let me see if I can interest you by enlarging it with a few details.

The story follows Jean (Jean Dasté), the captain of the barge L’Atalante and his new wife, Juliette (Dita Parlo).( Both teamed up later in La Grande Illusion). They are married, having hardly met, in Juliette’s provincial town. They set out on a trip to Paris in the barge, which functions doubly as a cargo delivery and as their makeshift honeymoon. Tensions arise with the crew, who are not used to the presence of a woman. Most of the conflict, however, stems from Jean who flies into a jealous rage, smashing plates and sending cats scattering every which way, when he discovers Juliette and first mate Jules (Michel Simon) talking in Jules’ quarters.

Once arriving in Paris, Jean and Juliette go to a music club. There they meet a street peddler who flirts with Juliette leading to a scuffle with Jean. Growing disaffected of barge life, and enamored with the lights of Paris, Juliette runs off. Jean, furious, casts off, leaving her behind. He becomes very depressed so Jules decides to look for her and bring her back.
If this film became an avant-garde masterpiece (L’Atalante was chosen as the 10th-greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 1962 poll, and as the 6th-best in its 1992 poll) it must tell something of its maker Jean Vigo who didn’t live to see what we do now. (He died at the age of 29 in 1934)
The restored version is the only version and was reconstructed from many disparate bits about 15 years ago, meaning it has had running order interpretations foisted upon it.( The original distributors cut the film’s running time in an attempt to make it more popular and changed the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe, the name of a song from the time, which was also inserted into the film.) I understand that most of the film we see came from the BFI in London, remixed with other clips into some kind of logical sequence by Gaumont in Paris and sold as a Forgotten Masterpiece.
The film has been praised for its prescient poetic realist style, but it also includes surprising surrealist passages, such as the double exposure Michel Simon wrestling match and a scene in which Jean jumps into the river. it was also a favorite of the filmmakers of the French New Wave, whose films contain many allusions to the works of Jean Vigo. ( Consider the scene of bridal march from the wedding to Jean’s barge and it is filmed in a discontinuous style that predicts the films of the French New Wave.) At this juncture let me quote the reviewer of NY Times,

‘What the late Jean Vigo was attempting to illustrate back in 1933-34 when he made Zéro de Conduite and L’Atalante, the pair of Gallic importations which came to the Fifth Avenue Playhouse on Saturday, is nebulous and difficult to perceive today. Except for occasional moments of comedy, satire, and tender romance, these intellectual exercises should prove of high interest only to avid students of the cinema.

The earlier of the two, Zéro de Conduite (Zero for Conduct), a study of life in a French boarding school for boys, is a series of vignettes lampooning the faculty climaxed by a weird, dreamlike rebellion of the entire student body. These amorphous scenes, strung together by a vague continuity, may be art but they are also pretty chaotic.’( A. H. Weiler- June 23, 1947)
Let me quote two passages that serve as a sampler of Vigo’s powerful hold on ‘avid students of cinema.’ The first passage is from an essay on ‘Surfaces of Reality’ by Michael Roemer.
‘Images of movement rather than beautifully composed shots are at the heart of the medium and some of the most haunting moments in the film derive from motion. In Vigo’s L’Atlante, a bride on her wedding night ,still dressed in her white gown , walks along the deck of a moving barge. The barge moves forward, she is walking towards the stern, and the camera is set on the edge of the canal, so that there is a dark stationary line in the foreground. The combination of the silent forward gliding of the barge with the backward motion of the girl whose gown and veil are streaming in the wind has a profound emotional impact: it renders perfectly both her feelings and our own.’ We see a scene where if were given pause to think we would easily see it as not possible but yet we are carried by the poetic truth of preceding scenes to enter into a subjective state as in the processional at the end of Vigo’s Zero for conduite,’ is shot in slow motion, with the boys in their white gowns gliding through a snow of pillow feathers to the accompaniment of a totally distorted but oddly ecstatic song.’

Produced, edited, and directed by Jean Vigo; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Vigo; cinematographer, Boris Kaufman; music by Maurice Jaubert; released by Cine Classics. Black and white. Running time: 44 minutes.

With: Jean Dasté (Superintendent Hugnet), Robert La Fion (Superintendant Pete-Sec), Du Veron (Superintendant Dec-de-Gez), Delphin (Principal), Madame Emile (Mother Haricot), and Larive (Professor).
Similar Movies
* Fille De L’Eau
* Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors
* La Belle Nivernaise
* Chungking Express
* L’ Hirondelle et la mesange.
The much lauded cinematography was by Boris Kaufman. He would later go on to shoot great Hollywood films such as On the Waterfront. Nevertheless, he described his years working with Vigo as “cinematic paradise.”(Wikipedia)
compiler: benny

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117 mins, 1937, France, Black & White

One of the great achievements in world cinema, Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” explores the seemingly arbitrary borders of class, language, and citizenship that divide us. Renoir films have a way of talking about one thing while letting us explore layers beneath the obvious. La Grande Illusion is about soldiers escaping war camps to freedom while the subterranean levels show the futility they are escaping to. War is a corrupting influence whichever side you pitch yourselves into. Renoir’s great human drama explores our predicament, on one side heroism and the other the mark of Cain that stamps us as robots perpetuating the plans of some greedy, ambitious war mongers. As true with any great cinema, the narrative while sticking to conventional cinematic idiom transcends its frames. Banned by the Nazis on the eve of WWII, “Illusion” remains a compelling hybrid of the prison-escape genre and Renoir’s own brand of warm, humanistic drama, a pacifist statement as nobly moving as All Quiet on the Western Front.
This film is an archetypal prison camp escape story also outlining a barbed social analysis, demonstrating how shared aristocratic backgrounds (and military professionalism) forge a bond of sympathy between the German commandant (von Stroheim) and the senior French officer (Fresnay); how the exigencies of a wartime situation impel Fresnay to sacrifice himself (and Stroheim to shoot him) so that two of his men may make good their escape; and how those two escapees (Gabin and Dalio), once their roles as hero-warriors are over, will return home reduced. One go back to his working class background and the other shall once again be stamped as a dirty Jew. The war was merely an experience that would barely whitwash the blot of their class or birth.
The movie seems to have influenced Billy Wilder, who directed Stalag 17 another successful escape movie. In Renoir’s classic there is a shot of train wheels moving that dissolves into a gramophone record playing in the German camp. Did this give Henri-Georges Clouzot the idea of that celebrated shot of bathroom scene in Les Diaboliques /Psycho(Hitchcock)? (The montage of shots of the eye of the victim  and the grate on the bathroom floor similarly works on the principle of similitude.)
As for the title illusions refer to the irony of war,- as a cleansing agent, to do away with the social interactions between classes (allowed to settle down and become obligations) The WWI did just that. It tolled the knell of the Hapsburgs, Hohenzollern and the Romanovs. The collapse of European monarchies showed on what illusory foundations were their rights set up.
At the end of the movie Marechal (Jean Gabin) speaks of coming back to Elsa, his newfound love interest. He is sure that before he could do that he has to ‘ finish this bloody war.’ Rosenthal’s reply is:’ That is all an illusion…’
Historically within two years Europe was in to another war more bitter than the one preceded it..
Expertly directed and wonderfully acted by Gabin, Fresnay, Von Stroheim, and Marcel Dalio as French-Jewish compatriot Rosenthal, “Illusion” is ultimately a brilliant critique of war itself. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1938.
I first saw this movie (a grainy old 16mm print) while I had enrolled with the Alliance Française in Mumbai, in the eary 70’s. It was a moving experience. Since then I have seen it number of times and it still remains a favorite in my collection.
Raffenstein as the commandment of the fortress camp with a touch of apology explains to his prisoner Boeldieu, “ …Believe me I feel nothing but distaste for my present job, as much as you do.”
Fresnay asks von Stroheim why he has shown special consideration to him and not to Marechal and Rosenthal. Fresnay adds that they are good soldiers.
B: I am afraid we can do nothing to turn back the clock.
R: I do not know who is going to win this war, but I know one thing: the end of it, whatever it may be, will be the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.

“Most compelling of all the film’s characters is the aristocratic German officer von Rauffenstein, unforgettably incarnated by stiff-backed Erich von Stroheim; although he runs a prison camp, von Rauffenstein cannot help but strike up a friendship with de Boeldieu, a kindred spirit from the doomed nobility. La Grande Illusion is one of those movies that makes you feel good about such long-outmoded ideas as sacrifice and brotherhood. After it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, the Nazis declared the film “Cinematographic Enemy Number One.” There can be no higher praise. “ Robert Horton

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Les Enfants du Paradis

1945, 3hrs 15m, France, Black and White

This tragic tale ‘is a tribute to the theatre’. Partly because it is based upon the lives of Frederick Lemâitre and Baptiste Debureau, at the beginning of their careers as well as Jean-François Lacenaire, who was a well known dandy in about the ‘Boulevard du Crime’ ( because in those days about 1840 people were getting murdered there. It also represents the French popular theatre of the nineteenth century). Partly because of the children of the gods are the actors.( the play on the word- ‘gods’ means the theatrical gallery in French as well as English- is deliberate, of course.) Yes, these children are the actors: Marcel Carné during an interview has admitted so much.
The Children of the gods is a tragic tale and it tells of a woman Garance( played by Arletty) who is loved by four men: the only one whose love she fully returns, she loses, finds again and loses forever. Meanwhile the teeming life of the children of the gods goes on; her one true love (Jean-Louis Barrault) becomes the most celebrated mime of his day; the strolling player( Pierre Brasseur) for whom she is just another conquest until he finds that she is more, goes on to become the greatest actor of the time; “ the icy count to whom she gives her love but not her heart is complimented by the fiery criminal whose pride will not let him beg for her, and whose final act gratuit brings about an ironic resolution of the struggle when it is too late for everybody concerned.” Bernard Levin, Times Newspapers Ltd,1980

It is for the cinema what Balzac and Victor Hugo were for literature in the XIX century; not only French, but the world’s. A colossal masterpiece whose truth and beauty are timeless, and the movies does not date at all: even the flamboyant performance of Brasseur doesn’t seem grotesque; instead it jells well with the surrealistic touch of the mime in his white maskface as he desperately struggles through the white clad carnival crowd to reach which is carrying Garance away from him forever. That powerful ending, desolation among gaiety,the hearbreak in counterpoint with the carefree, separation in the midst of unity shall remain long after the movie is over.
1995 was the centennial of the invention of movies. In Stockholm the event was celebrated, inter alia, by showing ‘Les enfants du paradis’ free of charge on the French National Day. It was presented as the best French movie ever made.
Les enfants du paradis is the masterpiece of the duo Carné-Prévert. Marcel Carné began shooting in 1943, when Paris was still occupied. Many members of the French Resistance found cameo roles in order to avoid detection.

Les Enfants du Paradis centres around the ill-fated love between Baptiste, a theater mime, and Garance who is forced to enter the protection of Count Eduard when she is implicated falsely in a crime committed by Lacenaire. In the intervening years of separation, both Garance and Baptiste become involved in loveless relationships with the Count and Nathalie, respectively. Baptiste is the father of a son. Returning to Paris, Garance finds that Baptiste has become a famous mime actor. Nathalie sends her child to foil their meeting, but Baptiste and Garance manage one night together. Lacenaire murders Edouard. In the last scenes, Garance is returning to Eduard’s hotel and disaster; even as Baptiste follows her carriage through crowds of merrymakers she has the look of one who is lost.
The film boasts a picaresque squalor drawn from the time in which it was set, highlighting the tenacious romance at its core. Children of Paradise has a melancholy feeling both authentic and immediate, a romance with moments of pure magic.”
-Robert Lane
I have seen this movie so many times and it remains for me the epitome of classic cinema. A big budget movie for the time it was filmed to me it marks the happy amalgam of poetry and truth on celluloid.
There are a few unforgettable characters of which I shall mention a few: *Lacenaire, a cuthroat who writes comedies on the side and has no compunction to shed blood and the latter’s assistant ‘mon pauvre’ Avril. The scene at the Turkish bath where the count meets his end shall leave a shudder: the close-up and the grimace of ‘mon pauvre’ Avril I can still recall. (The murder of Edouard by Lacenaire can also be taken as a rebellion of the resentful lower classes against the upper classes: the image of the fallen, dead hand with the valuable ring is significant.)
(* Based on real life, Lacenaire was executed in 1836. His memoirs, which were written while he awaited execution, are published in English translation.)
Jericho, the old clothes man moves through the film like the shadow of death (he is at the elbow of the mime, still haunting ,amid the crowd in that final scene.) is as powerful as the blind beggar who knows what goes on about him. Robert Le Vigan was originally cast as Jericho but he disappeared at the Liberation when he was suspected of having collaborated, and the part was taken over by Pierre Renoir.
This movie undoubtedly is a vehicle for Arletty whose grave, classic beauty and expressive eyes give the movie an undefinable aura. Never did she excel herself as in Les Enfants du Paradis. (She was imprisoned in 1945 for having had a wartime liaison with a German officer during the occupation of France. In this she was not unusual, as many French women behaved in this manner during World War II. She seems to have later commented on the experience, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)

For those who care about little known news or of the background: The real Baptiste, the mime was brought to trial for homicide. During his days of success over the impersonation of a rag-and- bones man, one day he was as usual taking the air along with his wife on a boulevard of Paris; one man stepped forward and hurled abuses at him and his wife. The mild mannered mime lost control and killed him. The court after a protracted trial acquitted him but he never played that role on stage again.

compiler: benny

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