1960s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, French cinema, Thriller

Les Biches (1968) / La Femme Infidèle (1969)

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Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenwriters: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff / Claude Chabrol

In memoriam: Jean-Louis Trintignant 1930-2022
In memoriam: Michel Bouquet 1925-2022

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years Claude Chabrol, as if slyly mimicking one of his apparently benign but quietly, roguishly purposeful protagonists, turned out deftly crafted movies with the taciturn relentlessness of a fine jeweller in a small, dimly-lit workshop. Amongst the ranks of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol stood out for many reasons. A provincial lad rather than a Parisian, Chabrol was the son and grandson of small town pharmacists, but he became obsessed with movies from the age of 12 onwards. When he headed off to study pharmacology at the Sorbonne he also hung around Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française and other movie theatres, where he made a clutch of friends fellow young movie freaks with odd ideas, men with names like Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette. After a stint in military service, Chabrol joined his pals in working for a film commentary magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. Chabrol took up some of the ideas of their elder statesman Andre Bazin in advocating the use of deep focus photography in aiding a generally realistic kind of art that engaged the audience’s attention without compelling it. He became particularly obsessed with the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, the dark poets of genre cinema, although Chabrol would absorb their fascination for criminality and the abnormal impulses in seemingly ordinary people and wed it to a more particular palette.

Whilst his pals faced making the leap from critics to filmmakers by shooting short films and learning craft on film crews, Chabrol used a lucky windfall from an inheritance to finance his debut, 1958’s Le Beau Serge, often seen as the first true movie of the French New Wave (depending on how one feels about Agnes Varda’s La Pointe-Courte, 1954). Le Beau Serge, essentially a character study of two troubled young medical students, proved a success. Chabrol quickly followed it with Les Cousins, a film that more properly instituted Chabrol’s career as it became known, evincing his fascination with morally ambivalent characters belonging to the French bourgeoisie, punctuated by acts of murder. Chabrol wrote the film with his soon-to-be regular collaborator Paul Gégauff, who would eventually be stabbed to death by his second wife. Chabrol’s early financial successes allowed him to help several of his New Wave compatriots make their own debuts. But Chabrol had trouble maintaining his profile through much of the 1960s even as he evolved in a different, more commercial direction from his New Wave fellows. His few admired and successful films in this period, like Les Bonne Femmes (1960), a portrait of four young women working in the same store but on different paths in life, and a study of a notorious serial killer, Landru (1962), were interspersed with failures that betrayed an uncertainty about just what kinds of films he wanted to make.

The ones he did make included several comic spy movies, and a tilt at winning some international traction, with the bilingual-shot, Anthony Perkins-starring The Champagne Murders (1967), a film that pointed where Chabrol was heading, including in showcasing the talents of his actress wife Stéphane Audran. Chabrol wed Audran, with whom he first worked on Les Cousins, after his first marriage broke up, and she soon became the obsessive focal point and ingenious performing linchpin of his films. Beginning with Les Biches Chabrol began working with the producer André Génovès, and their collaboration churned out a string of icy-crisp psychological thrillers including La Femme Infidèle, This Man Must Die (1969), Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970), and Just Before Nightfall (1971), all slow, unnerving tales punctuated with carefully observed and prepared acts of violence, and often sporting ambiguous resolutions. Pauline Kael would quip these films resembled sardines in a can even as they largely remain his most famous works. Eventually Chabrol resumed varying his output, interspersing the thrillers he was now famous for with political and personal dramas an even the odd dark comedy, right up until his death in 2010. Chabrol confessed at one point that he made lesbianism an aspect of the plot of Les Biches to try and juice up its commercial prospects, but it seems to have helped Chabrol nail down the texture of woozy, strange, displaced sensuality that would charge his movies in this phase.

Les Biches, a title which translates as “The Does” – as in deer, a female deer – wields elusive mesmerism as it counts down the moments to what one feels instinctively from the start will be a bad end. Les Biches also ends at more or less a point which La Femme Infidèle (which would receive a slick and Hollywoodised remake years later in the form of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, 2002), uses as its pivot, tweaking narrative formula several degrees by displacing the inevitable moment of rupture to the middle of the film, and then studying the aftermath with much the same blandly dissembling style as it offered the prelude. Chabrol had famously identified the “transference of guilt” theme in Hitchcock’s films, and it proved a shared point of interest for the two directors as a zone of concern where psychological phenomena and Catholic theology overlap. This is the fascination for the way characters find themselves inheriting and contending with the wrongs of others, often manifesting as some sort of false accusation of a transgressive act, with a subtler underlying game of affinities, and the way this currency of moral debt underpins “civilised” existence on an explicit and subliminal level, as every urge to break a rule is matched by a desire to restore it. It’s a tendency Chabrol ultimately identifies as close to essential in close human relationships like a marriage, although he first began playing with it on Le Beau Serge’s study of two friends.

Les Biches seems to sidestep that kind of traditional moral prism nonetheless by focusing on what were at the time considered perverse relationships, only to find such reflexes can be especially strong in such cases. Les Biches concerns the triangular love affair that binds the imperious, idiosyncratic rich girl Frédérique (Audran), the reticent waif known as only as Why (Jacqueline Sassard), and listless ladykiller architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and tells it in five named parts – three central chapters named for the three characters, plus a prologue and epilogue. The prologue recounts how Frederique encounters Why one day whilst sauntering around the Seine, in a sequence that has a studied feeling of erotic portent, like a fantasy realised. Why attracts attention with the naïf chalk art of does she scratches into the paving, and with her scrappy beauty, swathed in faded blue denim, whilst Frederique looks like she could be auditioning for a Dietrich-and-Von-Sternberg-influenced Vogue photo shoot: she in turn gains Why’s attention by tossing her a 500 franc note. The pair adroitly cruise each-other, and Frederique takes Why back to her house, treating her to a hot bath as they flirt and skirt around the point until Why tries to dress. Frederique, after insisting on tying her shirt in a knot across her wet belly, that starts caressing and picking at the buckle of her jeans. One of the great sexy vignettes of cinema, and also a mere entrée to a film that carefully avoids giving sexploitation thrills whilst conveying a deep-flowing stream of erotic fervour.

Chabrol employs a quick, witty fade from Frederique opening Why’s pants to a title card announcing the first chapter proper, named for Frederique: the goodies are opened but the trove is going to prove troublesome. Frederique takes Why to stay at her villa at Saint Tropez, close to the Port de Cogolin, a yacht basin she owns and operates and inherited from her grandfather. Frederique is vague and evasive in explaining the site’s roots in some kind of wartime deal. Frederique and Why, strolling around the basin and lying in the sun on a yacht, as Why tells Frederique she’s a virgin, a fact she expects Frederique to be sceptical about (“I think it’s noble of you,” Frederique assures her with a listless yawn), and Frederique recounts her own listless affairs with local yobs during the boring winters (“Games of bowls and games of cards…and other games as well…and then there are the intellectual pleasures.”) but also says she feels Why needs exposure to her peculiar little world, and Why does indeed fit in well, proving an accomplished bowls player. As well as stalwart housekeeper Violetta (Nane Germon) Frederique is also keeping at the villa Robèque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi), a pair of eccentric, prickly, possibly gay men, and she regularly hosts parties for the local bohemians. Frederique and Why’s affair seems to be fairly idyllic until, at one of those parties, Frederique plays cards with Robèque, Riais, and Paul, one her acquaintances around town. Let the games begin.

Chabrol took some inspiration for Les Biches from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (Gégauff had already written René Clement’s adaptation, Purple Noon, 1960), flipping genders but retaining the essential motif of a poor stray taken in by a wealthy host-friend-lover and finding they can’t stand being weaned off the teat when the time comes. The title evokes toe-dabbing sinuosity of deer, a deeply sarcastic evocation of the peculiarly feminine type of violence depicted, and the balletic strains of Debussy, infusing the dances of character and camera. Chabrol’s peculiar art soon evinces itself in the way he seems to be extremely plainspoken about most of what goes on in the movie, both dramatically and stylistically, and yet remains tantalisingly reticent about the most vital. At the outset Frederique seems to be the character with all the power, broadly conforming to a stereotype of a wealthy, decadent lesbian with her penchant for mannish if still chic clothing, doing what Why suggests is a man’s job, her roguish seduction, and playing the manipulative queen bee for all in her sphere. She has a collection of game trophies and relics obtained from safaris in Kenya and Mozambique, as “I love hunting.” She’s also the emblematic representative of a privileged class, drawing people into her orbit with money and then controlling them with it.

But as events unfold Frederique proves a more complex and rather less formed personality than she poses as. The card match that introduces Paul proves a subtle, visually and behaviourally charged set-piece, as Paul notices Why and constantly glances at her, whilst she hovers a distance behind Frederique, munching on a suggestive apple. Frederique, dominating the table in both deed and in Chabrol’s framing, becomes increasingly glazed with a heavy-lidded and tight-wound as veneer of stoic calm as she continues to fleece Robèque and Riais and starts bossing Why around. Later, when the party breaks up, Paul and Why go off for a drive together, and Frederique promises to le Robèque and Riais keep the money she won off them if they’ll follow the couple and tell her what happens between them. The proposition here seems initially obvious – Frederique, fearing her lover will be stolen from her by a man, manipulates her two hapless minions to keep an eye on them and see if her fears will come true. And yet as the story unfolds Frederique sets her own sights on Paul, initially perhaps for revenge, but possibly also having deliberately wanted Why and Paul to pair off, perhaps to get rid of Why, or to use her as a kind of test case in a scientific experiment, as if wanting to see if Why will lose her virginity and what will happen as a result. Why herself hesitates before letting Paul seduce her with a warning on her lips, whether to inform him she’s a virgin or she’s been sleeping with Frederique, only to decide whatever it was isn’t worth confessing. The innermost thoughts and experiences of Chabrol’s characters tend to remain opaque in this manner. But the detonations that punctuate their behaviour aren’t necessarily more explicable to them than to the onlooker.

This idea is most vividly illustrated in the pivotal killing in La Femme Infidèle, where the urge to commit the killing seems to come and go like a muscle tic. “Of course,” Chabrol told Time Out magazine in 1970, “I’m not interested in solving puzzles. I am interested in studying the behaviour of people involved in murders. If you don’t know who the murderer is, that would seem that he is not interesting enough to be known and studied.” And yet Les Biches holds its cards close to its chest until the very end about who will kill and will be killed, and the manoeuvrings of the three characters ultimately tells us who they are without revealing all of what they are. It’s conceivable Paul might catch Frederique and Why together and experience some spasm of chauvinist outrage, just as it’s credible Frederique could kill one of the other in a show of desperate power. Or that Why’s bouts of floating melancholia might be hiding a maniacal streak, sparked by a need to cling on to what little toehold she has in the world of wealth and human warmth she currently has as an eccentric exile, and offence at being ejected by not one but two lovers.

All of this exists nonetheless in a superficial state of flux in a movie that plays out for much of its length as a muted study of sexual and romantic disaffection and uneasy cohabitation. A seemingly casual joke early in the film in which Frederique can’t tell a first edition from a reprint encodes the lurking danger of smudging authentic and chosen affinities. Les Biches could be called, in the fashion of Chabrol’s friend Eric Rohmer, a winter’s tale (much as Rohmer’s films often play as Chabrol films without murders, carefully inscribed legends about small but life-changing epiphanies): Saint Tropez, playground of the rich and famous in summer, is in the off-season just another dull resort town, the local beds as much refuges as playpens. The situation could easily be played for Buñuelian black comedy, new-age Lubistch, sex romp teasing, or hardcore porn. Instead Chabrol pushes cinematographer Jean Rabier’s camera on in motion, refuses to let anything resolve, forcing the sense of flux, travelling without moving. The sense of inertia extends to the careful art direction and costuming, mostly brightly lit and carefully dressed in pastel shades, rather than colours redolent of consuming passion. Frederique is often glimpsed in arrays of black and white, her authority and security encoded in hard clean hues, and a habit sufficiently signature that Why making herself over in Frederique’s guise becomes a statement, a game with identity suggesting interchangeable personas: “Using other people’s things is like changing your skin,” Why notes to the bewildered Paul.

The cult of the idea of the actress, thing of at once specific beauty and chameleonic prerogative, one Chabrol played more overt games with on The Champagne Murders, bobs to the surface here again as Why tries repeatedly to become Frederique. Frederique herself, smouldering in uncertainty after Why’s tryst with Paul, seeks him out, and finds him fairly nonchalant about his experience with Why: he is instead much more intrigued by Frederique herself as she hovers, robbed of her characteristic hauteur around him, and in his distraction Frederique forgets he was supposed to meet her “protégé” for a date. The pair drink up the dregs of a bottle of cognac and Frederique tosses the bottle in the bay. “She’ll be hurt,” Frederique comments. “Not as much as she would be if I dropped here in two or three weeks,” Paul replies. Paul and Frederique’s affair turns out quickly to be a hot one, and Frederique calmly tells Why they’re going to leave her in the villa and head off to Paris together. Audran and Trintignant’s toey chemistry on screen together can be put down to the fact they briefly married when much younger: Chabrol was fond of such casting stunts. Left on her own, Why wanders around town in a state of anxious disaffection, and pestered by Robèque and Riais as they presume to entertain her, as when they try to draw her into a game of making animals noises with aggressive weirdness: when Why starts silently weeping they guess she’s a crocodile.

Frederique and Paul’s return is inauspicious for Why: the ever so slight flinch Frederique gives when she moves to give Why a greeting kiss when she and Paul return, moving from an on-the-mouth kiss to one on the cheek, is a signal with enormous ramifications. Soon Frederique comes to Why’s bedroom and lies down beside her to report with hints of perplexity her love for Paul, so smitten that even getting books on architecture from him seems a romantic act. Paul moves into the villa, which means room has to be made as Robèque and Riais get increasingly bitchy and Why starts acting increasingly strange, including dressing up as Frederique. Riais describes himself as a revolutionary and encourages Why to act like one, but Why declares she’s fine with the things the way they are. Nor are the revolutionaries up to much. Robèque and Riais are thrown out of paradise when Frederique thinks they’ve spiked their dinner with unpleasant flavouring. Chabrol notably repeats the key framing of Frederique from the card match here, as if to visually declare her power is resurgent, but the impression is undercut with droll comedy as the two men immediately start wheedling money out of her (“It’s not enough for second class…and taxi fare to the station…and dinner on the train.”), which she hands over irritably but obligingly, finally handing over one large note and snatching back the wad of smaller ones. Noblesse oblige.

Finally Chabrol delivers the film’s true climax, which depicts not a murder but a drunken party involving the three lovers in the now-private villa. Paul tries vainly to tell an obscure joke about a man searching for a source of wisdom and failing, whilst Why tries to coax the other two into bed and realise the ménage-a-trois that’s been potentially percolating between the three. Locked out of the holy sepulchre of the master bedchamber, Why crouches at the doors, listening as Frederique and Paul have sex, Why writhing in remote sympathy and gnawing on her fingers whilst envisioning their contortions. Talk about the trickle-down effect. The radical shift of style here delivers an ironically orgasmic switchback that forces Why’s fervent, cheated, distracted state of mind into view as well as the sexual spectacle, one that’s also a dark joke on cinema itself, offering transmissions to the audience basking in the spectacle of other experiences. When she awakens the next day Why finds the other two gone, fled again to Paris, leaving her with some cash and the now totally empty villa.

Why finally begins her rebellion, selecting a poison-coated dagger from amidst Frederique’s African reliquary, and travelling to Frederique’s Parisian house. There she confronts Frederique and confesses her equal love for her and for Paul, a form of passion Frederique, for all her supposed sophistication, can’t or won’t understand: “Your love disgusts me.” Why also describes constantly hearing shouts, as if from people quarrelling, and isn’t sure if they’re living in her head or not, but says they want to make the leap from her to Frederique. “I’d like to throw someone out,” Why retorts when Frederique tells her to leave, “I’m fed up too.” Why stabs Frederique in the back with the dagger as Frederique touches up her makeup, trying to maintain a fierce and fetishised veneer. Chabrol hacks the moment of death up into a succession of quick cuts, life not simply ending but identity fracturing, as Why claims the very being of Frederique: “Have I told you, Frederique, that we look like one-another?” Faced with the choice of being reduced to a psychosexual parasite or to obliterate and subsume objects of ardour, Why chooses the latter. She dresses up in Frederique’s evening gown and gets into her bed: When Paul telephones, Why mimics her voice, breathlessly expressing her desire for his return. Chabrol, with the dry cold of a liquid nitrogen spill, brings up the end title card over the sight of Paul letting himself into the house, leaving whatever comes next to the viewer’s undoubtedly vibrating imagination.

La Femme Infidèle wields a more bluntly declarative title than Les Biches. What happens in it does indeed entirely flow from the central transgressive person and act mentioned in the title, even as its focus and meaning slowly complicates. Said unfaithful woman isn’t the focal point of the tale. Chabrol’s customary terseness again manifests immediately, opening without fanfare in a scene that introduces that woman, Hélène Desvallées (Audran), and her seemingly idyllic state, talking with her mother-in-law whilst seated in the spacious yard of their large house outside Paris. The first shot, a tracking shot moving like an idle trespasser with trees drifting between camera and the seated duo, sets up a motif returned to in the last scene. The two are soon joined by Helene’s husband Charles (Michel Bouquet), a successful insurer, and their young son, Michel (Stephane Di Napoli). Helene and mother-in-law chuckle over a photo of the young Charles, whose middle-aged visage has gained an aspect of roly-poly joviality in his soft and unharried salad days. This very brief pre-credit sequence has a similar flavour to the opening of Les Biches, presenting an islet of fantasy perfection of a kind, before the digging commences. Charles has an ideal job and often gives his wife a lift into Paris so she can spend the day shopping and running errands. Signs of trouble in paradise surface nonetheless when the predictable patterns of life are disrupted, when Charles can’t get Helene on the phone where she said she would be.

Where Les Biches obliged the viewer to offer sympathy and patience to some peculiar people, La Femme Infidele purposefully retells one of the oldest stories around – the tale of a jealous husband who, faced with his wife’s infidelity, kills his rival and tries to get away with it. Chabrol doesn’t offer new twists or present unusual slants on the characters. On the contrary, he strips away as much distraction from the central matter as possible, focusing in on this essential drama and watching it unfold with his customarily cool gaze, almost to the point of offering elemental myth. A key early scene is executed with a stark, satirical directness in portraying a marriage gone to seed: Helene prepares for bed by painting her toenails and donning a brief negligee and laying herself beside Charles, who, saying good night, turns out the light in complete apparent obliviousness to his wife’s evident desire for some connubial attention. Chabrol’s deadpan gaze doesn’t however register it as comedy, presenting it rather as the anecdotal flipside of the opening portrait of an ideal French bourgeois family. The whole film, in a way, follows this pattern, like a farce with the jokes cut out. Charles’ disinterest isn’t however the result of not loving his wife, or loving someone else. He has opportunities to be unfaithful, including with the keen, ditzy, miniskirted Brigitte (Donatella Turri) who’s been hired as a secretary in his offices and who’s already slept with one of Charles’ colleagues. But that’s not what he wants. Perhaps he doesn’t want anything.

Charles is then the victim of a brand of tepid complacency that viewed by Chabrol as a law of nature as pervasive as gravity or thermodynamics, at least in the world of the comfortable upper-middle class. He and Helene are drawn out to a nightclub with a friend who’s recently broken up with his wife, perhaps for the same reasons, where Helene makes a passable show of getting down to the hip-twisting pop music, but Charles looks comically out of place in, and they take too long to get out on the dance floor together to make good use of a slow dance number. Once they’re home bed Charles lies awake whilst his wife sleeps, meditating on his wife’s flimsy excuses for not being where she says she is (she tells him after one such occasion she went and saw Doctor Zhivago again and liked it the second time; and of course that’s a film about infidelity too). When he’s again unable to reach her during one of her Parisian sojourns, Charles unease blooms into outright suspicion, and when meeting with a private investigator he uses to look into insurance claims, he also hires him to follow Helene. When they meet again by the Seine a few days later, the investigator tells Charles his wife has been meeting with a man named Victor Pegala, an author with some independent wealth, visiting his apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine for two hour stretches, three days a week. This marvellous little scene sees the two professionally bland, discreet, unemotional men discussing the blatant and undeniable truth of a deeply wounding breach in clipped and businesslike terms, the plainly gut-punched Charles nonetheless retaining his calm and handing over wads of cash to the investigator, amidst an iconic Paris-is-for-lovers locale caught with its humdrum pants down.

Charles continues to dissemble his way through apparently normal events of life, like celebrating his son coming first in his history class with some champagne. Domestic bourgeois life as kabuki art. But part of Chabrol’s droll implication here is that, rather than this being mere fake window dressing, this is also the texture of ordinary life, of the willed-into-existence state of pleasantry that constitutes civilisation, and from which any extracurricular escapes are merely that. Certainly this seems to be the attitude Charles wants to take, but he cannot resist the urge that comes to pay a visit to Pegala (Maurice Ronet), who (recalling the doubling of Frederique and Why) resembles Charles, if more fit and robust and recently divorced and so ready and able to indulge a casual affair with a bored housewife. The hell of it is Pegala seems like a perfectly good fellow, one who Charles could easily be friends with. He’s solicitous and welcoming when Charles turns up at his door and lulls the lover into being upfront, by telling him that he and Helene both regularly have affairs but he’s a little perturbed by how long this one’s been going on.

By this point Chabrol has already shown a brief scene showing Helene and Pegala together, Helene lounging post-coital in his bed as rain pours outside and pegala bringing tea and snacks in: Chabrol fades from them kissing each-other goodbye (a moment itself modelled of the long kiss in Notorious, 1946), to Helene walking through the rain afterwards, lending their parting a breath of ephemeral poetry and a suggestion of the way these trysts linger on in Helene in revivifying fashion back out in a cold and dreary world, as well as offering tragic foreshadowing: neither knows this is the last time they’ll ever meet. Charles premeditates his visit to Pegala, presenting himself as a smiling charmer at his apartment door: “I’m not a salesman or a beggar…” As the pair settle and sip cordially at whiskey, Charles manages to manoeuvre himself with the skill of a salesman into a position of authority in his exchanges with the pleasant but understandably tense Pegala, not by acting irate and tough but by acting the worldly indulger he becomes a kind of detective, gleaning the tale of a sordid affair. Charles nonetheless loses his control when he sees, in Pegala’s bedroom on a table near his rumpled bed, a large novelty lighter Charles gave her as an anniversary present, but now passed on to Pegala because she felt Charles had forgotten it. After seeing this, Charles starts to act woozy and rambling. Pegala is concerned, and comments, “You look awful.” “Yes, I know,” Charles responds with a sudden flash of sickly amusement. He grabs up a bust from a table, bashing Pegala on the head twice with awful, killing blows, leaving him dead on the floor with rivulets of blood spreading on the floor and flecks of it on Charles’ shuddering hands.

Charles, quickly getting hold of himself after this abrupt act of bloody violence, begins calmly and methodically cleaning up any trace of his presence in the apartment, washing off the bust and other items, before bundling up Pegala’s body in a rug. This he carries downstairs and out to his car, stowing the corpse in the boot, and starts driving out of Paris. One can argue La Femme Infidele comes close to uniting the distinct influences of Lang and Hitchcock on Chabrol, as well as illuminated Chabrol’s distinct personality. The inevitability of Pegala’s killing recalls the relentless march to Siegfried’s assassination in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), whilst Chabrol also recalls House By The River (1951) in depicting a murderer coping competently with his crime and even seeming to profit from it but facing being consumed by the reality-cracking implications of his act. The extended sequence of Charles tidying up the crime scene and disposing of Pegala’s body, also presents an extended variation on Norman Bates cleaning up Marian Crane’s murder in Psycho (1960). This is the centrepiece of the film in terms of technique and design: Charles, his face reset to its usual ice cream flatness, moves about the apartment with remorseless purpose, doing his best to erase every trace of his presence and even the appearance of a crime having been committed, all done with studious calm and boldness in broad daylight.

Chabrol taps this sequence not just for pokerfaced suspense but a level of carbolic humour. Charles has to contend with such petty difficulties as opening and closing a gate whilst manhandling a corpse like a bag of dirty laundry, and then gets tailgated by another driver (Zardi again) when he’s driving out of the city. The accident scene immediately becomes Charles’ worst nightmare as a crowd of gawkers gather to watch and yammer whilst the other driver insists on swapping insurance info and a gendarme comes to mediate and inspect the damage, feeling around the edges of the buckled rear hatch, whilst Charles becomes increasingly irate in his eagerness to escape. This scene is grimly hilarious in itself whilst also feeling like a Parisian in-joke that’s likely even better for anyone in on it. Finally Charles manages to continue on, reaching a bog somewhere in the countryside, into which he drops the body. Charles waits with tooth-grinding patience, peering down as the bundled body soaks up water and leaks out bubbles, sinking with agonising slowness until it finally vanishes under the soupy film of floating weeds.

Chabrol’s careful use of colour as a dramatic signifier provides associative psychological meaning and becomes important in the aftermath of this long central sequence. Pegala’s apartment is decorated in pale blue shades. Not long after his seemingly successful escapade, Charles joins his wife and son at a garden tea table: the shade overhead and a railing and tablecloth below, both blue and seeming to squeeze the image into a kind of cinemascope burlesque, framing the people between, including Helene who’s silently morose over her lover’s apparent vanishing and abandonment of her, and the upbeat, empowered Charles. Helene goes into the house and lies down in her bedroom where the drapes and sheets are also blue, contrasting the general greys and browns of the house’s décor: Helene lies back on the blue sheets and weeps. The tension ratcheting under the surface of the family soon begins manifesting as young Michel becomes distraught over losing a piece of a jigsaw puzzle he and his father are trying to assemble, whilst Helene stares dolorously into the television in the rear of the shoot, between arguing father and son. The visit of a pair of policemen, Inspector Duval (Michel Duchaussoy) and his partner Gobet (Guy Marley), is almost a relief. They’ve come to talk to Helene because they found her name and details in a notebook of Pegala’s. She claims to have only been a casual acquaintance who met him at a party. The cops are coolly professional and seem entirely accepting of all they hear, but their intense gazes speak another language. “We’re making progress,” Duval assures Helene, “In our hit-and-miss way.”

Despite the debts owed and paid to Lang and Hitchcock, Chabrol was really working within a common and popular tradition of French crime storytelling. Indeed, the greater sympathy French critics offered those directors than many did in other countries likely owed something to a crucial sense of recognition. That style was exemplified on the page by Georges Simenon and essayed by filmmakers Jean Renoir in films like La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1937), and H.G. Clouzot in thrillers like Le Corbeau (1943) and Les Diaboliques (1956), as well as the poetic realist films of the 1930s. Chabrol’s aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different to the stylised effects of the poetic realists, even as he engaged with their fatalistic concerns, concerned much less with the mechanics of detection and action than with the processes that lead people to bad ends. This tradition arguably had some roots in the French novel tradition of Zola and Balzac, with their fascination in a quasi-zoological fashion with the presence of moral blight and corruption as it manifests in all sectors of society.

Chabrol is also notably good at deploying comic relief in both Les Biches and Le Femme Infidèle, in a way that helps intensify his theses as well as break up the tension. The wilful zaniness of Robèque and Riais in the former and the goofy appeal of Brigitte in the latter present characters strayed in from other worlds – the two men represent bohemia in all its perpetually improvising, smoke-blowing, opportunist skill, as well as a different, more absurd but also anxiety-free version of queerness to the strange kind the women enact. Brigitte impersonates the hip new generation oblivious to the niceties of the bourgeoisie as well as a possibly illusory promise of an age with different values coming on. Chabrol’s protagonists meanwhile are builders and maintainers as well as prisoners of their imploding universes. Just as Frederique ultimately invites her own destruction by refusing to countenance a fluid and multipolar kind of love, Charles and Helene are ultimately doomed not by the absence of love but by the processes of proving its survival. Helen eventually finds the photo of Pegala the private investigator gave Charles in his coat pocket, and burns it not just to dispose of evidence but as a votive to the proof of ardour it represents. She drifts back to Charles as he labours in their garden and the pair swap looks, locking them into the ultimate deed of mutual implication. The title then becomes perfectly ironic: in the last measure Helene is entirely, perfectly faithful, as is Charles. The very end returns to a stance of suggestive ambiguity, with the two cops returning and Helene and Michel looking on as Charles goes to talk with them, possibly to confess all. A mere aftershock, anyway, to Charles telling Helene what she already knows: “I love you like mad.”

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2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced each year, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème-de-la-crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.

All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.

Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages. Any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery. It is therefore intellectually and aesthetically connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.

Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster. 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about. When the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in Alexia’s skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed girl, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.

Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.

We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; its aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally. Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel, and only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.

Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman. When she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.

It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.

This portion of the film feels the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic, in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms. Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids. This is his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo. With so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.

Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.

Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.

More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.

In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.

Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.

Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance. Because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, and a lack of a clear sense of somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended, until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.

Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality. That scene hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to strike. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.

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1930s, Auteurs, French cinema, Political, Thriller

The Shanghai Drama (1938)

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Le Drame du Shanghaï

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Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenwriters: Alexandre Arnoux, Léo Lania

By Roderick Heath

Georg Wilhem Pabst’s run of films of the late silent and early sound cinema eras remain essential viewing for movie lovers and scholars, and the director himself synonymous with that moment in European film culture. Pabst, born in Roudnice in what was then Austro-Hungary, studied engineering but drifted into the theatre, already experiencing a successful transatlantic career as a stage director before World War I broke out. After spending the war in a French internment camp, Pabst took up filmmaking in his late thirties, and emerged as a major talent with his fourth feature, The Joyless Street (1925). That film, featuring Greta Garbo before her jaunt to Hollywood, also marked the beginning of his reputation for making or amplifying female stars at crucial junctures. After making the first film to explicitly tackle Freudian theory as a subject, Secrets of a Soul (1926), Pabst directed two movies touched with legendary lustre with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929). White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), which Pabst directed in collaboration with Arnold Fanck, scored a huge popular hit and kicked off a craze for mountain climbing films. Pabst’s war film Westfront 1918 (1930), humanistic disaster drama Kameradschaft (1931), and Expressionist musical The 3 Penny Opera (1931) were hailed as some of the most vital moviemaking achieved in the early days of sound.

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And yet, after the early 1930s, Pabst falls completely out of sight as far as most cineastes and critics are concerned, although he would keep making movies for another twenty years. The reasons for his erasure are laced with bitter ironies and ambiguities. In his glory days, Pabst was feted for the determined blend of social critique and psychological investigation apparent in his films as well as their artistic vigour, informed by his leftist allegiances. His sense of style modulated degrees of realism and stylisation, veering from careful, Erich von Stroheim-esque detail to heightened Expressionist effects in trying to describe the physical and mental landscape of his age, and how one created the other, with a penchant for vivid, often antiheroic female protagonists. Jean Renoir hailed Pabst as an influence with his capacity to “create a strange world whose elements are borrowed from daily life.” Pabst had already moved to France to work even before the Nazis came to power in Germany, but his exile proved one of anxious wanderings. In his first years in Paris he ventured into splashy science fiction-fantasy with L’Atlantide (1932) and a well-regarded adaptation of Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933), which sported a pointed jab at Nazi book-burning. But Pabst’s sojourn to Hollywood to make A Modern Hero (1934) proved a rude comedown for a director known for his tight creative control as he clashed with Warner Bros. He soon returned to France, but could not regain his standing.

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Pabst was caught in Austria as World War II broke out, and found himself under the thumb of Joseph Goebbels, who obliged him to make a handful of movies during the war that had nominally safe historical themes, including The Comedians (1941) and Paracelsus (1943): the latter film has been studied with some interest as evidence of Pabst’s artistic resistance with its theme of the heroic title character trying to counter mass hysteria with rationalism. Nonetheless many former fans and fellow leftists held Pabst in disdain for his collaboration, and some accused him of returning to Nazi-held territory because he preferred the stature he would supposedly have retained working there to following other figures of German cinema to Hollywood and subsist in the studio production mills. Pabst didn’t help his reputation by offering fuzzy explanations as to why he was in Austria and never explicitly apologising for bowing down. As if making aesthetic rather than rhetorical riposte, after the war’s end Pabst reverted to his sharply critical mode as he tried to illustrate historical anti-Semitism with Der Prozeß (1948), but he struggled afterwards, sojourning to Italy to make some poorly received comedies. Returning again to Germany, he tackled the chaotic waning days of the war with The Last Ten Days (1955), with a script co-written by Erich Maria Remarque anticipating Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) in portraying Hitler in the Bunker, and It Happened on July 20th (1955), a depiction of the July Plot assassination attempt. Finally advancing Parkinson’s Disease impacted his ability to continue directing, and many felt he had long since lost his specific creative fire.

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Watching The Shanghai Drama, a product of Pabst’s virtually forgotten late ‘30s output, in the light of what was behind and ahead for Pabst is then a jolting and salutary experience. The Shanghai Drama engages the moment of its making, Pabst’s sense of socio-political context blended with his customary fascination with characters emerged in seedy locales and battling to retain any trace of their spirit and identity against forces of social and psychological evil. The Shanghai Drama, adapted from a novel by Oscar Paul Gilbert, has some echoes of Andre Malraux’s famous novel Man’s Fate in describing the fractious political and civic state of China in the 1930s and the European expatriates and emissaries crammed into a cosmopolitan toehold. The material also sees Pabst negotiating with the style of highly fatalistic drama popular in France in the late ‘30s in the poetic realist style, a style he likely influenced, including films like Pepe Le Moko (1936), to which The Shanghai Drama has some similarities as a portrait of desperation in exile. In other respects it resembles a rather common kind of “exotic” melodrama of its time Hollywood was making often, fare like Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich as well as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), B genre movies like Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937), and even Casablanca (1942), in revolving around criminals, exiles, and sordid nightlife. Like many such movies Pabst’s depicts the “White Russian” population that accumulated in Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution and formed a much-mythologised bloc of transplanted Europeans before World War II. The emphasis on the protective instincts of a mother likewise closely anticipates the kinds of maternal melodramas Joan Crawford would become synonymous with.

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Nonetheless Pabst’s acidic intelligence and artistry permeate the film and transform it into something close to unique. The film opens with a number of teenage girls, daughters of the colonial ruling class, graduating from their private school in Hong Kong. The school is an islet of transplanted Englishness complete with phony Elizabethan architecture, clinging vine, and militaristic regimentation as the girls forming up to listen to the headmistress’ (Gabrielle Dorziat) address, before they’re dismissed and erupt in proper adolescent glee. Vera Blonski (Elina Labourdette) is one of the girls, overjoyed at the thought of being reunited with her mother in Hong Kong, evoking the heroine of Diary of a Lost Girl in her aura of doomed and coddled naiveté about to be rudely despoiled by the big bad world. One kind of asylum for young women is supplanted by another: the Olympic, a Shanghai nightclub run by “Big Bill” (Dorville), who runs his gaggle of dancers with a ruthlessly exploitative hand knowing full well he’s the only source of legitimate employment for many of the young White Russian women in Shanghai. “Big Bill looks like a convict,” notes the robust and dedicated journalist André Franchon (Raymond Rouleau), visiting the club with a friend, but “these poor dancers look like they’re the ones on a chain gang.” Pabst pauses to note the grossly ritualised humiliation and cold-blooded nature of Bill’s regime, avoiding all hint of bawdiness as he presents Bill smacking his dancers’ backsides, leering over one young recruit, and sacking another for talking back, an act both know is tantamount to utter degradation if not death.

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The central character is privileged by comparison: Kay Murphy (Christiane Mardayne) is the headline performer at the Olympic. Her real name is Maria Blonski, a White Russian and Vera’s mother. Kay sits in rigid and cold-eyed remove from her circumstances whilst feted by her audience and hosted by local plutocrats, muttering her signature incantation of disenchantment: “Once I could have been an artist. Instead I’m only a star.” Pabst seems to be touring his own experience of filmmaking, evoking his own lot as an exile and ruing encounters with abusive producers and actors happy to sell out their talent for success. Kay lives with her aged governess Niania (Suzanne Desprès) and the thought of Vera’s imminent return and the possibility of leaving Shanghai. But Kay soon finds the past catching up with her, as her husband Ivan (Louis Jouvet) suddenly reappears. Ivan, scarred from a deadly encounter he feels where her attempt to rid herself of him, represents the Black Dragon, a conspiratorial cabal operating on both a political and criminal level trying to achieve total dominance over the Chinese government, and other countries too by implication. The Black Dragon have one immediate, specific irritant they want to silence, the nationalist activist Cheng (Linh-Nam) who rails against both foreign exploitation and domestic cliques hindering his country’s development, and has gained a great following, with sufficient power and appeal to unite the many factions in Chinese life. Ivan has been assigned to force Kay into helping deliver Cheng into the Black Dragon’s hands.

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One aspect of The Shanghai Drama that makes it feel far more modern than a lot of English-language films like it from the time is the absence of any Caucasian actors playing the Asian roles. Portions of the film were partly shot in Vietnam, or French Indochina as it was then, and this provides verisimilitude in the sense of place as well as casting, in the scenes depicting Cheng’s political agitation in the streets, although the film was mostly filmed on a French soundstage. Alexandre Arnoux and Léo Lania’s script works in some humour to alleviate the darkness of the plot: “Bastard!” Franchon calls Big Bill, and when Bill answers to the insult, Franchon notes, “Ah, I see, that’s your family name.” A dash of risqué humour as a sailor is asked for his ID by a military policeman but accidentally hands over a fondly kept snapshot of a topless woman. The Shanghai Drama plays as a spiritual continuation to several of Pabst’s earlier films, offering Kay as something like the older, life-wrung person Louise Brooks’ characters might have become, weathering loss of home and the moral quicksand of surviving in the wilderness. The underworld governed by its own eccentric laws of The 3 Penny Opera is now entangled with the motifs of cooperation and people power found in White Hell of Piz Palü and Kameradschaft.

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Pabst pushes many of these retained elements into new ground in considering them in immediate relation to one-another, explicitly linking forms of abuse and oppression on an individual level with the political. The finale echoes the ending of Pandora’s Box but unifying two characters from that film this time into the single, tragic figure. The Black Dragon seem at first like close relatives of the romanticised underworld figures in The 3 Penny Opera, but quickly come to more closely resemble in turn one of the covertly powerful factions found in Fritz Lang’s films like Spione (1928) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Indeed, Pabst goes further than Lang usually dared in not only presenting his cabal as manipulators but international political operators too, embodiments of gangster capitalism and reactionary politics, carefully and remorselessly plotting methods to extend their power, even going so far as to spark war to ensure the success of their plans. Ivan proves to be one of their most dedicated agents, and through him has also bound Kay to them, in making common illiberal purpose.

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Pabst initially presents the Black Dragon potentates, including their cold-blooded and perfectly maleovolent mastermind Lee Pang (Valéry Inkijinoff) and their most recently elevated member Madame Tsé (Foun-Sen), who just happens to be Cheng’s sister, amidst the splendours of an estate garden. The romantic Chinoiserie lustre of roses and tranquil lily-crammed ponds contrasts the machinations and politicking. One old mandarin recommends to Tsé she help neutralise her brother and clips a rose flower from its stem to illustrate his point. “He’s the wave of the future, and we’d like to wipe out that future.” After Ivan’s return Kay finds herself imprisoned by Bill in the nightclub, as Bill is also subordinate to the Black Dragon, forcing her to stick around until she can play her part in the cabal’s plot to kill Cheng, and unable to go to the docks and meet Vera off her ship. Franchon, who has struck up a friendship with Kay and knows she was expecting to meet someone, heads to the harbour and encounters the confused and fretful Vera who knows nothing about her mother’s circumstances in Hong Kong. Franchon doesn’t connect them until Vera recognises a song he whistles, overheard at the Olympic, as one of her mother’s favourites. Franchon takes Vera to Kay’s apartment. Meanwhile Cheng comes to the Olympic on invitation with some of his political comrades, only to find themselves trapped in a most genteel way, whilst Kay is assigned to draw Cheng upstairs where the Black Dragon bosses await.

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Pabst sharpens his political parable to a point in the build-up the attempt to kill Cheng. The Black Dragon’s chief interrogator and executioner lays out the tools of the torturer’s trade in a folding satchel, a selection of glistening instruments for visiting pain, but selects for Cheng a hypodermic needle to give a lethal injection to make his death look natural. He invites in a pathetic coolie and offers him a silver dollar to allow him to perform an experiment on him. The coolie beams in rhapsodic pleasure at the gleaming coin in his hand, the symbol of all earthly wealth as far as he’s concerned, as the executioner gives him the injection, and the coolie promptly twists up in agonising death. Pabst here manages to reduce his understanding of both economic and political exploitation to one, singular, grotesque vignette, and underlines his portrait of the Black Dragon as a not-so-subtle reflection of fascism in its outlook. Later, faced with Cheng’s intransigence and the potential unification of the country behind his effective leadership, the Black Dragon decide to try and provoke a war between China and another country – unnamed, but clearly supposed to be Japan – through false flag operations. “War is not a method, it’s an end. I don’t believe the people want war,” Tsé protests, to another gang boss’s riposte, “It isn’t the people who want war, it’s countries. All they need is a pretext to start a war.” The Black Dragon have their own prisons where they imprison people who have crossed them, and start picking up political opponents, torturing and executing them.

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Pabst reiterates the parity of gender and political subjugation as Kay finds herself brutally forced to remain at the Olympic by Big Bill, who works for the Black Dragon and refuses to believe her appeals about her daughter’s arrival: Pabst dissolves from Kay’s face with her look of desolate and impotent rage to Vera’s young, forlorn visage as she surveys the dock for her mother. The central sequence of the Black Dragon’s attempt to kill Cheng sports an increasingly, ironically nightmarish tone as Cheng sits amidst the brightness and gaiety of the Olympic but he and his companions become aware they’re trapped and will only stay alive as long as they remain exactly where they are. His comrades volunteer one by one to head and risk assassination to try and bring help, only to be stalked and slain by killers in the street, until Cheng is left alone. Cheng begs Kay for aid in escaping the club over the rooftops, and she leads him up to the seedy, shadowy attic, right into the hands of the Black Dragon honchos and their executioner, awaiting him with pinched, relishing smiles. Cheng and his enemies swap tense and sardonic courtesies as Cheng realises there is no hope for escape. But Franchon manages to save the day when some military police enter the club. Aware of what’s happening, Franchon stirs a fight between sailors and civilians. The resulting riot and crackdown forces the Black Dragon to release Cheng, who calmly departs with Franchon. Kay, branded by Cheng as a dangerous woman, returns to her home and finds Vera waiting for her there, but her daughter senses the self-loathing within Kay, and hugs her photo more urgently than her actual mother.

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Pabst takes swipes at the institution supposed to hold power to account, the press, as Franchon works under an editor, MacTavish (André Alerme), whose cynicism towards the idea of political progress in China – and by extension anywhere else – puts the young French journalist at loggerheads with him constantly. MacTavish is glad to accept stories fed to him by Tsé painting Cheng as a dangerous radical and sacks Franchon for refusing to toe his political line, and blusters when Franchon brings him news of war breaking out with the complaint that war isn’t really war until it’s properly declared, likening it to deciding an election before people have voted, to which Franchon ripostes you can if someone’s stuffing the ballet box. This declaration leaves MacTavish utterly speechless, and Pabst acerbically performs a slow dissolve from MacTavish’s beggared face to shots of tanks and soldiers mobilising. “The foreign press mustn’t be allowed to criticise our victory,” Lee Pang instructs his underlings as the organisation make its move to crush Cheng. By contrast, Pabst offers up Cheng as the embodiment of political heroism, first seen giving speeches to an excited crowd, and the depiction of his political movement carries overtones of the recent Front Populaire movement that was reshaping French political life in the years before the war.

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Pabst contrasts the larger political drama with the paltry humans who are victims of such machinations, with Kay the archetype of the stateless person who tries everything in her power to escape and keep her daughter safe but finds herself trapped thanks to Ivan throwing in with the Black Dragon, and eventually reaches a snapping point when Ivan threatens to induct Vera into working as an agent for the organisation’s ends too. Pabst digs into the lot of the political exile, balanced between points of nostalgia that can be more merciless than comforting, and sharklike survivalism. The past is literally another country, the lost Russia evinced by the keepsakes Niania shows Vera like a mythic fantasy, narrating her parents’ story as if it was a fairy tale only to admit soon enough it certainly isn’t one. Kay’s blank, almost mesmerised affect in the early scenes suggests a lampoon-cum-tribute by Pabst of Marlene Dietrich’s brand of ironclad nightlife survivors – Pabst had originally intended to cast Dietrich in Pandora’s Box but dropped her in favour of Brooks, a choice Dietrich later mocked him for – before Vera’s imminent return rouses her hope again. This is immediately dashed by Ivan’s reappearance as close to literally back from the dead as possible, wielding his own personal brand of astringent disillusion. When Ivan visits Kay in her apartment, holding the fake American passport she’s tried to purchase to get herself and Vera out of the country, he plays the unremitting voice of Fate, cold and merciless and immune to all appeals of paternal feeling.

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Ivan and Kay almost become two halves Pabst’s arguing personality in this regard, one trying to hang on to a sense of courage and purpose in facing up to a rootless lot, the other ruthlessly enforcing his concept of cold truth and obeisance to larger forces as embodied by the Black Dragon. Pabst and his screenwriters give Ivan the lion’s share of memorably scathing lines as he spots a picture of himself when he was a young Tsarist officer, a picture she was showing Vera moments before: “My morals were elegant, now my clothes are.” “We grew up together,” Kay says, to his reply: “We decayed together.” After listening to Vera trying to chart a life for herself away from her parents through desperate alternatives, Ivan mocks her affectation of worldly grit, “Sad songs are a poor memory when times are hard.” A peculiar vignette with a near-mystical sense of poetic import comes as Ivan holds his photo up to compare it with his middle-aged face, as a breeze penetrates the room and sets the chandelier to tinkling, light reflecting off the glasswork and casting a star-like pattern on the wall that slowly fades out: a last, totemic gasp of their lingering memories of youth and freedom. Ivan seems to recognise this as a final epiphany and takes a breath before ripping his photo in half and getting back to business, provoking Kay with his cold intent until she pulls out a gun shoots him dead rather than let him suborn Vera. “Why?” Ivan demands in his death throes as Kay bends over him: “Why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?”

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The Shanghai Drama betrays some uncertainty in tone and style that suggests the movie Pabst finished up making might have been some distance from what he was supposed to make. The film pauses repeatedly for Kay’s song numbers – Mardayn, like Pabst an Austrian, was best known as a singer – and doesn’t entirely reconcile familial melodrama with political thriller until Ivan’s fateful scene. There’s something just a tad trite about Kay’s idealised sense of Vera. Despite having contributions to the cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, one of the most talented and influential film technicians of his time, the film is generally more neutrally lit and distanced in framing in comparison to Pabst’s Expressionist heyday, and great visual touches, whilst plentiful, are also fragmentary. Pabst chases a spare, borderline abstract feel to the set decoration and misé-en-scène, as if drawing on artists like Edward Hopper for a breath of the dreamlike in the otherwise solid. Ingenious and arresting visuals keep arriving at the same pace as the unexpected jolts of baleful political meaning. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Pabst kept a rigorous plan for what he would do on set and shot as little film as necessary to prevent studio interference as much as possible. His close-ups of his actors often aim for an impression of sculptural intensity, particularly of Mardayn with her translucent eyes and adamant jaw, perfect for playing a character at once haughty and wistful, Jouvet with grotesque V-shaped scar like the mark of Cain on his brow, the face around it honed by hard experience to a mask of bleak tidings, and Inkijinoff rubbing a glass ball along his serpentine cheek in savouring its texture against his face whilst ordering men executed and plotting world domination.

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Big Bill’s demands to see a young would-dancer’s legs sees both Bill and prey framed together in mirrors, viewer and viewed mutually encaged. One of Kay’s song numbers sees her wearing a flaring headdress that glows when backlit, and Kay stalks towards the retreating camera, framed by jazz musicians, as if taking on the role of a warbling Vestal priestess or lamenting world-spirit, whilst Pabst pens a rough draft for effects common in 1980s music videos. Kay finds Ivan lurking in the shadowy reaches of the Olympic’s attic, as if that space has become the septic id squatting upon the gaudy pseudo-civilised nightclub, containing its particular devil. Many of Pabst’s images retain the quality of silent cinema in their attempts to present pictures charged with carefully crafted symbolic intensity, as when the Black Dragon honchos settle around a circular table with champagne glasses in their hands only to place the glasses on the table where they rest in strange symmetry, figures of power suddenly rendered abstract and impersonal, deliberate nonentities in a world filled with nobodies trying to somebodies. Ivan after being shot by Kay collapses amidst the white drapes at the window, forming instant shrouds, the dislodged and silhouetted hanging frames at once resembling a sarcastically lowered crucifix and the X motifs Howard Hawks used in Scarface (1932) to similarly mark out the pathetically exterminated. When Kay pulls the false passport out from his jacket, she finds it penetrated by two bullet holes with Ivan’s blood seeming to seep from them.

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Kay’s killing of Ivan gives the Black Dragon an excuse to imprison her and Vera, tossing them into a basement prison with the rest of their captives, and Franchon finishes up with them after he tries to confront and intimidate Lee Pang with the threat of press attention only to find him unafraid. Lee Pang maintains the same devilish cool as Cheng begins to assemble a huge crowd to lay siege to the Black Dragon headquarters, promising the first real shots will drive them away. Pabst finally counters the dark and suffocating depiction of omnipresent evil in the rest of the film with images of people from all walks of Chinese life, from street vendors and labourers to society women marching abreast, converging into a mass and becoming Pabst’s one and only answer to the spectre of criminal authority, an irresistible movement. Confronting Black Dragon heavies who wait for the crowd with guns and shoot down at them, Cheng cries for them to join him, and the appearance of a flight of enemy airplanes over the city gives provides the perfect common cause to point to, to the point where even his sister Tsé, fronting the Black Dragon goons, advances to Cheng and embraces him. Even as such a tide of humanistic power rises, Kay gives in to utter defeatism as she, Vera, and Franchon sit in the prison: “What does it matter if I die here or somewhere else?…Shanghai holds me in its claws.”

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As Cheng’s mob invades the Black Dragon headquarters, the prisoners are freed. Pabst pauses for another of his eye-catching flourishes as he suggests Lee Pang’s death either by suicide or execution by the patriots with the evil overlord hiding his face behind a slowly unfurling Chinese fan before a gunshot is heard. As the prisoners are swept out of the dungeon by their rescuers, even Kay is beaming with the delirium of the delivered, but one of Lee Pang’s assassins, under orders to kill her in any case, still tracks her in the crowd and stabs her in the back. Kay, eyes wide and brilliant in pain and mortification and soon blank in death, is still carried along by the cheek-by-jowl crowd, just another casualty of history carried along by its irresistible impulse, her passing unnoticed either by those jammed about her or Vera and Franchon ahead. An incredible moment that stands easily with Pabst’s best work and a vignette Hitchcock or Lang would’ve been proud of. The coda offers an uneasy sense of at least Vera and Franchon grasping a happy ending as they sit on the deck of a French destroyer with other refugees being taken aboard by Western nations. Pabst notably refuses to give any sense of reassurance on the larger scale, fading out on authentic shots of Shanghai afire and being bombed. Even if it’s intermittent in its best touches and ideas compared to Pabst’s towering silent classics, The Shanghai Drama nonetheless stands as a film deserving far more attention, a desperate and occasionally ferocious attempt by a great director to declare devotion in both his art and his political faiths before fate crashed upon him, and everyone else.

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1910s, Auteurs, French cinema, War

J’accuse (1919)

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Director/Screenwriter: Abel Gance

By Roderick Heath

Of all the great creators of early cinema, Abel Gance seemed the one born with the very stuff of the new medium in his blood, immeasurably talented and determined to stretch the new art to the absolute limit of expressive possibility. And yet he’s always been a figure with a complex legacy. The illegitimate son of a doctor and his working-class mother, Gance was brought up by his grandparents in a regional coal mining town until his mother married a Parisian chauffeur and mechanic, whose surname her son took. Although he left school at 14, Gance maintained a voracious fascination for art and history. Initially working as a law clerk, he eventually turned to acting, joining a theatre in Brussels. Gance started writing and selling film scenarios to Gaumont for 50 to 100 francs each, despite his initial disdain for the medium – “You could eat for three days on 50 francs,” he said in the 1960s, by way of simple explanation for getting into that line of work. He made his screen acting debut when he returned to Paris. He contracted tuberculosis, an ailment that would keep him out of the army, but after successful treatment Gance formed a movie production company with some friends, and released his first work as director at the age of 22, La Digue (ou Pour sauver la Hollande), in 1911. Gance made successful films throughout World War I, but signs of the ambition that would make him both a great filmmaker and a hapless victim of industry models and public taste were already manifesting.

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Gance would later complain of the total resistance to any sort of innovation he often encountered from studios like Pathe, which for a time wouldn’t accept any movies that didn’t shoot people entirely full-frame. His five-hour epic Victoire de Samothrace, which he refused to cut down, had trouble getting exhibited, and the proto-psychedelic La Folie du docteur Tube ran into trouble with censors bewildered by its distorted visual effects. But as Gance persuaded his backers to let him try making more psychological works, the films he started making, including Le Droit a la vie, Mater Dolorosa and La Dixième Symphonie (all 1917) proved hits, replete with signs of innovative visual gusto and rapidly maturing dramatic sensibility. Gance spent a brief spell in the French Army’s film unit in the last year of the war, an experience that left him deeply shaken and depressed as he witnessed the carnage and lost friends. After the war’s end, Pathé bankrolled his next film, a massive and potentially controversial undertaking. Borrowing the famous phrase Emile Zola levelled in attacking the state during the Dreyfus affair, Gance proposed a movie examining the terrible cost of the war.

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The result, J’accuse, was immediately acclaimed and immensely successful in France and the UK as a public reckoning with the war through film, in a manner echoed decades later by the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Gance followed it with an even more ambitious work, La Roue (1920), initially nine hours long. After a detour with Max Linder’s comedy-horror film Au Secours! (1924), Gance hunkered down to begin work on a projected multi-episode portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. He only got to make one episode, which, at six hours long and composed of an astonishing stream of imagery, left his audiences overwhelmed as it was. Napoleon, upon release in 1928, and his sound follow-up The End of the World (1931), confirmed Gance as a beggaring genius of the medium, but also a creator who far outstripped the public’s readiness to keep pace. Although he kept making films on and off for another thirty years, he never regained the same edge of vision or artistic liberty, although he did after a fashion get to extend his Napoleon cycle with The Battle of Austerlitz (1960).

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But it wouldn’t be until Napoleon’s restoration and revival in the late 1970s, that it was recognised as a singular height of movie artistry, just as Gance passed away. As Gance’s two best known works, J’accuse and Napoleon seem on the face of it to offer nearly antipathetic attitudes, the former regarded as a bleak and critical antiwar tale befitting the immediate post-war mood of disillusionment and appraisal, and the latter a high-flown tribute to la gloire of Napoleon’s emergence as warrior chief exporting French Revolutionary values at the point of a gun. Gance pushed this vision to the point where some have accused it of being rather fascist in outlook. And yet J’accuse and Napoleon aren’t nearly as opposed as they might seem. Both are in large part works about the meaning of patriotism, tales where idealism and dank realism clash with often calamitous results. The giddy historical romanticism of Napoleon was couched less in love of war, which is portrayed just as ferociously and grimly as it is in J’accuse, than Gance’s faith in the nascent Emperor as a supreme example of human potential in general and the French in specific unleashed by the positive aspect of the Revolution. In short, the essence of a cause, whilst J’accuse expresses a sentiment demanding a sense of responsibility in the living as well – in short, a desperate search for a cause.

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Gance’s reflexive sensibility is somewhat represented in J’accuse by his hero, the provincial poet Jean Diaz, who is at once a celebratory voice of French culture based in his adoration of its landscape, and a social critic who wields Zola’s catchcry as a perpetual intellectual motto. Gance had taken powerful inspiration from D.W. Griffith, who returned the favour by helping Gance get J’accuse attention in the US. The influence of the first reels of The Birth of a Nation (1915) is apparent on the opening of J’accuse, depicting a small Provence town as the outbreak of war is announced and the populace celebrate by dancing in the streets and marching by firelight. Jean (Romuald Joubé) lives with his mother (Mancini) and longs for his childhood sweetheart Édith (Maryse Dauvray), who has been married to François Laurin (Séverin-Mars). The two former lovers gaze at each-other from the windows of their houses on opposite sides of the town square. Édith and François’ marriage took place at the behest of Édith’s father Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins), a former soldier from the Franco-Prussian War and staunch revanchist who keeps a map on his wall with the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, marked in black ink. François is Lazare’s idea of a surrogate son, a man’s man and potential warrior for his cherished fantasy war, with a penchant for hunting, drinking, and domestic violence, in about that order.

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Gance’s initial tableau portrayal of the Laurins’ home life sees Édith seated by the window in pining remove: Gance opens up the rest of a blacked-out frame to reveal François, sitting by his dining table, with a deer he’s killed spread out, dripping blood on the floor, as François gets hammered and is stoked to a livid rage when he catches his wife making eyes at Jean across the way. Gance segues into a brief but bloodcurdling vision of a terrified, semi-unclothed Édith at the mercy of François’ drunken attentions, grasping a handful of her hair and forcing her head back for a view of her nipples. Unsurprisingly, Édith seeks out solace with Jean, who approaches her on the banks of the river flowing by the town, but François hovers too attentively for any rekindling of their former romance. But François must serve the purpose for which Lazare has anointed him, and he joins the army, and Jean and Édith are free for a time to subsist in something like happiness. Catching wind of this thanks to his father-in-law, François returns home on leave and forces Édith to go live with François’ parents in a different town. But this proves to put Édith in the path of danger, and it’s reported, much to the grief of her father, Jean, and François, that she’s been captured during a German advance. Grief-stricken upon first learning of this development, François soon becomes convinced that Édith’s vanishing has been concocted to cover up the fact she’s now secretly living with Jean. Meanwhile Jean, given a personal motive to fight, joins up, and much to François’ surprise and disdain he soon finds himself under Jean’s command.

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The storyline of J’accuse has a basis in familiar melodrama, with its propelling tension of eternal triangle versus patriotic solidarity, with scenes like a shadowy suggested rape similar to what had been seen in many propaganda movies made during the war. And yet Gance methodically complicate it with nimble psychology and a web of allusions to his concept of the war and its social background. Jean is plainly presented as his symbol of France’s higher-minded aspect – “All intelligence, all melancholy, all tenderness, all France,” as an intertitle puts it. A sensitive artist at the outset, he is also a product of maternal values, whilst Édith has been stuck with her oblivious patriarch and brute of a husband. Lazare, described as “straight and simple as a sword blade,” is an emblem of the revanchist mindset and epitome of an armchair general – he gets word of Édith’s capture whilst he and some like-minds are pouring over a map and arguing strategy – who soon finds himself utterly stricken as the reality of the war claims costs from his pride and feeling he cannot pay. Gance’s stabs at a kind of panoramic social commentary, accusing people like Lazare of dooming a younger generation to slaughter and suffering, and propagating a violent mindset through arch nationalism, has an edge of immediate anger that’s as surprising and confrontational as the social criticism in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Édith is the encapsulation of the long-suffering female population, literalising the notion of invasion as a form of rape and subjugation. François at first represents a blunt and ignorant streak in the national character, but also qualities of native strength.

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As the story unfolds, Gance charts the changes to his characters and the smudging of their initial identities as the nature of war breaks down clean oppositions and forces hybridisation. Jean’s optimism as a poet is initially described through his book of poems entitled Les Pacifiques. His mother falls asleep in bliss as he reads to her the poem “Invocation to the Sun,” at the same point where later in the film she will die, suggesting Jean’s poem has a kind of metaphysical power too rarefied for a world he soon learns is infinitely cruel and grubby as well as bounteous beautiful. Jean proves himself every bit as gutsy and competent as François once he does become a soldier, taking the place of one of his soldiers for a solo foray across No Man’s Land to blow up a German ammunition dump, a deed that a CO tells him could just easily gain him a court martial as a medal: he earns the latter. François, a man without means to express himself like Jean, tries at first incoherently to impose will on things and people, but a weird streak of romanticism in the man first described as a drunken brute is revealed as he reverently fetishizes a glove of Édith’s he takes with him to war. Once Jean arrives at the front, he discovers François has erected a sort of shrine to his wife composed of such objects, a display that tells Jean that François, in his own way, loves Édith as much as he does.

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François’s shrine to Édith resembles a similar array in Lazare’s house, except that the old man sits in worshipful regard of his own old military paraphernalia. The rhymes of sexual obsession and militarist mania echo throughout J’accuse as both evoke forms of loyal and compulsion that override all good sense, stakes for which men live and die. At one point Gance depicts Lazare plucking at one of the shining buttons on François’ uniform, an amusing flourish that nonetheless underlines Lazare’s virtually erotic delight in soldierly trappings and his equally pseudo-erotic claiming of François as a tool for killing Germans. Eventually, as Édith returns home with the child she’s had after being raped by German soldiers, the two zones converge, plunder of body and nation sparking crazed reaction. Immersion in violence and soldierly responsibility ironically prove to humanise and mature François, and once Jean approaches him and begs his forgiveness for not realising François loved Édith as much as him, the two become inseparable comrades. But the shadow of jealousy doesn’t entirely depart them. Eventually Jean is given a medical discharge as he’s exhausted and ailing from assuming too much of his command burden, and he returns home. Eventually, with a spry humour, Gance has Jean’s mother and Lazare become furtive friends as each becomes an agent for their son, trying to find out what the other knows about Édith’s fate.

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On the same night Jean’s mother finally passes away after an illness, Édith turns up bedraggled and exhausted, having escaped from German occupied territory with her child, Angèle (Angèle Guys). Lazare, consumed with rage and shock as he beholds his family’s colonisation by his hated opposites, leaves with the intention of finding some way of avenging himself on the enemy, and vanishes, never to be seen again. When François next returns from leave, Édith, terrified that François might kill the child if he learns who she is, gives Angèle to Jean, who pretends it’s the displaced child of some relatives of his and determines to raise the child as perfectly French. The servants in the Laurin house, including solicitous maid Marie (Angèle Decori), help them keep the secret. But François soon comes to suspect some secret and believes Angèle might be Édith and Jean’s lovechild. He unmasks the deception by pretending that Angèle drowned in the river: Édith immediately dashes down the riverside in panic, only to find Jean and Angèle strolling together. François waits in Jean’s house for them to come there, and in the scene that follows sees François almost bash Jean’s head in before Édith manages to intervene and tell François the truth. François immediately resolves to return to the war to kill Germans, and Jean elects to return with him, this time as a private soldier.

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J’accuse unfolds in three episodes, each just under an hour long (the film apparently originally contained four, but Gance, always a tinkerer, edited it down, and now only the shorter version survives). Jean and François’ return to the front concludes the second part. For a film of 1919, J’accuse is a wonder of form, for Gance’s pace of editing and richly composed visuals, as well as the careful, rhythmic construction that becomes a form of conceptual rhetoric, taking us from personal drama to incantatory poetic device describing the downfall of a generation and the heavy load of its survivors. The near-delirious editing style Gance would push to the limit on Napoleon was already present here. It’s evident even in a functional early sequence where Jean and Édith look at each-other from their respective houses. Gance gives straightforward alternations of their faces in mutual regard, but the naturalism of the shots of Édith is contrasted by semi-abstract shots of Jean and his mother against a black background, making emblems of them, and creating the suggestion of internal dialogues as the mother’s face reveals aspects of pride and concern in her son’s ardour: Édith is a figure in the world where Jean and his mother are creatures of intangible ideal. Gance portrays the workings of Jean’s mind and Lazare’s through montages of the conflicting images that pace through their minds, Jean’s littered with visions of islands and oceans, setting suns and ghostly fantasias of Edith wandering in scenes pastoral and moonlit; Lazare imagines cavalry charges and maps of conquered territory. The sight of an owl, a potential evil omen on the night of the war’s start, offers at first only two strange, glaring orbs glaring out at the startled revellers from a field of dark, before the rest of the bird is lit up.

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Throughout the film Gance deploys interludes of symbolic drama and an ardour for mixing in fragments of literature and art like a distant ancestor of Jean-Luc Godard’s penchant for the same approach. Quotes from Corneille appear on screen. Artworks are arrayed in dialogue like an artistic representation of spring revels, which Jean keeps pinned over his bunk, giving way to Death riding in the sky over battlefields, and visions of dancing skeleton. These symbolic flourishes seem to have made a particular mark on Fritz Lang, who would recreate the Death motif in particular in Metropolis (1926). Radiant, pastoral illustrations are used to convey the sensibility of Jean’s poems, illustrations that are revised to dank and haunted images by the end. J’accuse, in its war scenes, certainly feels like the definition of the WWI epic as it would become a genre over the next two decades, with an immediate stylistic impact on Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and on through the likes of The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Westfront 1918 (1930), most of which would march protagonists through similar sagas commencing with the start of the war and the concomitant romanticism of the future young warriors and trace through a series of increasingly terrible and disillusioning events. But its influence might well echo further. Horror cinema had been a minor force before the war but J’accuse coincided with the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in defining the haunted spirit of the immediate era. The last part of the film hinges upon a more literal connection between the war dead and the spectre of an emerging army of revenants.

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Until then J’accuse remains anchored by its personal drama, which, despite its potential banality, Gance sells entirely through conviction and observant, humane sense of character. Gance’s ambition was to be the Victor Hugo of cinema, and he has a similar talent for balancing real art and raw melodrama. To watch the film is to embark on a long and compelling trek with his characters. He imbues the steely Lazare with an edge of amusing vulnerability as he strikes up a friendship with Mme Diaz, and works in some gentle humour as the two parents become interlocutors for their feuding and suspicious sons. Gance portrays François’ partial redemption and maturation after making the viewer loathe him at first, and even elicits some sympathy for him as he’s frustrated by Édith’s initial incapacity to see his growth. But Gance is also canny enough not to believe in total transformations, as François’ cruel streak when his jealous anger is raised resurges when trying to divine the truth about Angèle. Jean has an aspect of idealised self-portrait, a warrior-poet who finds his worldview tragically misshapen by frontline experience but whose artistic gifts serve a real purpose according to Gance. He fires up his fellow soldiers with inspiring rhetoric reminding them that “inside every Frenchman is a Gaul,” a notion Gance illustrates literally by having the shade of a Gaul, looking remarkably like Asterix, striding across No Man’s Land and through the trenches by the contemporary French soldiers, achieved with double-exposure shots. Jean’s vitality as an inspirer of men is later contrasted by his equal effect as an advocate for the dead and evoker of the spiritual as well as physical landscape, scar-pocked and corpse-littered, for the edification of the residents of his home town.

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Édith’s return from exile sees Gance illustrate her tale of woe by a flashback to her rape, portrayed with the silhouettes of the German soldiers projected against the wall with outreaching hand looming over her. The villains are abstracted almost into an existential threat in a shot almost exactly the same as the murderous Cesare attacking his victim in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The familiar world has become nightmarish, but the fruits of the nightmare are clasped in Édith’s hands, unveiled as Édith spread out the shawl she’s been wearing against the rain to reveal Angèle. Édith’s fear her husband would kill her child and Lazare’s departure to go looking for foreigners to kill is contrast by Jean’s mental refrain of “J’accuse,” this time illustrated with the words spelt out by bound and trussed figures tied in torturous forms to make the letters, over a painted image of a young female martyr sinking into water. Subtle Gance wasn’t, but the angry tallying of the abuses and responsibilities is very much part of his project. Jean even teaches Angèle how to write “J’accuse,” and later she helps him relearn the words when he’s terribly shell-shocked. Angèle is ganged up on by local kids who force her to play the part of a German soldier executing a prisoner, complete with Pickelhaube helmet jammed on her head, a prop she tosses in the fireplace once she returns in tears to her home.

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Such scenes ram home just how raw the wounds of the war still were when Gance shot the film: it’s not exactly a work of forgive-and-forget liberalism, but rather a tribute laced with smouldering anger for the conflict’s direct impact on the country and its inhabitants. The famous climactic scenes turn the accusations around on the civilian populace themselves. When Gance remade the film with sound in 1938 as an urgent plea for peace in the countdown to the next great war, he extended its narrative to also make it a pseudo-sequel where the returned Jean labours on an invention that could render war obsolete, again smacking of a metaphor for Gance’s hoped-for impact as an artistic voice. The editing gains pace again as Gance’s rhetorical efforts increase in the older film, as Jean and François become two casualties of a calamitous onslaught, during which Jean sees the dancing skeletons romping amongst soldiers in the midst of crumbling buildings and shell-punched battlefields. When a shell lands close to Jean and François whilst they talk, many of the men around them are killed and François is left in a state of near-lunacy.

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Not recognising François in his dazed state, he gives him a bunch of letters he wants sent to Édith at intervals so she’ll think he’s alive even if he’s killed in battle. Whilst Jean is hospitalised a grand battle unfolds, during which François is fatally wounded, and he finishes up in the bed neighbouring Jean, dying as they two men hold hands. Édith is the shocked witness to Jean’s return home, injured and almost deranged, but still aids him in getting people of their town to gather in her house. There, in the stark firelight cast out from her hearth, Jean begins to recite a tale, part poetic parable, part hallucinatory rant, in which he pictures himself as a solitary guard over a vast field of crosses under a sky of boiling cloud. The crosses become the corpses of the dead, which then begin to twitch and move, finally standing up and amassing into a vast new army that starts marching down the road, with Jean fleeing ahead of them in alarm. He tells the initially dismissive townsfolk that they’re coming to demand answers from the living – “If you’ve been faithful to your dead, you’ve nothing to fear” – and begins terrifying his peers by identifying their transgressions during the war, naming one as an adulterer, another as a high-living profiteer.

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The march of the army of the dead is explicitly counterpointed with the march of the living under the Arch of Triumph as part of victory celebrations, in a split screen effect: official pomp and rites of healing bought at the price of sanitising and suppressing the reality of loss. Bedraggled, bandaged, wound-pocked and white-faced, Gance’s soldier ghouls lurch up to windows and gaze in upon the living, shocking them into protestations of regret and faith. One who turns up is old Maria Lazare himself, along with François. This vision of almost cosmic horror and collective guilt does at last abate and find a vague sense of mutual compassion. The army of dead halt on the threshold of the house, and begin to retreat in sheer gratitude for being able to see their friends and loved-ones, marching back along the road, carrying their grave marker crosses. This gives a salve to the townsfolk, but the sight of Angèle helping Jean write “J’accuse” again on the mantelpiece disturbs Édith, and she realises that Jean really is mad. This climax is certainly one of the great sequences of cinema, silent and beyond, although its sits in fascinating tension with the rest of the film, which is precisely about the ambiguities of private situations and how they mesh with such a vast and impersonal epoch.

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Gance’s annexation of medieval imagery and outright embrace of a distorted dream vision that gives a voice to an unsayable truth clearly rhymes with the emergence of surrealism around the same time, as well as the nascent German Expressionist movement. Jean, the warrior-poet, enacts the general crisis of all humanist artists when confronted by the post-war world as he mocks his own pastoral idylls and instead conjures armies of corpses and alien landscapes: it’s like Gance is incidentally trying to portray the birth of twentieth century modernism and genres. Gance’s sensibility is ultimately directed outwards in opposition to such interiorised visions, however, his conjurations broad dramatic gestures. When he returns to his home, Jean thumbs through Les Pacifiques again and laughs in disdain for his naïvely perfect visions, and finally collapses, seemingly into a catatonic state, after accusing the sun itself of lying to humanity. If he’d made it just a couple of years later Gance might have allowed Jean to recover some sliver of the hope and meaning in his old work, but J’accuse ends with the wrenching sight of its embodiment of the national spirit left as a stricken, maddened ruin. Gance does admit one ray of light, quite literally, as the rising sun falls upon Jean’s prostrate form, suggesting that the long and evil night is over.

Standard
1930s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Erotic, French cinema, Mystery, Romance, Short Films, Thriller

Night at the Crossroads (1932) / A Day in the Country (1936)

La Nuit de Carrefour / Partie de Campagne

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jean Renoir

By Roderick Heath

Sometimes a famous name can be a boost or a burden. Or just a name. As the son of one of the most lauded Impressionist painters, Jean Renoir’s attraction to cinema gave the young art form an aura of matured sophistication, but might well have also lifted a few eyebrows in sceptical intrigue. If Jean ever seemed oppressed or dogged by the challenge of proving himself an artist in his own right, he never showed it in his films, which evinced only sublime freedom of form and spirit. In spite of his father’s schooling of all things visual and Jean’s initial interest in sculpture, Renoir was deeply attracted to the theatre, and film offered him a chance to blend two separate artistic realms and better refine a new one. Although today enshrined as one of the quintessential cinema masters, Renoir was too restless, droll, and politically tinted an artist to always be readily accepted in his day, although many of his works found swift and great favour, like the antiwar tale La Grande Illusion (1937), which managed the feat of getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a first for a film mostly not in English.
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But Renoir’s association with the Front Populaire, the progressive and radical coalition that briefly came to power in France before World War II, made him a target for the right, and his best-regarded film, The Rules of the Game (1939), released on the cusp of conflict, stoked public ire despite being merely a tart ledger accounting bourgeois tomfoolery, subtly indicting the country’s self-congratulatory upper classes of detachment from their countrymen and blithe indifference to oncoming reality. Renoir himself had been the product of a gloriously unfettered childhood and had fought with distinction as a young man in World War I. His sharply diastolic worldview was formed then with a gift for depicting both the elating absurdity and gnawing distress of the human condition, his surveys sometimes acerbically critical, often warm and indulgent; even his regulation wartime propaganda film This Land is Mine (1943) champions communication above action. Renoir started making films in the mid-1920s, collaborating on Une Vie Sans Joie (1925) but really finding his feet with an adaptation of Emile Zola’s tale of an actress turned courtesan, Nana (1926), starring Renoir’s wife Marguerite, a first his cinematic muse and then indispensable collaborator.
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Renoir’s shoots were virtual family affairs and relied on a tight-knit team of collaborators. After acting in his movies Marguerite started editing them, whilst his nephew Claude would begin as a camera operator and eventually become a lauded cinematographer, whilst Jean himself and his brother Pierre acted in several. As he moved into the sound era, Renoir turned out a string of corrosively funny, brusquely intimate portrayals of squabbling class avatars and human frailty, like the hapless clerk and Sunday painter who gives himself up to life as a wandering hobo after killing his grotesque mistress in La Chienne (1931), or the fellow vagrant who refuses to be domesticated in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). In the midst of the Front Populaire’s heyday, Renoir made several films including the proto-neorealist effort Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), which portrayed the murder of a sleazy capitalist to allow a successful experiment in a worker’s cooperative to continue, and La Marseillaise (1938), a recounting of the French Revolution’s most fervent hours, which bore out Renoir’s simultaneous capacity to embrace radical new causes whilst also extending sympathy to figures caught on the wrong side of epochal tides.
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It feels right to look at Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country in concert because they’re both relatively short fruits of Renoir’s great period, and that diastolic sensibility is plain from their titles on down. Both films are set just beyond the outskirts of Paris, at locales serving the passing trade and beset by a mood of isolation and transience. They share a quality with Shakespeare’s pastoral plays of being thrust out beyond the usual norms of civilisation and forced to improvise a different moral order. The day/night schism erected between the two works begs for a clever artist to render them porous, and the undercurrents of pining disappointment that finally defines A Day in the Country is mirrored by the final sense of new chances in life that comes with the dawn in Night at the Crossroads. Both films take on material adapted from highly regarded authors. Renoir made Night at the Crossroads specifically to honour one of his favourite then-contemporary writers, Georges Simenon. A Day in the Country was an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant, a friend of Jean’s father and the other Impressionists, and an artist who shared with them a certain gruff and zesty dedication to reflecting on life as he saw it.
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Night at the Crossroads has a certain legendary cache because it was very hard to see for a long time, and even today supposedly still has a reel missing. One reviewer compared it to Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) for being an ostensibly rational mystery that still feels imbued with a nocturnal and numinous atmosphere even after the fade out. It was also the first adaptation to feature one of the most famous detective characters of all time, Simenon’s cagey, calm, modest but unrelenting hero Inspector Jules Maigret, played here by Pierre Renoir. The film’s first image, under the title card, is of a blowtorch at work on a safe in otherwise pitch black, an introduction to the mode of inky darkness and troubling illumination the tale unfolds in, the sense of forces at midnight working like termites at the fabric of the stable world. The movie proper kicks off with a series of sociological jokes as a motorcycle cop pulls in at a service station at the crossroads, in a drab semi-rural locale. The gang of workers who labour at the station mockingly read out society engagement announcements. The bourgeois couple in one of the neighbouring houses, the Michonnets (Gehret and Jane Peirson), note the behaviour of ostensibly rich people who also pay on instalment plans, and instantly accuse their neighbours, a Danish brother and sister, of stealing their car when they notice it missing.
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The Michonnets lead a posse into the Danes’ yard and break open the garage, but get more than they bargained for, as the car is inside with a corpse sitting up within. The dead man is a Jewish diamond dealer from Brussels named Goldberg. The Danish man, Andersen (Georges Koudria) is arrested and grilled over the course of the day by Maigret and his assistant Lucas (Georges Térof). Renoir conveys the passage of time during the interrogation by cutting away to a newsstand where the developments in the story are reported in the day’s newspaper editions – the morning’s fresh news becomes the sludge being swept up by a street cleaner in the gutter – and then returning to the ever more crowded and smoke-riddled inspector’s offices as the interview continues, the smoke from the anxious coppers growing thick in anticipation of the fog that looms about the crossroads. Finally, Maigret is obliged to release Andersen, but decides to travel out to the scene of the crime to try and get his bearings.
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The idea of disorientation is realised on a cinematic level by Renoir as he unsettles and fatigues the eye with his oblique framings, peculiar edits, and frustrated viewpoints. Information feels random and broken-up. Far from impressionism, Night at the Crossroads takes place in a cubist trance. Physical objects – gasoline pumps, cars, house interiors – seem imbued with a form of life, as they’re shot in a way where the human characters are glimpsed through frames or behind looming imminences, or seen darting through scantly lit patches of ground. The branches of the roads that link at the titular crossroads fade off into murky night or boiling fog. A sequence in which Goldberg’s wife is driven to the crossroads only to be shot by a lurking sniper takes place in oceans of dark punctuated again by small pools of light, his rifle-wielding killer looming as a vague silhouette, a nocturnal monstrosity. Renoir’s customary, breezy use of location filming, one aspect of his cinema that made him a precursor to the neorealists, avoids the imprint of the expressionist style that was waning in its native Germany but gaining new use in Hollywood, even as Night at the Crossroads succeeds in feeling as rarefied and odd as the first Universal horror films.
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Elsewhere Renoir’s camera mimics Maigret’s incisive, quietly registering method. A little vertical tilt of the camera follows Maigret’s gaze as he takes in the appearance of one of the station works, registering the dissonances. A close-up of a cigarette packet tells the Inspector of visits to unlikely quarters. The little world Renoir creates here is solid, tangible, sensuous, at once torpid and agitated. Exploring the new possibilities and practicalities of sound, Renoir utilised on-location recording. Scenes are filled with the din of passing cars and bustling activity, and occasionally there are disjunctive matches in the noise from shot to shot, an aspect that seems crude at first but also helps reinforce the overt mood of dislocation. Renoir shows a more exact sense of how to exploit sound as he utilises a tune heard first on one of Else’s records and then on the accordion played incessantly by the station workers to tip the detective off to the hitherto unexpected link between the two camps. One sequence, in which Maigret interviews the garage men, is loaded with Renoir’s mischievous sense of behavioural quirk as one man idly flips a jack handle and then begins sawing away on a machining job purely to aggravate the Inspector during one of his interviews.
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Night at the Crossroads is a beautiful time capsule of a slightly grubby, wayside corner of pre-war France, one that seems to have had a powerful impact in some Hollywood viewers, like Howard Hawks, whose The Big Sleep (1946) feels particularly under this film’s spell in parsing the harshness of the crime film through a thin veil of the otherworldly. Indeed, much of the poetic realist style’s fascination for characters on the margins of gritty, industrial France and the later film noir mode’s obsession with femme fatales and troubled antiheroes might well have flowed from this well. Here the perverse temptress is Andersen’s supposed sister Else (Winna Winifried), who seems the incarnation of the narcotising pall that hangs about the crossroads, languorously rolling upon cushions as Maigret tries to interview her, flashing her gartered thigh, or caressing her pet tortoise, perhaps the most amusing apt pet in film history. Else is actually Andersen’s wife, but she’s really in thrall to her former husband Guido (Manuel Raaby) who is hidden amidst the coterie of criminals that hides in plain sight about the crossroads, who utilise the service station as the base for criminal enterprises including robbery and drug smuggling. Else is used by Guido as general purpose concubine to keep his gang in line, with Andersen, who married Else in the hope of elevating out of the squalid criminal universe, tied fatefully to her. Soon the criminals try to murder him to keep him quiet. The criminal alliance that spans the crossroads becomes Renoir and Simenon’s sarcastic cross-section of French society, eventually building to the inevitable punch-line that they’re all in league to pull off something crooked in a twist reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express.
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The workers in the garage who do the dirty work, the sniping, readily offended Michonnets who act as fences, and the lurking aristocratic duo in the big house, all share nefarious motives – even if things prove a little more complicated. The collective of criminals feels like an ironic precursor to the workers’ cooperative in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Renoir considers Balzac’s maxim that great fortune is always the product of a great crime, and seems to wonder half-idly if the path to a socialist society might lie down the same path. Although nominally a femme fatale, Else feels like a rough draft for the hero of Boudu Saved From Drowning, a self-confessedly lazy person who exists as a project of betterment and/or exploitation for others, but who eddies amongst her own thoughts and whims, barely aware of the niceties of civilisation. Winifried is a fascinating presence who was Renoir’s find for the film, reminiscent of the German star Sybille Schmitz in her aura of languorous eroticism, but made very few films. Anderson looks like a characters strayed out of a Fritz Lang film with one lost eye concealed behind a black monocle lens, a touch that makes him ineffably odd, a creature of proto-science fiction, human and mechanism coming together. And yet he turns out to be the one well-motivated character save the policemen. Andersen is a prototype for Erich von Stroheim’s Von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion, a sad remnant of a figure, damaged, mechanism-aided physique, fallen from his station and adrift in a mean and grubby present.
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I suspect the reason cinema beckoned so irresistibly to Renoir over art forms was the promise of movement. Renoir’s films vibrate with peripatetic energy and a sensibility close to a pantheistic feel for the landscape as a living organism in itself, and a concurrent contempt for the stifling immobility of civilised conventions and quotidian social structures, unnatural forms with no flexibility or dynamism. The urge to movement is often literalised in his characters who, if they have no place to go but also no reason to stay put, give themselves up to the logic of flowing rivers, speeding trains, open roads and anxiously inviting frontiers. Renoir actualised this anxious, liberating joy found in surging speed by often including a shot from a camera affixed to the front of a car or train, precipitous images of racing speed. The stuck-in-the-mud mood of Night at the Crossroads belies this motif to a certain extent, but then gives way as Lucas chases after the criminal band, laboriously catching up with the vehicle and swinging about with giddy speed as the villains loose shots at their pursuers. Renoir might well have been thinking back to Louis Feuillade’s serials when he took on Night at the Crossroads, but the surrealist spirit of such models is dovetailed here into a seedier, more mundane yet just as untrustworthy reality. Another great joke conjoined with a surreal affect comes when a doctor is called in to treat a wounded man; the doctor (Max Galban), called away from a night at the opera, arrives in full eveningware, complete with top hat and white gloves, like he’s about to play Master of Ceremonies for walpurgisnacht.
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Love and sexual passion are usually privileged in Renoir’s films to a degree that almost seems to ape the stereotyped French affinity for romanticism. The titles of both Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country contain the seeds of an obfuscating joke, associating both locations with aspects of opportune erotic adventure; the dejeuners of the later film face, and leap into, dalliances which Maigret spends a great deal of his story avoiding, as Else constantly tries to provoke the detective, the ever-attentive copper refusing to be drawn but clearly on occasion having a hard time of it. If A Day in the Country sees Renoir exercising the theme at its most apparently blithe and freewheeling, Night at the Crossroads finds lurking neuroticism and pathos as Maigret becomes a distraction to Else’s ultimate choice of between Guido and Andersen, who suffers for his love with a bullet in his back. Else herself seems to mildly prefer Maigret himself, and the very last frame sees Else grasping the detective from behind. But of course he’s one of the most famously married law enforcers in pop culture and moreover he’s the stern guardian of social structures. So Else makes a final, dutiful trudge up to see Andersen, at least rejecting Guido and his poisonous influence over Guido’s howls of protest, which might be amour fou or mere petulance from the Apache chieftain that his suzerainty is finally ending.
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When Renoir would return to tales of murder and smouldering jealousy, he would however dispense with the safe and generic mediating figure of the detective; his Emile Zola adaptation La Bete Humaine (1938) would again take up the theme of two men attached to one woman driven to acts of inchoate criminality and passion, but viewed from within that vortex, and the key image of headlong flight into modernity glimpsed from the viewpoint of Jean Gabin’s ill-fated train driver with the lingering temptation of self-consuming crack-up at the end of the line. A Day in the Country, by contrast, retreats into a bucolic past, a portrait of Edens lost, a place free of psychic and physical pressure from bustling machines and harsh contemporary facts. All the better for Renoir to take a closer, more exacting look at the dance of seduction and the evanescence of pleasure. Accounts regarding the production radically diverge. Some have claimed it was essentially left unfinished, as Renoir became frustrated with the weather, and eventually dashed off to get working on his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1936), and that Renoir’s assistant director Jacques Becker, who would go on to be a highly regarded filmmaker himself, reportedly shot some footage. Renoir however insisted that the project was always intended to be a short film and he resisted his producer’s encouragement to expand it into a full feature.
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The resulting pile of celluloid sat on the shelf for nearly a decade, during which time war broke out and Renoir moved to the US, where his interest in people on the fringes of society was evinced in regional dramas like Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945). Eventually, Marguerite Renoir sat down and carefully cut A Day in the Country together and it was released as a 38-minute movie almost one decade exactly later. Whatever the truth behind the film’s shoot and its long marination on the shelf, if might well be a great argument for such messy method, as it’s one of the most perfect artefacts in cinema, an island of expressive concision and theme realised through filmmaking. The title and basic notion seem carefully tailored to recall the works of Renoir’s father and his artistic alumni, who often went off on jaunts in the countryside to try and capture perfect visions of the world and the people at large in it. A Day in the Country was also an inferred glance at the new freedoms the Front Populaire’s reforms allowed to French workers, with enshrined shorter working hours and paid holidays, to pursue leisure in a manner once reserved for the kind of prosperous bourgeoisie Renoir depicts here. Not that A Day in the Country is any kind of political tract either.
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The story is as simple and universal as the plot of Night at the Crossroads is knotty and obscure. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), a successful tradesman, takes his wife Juliette (Jane Marken), his mother (Gabrielle Fontan), his daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and her fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps) out for a buggy ride in the country just outside Paris, on a fine summer’s day in 1860. Approaching a riverside restaurant, they decide to stop and have lunch. Dufour and Anatole are both enthusiastic to do some fishing and are initially frustrated when they can’t get their hands on some rods. Henriette sets her mind on a picnic under a cherry tree by the river. Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) are two gentlemen idlers whose day of calm and quiet time-wasting hanging about the restaurant and playing chess is spoiled by the sounds of the shrill and excitable city folk arriving outside. Upon catching a glimpse of the feminine pulchritude suddenly on hand, irritation swiftly turns to resolve to seduce the ladies, which proves, on the whole, a rather easy task.
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Renoir had taken initial, powerful inspiration from the lacerating intimacy of Von Stroheim’s films, and A Day in the Country could be described as Renoir’s take on the countryside trek and intended seduction in Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), shed of melodrama and moralism. Jean-Luc Godard, who greatly admired Renoir’s works even as he remained temperamentally antithetical to them as a director, would push the cycle of inspiration on by tormenting and misshaping Renoir’s template into Weekend (1967), tossing in one brief recreation of Renoir’s riparian placidity to ensure the connection. Renoir’s film celebrates passion in a manner blissfully, if finally with a flutter of heartbreak, disconnected from worldly business or moral judgement: there is only the purity of the erotic urge as an end in itself to be served by any willing party. As Renoir’s cinema matured, his grip on the rhythmic flow of his images and sense of how to use the space in a frame most exactly became surer and indeed scarcely rivalled, and A Day in the Country is a pure study in space as a cinematic value. The film’s key joke even depends on it: Rodolphe opens the restaurant windows to “enjoy the view,” and opens the window shutters to behold the sight of the mother and daughter riding upon swings, a frame opening within a frame where beauty of multiple varieties spills on.
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The two men look on like wolves in a Friz Freleng cartoon. Young seminarians marching by halt in distraction, needing a swift clip on the ear to get them moving again. Randy energy permeates everything; Dufour even mentions that the clasps for the oars on the riverboats are called dames. Later Madame Dufour tries to rouse her dozing husband after their meal with memories of past sexual adventures, but the torpor of bourgeois self-satisfaction has descended. It’s heavily hinted Henriette and Anatole’s looming marriage has been arranged; Anatole is probably one of Dufour’s employees, an overgrown calf more interested in fish than sex. Renoir casts himself and his wife as the Poulains, owners of the restaurant, serving up the goodies. But the mood isn’t one of mere, simple bawdy potential. Henri confesses to Rodolphe his exhaustion with carnal relationships with uninteresting women, and the project the two men set for each-other has a quality of dutiful adventuring. Rodolphe isn’t even particularly concerned when Henri abruptly takes more interest in Henriette rather than her mother. Meanwhile Henriette feels protean longings in the face of oncoming future. She’s tentative on a boat for the first time, worried she might fall in, and impressed by Henri’s easy way with rowing.
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If Night at the Crossroads is defined by its aura of hazy entrapment and immobility for most of its length, A Day in the Country, whilst seemingly far more placidly paced and becalmed than Renoir’s headlong contemporary fables, is actually rendered in a mode of constant, restless motion, conveying the giddy thrill of escaping a city where “there’s not enough oxygen,” as Dufour proclaims, into a land of sun, greenery, and lung-filling freshness. Renoir here offers a shot from the cockpit of the day-trippers’ carriage as they glimpse the restaurant on the roadside and read its signage with agreeable pricing. He attaches his camera to the swings upon which Juliette and Henriette ride, conveying the giddy sensation of being unshackled from the usual bonds of life and gravity. As the film reaches its climax the entire landscape comes alive, grass swaying, reeds thrashing, branches flicking, swing ropes dancing before the camera, the river waters pocked and pummelled by rain, all nature in concert with the thrill of fucking in the bushes.
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The river, the road, the railway, all courses that are ultimate symbols and shaper of Renoir dramas. Of course, one day he’d even make a film called The River (1951). Just as the water drives Boudu back to his natural state, Henri wants to flee the threatening encroachment of Paris (“Parisians are like microbes – admit one and you’ll have a colony in weeks.”) by heading upstream, but then the waterway bears the two makeshift couples down towards leafy beds. Henriette is resistant at first to Henri’s suggestions they land on the riverside and take a breather, only for Juliette to gaily float by, gleefully giving herself up to the designs of her self-appointed “Romeo” who then becomes into Pan chasing here around the tree with stick blown like pipes. Henriette lays down in the grass as Henri kisses her and Renoir swoops in for a colossal close-up of the girl’s tear-stained face, a portrait in conflict between social self and natural self, perhaps the ultimate theme of Renoir’s cinema (small wonder he’d go on to do his own take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959).
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Collapsing facades gives way to elemental passion and the world falls into chaos before reshaping itself into the old, placid mould. A postscript scene redefines what we’ve seen, however. However many months or years later, Henri rows downstream alone to visit the scene of “my happiest memories.” He finds Henriette there, lying on the grass with Anatole. She sees Henri and approaches him, and reveals that she too can’t forget that defining day on the river, as it haunts her at night. Now she’s married to Anatole, who’s still a dolt. Henri watches the couple trudge dutifully back to their boat and settles for a sad and solitary cigarette, whilst now, in Renoir’s last, drollest bit of character revelation through action, watches as Henriette now easily and confidently rows herself and her husband, and the river flows quietly on. Passion has had its moment, the rest is mere stuff of persistence, but every good memory is a jewel taken out at night. This conclusion comes as a deft and supple gut-punch after all the sunny drollery, a vision of gentle interpersonal tragedy that, tellingly, enlarges upon the conclusion of Night at the Crossroads as the frustration suggested in the suggestive final framing of Maigret and Else, the eventual return to civilised norms an exercise in self-defeat.

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1960s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, French cinema

Le Samouraï (1967)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Melville

By Roderick Heath

The initial and defining image of Le Samouraï is held for a long time, about two and a half minutes, as the credits unspool across its face, with a fixity that becomes in turns nearly unbearable and then mesmeric. A man lies on a bed, smoking a cigarette, in an apartment that seems forgotten to the memory of humankind. A title gives the time with the exactitude of an official record. Tones are muted and crepuscular. Rain gushes against the window. The only noise we hear is one that recurs through the film with needling insistence: a bird’s chirping. The animal is kept in a cage of surprising refinement but tarnished by time and neglect, something once fine retrieved from a flea market, used to house an animal that’s not so much a pet or companion as a proof of life, an alarm system, and the embodiment of its owner’s inner self. The camera makes an ever-so-slight move in, subtly reframing the same scene from an illustrative space reminiscent of ukiyo-e art into a performing zone. The man on the bed is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a man who exists in a zone of pure transience, the abode he dwells in a shell he’s occupied like a crab, ready to vacate again at a moment’s notice. There is no future, no past, no state of being that is not purely of the moment, the existential being laid bare in all his futile determination. So begins Jean-Pierre Melville’s great etude in genre aesthetics – not in action but in repose. The film’s opening quotation, supposedly from the Bushido code of the samurai, nudges us to understand what follows as a tale of a man dedicated in silent, stoic manner to a certain creed, a way of life that precludes other considerations: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps.” A bogus quote, of course: Melville made it up purely to illustrate his theme.
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The romantic lustre of such a legendary historical likeness in discipline seems to stand in heightened contrast to Jef’s actual job, as an underworld hit man, an imp of society’s abysses. Certainly, Jef was not the first assassin to be the focus of a thriller film, but he has become the archetype of the version of the character we’re now quite familiar with as the example of Le Samouraï, and its maker, Jean-Pierre Melville, have permeated popular cinema. Like Sergio Leone in Italy, Melville was a filmmaker who developed a powerful and specific imprimatur based in dichotomous creative references, mating a very European sense of style to an unabashed love of American genre stories, lending them such stature in texture and spectacle they rise far above grubby roots to seem akin to neo-mythology. There similarities between the directors end there, of course. Where Leone was a high if ironic romantic at play in the primal arena and the theatre of death, Melville was cool and pitilessly rational, and his ardour for the stern, implacable dramas found in pulp crime tales and Hollywood gangster dramas accorded with Melville’s personal experience on a vital level. Melville made his filmmaking debut with the grim resistance drama Le silence de la mer (1949), emerging a little later than the clutch of major talents who arose in French cinema during the Nazi occupation including Rene Clement, Robert Bresson, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Yet he shared with them a rigorous sense of how to purvey his vision and an edge of technical mastery that earned him admiration from the next generation of French filmmakers, the Nouvelle Vague directors. They followed Melville in subjecting their love of Hollywood cinema to an exacting nativist eye and mind and their exhibiting the results.
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Melville surely remained the most colourful directorial personage of his place and era, however, fond as he was of cruising about Paris in a massive Cadillac and sporting a Stetson hat. Melville, whose real last name was Grumbach, had served in the Resistance during the war before he fled to Britain, joined the Free French forces there, and returned with them to liberate Paris in 1944. In the Resistance he had chosen as his codename the name of his favourite author, the writer of Moby-Dick, and found it stuck even when he didn’t want it to any longer: Jean-Pierre Melville thereafter became a kind of fictional character at large in the real world. It’s also not hard to detect a note of rebellion in Melville’s practiced appropriation of American aesthetics. His affectations and his cinema both speak of a man who no longer felt he had much in common with the society he had helped to liberate. The condition of his characters is one of being jammed between a cosmic rock and a social hard place. Le Samouraï is perhaps his most distilled and iconographic vision of such a condition. Melville offers up Jef not simply as a man in a despicable profession but a man who invites being seen as a philosophical paradigm, the life instinct whittled down to an essence: Jef can only be brought to life by missions that send him out to kill. Jef’s habits are those of a man at once aimless and eternally waiting, for a job or for the law, either a motive or the coming of death, that is, freedom from motive. Whereas Army of Shadows pinned that state down to a specific moment in history and experience, Le Samouraï has the advantage of articulating it free of such associations, boiling the legend of a lone wolf down to a perfect ideogram.
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Jef’s slow rousing from his initially prostrate state sees him fondle a bundle of cash, the notes sliced in half, a promise and also a compulsion to perform the job before him. The job, the motives for which are barely elucidated in the course of Le Samouraï, is to kill a nightclub owner. Jef accomplishes this task swiftly and without difficulty, even giving his mark a fair chance to defend himself before shooting him behind his desk. The real art of Jef’s trade is depicted in exacting, near-fetishist detail before and after the moment of truth, is one of setting up alibis, obtaining a gun and car that cannot be traced to him, and weathering the inevitable ordeal of being netted by the cops as they round up the usual suspects. So, Jef’s work day commences with leaving his apartment and looking for a car to steal. He gets into a Citroen and pulls out a ring loaded with car keys, and tries them one by one until one starts the car. He meets with a woman, Jane (Delon’s wife of the time, Nathalie Delon), a prostitute who will form part of his alibi, and then with some poker players who will provide the rest of his cover. He takes his stolen car to a man (André Salgues) who lurks in a shed in a dreary and crumbling sector of town, waiting for people like Jef to come for his services. He provides Jef with clean number plates for the car, and a gun.
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The alertness to detail and the patience with which Melville documents forms both the film’s backbone of cinematic exposition and gives context to the story it is telling on more than a literal level. The process of criminal enterprise is viewed with a precise and lucid eye for the minutiae a man in Jef’s profession must orchestrate with utmost care, whilst also accumulating cinematic images based around these details that can only work in the way they do as film. Such details can be listed in prose, but they can’t be tracked and studied in all their laborious glory, consuming time and energy, demanding an exact and inescapable attentiveness to the ticking clock and the itinerary of necessary acts. Jef’s pet bird isn’t just there for companionship, but as a natural alarm system, for intruders into his apartment send the bird into of fits of panic, shedding feathers as it flits about its cage – exactly the sort of overt display of distress Jef keeps himself from offering, and yet which Melville forces us to intuit and comprehend. Melville’s feel for life as a series of labours and swerves in the face of a hostile universe has a certain intriguing generational sympathy with Clouzot’s similar outlay of agonising problems for his characters to solve with the tools at hand in movies like The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), and Bresson’s crucially similar interest in characters trapped within their world and themselves. It’s tempting to conclude that the exigencies of surviving the war had instilled in such filmmakers a rigid sense of practical consequence. Unlike his fellows, however, Melville is pointedly non-psychological. We are never told who Jef is, where he has come from or what his experiences have been, except for clues that dropped, like the fact that some cops who break into his apartment to bug it wield just like Jef a ring of many keys – might Jef once have been a cop himself?
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Such questions don’t really matter, though. All that matters in Jef’s life are the cold equations of what’s in front of him, and to keep swimming like a shark. Jef’s carefully wrought plan unfolds near-flawlessly. Many people see him in the club, including jazz pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier), an entertainer in the club, spies him emerging from the assassinated owner’s office. Jef simply walks past her and out of the club, and once he’s paraded before the employee witnesses in the police line-up a mysterious affliction seems to descend upon them all, so that only one definitely identifies him, whilst Valérie emphatically denies he is the killer. This tips Jef off to an interesting and eventually consequential detail, that the club employees have all been ordered not to identify him, and that forces are working he is not aware of. Otherwise Jef’s plan works like the clockwork, but this is in itself a fault, one that sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually destroy him: the very perfection of Jef’s cover story, which included contriving to be seen by Jane’s fancy man, Wiener (Michel Boisrond) as he left her apartment building, tips off the investigating Commissaire (François Périer) that he must be the assassin, because no-one else netted in the police dragnet has such a beautiful alibi. The Commissaire does his best to shake Jef and find some hook to hang an excuse to keep him in jail on. At one point he obliges Jef to swap hat and coat and stand in a room with a dozen cops, and asks Wiener pick him out. Wiener’s precision as a witness in this feat, after telling the Commissaire that he’s not particularly perceptive, leads the cop to quip ruefully, “Just imagine if you were observant.” The Commissaire releases Jef after obliging Valérie to double down on her denial that he is the killer, but continues to have him followed, and has a bug concealed in his apartment. Melville offers an ice-cold joke when the men who secret the bug turn on their listening gear, only to hear the bird’s endless chirping.
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Melville’s time in the Resistance would be chronicled more directly and exactingly in Army of Shadows (1969), but it feels self-evident that Le Samouraï is his first draft for capturing the sense-memory of that time, the feeling of being an exile within one’s own society, duelling with authority and inexorable fate. It’s so very tempting to read Jef and his lifestyle as a mere transcription of Melville’s time as an insurgent. Like a spy or a provocateur or member of a terrorist cell, Jef awaits orders, asks nothing about the whys of his business that he might divulge if he’s caught and tortured. He looks for only the immediate matters before him, and then proceeds out into a world that he necessarily supposes is a place of hostile occupation. Another of the film’s few fillips of humour is also a visual statement along these lines, as Jef walks across a street, a poster behind him showing a man on the telephone seeming to track his movements, with the camera panning over to find a man who actually is phoning in his report on his movements. A lengthy sequence late in the film, one that seems inspired by a similar vignette in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), depicts the cops’ efforts to track Jef around Paris with surveillance equipment, the reports of each agent registering as a glowing bulb on a map on the police station wall. One crucial aspect missing from Jef’s life that might otherwise sustain the spirit of an agent or radical is that sense of purpose, a larger cause. Jef seems to hold himself together with a resolute code of personal honour, detached from motives beyond doing what he does perfectly. But that ethic can only carry him so far.
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Jef’s almost surgical excision from the regular world of people is illustrated in a haunting episode early in the film, as he steals the car for the job. He sits bolt upright, trying not to make any move to attract attention as he tries each key on his ring, the rain water smeared on the windscreen, as if he’s losing form and solidity. When he gets the car started he drives off only to pull up at an intersection, and an attractive woman tries to catch his eye from a neighbouring car, only for Jef to turn his gaze away in declared disinterest. In scenes like this, Melville’s work with cinematographer Henri Decaë creates a specific ambience of romantically picturesque, even elegant alienation. Jef’s solitary melancholy registers constantly in Delon’s stringent blue stare, and indeed the very frames of Le Samouraï. Paris becomes a bleak and seamy labyrinth under Melville and Decaë’s eyes, variously rain-drenched or oppressed by grey skies. François de Roubaix’s scoring winds itself into such images like smoke, like the throbbing organ theme that chases Jef around, neurotically describing his crawling-ant nerves when he’s staying calm committing crimes. Melville delves into forgotten corners of the cityscape, like the ironwork railway bridge where Jef meets a contact, and other places of decaying infrastructure and run-down, workaday blandness. Fittingly for Jef’s algorithmic method, Melville repeats several scene in variations, including one incidental shot he offers twice, as Jef drives the then super-modern Citroens DSs he steals up a back alley to a garage. The environment Melville maps here is so magnificently cheerless, drab, shattered, and crudely anonymous, the car so sleek and chitinous, it’s as if a flying saucer is winging its way through the ruins of a lost civilisation.
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There’s an echo in this motif, moreover, with the way Melville shoots scenes of Jef’s encounters with Valérie in the club, and her apartment, both of which are spaces of haute-moderne blandness, like sets for a science fiction film. Melville gives hints not only about individual identity and unspoken loyalties through such touches but also hints at tensions between the worlds he sees cohabiting. Jef belongs to an older age, a vanishing world, being busily colonised by newness and novelty, playthings of a new breed, cynical and deracinated. Perhaps Jef hopes to make enough money to one day be one of them. But he seems more often like the remnant spirit of that age, subsisting as a reminder that behind every flashy, polished surface is something turned tarnished and weathered. Delon’s face embodies the dichotomy perfectly, his sleek, almost alien handsomeness and his limpid, bleakly inferring eyes. Such visual patterns, matched to a narrative that emphasises the hero’s disconnection from the world, betray Le Samouraï as indebted to the recent examples in art cinema like Michelangelo Antonioni’s films as it is to classic Hollywood crime dramas, similarly transfixed as they were by modernity grafted onto tatty cityscapes. Melville’s specific genius was in purposefully setting out to fuse the two.
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Some other filmmakers had predicted the same movement, including some of Melville’s influences and rivals, like Don Siegel, whose own doomed hitman drama, The Lineup (1958), staged a similar drama amidst the jagged geometries of California, Robert Alrdich’s radiation-noir epic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and White Heat, which walked its antihero from the age of medieval titans to finally be snuffed out amidst explosions declaring the atomic age. John Huston, on The Asphalt Jungle (1949), and Jules Dassin, with Rififi (1954), had similarly predicted Melville’s fascination with method and hyper-professional attentiveness to the little bits of business, but not his attempts to render the drama on a near-abstract plain. It’s that aspect of Le Samouraï that has surely made it an obsessive object for cinephiles ever since, particularly for other filmmakers who have taken inspiration from Melville’s cool blend of stylisation and authenticity and methodical paring away of regulation dramatic functions. Melville’s love of American noir doesn’t entirely conceal the fact that Jef also readily evokes the traditions of the ‘30s poetic realist strain in French film, as an upright and impassive underworld hero who attempts to stave off fate only to finally embrace it. Melville’s careful use of colour and décor, worked in confluence with art director François de Lamothe, reinforces his visual language. Almost the entire film is painted in hues of blue, grey, and green. Michael Mann, one filmmaker whose oeuvre has obviously been deeply inflected by Melville’s work here, drew upon a similar scheme for dictating the sunnier but no less controlled palette of the TV show he provided the design blueprint for, Miami Vice.
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One of the few elements that defies the colour scheme is the presence of Rosier, whose brown skin and flashy wardrobe, like the fur coat she wears in the police station scenes, appear like islands of exotic promise, a voice from yet another world, one that’s creative, zesty, sexy, and fecund. Jane tries to claim Jef’s romantic attention, but he remains indifferent to her, whilst Valérie is an unwitting femme fatale. She is lover to Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier), a business partner of the club owner who’s arranged his killing and who’s been pulling the strings jerking Jef around. She seems to pull Jef through some indescribable magnetism that first manifests when they nearly collide just after his killing, a magnetism that is has an erotic edge but which soon reveals a different, altogether graver aspect: Valérie is the embodiment of Jef’s fate, beckoning him on to his end. Jef’s near-subconscious interactions with women are contrasted by a dry scene in which the Commissaire attempts a form of seduction on Jane that might also be the more traditional kind, turning a mixture of vague threat and cajoling appeal on her as he tries to pressure her into removing Jef’s alibi with the promise that if he can prove he killed the club owner she’ll go down for perjury. The Commissaire’s air of savvy knowing and dogged, instinctive method are similar to Jef’s ways of working, even as his person could not be more different, emissary of official French life in his three-piece suit. Like that most eminent of fictional French detectives, Maigret, it’s very easy to imagine him going home at night to a wife and three kids. But his job is too onerous, the police station his natural habitat as much as seedy apartments and alleys are Jef’s: “That takes care of our Sunday,” he says as he’s faced with nine more protracted interrogations after releasing Jef. Police work is a painstaking shuffle towards a desired goal.
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Whilst Jef successfully, even easily defies the forces of official justice, he finds his job turns complex and threatening in his interactions with the cabal employing him. Not understanding that being arrested was part of Jef’s plan, Rey sends a blonde hood (Jacques Leroy) to meet him for the pay-off, who instead tries to shoot Jef when they meet. Melville stages this rupture in the film’s sleek and nerveless rhythm as a sudden and spectacular pivot from charged stillness, conveyed in close shots of the actors, whose similarity of appearance suggests they’re all but doppelgangers, to lunging motion and violent disorientation, as he suddenly cuts to a shot from the perspective of a passing train, as if this is just another moment of life in the raw to be glimpsed from the Metro. Jef is wounded by a bullet but he manages to drive the goon away, and returns to his apartment where he cleans up the wound. Jef is left to improvise as a vice tightens about him, left broke and betrayed and unable to get the cops off his back. He attempts to use Valérie to contact the boss behind the operation. The blonde man returns to ambush Jef in his apartment, not to kill him but to explain the misunderstanding and offer him more money to complete another hit. Jef takes exception, stating he never speaks to a man holding a gun (“Is that a rule?” “A habit”). The goon puts his gun away, only for Jef to then spring on him and beat him until he gives up his employer. “That’s how you end up unemployed,” Jef tells him after he breaks easily. Jef is the pure practitioner of his faith. Jef however saves his real wrath for Rey when he finds him, clarifying Jef’s subsequent actions as being, on some level, a serve of necessary retribution for violating the rules of his trade, rules that, however tenuous, construct something like a tenable existence for those who live by them.
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The theme is, of course, honour amongst thieves and the necessary punishment of any who violate such an arcane creed. The ultimate crime fiction cliché has been carefully alchemised here into an essential proposition, a runic scrawl denoting the obvious and pointing the way forward for filmmakers dabbling in this kind of movie forever more. Le Samouraï’s imprint has been tremendous on genre cinema in the intervening fifty years, beyond overt homages like Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) and stated fans like Mann, Walter Hill, and Johnnie To, who have remixed themes and images and essential qualities throughout their careers. Something of its sway was already observable in Hollywood a few years after its release amongst younger directors attentive to European cinema – it’s there in the procedural finesse and gritty urban adventures of The French Connection (1971) and the earliest entries in the icy criminal professional subgenre, like The Last Run (1971). But a deeper influence can be discerned on The Godfather (1972) and its legion of imitators, an influence built more around its stated thematic presumption that the crime world is worthy of comparison to bygone cultural phenomena, the code-driven professions of warriors, left adrift in an impersonal modern world inimical to basic values amongst certain sectors of society. Where Melville offered this concept as a piece of cool jazz, Francis Coppola and others would inflate it on a epic stage, proposing its heroes as inheritors of the state-of-siege mentality of Roman equites and medieval warlords.
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In that regard Le Samouraï’s influence might be considered pernicious in introducing this dubious if attractive romanticisation of criminals into the pop cultural lexicon. That said, the fact that Melville made up the quote at the start of his film suggests a level of puckish sarcasm to the likeness. Yet Melville also takes the comparison a step further than most followers. He certainly takes Jef seriously as a man who sustains a code, his downfall and his ultimate march to self-destruction, which echoes that in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) two years later but which pays off in a radically different manner: where Peckinpah’s criminal knights choose to go out in an orgiastic act of self-immolation, Jef chooses to erase only himself, with an aspect of self-abnegation that does actually finally render him worthy of a Zen consideration. Aware that the second contract the blonde man offered him was to kill Valérie, and equally aware that she’s protected by hidden police, he approaches her with a look of bottomless of sorrow and exhaustion, and takes out his gun, only to die in a hail of bullets.
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The Commissaire soon learns his gun was empty, his death something like seppuku, an honourable way to go out when the suppositions that made his existence tenable if not fun have one by one been kicked out. Jef turns the spectacle of his own futility into a kind of rite, given strange final solemnity and import by the exchange he has with Valérie – “Why Jef?” “I was paid to.” Jef cannot complete the contract, and so he must pay his own price Melville’s camera retreats to a deadpan long shot of Valérie seated in the midst of the club whilst the mess is cleaned up, as if to take bewildered stock of a drama that has been both radically simple and impossible to fully grasp. This shot closes a rhyme with the opening, but with telling contrasts – past has yielded to future, male to female, killer to artist, one life lived as running improvisation giving way to another. Le Samouraï wields a cumulative impact that defies dissection, the undercurrent of piercing sadness all the more powerful for Melville’s refusal to weep for a killer. It is precisely the sense that Jef knew he didn’t deserve anyone’s tears, the portrayal of a life nullified, that provokes sorrow, for the sense that anyone should exist in such perfect solitude and pain is almost too awful to face.

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1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Erotic, Fantasy, French cinema, Romance

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Histoire Immortelle

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

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Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

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One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

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From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

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The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

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Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

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Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

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Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

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Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

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One defining characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works was his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

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The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a style etched in the stern, textured yet authoritative monochrome. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dreamscapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

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Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

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It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

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And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

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Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

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Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality.

Standard
1960s, Comedy, French cinema, Thriller

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Tirez sur les Pianiste

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Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm. There they took advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities have become. They thrilled at the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).

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Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute.

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Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview. Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears.

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Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.

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This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s.

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Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements. Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect

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Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.

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Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.

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Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.

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The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).

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The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.

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Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.

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Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.

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Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.

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Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.

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Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.

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A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be allowed him to dare offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.

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1940s, Action-Adventure, French cinema, Romance

Remorques (1941)

aka Stormy Waters

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Director: Jean Grémillon

By Roderick Heath

Jean Grémillon was little-known outside France until relatively recently, in spite his place as one of the progenitors of French cinema’s deeply influential “poetic realist” style. Some of his lack of repute might have stemmed from his wayward career, which suffered through a series of bruising switchbacks in fortune, taking him to zones of both great success and ignominy. A violinist by training, Grémillon’s interest in the link between music and film’s sources of rhythmic propulsion was stirred when he was employed as an accompanist for silent film screenings, and became fascinated with the arts of film editing. He soon started making experimental short movies and then documentaries. When he advanced into feature films in the mid-1920s, he found initial success with an aesthetic approach that attempted to forge a new path at a time when cinematic style was being dominated by German Expressionism’s overt weirdness, Russian cinema’s showy montage schemes, and Hollywood’s straightforward efficiency. Grémillon set out rather to mix naturalistic aspects, including location photography and realistic storylines, with careful visual and dramatic stylisation.

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Marcel Carne, soon to be probably the most significant of the poetic realists, worked as an assistant on Grémillon’s first movies, and absorbed his ideas. In spite of initial success, the coming of sound saw Grémillon’s efforts to adapt foiled by audiences struggling with the new format, so he went to make films in Germany and Spain. He regained traction at home when he started working with French cinema’s big new star Jean Gabin, who was infamously difficult to manage on set, and yet with whom Grémillon found some measure of rapport. Grémillon became well-known for making romantic melodramas that tackled ordinary lives through a prism of vivid, heightened situations, and a feel for the less-travelled corners of French provincial life and labour, particularly Brittany, usually with strong admiration reserved for ordinary workers and labourers. The bleak years of the Occupation saw Grémillon’s creativity raised to its highest pitch in the eyes of many, with the three films he released during the war, Remorques, Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), usually cited as his greatest achievements.

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Grémillon’s career ran out of steam in the mid-‘50s as he tried and failed to make several ambitious historical movies, and he went back to making documentaries before dying at 61, whereupon his friend Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinémathèque Française, read a eulogy celebrating Grémillon’s role in modern French film and condemning the studios who cheated audiences of more great Grémillon works. Remorques was a particularly troubled production, as the outbreak of World War II had halted the initial shoot. Grémillon had originally wanted to make it as authentic as possible with location filming around Brest and on ships in his depiction of the working lives of the crews of ocean-going rescue tugboats. But he was left without enough footage, and a brief recommencement of filming in mid-1940 was quickly scuppered by the end of the Phony War. The film’s two stars, Gabin and Michele Morgan, soon fled to America ahead of the Nazi invasion. Grémillon, left to ride out the tides of war and occupation, eventually managed to finish the project by shooting model sequences. His efforts to get the film patched together were rewarded as Remorques became a big hit when it was finally released in cinemas in late 1941.

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Although it placed many constraints on filmmakers, the Occupation proved an ironic boom time for French movies, as they had no imported rivals to worry about. The delay for Remorques‘ release might even have been beneficial to the vision of Grémillon and his collaborator, the brilliant poet-turned-screenwriter Jacques Prevert. The cumulatively desolating tale of masculine mission and fleeting passion rendered pathetic in the face of inexorable fate and death found in Remorques, which might have struck an audience in the anxious pre-war days of 1939 as too dour, as happened to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, surely packed the power of public myth two years later, when the country had been beaten to its knees. Remorques – the title, literally translated, means something close to “Tuggers,” although the film’s usual English title is Stormy Waters – opens with a swooping model shot descending on a mock-up of the old, fortified section of Brest, the great French sea port. The opening sequence depicts a social ritual, a wedding, an event for the crew of the tugboat Cyclone, captained by André Laurent (Gabin), as one of his crewmen, Pierre Poubennec (Marcel Duhamel), is marrying Marie (Anne Laurens). The wedding offers a panoramic view of both the tug’s crew and their ladies, and the ways of relating between the two camps.

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The first flush of young love is plain in the just-married couple, whilst another crewman, Tanguy (Charles Blavette), is the half-witting target of common mockery because his wife Renée (Nane Germon) is having affairs behind his back. Laurent has been married for ten years to Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud), and they express themselves at first as a perfect union, barely able to believe so much time has passed since their own nuptials. But Yvonne confesses to her husband, in a quiet moment away from the drunken bonhomie of the celebration, that she gets very nervous when he’s away at sea, but immediately dismisses the problem as trivial when Laurent laughs disbelievingly at her words. A messenger interrupts the gaiety with word that a ship is in trouble, and the crew have to return to the Cyclone and get under way, just as a thunderstorm rolls in from the sea. One crewman, Le Gall, is late getting aboard because he’s been having a quick one with Tanguy’s wife, and Laurent dresses him down for it. The tug travels out into the increasingly violent storm, ploughing with agonising difficulty through heavy seas, but eventually beats their main competitor, a Dutch tug, to the crippled ship. Captaining the Cyclone is actually the closest thing Laurent can withstand temperamentally to a desk job, as he used to regularly make long voyages and be away for months at a time during the early days of his marriage to Yvonne. During the night with their husbands off at sea, Yvonne cheerily entertains Marie, but also confesses her dangerously frayed nerves, which are exacerbating a creeping heart ailment diagnosed by her doctor Maulette (Henri Poupon), a man she describes as too good a friend to be fully honest about how bad her disease has become.

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Meanwhile, the Cyclone nears the crippled cargo ship, the Mirva XV. The Mirva’s owner-captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), is reluctant to be rescued however, as the bill will be large. He bullies and berates his crew and his wife Catherine (Morgan), who return the contempt happily, whilst Marc refuses to rig a tow rope for the Cyclone, nominally in his anger at their slowness in coming to the rescue. Bedraggled and irate, Catherine at first demands he think of his crew and her before his own hip pocket, and when he continues to screw everyone around, she and some other crewmen abandon the Mirva and row over to the tugboat. This proves a foolhardy exercise that creates great hazard for all involved, including getting two of the just-married Poubennec’s fingers crushed and amputated. Finally, Marc lets the Cyclone take the Mirva in tow, and by morning the seas have calmed. Travelling along the coast, the improperly tied tow rope breaks, forcing Laurent to string a new one. This accident gives Marc an idea, and just as the two vessels enter Brest harbour, he contrives to have the rope give way again, and then makes his own way to dock, cheating the Cyclone out of its salvage prize. Laurent, smouldering with rage, hauls Catherine back aboard her husband’s ship, and clobbers Marc once he gets an earful of his obfuscations.

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Gabin and Morgan had first been featured together in Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), one of the canonical works of poetic realism’s flowering, and Remorques similarly locates itself in a smoky, gritty, lightly stylised version of a working port. Taking on such a milieu, Grémillon courts romantic evocations in essaying seagoing stoicism and embracing the rich atmosphere of Brest and the tugboat community. But Gremillion also emphasises the wearying, nauseating experience of spending hours being tossed about in a tin can on the open ocean, and delves into this job as a rough and dangerous business that regularly claims lives or leaves its practitioners scarred and mangled. Laurent is extremely proud – perhaps to a fault – of his record as a captain, although he’s really only an employee for a shipping company. He complains bitterly after one job goes wrong that now the company will be pleased his record has been spoiled: they don’t like their underlings so unbowed. The humanitarian aspect of the tuggers’ ventures is constantly suppressed in the face of fiscal demands and the daunting realities of the angry ocean. Laurent’s forceful presence and hitherto unquestioned competence as a captain have given him standing and respect unrivalled in his world, befitting France’s top male movie actor.

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Gabin, whose career had been boosted playing the voice of plebeian cynicism amidst the decaying aristocratic world in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), had been the perfect embodiment of romantic fatalism in the likes of Pepe Le Moko (1936) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), playing figures pushed into criminality, defying authority until their luck runs out, people close to the very bottom of society’s priorities but invested with unique stature by cinema’s ennobling imagistic force, through which even the most wretched character can become the axis of the universe. Gabin’s role in Remorques pushes this persona and the attendant aesthetic to almost hallucinatory extremes, but also quietly revises and undercuts it. Still the working class hero, Laurent is however also a confident authority figure, one whose looming downfall is informed more by personal blindness than malign fate and social degradation, whilst still invoking something close to cosmic when the axe falls. Laurent’s laughing disinterest in his wife’s delicate warnings of trouble brewing soon gives way to more urgent implorations and finally a memorable crack-up when Yvonne lets loose on his egotism; even his expressions of tedium and exhaustion are symptoms of his overweening sense of himself as necessary stalwart and linchpin. “People always know where to find me,” he says when chewing out Le Gall, setting the stage for his own degradation.

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Catherine’s entrance into Laurent’s world, appearing out of the sea like a siren, her remarkable feline eyes burning bright and wrathful in the face of her husband’s sleaziness, seems at first just another absurd vignette in such a working life designed specifically to further goad Laurent’s stern professionalism. But soon of course Laurent is utterly smitten with this lady as she parts ways with Marc once in port and takes refuge in a hotel. She calls Laurent over for a talk, and he lends a sympathetic ear as she explains how once she was a desperate youth in Le Havre who snatched at the first offer of marriage just get out of her rut. Meanwhile Laurent’s sad-sack boatswain Kerlo (Fernand Ledoux, one of classic French cinema’s most quintessential faces) muses on life’s absurdity with proto-existentialist humour when he notes to the cook, “It’s impossible to escape boredom. I know, I’ve tried everything.” Much of Remorques is set at night, with overwhelming elemental forces looming on the horizon when not already thundering about Grémillon’s protagonists. Photographer Rene-Jacques took a much-loved picture of Gabin during the production which he entitled “La Homme de nuit,” a perfect encapsulation of a certain brand of archly masculine mystique, the iconic French hero almost but not quite dissolving amidst rain and murk.

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Remorques is obsessed with this quality, but is also more sophisticated as it injects irony and inspects dichotomies until they lose shape. The special effects Grémillon was obliged to shoot for seagoing scenes are weak, but they’re employed in a manner that fleshes out this sense of primeval furies on the loose, as the ships, expressions of human will and rigour, bob amidst crashing waves, staying afloat under all assaults. The warning call of the Cyclone, loud and strange enough to be audible and identifiable from miles away, pulling in the crew for action and alerting the ships they sail out to help of their presence, sounds vaguely monstrous. It’s an appropriately bloodcurdling sound for when the tug circles the disabled Mirva under flare light, wounded ship and prowling tug dancing around on heavy seas.

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The dichotomy between the reasoned, orderly, settled world left behind back in port is illustrated with perfect economy, and no small technical skill, by Grémillon when he stages a camera movement retreating through the window of Laurents’ apartment, a shot of Yvonne and Marie left behind to their contemplations passing invisibly through the glass into wild rain, in a moment that presages, and in some ways outdoes for thematic relevance tied to cinematic effect, the more famous nightclub roof shot in Citizen Kane (1941). These contrasted spaces, calm, well-found home and chaotic universe, are presented in near-surreal contrast, but Grémillon carefully probes appearances and quickly finds termites in the structure of domestic bliss, as Yvonne is slowly being killed by anxiety although she never ventures out onto the sea herself, slowly dissipating whilst playing out the role of loving wife. “Everyone’s got troubles,” Laurent rebukes Catherine when she first arrives on board: “They should be left at home. Like women.” But his neat distinctions don’t stand up to any pressure.

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Catherine, the one piece of salvage successfully recovered by the Cyclone, is cast as sylph temptress tossed onto the shore by the storm to lure in the virtuous Laurent. Except that no-one in Remorques quite fits their part, and Catherine, trying out her land legs again after years entrapped with the despicable Marc, reaches out to Laurent as the closest thing to a friend. Soon they’re drawn into a quick fling both are willing to mistake for eternal passion, before the call of responsibility takes Laurent back to Yvonne’s side and Catherine prepares to move on with the simplicity of someone who knows this drill, giving Kerlo a keepsake to give to his captain as a memento if ever he needs one. Morgan’s eyes, rimmed with tears and phosphorescent with melancholic triumph, attract Gremillion for an epic close-up in her last moments on screen here, as she wishes happiness for Laurent even as she’s already moving on. Remorques manages to coexist in both the rugged vicissitudes of a genre film close to the Warner Bros. working class action films and the Women’s Pictures of the same era.

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But Grémillon also stands back to consider how the two styles relate to each-other, the web of cultural assumptions and personal fantasies invested in both, the tension between the official doctrines of manly workaday pride and the feminine art of knitting a safe space, whilst adding that most French of topics, infidelity, the hunger for passion that, like the storm, sets all settlements in riot. Arching over all is a metaphysical aspect, something close to the cosmic level found in Frank Borzage’s films, if essayed in a grimmer hue. In spite of the unions civic, sexual, and contractual in Remorques, everyone is some form of solitary vessel floating around the others. “Unhappy people easily recognise one another,” Kerlo tells Catherine: “Life would be too sad otherwise.” The undercurrent of proto-feminist feeling that flows through the film, with both Yvonne and Catherine fighting in their way to avoid being dragged down by the contrasting yet ultimately similar obsessions of their husbands, is wound in uniquely with its accidental status as an Occupation-era film, as frustrations are voiced, taboos abruptly ruptured, suppressed feeling suddenly explode, everything suddenly thrown into flux.

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Grémillon would take this confluence further on Le Ciel est à vous, where he would cast Renaud as an aviatrix valiantly pursuing a flying record, purveyed as a metaphor for resistance against the fascist yoke. The first half of the film is close to one, long sequence unified as a series of interlocking events, commencing with careful deployment of the complex mesh of personalities and tones of the wedding, an event that encompasses modes of expression from pompous homilies to wine-soaked bawdiness in the margins, and seguing directly into the Cyclone’s voyage out to rescue the Mirva. This is a sequence of careful, layered physical detail, interwoven with the continuing arguments and running jokes of the crew. The crew of the Cyclone, and the attention of the audience, only finds relief the following day when the tugboat returns to port, after the storm has died. The watery sun invades the humdrum parlours and cafes, presenting the illusion of returned stability and rationality, and washes over the coastline, just in time to catch Laurent and Catherine walking on the beach. There they toe the flotsam left on the sands, and retreat into an abandoned beachfront house where they play-act creating a home, whilst finding a good stage to finally enact what’s been arcing between them unacknowledged.

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The serious romantic travails are contrasted lightly with Tanguy’s cuckold status, a popular subject of allusive jokes and teasing around the tug. Laurent encourages him to confront his wife, but Tanguy is swiftly disarmed by her dissembling chattering. Later, Laurent, weighing up his own rapidly evolving hypocrisy, tells him to forget what he said, as no-one outside a marriage can really understand what makes each one persist. By this time he’s committed his own crime by being hard to find, away with a woman who’s not his wife, discovered by one of his crew combing the coast on a motorcycle. Yvonne’s awareness that her husband has probably been off with another woman precipitates a gruelling scene of marital grievance-airing, punctuated by Yvonne’s frantic demands Laurent recognise the reality of her problems. Her shots at his very identity, his pride as a worker and leader and a man, by claiming he likes to own things, from his boat to his wife, drive Laurent away in a fury, believing his marriage finished.

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The atoll of romantic fulfilment Laurent tries to retreat into with Catherine proves exceptionally short-lived, as Catherine predicts: “The storm is coming to get me. I know what he’s crying. ‘It’s over. You’ve been happy too long. Now it’s time to go.’” Quintessential fatalism for poetic realism, the doomed lovers sprawled on a hotel room bed, transient feelings from beings snatching a moment of bliss. But Remorques shifts into a more intense and spectacularly woeful key for its finale, as Yvonne experiences a heart attack, bringing Laurent back to her bedside for a desperate interlude of pathos as Yvonne suddenly dies begging for Laurent’s avowal of love, his anguished scream echoing out to the others waiting in his apartment. When he appears to them, he’s just the staring shell of a man, obligated to answer the call of duty even in the eye of utter desolation. He paces down to the dock to join the Cyclone, which has to go out on a mission, in another stinging irony, to save their Dutch rivals.

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As Grémillon tracks Laurent’s progress through the drenching rain and the cold stonework and wrought-iron forms of the Brest waterfront, a strange liturgical recital begins to resound on the soundtrack, invocations of saints and angels dogging his footsteps, surging on to a creepy orchestral accompaniment that cuts out just before Laurent orders the tug to get under way, heading out into the dark. Grémillon’s background in music surely played a part in executing this fantastical yet perfect matching of vision and sound in a climax that counts as one of the strangest, bleakest, and greatest in cinema. It’s an incantatory moment that sets the seal on a domestic tragedy that has a conventional moral aspect, but which expands thanks to this startling flourish into something far more wild and unique. Here Remorques generates a frenzied aspect of baleful prayer, offering a requiem for an entire falling, drowning world, the end of a cinema genre and a human age.

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1900s, French cinema, Scifi, Silent

A Trip to the Moon (Voyage dans la lune, 1902)

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Georges Méliès

By Roderick Heath

On the 27th of December, 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special event arranged by the inventor brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers had recently perfected the machine they called the cinematograph—a creation that combined functions of moving picture camera, processor, and projector—and had been showing off the results around Paris throughout the later weeks of the year. On this night, they invited various showmen and theatrical impresarios to see the results of their labours. The invitees were to be one of the very first movie audiences, and at least one of them would soon become a pioneer of a new art. The Lumières had conflicting aims in the exhibition. They were exposing their creation and hoping to stir interest and publicity, which would help protect it from their many rivals, including Thomas Edison. But they also had avowed high-minded, scientific purpose for their invention on the cusp of dispatching a corps of photographers around the world to shoot documentary footage and exhibit the results. Méliès was an experienced stage illusionist who owned and managed the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by that famous magician. Méliès had become a success thanks to his meticulous attention to his theatre’s running and ingenuity in providing its attractions. Like all of the impresarios, he was transfixed by the new mode of communication the Lumières presented, and he jostled with the owner of the Folies Bergère in trying to buy their camera. But the brothers refused all offers.
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Méliès got around this by travelling to London and purchasing another manufacturer’s projecting device, which he adapted into a noisy but working camera, at first directly copying the short films the Lumières had made and showing them in his theatre as a side attraction. Méliès discovered peculiarities in this new tool as he went along, as when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. When filming was restarted, a moment of time had elapsed. When projected, Méliès saw the resulting jump and realised this basic quirk of the invention could be utilised to realise tricks similar to what he worked on stage. What was could suddenly become something else, only in the reality of film. Edison had already pulled a trick like this in one of his movies, but Méliès would make it the basis of a new expressive form. Méliès quickly found popularity with his new obsession far greater than what even his theatrical success could aspire to. He built a film studio in Montreuil, brought over his stock company of players, and began making movies with the verve and industry of someone who knew how to make and stage a show, as well as the quicksilver acumen required to adapt to a new medium. Most of his early works were only a few minutes long, but he tackled every subject he could, from ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) and The Dreyfus Affair (1899), to titillating stag-circuit shorts like After the Ball (1897), and the proto-horror films Le Maison du Diable (1897) and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899).
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Méliès’ work provides the bridge between the show business of one age, the theatre of belle époque Paris and the Victorian era stage fantasia, and the oncoming time of cinema. Illusionism was Méliès’ stock in trade, but it wasn’t just his love of theatrical stunts and sleight-of-hand that would influence his drift towards spectacle and the realm of the fantastic. His was a genuine love for and affinity with such fare, particularly what was called the “féerie” on the French stage—pageants and spectacles based in mythic and supernatural tales, imbued with a light and evanescent quality of transformative wonder, safe for young audiences in their colour, but also dusted with delicate, good-natured eroticism. Méliès captured the essence of this style as he began to specialise in stories exploiting his gift for realising fantastic imagery. In 1899 he made the six-minute Cinderella, an extremely straightforward telling of Perrault’s story. This proved so popular it gained him international clout and international legal problems, as the popularity of his works with pirates became increasingly galling. Under the banner of his production company, christened Star Films, Méliès began work on his most ambitious film to date, spending 10,000 francs and taking four months to create a film over fifteen minutes long. This odyssey was Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon, inspired by ideas from Jules Verne’s novella of that title and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, via, perhaps, Jacques Offenbach’s light-hearted operatic spin on Verne.
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Méliès’ work dated quickly in its day, as the fast-moving tides of technology and taste almost resulted in its total loss, swept away just as CD-ROM and VHS have been in the very recent past. After Méliès fell into ruin and obscurity, his rediscovery came when cinema first started looking back over its shoulder at the past. A Trip to the Moon is so familiar as a totem of pop culture inception today that it can seem near to cliché. And yet it’s as tantalisingly strange, witty, and original now as it was a century ago, a broadcast from the very edges of technological memory and modern reference. Of all the things cinema has been and is now, a seed for so much lies within A Trip to the Moon. It’s an experimental work, feeling out the peculiar textures and tricks of this new expressive form recognising no limits, only a basic set of proposed rules and a governing urge. It’s a protosurrealist’s fantasia mapping out the universe as annex of the interior imagination. It’s a pure auteurist relic created by a man who tackled and manipulated every aspect of his burgeoning craft. It’s a work of spectacle driven by special effects and a desire to wow an audience with visual impact. It’s a spry and funny burlesque on the themes of genre fiction and the stuff of official mythology, as well as the new, exciting, more than slightly terrifying concepts of the age of mechanisation and expanding consciousness marking the end of the Victorian era and the onrush of the new century. Sixty-seven years later, humankind would actually pull off the adventure Méliès conjured.
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A Trip to the Moon commences with a gathering of astronomers. The presiding Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) proposes firing a manned projectile to the moon with a giant gun, much to the excitement and consternation of his fellow scientists. A rival argues with him, plainly decrying his plan as preposterous, an exchange that devolves as Barbenfouillis tosses papers and paraphernalia at his adversary. Others agree to the proposed expedition and the mad-bearded professor shakes hands with them. Like much of the film, this scene seems very simple, with the unmoving camera, the stage-pageant sprawl and mime-show action. And yet it’s stuffed full of allusions, sign-play, and waggish jokes. Méliès depicts not contemporary scientists in the strict, professionalised garb of Victorian science but as medieval alchemists sporting cloaks decorated with celestial objects. Immediately apparent in this vignette is the way sexuality becomes a refrain, and above all show business itself; A Trip to the Moon is a paean to its own evocation of showmanship as a triumphant value. Cute stenographers write down the scientists’ every word, and a line of trim-waisted chorus girls enter to give the senior scientists the gifts of telescopes, which then transform into stools for them to sit on.
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This fillip of visual humour has resonance, suggesting the way wonder is often transmuted into stolid function: these men are used to romanticising whilst sitting on their equipment, and their journey is glimpsed as something of a Quixotic tilt not merely at exploration but at regaining lost youthful pluck. Méliès surely hadn’t read any Freud and yet the phallic note in those telescopes is insistent, and recurs later when the chorus girls are needed to help fire off the gigantic cannon. The opening tableau pictures the scientific realm as a cabalistic enclave with roots in weird esoterica and antisocial elitism, but pointing the way forward with industry and inspiration. Perhaps there’s some hint here of the filmmaker’s cunning in regards to his audience’s understanding of forces rapidly changing their lives, an aspect that complicates the film’s usual characterisation as an epitome of an early twentieth century statement of bold forward-looking. Of course, Méliès is also aware that his very film itself is part of those transformative forces, and the very last shot conflates Méliès’ mastery of his new art and the act of heroic discovery. Barbenfouillis’ sketch on a chalkboard becomes great undertaking, as witnessed in the second and third tableaux, as they have their projectile built and great gun forged. The scientists immediately set about modernising themselves, changing out of antique gear into the clothes of Montgolfier-era gentlemen adventurers. Barbenfouillis and his cabal inspect their brainchild’s realisation in the second tableau, but the savants are out of place in this workaday environment, as one man trips over a tub to the great amusement of the workers.
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If A Trip to the Moon repeatedly envisions scientific endeavour and venture into branch of show business, these scenes carry a hint of Méliès’ respect for the process required to produce anything wonderful, as the painted backdrop behind the projectile recognisably reproduces Méliès’ own studio. But the arts of Victorian metallurgy and industry become mere cardboard and paintwork. A Trip to the Moon revisited ideas Méliès had first explored in his whimsical 1899 work An Astronomer’s Dream, which had similarly envisioned an arcane concept of a skygazer dreaming of star-riding nymphs and a frightening moon with a man’s face that at one point eats the dreamer hero. A Trip to the Moon reordered these touches into a more elaborate edition, with the film’s famous central image quoting but also inverting the vision Méliès had offered three years earlier, as a product of human labour careens into the eye of the man in the moon. A simple inversion of a personal joke, certainly, but also an idea that reflects a changed attitude. Suddenly, humankind is no longer so at the mercy of the universe’s caprices. An Astronomer’s Dream betrays a certain level of anxiety filtered through comedy, a sense of the world just beyond our ken as both enticing and threatening. The promise of A Trip to the Moon has been the key promise of cinematic scifi ever since, that wisdom and applied intelligence might turn threat into triumph. The dreamer has become warrior with the way of things. And yet, of course, the aura of dreamlike plunge and the image of the cosmic feminine remain powerful in A Trip to the Moon.
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Seven years had passed since the first time Méliès saw a motion picture. Cinema was coming together with Promethean fire, and still only a fraction of the distance of the path it would travel. To watch the earliest fragments of moviemaking, the work of Edison, the Lumieres, and the handful of other pioneers in the field, is to stare at the very liminal edge of any sense of the past in motion, and the fleeting illusion of human subjects caught in a moment of life, like some form of spiritualism. How much it would evolve again in the following decade and a half, in terms of the techniques of visual storytelling, shifting from Méliès’ mostly fixed camera to the aggressively mobile and expressive camera of the likes of D.W. Griffith and his generation. Méliès brought a school of illusion from the stage to the screen with the essential presumption that one could be used like the other. To him, the camera was conjuring device and an imaginary audience member in his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin beholding the wonders he and his creative team could parade before it. Lack of worry about where the camera was and what it was doing at least freed him to labour on his other effects, as the hand-painted settings and props sprawl across the screen, creating an alternate reality, mysterious, beautiful, protean.
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Whilst the film presents only 17 apparent shots with a resolutely rectilinear perspective, it consists in fact of many more: Méliès’ camera passivity is another, carefully controlled illusion. One irony of passing time is that today with many filmmakers competing to outdo each other in masking their technique in elaborate tracking shots and the like, Méliès’ efforts in creating an illusion of sustained reality from a rigorously direct perspective feels less antiquated on at least this level. We can also see the jumps in Méliès’ sense of the camera by looking back to Cinderella with its cluttered but also simpler mise-en-scène and basic camera tricks just three years before—here the shots tend to stand back further, but are also more cleanly composed and energetically arranged. The vibrancy of the sets also betrays a more confident sense of what the frame could contain, what the eye could handle zapping down at it from the screen. The film’s third tableau, a shot of the astronomers overlooking the enormous undertaking of forging the cannon, is relatively brief but one of the most fascinatingly realised and visually dramatic moments, with Méliès using forced perspective, plumes of steam and smoke, and streams of liquid metal. This is a direct transposition of a vivid passage in Verne’s novel, revealing Méliès as adaptor as well as free improviser. The basic visual presumption here is still theatrical, but the shot betrays an interest in conveying process, the art of construction and the spectacle of industry in itself, that has moved beyond the tableaux style into something more definably cinematic, a seed for the epic style in filmmaking. Méliès’ shifts from shot to shot come with dissolves, embryonic film grammar giving the film the mobility the camera lacks.
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The next three tableaux are the most familiar moments of A Trip to the Moon, indeed some of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history, endlessly excerpted and anthologised as they’ve been. The moon shot project reaches its moment of truth in the midst of public excitement and publicity coup. The scientists climb into their shell and a cohort of chorus girls load it into the great cannon, before a uniformed military officer (François Lallement, one of the Star Films cameramen) signals the gun to be fired. The shell flies through the ether, and the moon, envisioned like an illustration out of a children’s book with man’s face upon its dial beaming beatifically down upon the Earth, receives the interstellar slug right in the eye. These scenes again take Verne’s novel as blueprint, but subject it to a highly satiric attitude. The great business of conquering space is presented not as pure, stoic, Apollonian venture growing out of diverted military force but a carnival of enterprise that mocks martial swagger—the rifle-toting, trumpet-blowing, flag-waving marine entourage are girls who look like a rough draft for Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties (including Méliès’ lover and later wife Jeanne d’Alcy), sending a bunch of old farts to the moon with a gun blast that needs more than a little womanly priming. Méliès’ mischievous take on great nationalist adventures here betrays his background in drawing political cartoons, as well his impresario’s understanding that there is no event so great that can’t be sexed up a bit.
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And, of course, the man in the moon receiving the shell in his eye still blazes with comical and technical genius, one of the greatest sight gags ever to grace celluloid. This sequence utilised Méliès’ technique, pioneered on The Man with the Rubber Head (1902), of approximating what would become the rack or zoom shot (except that the subject was moved closer to the camera rather than the more familiar practice, because the camera was too heavy), to provide a sense of motion. That motion is to give a sense of zeroing in on the moon, which starts off as a vague, mysterious object, charged with enigmatic meaning, then revealed as an animate being who splutters with pain and offence once he gets the iron slug lodged in his brow. Méliès knew well it was a killer image, utilising it as iconography in the film’s last shot and as core advertising motif. Here we seen encapsulated in image and action not just a great piece of humour and a technical innovation, but a pivot of ways of seeing the universe, an idea that legitimises A Trip to the Moon as science fiction and not just playful fantasy. Méliès signals his conversance with a panoply of mythical figures as common motifs in theatrical fancies throughout, and knows his audience is too; the projectile is the hard smack of new scientific possibility right in the eye of a poetic worldview. The idea of landing on the moon is an act of blasphemy according to one unit of values and a simple jaunt to a strange place in another. One irony here is that the filmmaking Méliès was now espousing would soon mostly sweep away the theatrical world he was rooted in, and invent new pantheons of myth to fill in for what he counts as cultural lingua franca. Of course, the tendency of humankind to write its own image on the universe has never really left us. It’s core to understanding some of the most ambitious science fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) depiction of interstellar destiny to Solaris’s (1971) sarcasm towards the notion in encountering the truly alien that can only mimic the onlooker, eternally retarding and frustrating understanding with the collaboration of our most parochial reflexes.
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Méliès offers this vignette as a kind of abstract, symbolic commentary on the idea of landing on the moon, only to follow it up with a different, more literal version of the same thing. The shell actually skids to a halt on the moon surface, depicted realistically as a craggy, brutal landscape, if also, not so realistically, as a place with a breathable atmosphere. The scientists climb out of the shell only for it to slide into an abyss, and, amazed by the sight of the Earth rising on the horizon, they settle down to try and sleep. Méliès revisits the core joke of The Astronomer’s Dream here as the snoozing savants either conjure up the spirits of the ether in their dreams or miss seeing them because they’re asleep, and again Méliès evokes the mystical way of looking at the universe with erotic overtones. The Pleiades look down in bewildered amusement, depicted as a flock of disembodied girls’ heads framed by stylised model stars, the snoozing old men still cheated of their true promised land. The moon goddess Phoebe (played by regular Méliès player and stage star Bleuette Bernon) and irate old Saturn argue over what to do about these interlopers, a fight Phoebe wins: she causes a gentle snowstorm that wakens them and drives them follow their shell into the abyss. The concept of the beneficent cosmic force overlooking sailors on the celestial ocean is, in spite of science fiction’s nominal agnosticism, a constant refrain in a lot of the genre’s screen existence, but Méliès’ sense of humour about the notion is rarer, the contrast of beatific Phoebe and ranting Saturn, who leans out of a portal in the side of the planet bearing his name, pictures the gods as comedy neighbours.
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Descending into the valleys of the moon, the explorers find an exotic and fertile world where strange transformations can occur—Barbenfouillis finds his umbrella takes root and grows into a colossal mushroom. Here Méliès turned to Wells for inspiration, borrowing his moon inhabitants called Selenites to provide plot complication lacking from Verne, whose space projectile had simply rounded the moon and glimpsed the possibility of strange things existing on the dark side. One of the Selenites, weird, crustacean-like hominids fond of leaping bout like acrobats, erupts from the underbrush and intimidates the scientists sufficiently to make Barbenfouillis strike out with another umbrella, causing the alien to explode in a puff of smoke. He does the same thing to a second Selenite, only for a small army of the aliens to give chase and capture the hapless Earthlings. The captives are bound and paraded before the king of the Selenites, who sits on a throne in an alien city, surrounded by his harem of moon maids. Infuriated, Barbenfouillis wrenches at his bonds and snaps them, grabs the king and hurls him to the ground, exploding him, before the humans run for their lives. Méliès provides a sense of propulsion and quickening rhythm here, spurning the languid, dreamy mood of the scientists’ arrival on the mood as the action becomes urgent. Here we have a resolutely linear, comic book-like sense of action as the heroes flee across the frame into different shots, chased by furious Selenites, but not yet offering simple cuts between the scenes, still delineating the change of scene with the dissolve. The result offers a kind of embryonic montage.
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Some have theorised Méliès intended A Trip to the Moon as a purposeful lampoon of imperialist practices and values, apparent in the bumbling but real aggression of the scientists crashing in upon a foreign culture and wreaking havoc. Méliès was probably aware of Cyrano de Bergerac’s own supposed adventures to the moon, part of his subversive method of mirroring absurdity on Earth. Méliès himself had spent time working as a leftist political cartoonist, taking aim official pieties and pomposities, and he had stirred fights in cinemas by explicitly taking a pro-Dreyfus stance with his film about the case. Later, with one of his last epics, Conquest of the Pole (1910), Méliès would be less abashed in poking fun at suffragettes and their opponents. A Trip to the Moon is filled with images smirking at the hoopla of nationalist intrepidity and the idea of timid humans faced with frighteningly wilful organisms. Whilst such readings might easily be taken to unlikely lengths, it is plain Méliès has a lot of fun transposing the template of imperialist-era adventure stories onto the moon, following the same basic pattern as any Tarzan story, but keeping tongue deep in cheek: the explorers tramp into the unknown, are captured by hostile natives and paraded before their overlord who embodies an archaic ideal of lordly domain, before the heroes make their escape. It’s certainly a long way from Wells’ portrait of the Selenites as a sentient race governed by resolutely different social and biological constructs. Blood-and-thunder plotting is, however, viewed through Méliès’ sensibility, the playful, naïve state of early cinema, and the traditions of the féerie, finding comic diminuendo in the fact that the Selenites explode rather than die realistically, and the easy manner in which Barbenfouillis breaks the ropes that bind him. Méliès’ moon bleeds but his Selenites disappear in puffs of theatrical smoke. The universe is alive but life is no more than a moment’s dream.
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Méliès nonetheless dashes with breathless art towards his climax as the scientists locate their craft and climb in, whilst Barbenfouilles labours to pull the shell off a cliff, finally succeeding just as a lone Selenite grabs hold of the shell and is dragged over the edge along with it, plunging back towards Earth. This moment suggests Jack and the Beanstalk as another fairy tale influence on Méliès, another story of a naïve man ascending to a strange land, whilst Méliès abandons any pretence to scientific realism in favour of straight fantasy logic. Méliès has the shell splash-land in the ocean, the only use of any real, outdoor location in the film with the shell and splash superimposed over real waves. The shell sinks into the ocean depths, actually a fish tank, and then is pulled back to shore by a ship—a sliding cardboard cut-out pulling a similar mock-up of the shell, from which a handheld puppet waves a flag of triumph. These effects are obviously incredibly primitive on one level, and yet ebullient in their zest and stirring in Méliès’ willingness to use any and every trick to tell his story in as visually inventive and dynamic a manner possible. Here is the essence of a delight in artifice as its own aesthetic value that many a much later filmmaker, from Terry Gilliam to Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, has embraced. Questions of realism or artifice were probably entirely incidental to Méliès considering the nature of early filmmaking, and yet one can’t help but feel he was the kind to choose artifice every time.
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The scientists make their triumphant return to their homeland with their Selenite captive, who is paraded before crowds and forced to dance, whilst Barbenfouilles is immortalised in statue as the conqueror of the moon, with the slogan “Labor omnia vincit” on the pedestal. Méliès retains hints of his acerbic side here, with an undertone of violence in the scientists’ success—the statue of Barbenfouillis depicts him with boot planted on the moon with the shell lodged in its eye, whilst the Selenite has been reduced to dancing bear. But the overall tone is one of pure elation, an envisioned moment of triumph that codifies all the confidence and joie de vivre not just of Méliès and his filmmaking team but of the young twentieth century itself, just starting to look up not just in fantasy but true ambition. Méliès evokes the masque dance used to end some theatrical performances in celebratory mood, and underlines his work here above all as an expression of carnivalesque joie de vivre, a work that stands above all as a tribute to the very idea of dreaming big. It was an apex of ambition and accomplishment for Star Films. Méliès had drawn on the theatre world he loved to help augment his vision, utilising friends who were singers in Paris’s music halls as his crew of scientists, beauties from the Théâtre du Châtelet as the cannon girls and star maids, and acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère as Selenites.
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A Trip to the Moon’s influence is incalculable—every special-effects spectacle, every alien that stalks the screen in every scifi film owes it a debt of gratitude. The influence hardly stops at genre borders either. Edwin S. Porter’s seedling western The Great Train Robbery (1903) would take licence from the film’s shunting film grammar, controlled theatrical viewpoint, and dashing action style, echoing on through a vast array of horse operas and action films. D.W. Griffith would state he owed Méliès everything. The director’s own masterpiece is perhaps a purer fantasy, made four years later, The Kingdom of the Fairies, still just as stagy in some ways but now overwhelming the cinematic frame with shifting planes of vision and effect, and conveying the essence of the féerie Méliès loved so much for cinema’s posterity.
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But it was A Trip to the Moon that made Méliès the most famous of early filmmakers and which will probably always define his contribution. The only problem with Méliès’ success was that it was so inescapable. He had changed the way a very young art form conversed with its audience and expanded its scope to become a zone of pure creative vision, diverting the form away from the Lumieres’ vision of a tool of veracity. He had set in motion processes that would make him the first real movie king and the first to be dethroned by shifting tastes, evolving styles, and the brusque way of business that would soon dominate what turned quickly from enthusiast’s pursuit to heavy industry. Méliès had employed all that his studio and the theatrical world of Paris could offer, but all that was doomed to be swept away or radically transformed by an age of movable entertainment feasts. The century for which he had provided a fanfare would indeed eventually see men land on the moon after times of grotesque tragedy and grand calamity. The flame of grace that still gutters within A Trip to the Moon, in its charming and naïve proposition of the future by way of the past, is that it remembers that moment when anything seemed possible for us. Labor omnia vincit.

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