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Tag Archives: French Cinema

Orpheus (March 1, 1950)

Orpheus
Orpheus (1950)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
André Paulvé Film / DisCina

Back in 2004, I visited the exhibit Jean Cocteau: Enfant terrible at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It was a wonderful show, and introduced me to Cocteau’s drawings, none of which I’d seen before, and many of which were pornographic enough to be squirreled away in a special section of the exhibit with dim red lights and a warning to parents outside. The show also featured some original costumes from Cocteau’s masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946), which I’ve loved since I first saw it in high school.

The exhibit also introduced me to Cocteau’s hour-long film The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète) (1932). It’s a beautiful and surreal little work of art, with lots of in-camera special effects that Cocteau would use again in La Belle et la Bête and in Orpheus (Orphée) (1950), which is a follow-up of sorts to The Blood of a Poet. (Together with Cocteau’s 1959 film Testament of Orpheus, the three films comprise what is commonly referred to as “The Orphic Trilogy.”)

Jean Marais

Orpheus stars Cocteau’s longtime lover Jean Marais, and is loosely based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the musician who traveled to the underworld to save his wife, Eurydice.

Marais plays a poet named Orphée (the French version of the name “Orpheus”), who travels between different realms of reality — first against his will and later quite purposefully. As I said, Cocteau’s Orpheus is only loosely based on the myth of Orpheus. For Cocteau, that tale is just a jumping-off point for his visual poetry, and his musings on life, death, dreams, art, and love.

Orpheus is a beautiful film, but it’s also a very funny one. Cocteau’s arch, camp sensibility is fully on display here, and the most heartbreaking part of the original myth of Orpheus — the doom that awaits if he turns around and looks at his beloved when they exit the underworld — is played mostly for laughs in Cocteau’s Orpheus, and becomes just one more domestic annoyance that the great poet must deal with.

I loved Orpheus, although it’s definitely not a film for everyone. This is a movie in which Death takes the form of a beautiful woman (María Casares) who travels in a Rolls Royce and is attended by two motorcyclists whose leather get-ups look like something out of a Tom of Finland cartoon or a film by Kenneth Anger.

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Blood of the Beasts (1949)

LeSangDesBetes
Blood of the Beasts (Le sang des bêtes) (1949)
Directed by Georges Franju
Forces et voix de la France

This review originally appeared earlier this year on The Mortuary as part of The Ludovico Film Institute’s program on the Rue Morgue Podcast’s 100 Essential Alternative Horror Films.

Ever since I saw Night and Fog (1955), Alain Resnais’s short film about the Holocaust, I have been haunted by a section of the film’s opening narration, which describes the building of the concentration camps:

Architects calmly design the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Burger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away.

This narration has haunted me because it gets to the heart of what is terrifying about life.

There is a place being prepared for all of us.

It could be a comfortable bed, where if we are lucky we will expire without much pain or anguish, or — better yet — in our sleep. It could be a patch of soil in a foreign land, and we will be hailed after our death as a hero. It could be a street corner, and we won’t even know what hit us. If we are unlucky, it will be a place of unimaginable horror and misery.

But no matter what the manner of our passing will be, there is a place being prepared for all of us.

LeSangDesBetes1

The places that were prepared for the horses, cows, calves, and sheep we see slaughtered in Georges Franju’s short film Blood of the Beasts were the Vaugirard and La Villette slaughterhouses on the outskirts of Paris.

Vaugirard is an abattoir that specialized in the slaughter of horses, the first animal we see die in Blood of the Beasts. The bleeding and preparation of the horse’s corpse is gruesome, but the horse’s death itself is not particularly cruel. The magnificent animal is led to its place of execution placidly, is killed with a bolt gun, and appears to die instantly.

If you are a vegetarian for ethical reasons, the footage in Blood of the Beasts will probably sicken and horrify you. If you have ever worked in a slaughterhouse or have hunted and dressed the animals you have killed, it will probably not.

I don’t think this is the point.

Franju did not make Blood of the Beasts as an exposé of conditions in Paris’s abattoirs, or as a polemic against the consumption of meat. In an interview, Franju admitted that he had little interest in the subject of slaughterhouses when he made the film. Franju described himself as a realist who sought to depict reality, but in a surreal way.

Franju chose the Vaugirard and La Villette slaughterhouses because of their proximity to the placid Ourcq canal and the bucolic vacant lots where children played and vendors sold trinkets. He wanted to juxtapose the tranquility of human life with the gruesomeness of the abattoirs. Franju said that people later told him that he should have filmed Blood of the Beasts in color, because that would have been even more horrifying, but he responded that it was not his intention to be repulsive, it was his intention to make a work of art.

LeSangDesBetes2

Blood of the Beasts is composed entirely of documentary footage, but it is unquestionably an existential horror film. Franju unsettles the viewer by not only exposing that which is normally hidden, but by doing it in such a beautiful manner.

The transitions in this film would look more at home in a film based on a fairy tale; there is a shimmering fan that moves across the screen to cut from one scene to another, and the first scene of slaughter is ended by what appears to be the ornate covers of a story book closing over the frame. Later, there is a low-angle shot of a barge on the Ourcq canal as it passes from the left side of the frame to the right. It is a documentary shot, but since the camera is so low that we can’t see the water, the barge resembles a piece of moving scenery in a stage play.

Blood of the Beasts is a short film that leads the viewer to ponder the fine line between humans and animals. Unless you still cling to quaint notions like the existence of the soul or the sanctity of human life, what separates us from the animals?

LeSangDesBetes3

The history of the first half of the 20th century is one of mechanized slaughter. We may be the dominant predator on planet earth, but we are still flesh and blood. If our throats are slashed and our heads sawed off, we die in the same manner as the cows do in Blood of the Beasts. If, like the horse in the beginning of the film, a bolt gun is shot into our forehead, we will drop to the ground with a similar kind of rag-doll finality.

Our bodies are all equally vulnerable if exposed to the right conditions (as we learn from the narrator, one of the slaughterhouse workers depicted in the film accidentally severed his own femoral artery and had to have his right leg amputated).

Toward the end of the film, the narrator ponders how life and death are inextricable, which is as close as the film comes to having a mission statement:

“I will strike you without anger and without hate, like a butcher,” wrote Baudelaire. Without anger, without hate, with the simple cheerfulness of killers who whistle or sing as they slit throats, for they must earn their own daily bread and that of others with the wages of a difficult and often dangerous profession.

Monsieur Vincent (Nov. 5, 1947)

Last Easter, I attended services at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The bishop who delivered the sermon told of how Jesus was resurrected after dying on the cross, and how he appeared to Mary Magdalene. At first she didn’t recognize him, and mistook him for a common laborer. Clearly there was no unearthly glow around his body or blindingly bright halo encircling his head. “Hollywood would not approve,” the bishop said.

I thought about the bishop’s joke when I watched Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent, a biography of the seventeenth century curé Saint Vincent de Paul.

It’s a great film, and not just because of Pierre Fresnay’s brilliant, totally convincing performance as Vincent de Paul. It’s a great film because it doesn’t engage in the flashy hokum that so many films about religious figures do. There are no heavenly choirs, light streaming through stained glass, or mist-shrouded appearances of Jesus.

Despite the fact that Monsieur Vincent is about a deeply religious man, it depicts his life as one might have observed it at the time. His commitment to caring for the poor isn’t idealized — the people who receive his charity are often filthy, miserable, and ungrateful — but the film is all the more powerful for its realism.

Monsieur Vincent was released in France on November 5, 1947, and in the United States on December 20, 1948. It was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1949 at the 21st Academy Awards.

Quai des Orfèvres (Oct. 3, 1947)

Nothing spices up a love triangle like murder.

And nothing elevates a routine police procedural like the sure hand of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is ultimately less interested in the mechanics of unraveling a murder mystery than he is in showing human life in all of its sordid glory.

Quai des Orfèvres is based on Stanislas-André Steeman’s 1942 novel Légitime défense, which Clouzot adapted from memory when he was unable to locate a copy.

The plot isn’t hard to summarize. What is hard to convey is the richness of its characters and its evocation of the messiness of real life.

Quai des Orfèvres is a film in which a woman complains about a nail in her shoe poking her foot, in which a tense police interview takes place next to a pair of cops inspecting and discussing a fishing pole, in which a police inspector who comes round asking questions ends up shuffling around on carpet slippers because the floors have just been waxed, and in which a man opens his veins in a jail cell on Christmas Eve while the prostitute in the cell next to him natters on about inconsequential matters, not realizing what’s going on right next to her.

The film demonstrates a sense of the movement of time that few films do. It begins in early December and marches on inexorably toward Christmas. At first, Paris looks cold and damp, but toward the end of the picture we see fat flakes of snow beginning to fall slowly outside the windows of the police station.

The aforementioned plot involves a bald, chubby pianist-accompanist named Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier) and his coquettish wife, a music-hall singer whose stage name is Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair). The two couldn’t be less alike, and Maurice is constantly jealous of his wife. The two share a friendship with their neighbor, Dora Monier (Simone Renant), a photographer who is as perceptive and close-lipped as Maurice and Jenny are hot-tempered and argumentative.

Things come to a head when Jenny begins meeting with a dirty-old-man producer named Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin, a legend of the French stage, in his last film role). She wants a part in a movie. Maurice wants Brignon to stay far, far away from his wife.

On the night when Jenny is set to go to Brignon’s house for a romantic dinner, Maurice cooks up a half-baked scheme. He’ll go to the theater for a show and be seen by his friends in the business before and after the show, but during the show, he’ll quietly slip out with his revolver in his pocket and drive to Brignon’s house.

It’s never made clear whether he plans to kill both Brignon and his wife or just Brignon, and we never find out, because when he arrives at Brignon’s house, Brignon has already been killed.

And worse, when he flees the scene, he finds his car has been stolen, which means he barely gets back to the theater in time to shuffle out with the stragglers, which pokes a few holes in his alibi.

Meanwhile, Jenny admits to her friend Dora that she hit Brignon over the head with a bottle when he became too amorous, and Dora goes to Brignon’s house to clean up the scene.

Enter Inspector Antoine of the Paris police (Louis Jouvet).

Inspector Antoine is no Sherlock Holmes. He’s a detective for a homicide department that currently has a 48% clearance rate. But he is a dogged investigator, and as any Columbo fan knows, beware a hangdog police detective with a runny nose who never, ever gives up.

The character of Antoine — perfectly played by Jouvet — is a great example of how Clouzot injects little unexpected moments to make characters three-dimensional. For instance, Antoine is a single father raising a mixed-race son. When he learns that his son has failed one of his final exams — that pesky geometry — Antoine is upset, and mutters that he’ll just have to give his son the Meccano set he already bought him as a Christmas present instead.

Oh, and remember that love triangle I referred to in the lede? At first it seems that Dora has feelings for Maurice, but it very quickly becomes clear that her feelings are for Jenny. The fact that she is a lesbian is handled delicately, but is confirmed late in the film when Antoine tells her, “When it comes to women, we’ll never have a chance.”

Quai des Orfèvres is a remarkable film. It doesn’t have the heart-stopping suspense of some of Clouzot’s more famous later pictures, like Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) (1953) and Diabolique (1955), but it’s an extraordinarily well-made, well-acted, richly textured, and involving movie that I couldn’t wait to see again as soon as it was over.

La Belle et la Bête (Oct. 29, 1946)

La belle et la bête
La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
DisCina

Jean Cocteau began filming La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) almost immediately after the end of the Nazi occupation of France. It wasn’t a quick or an easy shoot. Cocteau had to contend with limited film stock of varying quality, cameras that jammed, aircraft flying overhead that ruined the sound, and the general disarray of post-war France.

The 56-year-old Cocteau was a well-known writer, poet, visual artist, and director of avant-garde films, but this was his first foray into mainstream filmmaking. It begins with an exhortation to audiences to remember what it is to be a child, and to experience magic without the jaundiced eyes of an adult.

This is probably a direct reaction to the critics (most notably Jean-Paul Sartre) who felt that Cocteau was not political enough. Cocteau’s only allegiance in life was to art, and it is appropriate that he made this film as a reaction to critics, since it’s one of the most beautiful and magical pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. His plea to audiences that opens the film seems unnecessary. This is a film that speaks for itself.

In adapting the 18th-century fairy tale, Cocteau used a lot of the same techniques he used when he made his experimental 1930 film Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet); simple special effects, an obsession with mirrors, statues that come to life, and tricks of speed and perspective.

As in the original story (most famously written by Mme Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756, although she didn’t create the tale), Belle (played by Josette Day) lives with her merchant father (Marcel André) and her two nasty, selfish sisters, here named Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). Cocteau added two male characters, Belle’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her handsome but shallow suitor, Avenant (Jean Marais).

The domestic scenes in the film are designed and lighted to look like paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. The characters all wear 17th-century costumes, and the interiors are beautiful to look at, even though the human drama is stifling and petty. Félicie and Adélaïde bicker and ridicule Belle, and are indifferent to their father’s rising debts. Meanwhile, Ludovic and Avenant avoid all responsibility and are only interested in the pursuit of leisure.

When Belle’s father rides off into the woods, the mood of the film dramatically shifts. Using a combination of real parks and woodlands with studio sets, Cocteau creates a magical fairy-tale world directly based on 19th-century engravings by Gustave Doré.

La Belle

When Belle’s father first enters la Bête’s castle — revealed when a gate of tree branches magically parts — his shadow moves against the castle entrance even though he is standing still. Once inside, candelabras held by human arms mounted into the wall magically spring to light. It doesn’t matter that you can see wires holding the candelabras aloft; the simple but painstaking special effects are still breathtaking. When Belle’s father sits down in the banquet hall, sculptures of human faces on the mantel of the fireplace are actually the faces of human actors covered with soot, their bright eyes the only thing about them that looks alive as smoke pours out of their nostrils.

This delineation between fantasy and reality continues throughout the film. When Belle enters the castle to fulfill the punishment meted out to her father for picking one of la Bête’s white flowers, she floats through long corridors full of billowing white curtains in dreamy slow-motion. There are doors and mirrors that speak to her, and a bed with a white fur spread that slithers open. The special effects are simple, and a lot of them are done “in the can” by simply reversing the film.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Disney’s 1991 version of this fairy tale, but that film bears an enormous debt to Cocteau’s version. Everything from the look of the beast to the costumes, set design, and subplot about Belle’s jealous suitor are lifted directly from this film. While the Disney version is perfectly competent, it doesn’t have the otherworldly power of Cocteau’s vision. La Bête, in particular, is less cuddly and more uncanny here. He’s played by Jean Marais, who also plays Belle’s suitor, Avenant, which would be distracting if he wasn’t completely unrecognizable under the heavy makeup and mountains of hair. Marais plays la Bête as a noble, leonine creature with a deep nasal monotone. Unlike the lovable furball of the Disney film, there are a few moments in which he is truly frightening; appearing as if by magic when Belle’s father picks a flower, drinking from a brook on all fours like an animal, or standing over the carcass of a deer that he has mutilated.

Given that Cocteau was gay and Marais was his longtime lover, it’s tempting to read a lot into this film. For Freudian readings of heterosexual power dynamics and the vagaries of lust, the Beauty and the Beast myth is second perhaps only to the story of Bluebeard. Are all men beasts who must stifle bloodthirsty and rapacious urges in order to be with women? Did Cocteau, who had begun to suffer from painful eczema, feel like a beast himself?

All theories are welcome, but I prefer to heed Cocteau’s advice in the preface and take this magical film at face value.

La Bataille du Rail (Feb. 27, 1946)

About five years ago I saw a fantastic World War II movie from 1964 called The Train. Directed by John Frankenheimer, The Train stars Burt Lancaster as a French resistance member who has to stop a train bound for Germany that is carrying priceless art treasures. Filmed in grimy black and white, the film eschews any silliness like having Lancaster put on a fake French accent, and scores high marks as both a drama and an action film.

The reason I bring up The Train is because I couldn’t get it out of my mind while watching René Clément’s film La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails). If Frankenheimer and his crew didn’t study La Bataille du Rail when they were making The Train, I would be surprised, since Clément’s film is a landmark of vérité war action, and some of its action sequences are very similar to ones found in The Train. The gritty look of the picture also seems to have influenced Frankenheimer. Unfortunately, La Bataille du Rail doesn’t score as highly as a dramatic film, which would be fine if it were a documentary, but it’s not. It only looks like one.

The film opens with the following preamble: “This picture, which recalls actual scenes of the Resistance, was produced in cooperation with the Military Commission of the Resistance National Council.” How accurately any of the action reflects what actually went on during the war, however, I don’t know, but they unquestionably derailed an actual train during the climax, which was impressive.

There are many characters La Bataille du Rail, but they are played by unprofessional actors (who are listed in the opening credits only by surname), and they are never really allowed to develop personalities. The structure of the film is episodic, and depicts an escalating war of attrition. The resistance sabotages trains necessary to the German war effort, and the Germans respond by executing members of the resistance and increasing their military presence on the tracks.

At points, the film reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Stachka (Strike) in the way that it placed its numerous human characters against an enormous backdrop of industry. The smoke and grime from the trains covers everything, and the machinery dwarfs the people fighting and dying all around it. There’s an impressive nighttime battle sequence that ends with a resistance member being run over by the treads of a tank. It viscerally drove home the message that while the spirit of a collective can accomplish remarkable things, the integument of a single human body can be crushed by the machinery of war as easily as a person can step on a grape.

Most of the visuals in La Bataille du Rail are impressive because of their scale, but there’s one memorable scene that achieves its impact more subtly. A group of resistance members are lined up against a wall by the Germans and shot one by one. The camera lingers on a single man’s face. He grimaces as each shot is fired. The shot then cuts to what he is seeing; a spider spinning its web along the wall. It’s the last thing he will ever see. It’s a remarkable sequence, and one that makes its point without any dialogue.

I watched La Bataille du Rail immediately after watching Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), another film about resistance under the Nazis that is shot in a semi-documentary style. In my review of Roma, città aperta I complained about some of the characters and the melodramatic storyline, which I felt undercut the impact of the more vérité material. La Bataille du Rail went completely in the other direction, and never developed its human characters at all. It’s effective in the context of the film, but keeps the viewer at a distance. It’s an impressive film, and I’m glad I saw it, but I’d sooner watch The Train again than La Bataille du Rail. It probably didn’t help that the DVD I watched, from Facets, looked like crap. The film could do with a restoration. The print was fuzzy, and the nighttime scenes looked muddy and were occasionally confusing because of it.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Sept. 21, 1945)

LesdamesduboisdeboulogneFrench film director Robert Bresson is famous for his use of non-professional actors. Prior to watching Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I had only seen one Bresson film, Pickpocket (1959), whose protagonist was most certainly not a professional actor. He shambled through the proceedings like a man on a heavy dose of tranquilizers, his movements slow, his eyes haunted. It was an interesting film, and one I may watch again some day, but it didn’t move me.

It wasn’t always this way. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Bresson’s second film, features a cast of professional actors, and is based on a short novel by Denis Diderot with dialogue written by Jean Cocteau. The result is a polished and romantic film that completely engrossed me.

María Casares plays a haughty member of high society named Hélène who has long had a loosely defined relationship with a handsome gentleman named Jean (Paul Bernard). They may have other dalliances, but they are committed to each other, more or less. As the film begins, Hélène is on a date at the opera with a gentleman friend named Jacques (Jean Marchat), who warns her that Jean’s passion for her is cooling. When Jean later shows up at Hélène’s apartment, apologizing for having forgotten her birthday, Hélène tells him she would prefer they end their romance and become simply friends. She says this merely as a ploy, and she is devastated when he tells her he feels the same way, and leaves her apartment unperturbed by the momentous decision to end their affair. Left alone, she vows revenge.

The power of the film comes from Bresson’s ability to depict the emotions that rage behind placid exteriors. He is aided by Casares, whose performance is truly astounding. Without ever raising her voice or engaging in histrionics, she plays the “scorned woman” to the hilt. She is fascinating to watch, and sometimes even frightening. Part of the fascination comes from the fact that Jean and the young woman Hélène befriends, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), are unaware of how they are being manipulated by the cold Hélène. They are preoccupied with each other. More importantly, they are preoccupied with themselves, especially Agnès, who has a sordid past and doesn’t feel worthy of being loved by Jean. She hides her true self from him, but the longer she hides, the more devastating Hélène’s revenge will be.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is a film about the redemptive power of love and the corrosive allure of vengeance. Many modern viewers may find the social mores on display in the film outdated, but if they look past the surface, they may find that the world hasn’t changed as much as they think it has. The lives of the Parisian leisure class may look and feel very different from the lives of most people who view the film today, but the story Bresson tells is timeless.