Tag Archives: French cinema

Classe tous risques

Classe tous risques
Classe tous risques

Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 September 2013

Distributor: BFI

Director: Claude Sautet

Writers: Claude Sautet, Pascal Jardin

Based on the novel by: José Giovanni

Cast: Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio

France 1960

110 mins

A train station in Italy. Two small children receive a furtive send off before boarding a train alone with their mother. Their father, a fugitive gangster, has decided that it’s time for the family to return home to France after ten years in hiding, but to finance the move, Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) needs to pull off one last job, a brazen theft in broad daylight in Milan. Of course, that theft only increases the unwanted attention from the police, and Davos’s flight to the border, and eventually to Paris, is a dramatic, dangerous and ultimately tragic grasp at freedom, which underpins Claude Sautet’s fantastic thriller about a once-powerful man now struggling for his survival.

Based on a novel by José Giovanni, written after the author’s release from jail, Classe tous risques (Consider all Risks) gets off to a dynamic start, with Davos’s getaway from Milan relayed in a terrific action sequence, involving cars, motorbikes and a boat landing on the French shore under the cover of night. But when the worst happens, Davos finds he must turn to his former partners-in-crime for help. His ‘friends’ in Paris now live more respectable lives, safe only because he took the fall for their misdeeds in the past, culminating in his exile. But now, years later, they are reluctant to pay their debts. Instead of becoming personally involved, they send Eric Starck, a young man-on-the-make (played by a terrific Jean-Paul Belmondo) to pick up Davos in the south of France and bring him back to Paris.

Davos, who should be more concerned with the welfare of his family, is quietly furious and turns to plotting his revenge, seeking payback for this latest betrayal – with the help of Eric, who goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect Davos and his children. From this point on, despite clear indications of the brutality that lurks below the gangster’s charismatic exterior, Sautet sets up a blend of moral ambiguities and dilemmas, making it almost impossible not to empathise with Davos – even if his actions can’t be condoned.

Classe tous risques is released in the UK as a BFI Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition on 24 February 2014.

Classe tous risques is a taut, original gangster film told with simplicity and a compelling directness, with bare-bones exposition and a neorealist touch. But there are also deeper, more thoughtful issues in play with Sautet’s no-punches-pulled exploration of the conflicts between loyalty and family, and the code of honour among thieves. The result is a tour de force, which is rounded out by a soundtrack by Georges Delerue and beautifully composed cinematography from Ghislain Cloquet. In one memorable shot, a woman that Davos and Eric encounter, having only just realised that she might be in the company of criminals, is caught between Eric in the background, while in the foreground, a telephone – a link to the cops – is separated from her by a pane of glass. Her moment of hesitation as she decides between right and wrong is exquisite.

It’s only a shame that Classe tous risques was utterly eclipsed on its original release by Belmondo’s other film, Breathless, coming out in the same year, and the ensuing excitement over the French New Wave. But the real mystery lies in why Sautet rarely returned to the underworld of gangsters and criminals during his career, choosing instead to focus on dramas set in the world of the bourgeoisie – films which, admittedly, brought him more success than this overlooked, but rich contribution to the genre.

Sarah Cronin

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The Returned

The Returned
The Returned

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 July 2013

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Robin Campillo

Writers: Robin Campillo, Brigitte Tijou

Cast: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot

Original Title: Les Revenants

France 2004

102 mins

Those with only a fleeting interest in current TV listings would still be hard pressed not to have noticed the groundswell of interest in and (largely) glowing reviews of Channel 4’s new Sunday night supernatural series, The Returned. This slow burning, eight-episode French import posits a scenario in which random, dead ex-residents of a small, isolated town are inexplicably resurrected. With the Z word only mentioned once to date – and the resurrected showing no outward signs of their official post-mortem state – The Returned is focused more on the interpersonal and familial tensions wrought by the situation than it is by the ‘horror’ of it. To coincide with the series’ UK airing, Arrow Films are releasing the original 2004 movie by full-time editor and part-time director Robin Campillo on which the series is based. Originally released under the title Les Revenants (The Returned) in its homeland and as They Came Back on the international market, Campillo’s directorial debut is every bit as engrossing, creepy and atmospheric as its small-screen sibling.

Fans of the TV show worried that watching the movie mid-series might spoil both versions can rest easy, as only the concept of the original survived the transitional process from a feature length to long-form narrative. Though Campillo’s tale is on a wider scale – with some 70 million people worldwide having returned to life, and 13,000 alone in the town in which it is set – the tight focus on the lives (no pun intended) of the dead and those they left behind gives the film an intimate feel, making for a wholly engaging viewing experience more akin to brooding, arthouse human dramas than it is to visceral genre movies.

The Returned eschews histrionics and horror in favour of a studied look at the socio-political implications arising from the sudden return of the dead; do they still have the same rights? Are they entitled to walk back into their old jobs? How do governments – local and national – cope with the sudden extra demands on services and benefits? Issues surrounding grief, loss, love and the passage of time are addressed in an unhurried fashion, as the ‘dead’ and their loved ones try, some successfully, others not so, to adjust to the miraculous turn of events.

The clinical, observational air of The Returned brings to mind Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980) and Mick Jackson’s Threads (1984), with their personal stories similarly acting as micro insights into a macrocosmic situation. The Returned drifts along for most of its running time as if in a daze, a tonal, stylistic and aesthetic decision clearly reflective of the physical and mental state of the returned dead – robbed as they are of a sense of being fully ‘in the moment’, somehow alive but ‘concussed’, as one of the doctors charged with helping their reintegration into society observes. Those with mental health issues, dementia sufferers, immigrants and ex-offenders could all be seen as being embodied by the ‘dead’, the space they occupy on the margins of society reflected in the faceless dormitories, sideways glances and openly mistrustful encounters experienced by the titular hordes. However, such is the general ambiguity of the film that whether Campillo intended any metaphoric intent is open to debate. Only in its final act does the film enter into anything resembling a conventional genre narrative, and even then it fundamentally remains an oblique mystery. Controlled, thought provoking and refreshingly elusive, The Returned is a sparse, engaging and stimulating experience.

Neil Mitchell

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The Murderer Lives at Number 21

The Murderer Lives at Number 21
The Murderer Lives at Number 21

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 20 May 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Writers: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Stanislas-André Steeman

Based on the novel by: Stanislas-André Steeman

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier, Pierre Larquey, No&#235l Roquevert

Original title: L’assassin habite au 21

France 1942

84 mins

The Murderer Lives at Number 21, the feature debut from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is best known for films like the masterful Le corbeau and Les diaboliques, is an entertaining, comedic film noir – a blend of two different genres that works thanks to some brilliantly witty dialogue, excellent performances and a superb visual aesthetic that makes the most of the atmospheric hallmarks of noir cinema.

A murderer stalks the streets of an arrondissement in Paris, a calling card from a Monsieur Durand found on the bodies of each of his victims. While the local residents seem more intrigued than frightened by the killer, who’s become a steady fixture in all the newspapers, the police officials are beginning to feel the heat. The elegant Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) is brought in to work on the case and soon after receives his first break: a reformed thief, now rag-and-bone man, has found a stash of the calling cards while clearing out an attic at Les Mimosas, a boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot. With the information at his disposal, Wens decides to take a room at the boarding house in a rather humorous disguise.

But matters are complicated by the actions of his incongruous girlfriend, Mila Malou (Suzy Delair). A thwarted singer, she is first introduced to us at an audition, where, flattering the impresario to no avail, she learns that her only chance of success is if she’s already famous – and what better way to become a star than to get her name in the newspapers, like Monsieur Durand? Although fashioned as something of a ditz, Delair’s character is fabulous – at the audition, she compares herself to America before Columbus, waiting to be discovered. Later, she tells someone that she stays home and knits booties for a baby – if Wens is capable of producing one. And of course, she finds the solution to her celebrity problem by taking part in Wens’s murder investigation, following him to the boarding house.

Wens’s fellow lodgers are a motley bunch: a manservant trying to train a caged bird to sing; the ageing Miss Cuq, described as ‘une vraie jeunne fille’, a ‘maiden’ lady and failed author who perseveres after each rejection; Linz, a doctor dressed for safari, who boasts about surviving 25 years in the bush; Colin, a down-at-heel man who makes faceless dolls meant to resemble the killer; the pick-pocketing Professor Lalah-Poor, a turban-wearing magician and ‘artiste’; and Kid Robert, a blind former boxer, joined by his attractive nurse.

The lodgers, including Wens and Mila, spy on each other, sneak into each other’s rooms, steal… there’s no shortage of distrust and malevolence beneath the artificially friendly veneer in the house. Meanwhile, more bodies pile up, including one of their own, after Mila, sticking her nose into the affair, suggests to Miss Cuq that she base a story on Monsieur Durand’s murderous crime wave. But in the end, after some unorthodox detective work, Mila and Wens solve the mystery with plenty of flair, drawing out ‘Monsieur Durand’ in inimitable fashion. And while The Murderer Lives at Number 21 might not be as subversive or fiercely brilliant as some of his later films, Clouzot’s impressive debut as a director is a remarkably stylish and entertaining detective story.

Sarah Cronin

Watch a clip from The Murderer Lives at Number 21:

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 8 April 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Writer: Jean-Pierre Melville

Based on the novel by: Joseph Kessel

Cast: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel

Original Title: L’armée des ombres

France 1969

145 mins

The sound of marching feet. The now familiar sight of German soldiers trooping through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, marking their own triumphant seizure of the city, and symbolically, of France as a whole. From the opening shots through to its tragic end, Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Army of Shadows about the French Resistance is so full of influential, iconic imagery that, watching the film more than 40 years after its original release in 1969, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of déjà vu.

A key figure in the Resistance, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is interned, without charge, in a prison camp. His jailers aren’t German, but French (the first of many critiques of collaborationists, and subtly, of the French as a whole). He soon escapes and finds his way to Marseilles, where, with two trusted colleagues, Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), justice is meted out in brutal fashion to the person who betrayed him. Now a known and wanted man, Gerbier’s survival takes on new prominence, with the film twisting its way through a series of arrests of both Gerbier and his helpers and the subsequent, dangerous attempts at their rescue.

For the three comrades are part of the handful of men and one formidable woman (with her one, fatal flaw) who form the cell at the heart of the film, which was based on Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name and influenced by Melville’s own war-time experiences. Devoted members of the Resistance, they are isolated figures, alone in the sacrifices they make to protect each other and in their efforts to subvert the Germans. Their strength lies in their convictions and unswerving devotion to the cell; Gerbier almost worships Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a philosopher, writer and their leader.

There is little romanticism in the portrayal of their actions, no bending of history to make the Resistance seem somehow glamorous. Melville’s Army of Shadows is an austere film, shot in steely grey and blue tones, in an almost minimalist style. The languorous, late-60s pacing succeeds in creating an almost real-time sense of suspense. When Mathilde (terrifically played by Simone Signoret), disguised as a nurse, tries to enter the jail where another comrade has been kept prisoner and nearly tortured to death, the seconds crawl by as she waits for her papers to be approved by the guards. Melville creates the feeling of nervous energy and fear that anyone would feel in those tense moments, unsure if they’re about to be exposed as agents, and knowing the horrific reality of what would happen if they were. And by the film’s unhappy conclusion, the members of the cell have all been humiliated, tormented and sadistically toyed with by the Germans in what, in those years, was an almost futile battle.

With its strong political undertones, Army of Shadows was doomed to failure on its original release and denounced, in part, for being Gaullist – it was released shortly after the May 68 protests and the backlash against de Gaulle. Thanks to the controversy that surrounded the film, it was never released for distribution in the United States until it appeared on DVD in 2006. Now widely regarded as a masterpiece, its reissue on Blu-ray is a welcome opportunity to rediscover this compelling and important film.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 25 March 2013

Distributor Arrow Films

Directors: Virginie Despentes, Coralie Trinh Thi

Writers: Virginie Despentes, Coralie Trinh Thi

Based on the novel Baise-moi by: Virginie Despentes

Cast: Raffa&#235la Anderson, Karen Bach (aka Karen Lancaume)

France 2000

74 mins

Admittedly, Virginie Despentes’s notorious hardcore adaptation of her novel, co-directed with former porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi, is implausibly plotted, has wooden dialogue and patchy acting, and looks like a drab TV movie. And yet, Baise-moi is a fascinating and important film. The raw explicitness of the title (‘Fuck me’) sets the tone for this tale of two disenfranchised women on the run. Manu (Raffa&#235la Anderson) is a porn actress who lives on a brutal rundown estate. Nadine (Karen Bach) is a hooker who spends her time watching porn and getting stoned. After Manu is attacked in a barely watchable, vicious rape scene, her brother calls her a slut, mistaking the harsh, disillusioned impassiveness with which she reacts for indifference. She flips and kills him. Elsewhere in town, Nadine similarly loses control. The two women meet when Manu puts a gun to Nadine’s head, a fitting start to their desperate friendship and an almost aimless journey through France littered with indiscriminate murder, sex and drugs.

With two ex-porn actresses as the leads and unsimulated sex scenes, Despentes and Trinh Thi aimed to make Baise-moi real and visceral. Shot on DV, with no additional lighting and a tiny budget, the film (just like the source novel) was inspired by French punk music (Seven Hate, Virago and X Syndicate feature on the soundtrack). These low-production values mean that, aside from a couple of red-tinged scenes, it looks dismally ugly – but if it had looked prettier, it may well have been a more objectionable film.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baise-moi indeed caused a huge controversy on its release in France and abroad (it is still banned in Australia), and even the filmmakers were not quite prepared for the level of aggression and hostility they provoked. After a complaint by right-wing religious group Promouvoir, Baise-moi was banned by the French government. This was replaced shortly after with an 18 certificate following a petition organised by another female agitator of French cinema, Catherine Breillat.

The film has been criticised for its perceived hatred of men and arbitrary violence, but Manu and Nadine’s first victim is a woman, and in the book they also kill a child, a scene the filmmakers chose not to include for practical and moral reasons (which they intelligently explain in the insightful documentary included in the extras). True, most of Manu and Nadine’s victims are men, and most of the murders are associated with sex, but the reaction to Baise-moi seems entirely disproportionate given the number of films in which men subject women to horrendous violence, sexual and otherwise.

As for the accusations of pornographic content, Baise-moi actually offers a rare multifaceted, if dark, representation of female sexuality. Interestingly conflicted and boldly candid, it is undeniably disturbing, starting with the violence and sexual exploitation that Manu and Nadine are routinely subjected to. Reversing the situation in their murderous road trip, they punish the lecherous desires of the men they encounter by humiliating and killing them. But they don’t simply use their sexuality for power, they also enjoy sex, in one scene taking two young men back to their hotel room. Debunking another stereotype about women and hinting at the complexities of female desire, Nadine also likes masturbating to porn. Although sex is important to both of them, it is part of a wider portrayal of their lives which also takes in the weight of social expectations, hypocrisy and prejudice, violence (both suffered and inflicted), disenchantment, disaffection, anger, laughter and friendship.

Baise-moi is excessive, unrealistic, unpolished, clumsy, trashy and ugly, but its violent fantasy of female power has an uncompromising rawness, gutsy courage and angry energy that command attention – even respect.

Virginie Sélavy

Holy Motors

Holy Motors

Format: Cinema

Dates: 28 September 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Leos Carax

Writer: Leos Carax

Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes

France/Germany 2012

115 mins

A man leaves home in the morning to go to work; a well-dressed man of obvious success, with an American haircut, waving to his family. He boards his white stretch limo, driven by Celine, a striking elderly lady (Edith Scob) and departs. Inside the limo there is a changing room and the man transforms himself into a destitute bag lady who shuffles the streets muttering to herself perhaps incoherently, perhaps mystically, ignored by those around her whatever the case. The man (played with a tour de force performance by long-time Leos Carax collaborator Denis Lavant) is an actor and he will spend the day transforming himself into a variety of characters – weird morphing aliens, a scatological leprechaun, M. Merde, a gangster, a tired working father. Each character plays a small scene divided by conversations with his driver, a glass of something, a smoke a moment to tiredly take stock of his existential dilemma. Who is he really? What is this that we are watching? Is it genius? Is it indulgent tosh? Is it a bizarre mixture of the two?

The film came out of Leos Carax’s frustration. After a number of feature film projects fell through his last feature-length movie dates back to 1999’s Pola X – Carax devised this project by which he could make a series of short genre-spanning films that would, if the project were to fall through again, be able to survive as stand-alone pieces. This economy of necessity is one of cinema’s happier accidents. Driven by a desperate need to make films, the film Carax has accomplished is an aching love letter to the art form that seems to have treated its disciple so cruelly. The meaning of the metaphor might not bear much heavy discussion – the actor’s name is Monsieur Oscar and this is probably a joke as to the only way Carax can get close to the statuette that marks Hollywood approval – but what cannot be denied is a sense of exhilaration at the possibilities of film as something other than a way of transferring books, plays, games (computer and board), graphic novels, old TV series and comic books to screen. Instead of a dumping ground of the culture’s nostalgia for itself, Holy Motors is about continuing the hard slog of original creation. Among the episodes, there are the gobsmacking flights of fancy, the musical interlude and Kylie Minogue’s musical number are particular highlights, but then there is the quiet social realism of a drained father dealing with the nuanced quiet pain of his daughter not quite fitting in with her friends. Carax’s cinema has violence and exuberance, hilarity and giddiness, but it also has moments of true human feeling.

Of course, some will be put off, and when I saw the film at the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year, there were many dissenting voices. In fact, the film was one of the most divisive entries. However, as a sheer exercise in pushing the boundaries of what you can get away with, even if some think he went too far, I would rather go too far with Carax than stick to the comfort zone of our present cinematic environment.

John Bleasdale

Carré blanc

Carre blanc

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 6 July 2012

Venues: Rio, London

Director: Jean-Baptiste Léonetti

Writer: Jean-Baptiste Léonetti

Cast: Sami Bouajila, Julie Gayet, Jean-Pierre Andréani

France 2011

77 mins

Those who cling to wealth and power by forcing conformity, stifling creativity and crushing the very essence of humanity are the faceless dominant evil that exploits the most vulnerable aspect of what it means to be human. It is ultimately our spirit which is, in fact, not as indomitable as we’d all like to believe. Through indoctrination and constant scrutiny we are reduced to lumps of clay. We are moulded in the image our true rulers want to see. They want us tied to the consumption they control. Call them what you like, but they are indeed The New World Order.

And they are winning.

And, worst of all, the loser is love.

And without love, we all become prey.

Harkening back to great 70s science fiction film classics like The Terminal Man, Colossus: The Forbin Project, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running and THX 1138 - when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut, when it was actually ABOUT something - Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time.

The future it creates is not all that removed from our current existence.

Carré blanc screens on 6 July at the Rio Cinema, London, as part of the East End Film Festival (3 July – 8 July 2012). For more information please visit the East End Film Festival website.

Léonetti announces himself as a talent to be reckoned with. This low-budget science fiction film astounds us with its visual opulence. That, of course, is because it’s obvious that Léonetti has filmmaking hardwired into his DNA. NEVER does the film feel cheap or low-budget. Never do we feel like it has structured itself around all the usual budget-saving techniques that so many other first-time filmmakers unimaginatively opt for. Léonetti has wisely, painstakingly chosen a number of actual exterior and interior locations that fit his vision perfectly and work in tandem with the narrative. His compositions are rich and because his location selection has been so brilliantly judicious, he clearly had the time to properly light and dress the images.

The next time I hear some young filmmaker whining about the ‘challenges’ of their one-set low-budget production I will consider placing them on my list of those who shall feel the wrath of my Baikal semi-automatic Russian assault rifle when civilisation collapses and it becomes one giant free-for-all.

Though Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, there is nothing at all retro about the picture - no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself.

Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital.

Blessed also with a deliciously mordant wit, Léonetti delivers a dazzling entertainment for the mind and the senses.

The tale rendered is, on its surface and like many great movies, a simple one. Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet) grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for limited procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet - the one and only state-sanctioned sport.

Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state - he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator - and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference. In this world, hatred is a luxury. It’s a tangible feeling that the rulers would never tolerate and would punish with death.

Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is what can ultimately prove to be the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and the core of this story is just that - love. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope - for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style.

So many dystopian visions suffer from being overly dour. Happily, Léonetti always manages to break the oppressive force of the film and its world by serving up humour. Most of the laughs in Carré blanc occur within the context of tests delivered by the interrogating indoctrinators. In the world of the film, suicide is often the only way out for those who have a spirit that cannot be crushed. One early scene features Philippe as a young teen and another boy his age who have both attempted unsuccessfully to kill themselves (by hanging and wrist-slashing respectively).

Both boys are led into an empty room where smiling corporate lackeys speak to them in tones of compassion. They are both asked to engage in a test to cheer them up. Lying before them is a body bag. The test is thus: which one of them will be first to go inside the bag?

Let us just say that we laugh in horror at what follows. (I wasn’t the only one laughing in the packed house at the film’s premiere screening. A few sick puppies belched out appreciative guffaws.)

Narratively, this sequence reveals that Philippe is clearly an interrogator in the making. The test itself is a perfect way to not immediately ‘waste’ potential ‘talent’ by snuffing them out before seeing what they’re really made of. As the film continues to unspool, some of the biggest laughs and equally chilling moments come from the tests Philippe concocts and metes out to discover those who must be weeded out of society - permanently. Other laughs derive from the odd announcements and pronouncements over the endless loudspeakers.

To Monsieur Léonetti, I offer a tip of the hat for coming up with so many dollops of darkly humorous nastiness throughout the proceedings. They not only offer entertainment value, but are inextricably linked to the world he creates, a world so similar to the one we live in and one which feels just around the corner if humanity does not prevail over the force of a very few.

Love becomes the ultimate goal of Léonetti’s narrative and as such, he delivers an instant classic of science fiction. At the end of the day, the best work in this genre IS about individuality and the fight to maintain the indomitability of spirit.

It might, after all, be the only thing we have left.

This review was first published on Daily Film Dose.

Greg Klymkiw

Le quai des brumes

Le Quai des Brumes

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 4 May 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Based on the novel by: Pierre Dumarchais

Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan

France 1938

91 mins

The label ‘poetic realism’ was applied to a whole range of films made in France throughout the 1930s, from the beautifully shot atmospheric stories of working-class life in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) to Julien Duvivier’s Casbah-set crime caper Pepe le Moko (1937) as well as to much of Jean Renoir’s 1930s output. However, the term was never more perfectly used than in describing two films made by Marcel Carné at the end of the decade: Le Jour se Lève (1939) and Le Quai des Brumes (1938).

The latter stars Jean Gabin as an army deserter arriving in the French port of Le Havre looking to flee the country. He meets a girl (Michèle Morgan) and falls in love. The simplicity of this is explained by some wonderful dialogue by the poet-cum-screenwriter Jacques Prévert: ‘It’s like in a film,’ Gabin’s character claims, ‘I see you and I like you. It’s love at first sight’. Gabin’s world-weary yet romantic tough guy prefigures Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca and many a film noir hero. Yet, despite his masculinity and self-confidence, he is unlike his Hollywood counterpart in that he is never really the instigator of the plot, but merely its doomed hero. The strong hand of fate rules the narrative - even the moments of good fortune, such as when Jean finds civvies to change into, complete with shoes the right size, simply serve to remind us that it’s the whim of fortune that is in the driving seat, not the protagonist. Such tragically doomed love stories were typical of the poetic realist style - apologies if this is a spoiler but to those in the know, merely the name Jean Gabin above the titles generally guarantees an unhappy ending (even the trailer gives away the end). It is not so much a question of will he make it - will he escape to Venezuela with his dog and his girl? - but how will he fail. It was this stoic, perhaps defeatist, attitude that led to someone in the Vichy Government to claim: ‘If we have lost the war, it is because of Le Quai des Brumes.’ Carné’s response was to ask, ‘Does one blame the weather on the barometer?’

What is surprising for such a key poetic realist film is that, despite focusing on working-class characters and being set in an industrial port, it eschews much of what we now consider ‘realist’ filmmaking. There are no naturalistic non-professional actors but big box office stars (Gabin) and great film character actors (Michel Simon). There are no handheld cameras and natural lighting: Carné’s films are studio films of the highest artifice, created by highly skilled artists and technicians. Although a few location shots are used, the ‘real’ world of industrial ports, dilapidated bars and rain-soaked streets is largely carefully recreated and artfully shot on a soundstage.

Made years before French critics had even considered the idea of cinematic authorship, Le Quai des Brumes stands as an example of collaborative filmmaking of the highest order. With the near collapse of the French studio system (Gaumont, Pathé withdrawing from film production in the mid-30s) newly formed film companies in France seemed to last as long as the governments of the time (months or even weeks). Yet, despite this, an all-star production team was assembled. The sets were designed by Alexandre Trauner, whose stylised recreations of the world of working people in the industrial port town work to heighten and skew the reality. Panama’s ramshackle bar by the sea seems almost dreamlike. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert’s dialogue combines the melodramatic, the poetic and street slang. His characters - although almost types (the petty gangster, the drunk, evil stepfather) - all have their little idiosyncrasies. Eugen Schüfftan, who went on to shoot the phantasmagoric Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face, 1960), provides the expressionist shadowy cinematography that was to influence film noir a few years later. And also deserving a special mention is Maurice Jaubert’s score and Coco Chanel’s iconic transparent plastic raincoat for Michèle Morgan.

What is often forgotten when discussing poetic realism is how entertaining the films are, and none is more so than Le Quai des Brumes. Many of these films were box-office smashes in France at the time and Jean Gabin was a major star. This film shows why: he dominates the film even though he is surrounded by such odd and colourful characters, and despite (or because of) his minimal acting, he has a unique screen presence.

Paul Huckerby



Format: Cinema

Dates: 20 January 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Jean Vigo

Writers: Jean Guinée, Albert Riéra, Jean Vigo

Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon

France 1934

89 mins

L’atalante was made in the most difficult of circumstances: the director, the 28-year-old Jean Vigo, was critically ill, the weather was abysmal, the budget was tiny, and the distributors thought the finished film worthless. They re-cut it, chopped out nearly 25 minutes of footage, and added a sentimental ballad to increase popular appeal. Unsurprisingly, it languished in obscurity until an original print was re-discovered in 1989 and restored to glory. Because it is glorious as well as witty, strange and beautiful, the fruits of a collaboration that director of photography Boris Kaufman (who went to Hollywood, and worked on On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, 12 Angry Men) described as ‘cinematic paradise’.

The story of L’atalante is a simple one: two newly-weds, a barge captain and a village girl, start their new life on the Seine. Passionately in love, they nonetheless find life tricky. The luminous Dita Parlo, who plays Juliette, craves the excitement of city life; the handsome Jean Dasté is staid and jealous as Jean. They fight, make up, and then Jean abandons Juliette when she sneaks off to Paris, and sails the barge (the Atalante of the title) away; but both are heart-broken by the separation. Vigo and Kaufman make it magical, ethereal and romantic (with a haunting score by Maurice Jaubert), but with dashes of surrealism and social realism.

L’atalante opens with the wedding, which has all the solemnity and sorrow of a funeral. Jean and Juliette wander across fields towards the barge, followed by the villagers dressed in black. On the barge the anarchic Père Jules (Michel Simon), with his coterie of kittens and cats, and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) are getting things ready for the bride. Juliette lands on the cargo hoist and in the passionate embraces of Jean, with fog enshrouding the boat.

And then life begins in earnest, with Juliette getting to grips with a year’s worth of dirty laundry, and negotiating the masculine territory in the claustrophobic confines of the barge. Père Jules is initially suspicious, but when Juliette visits his cabin of curiosities, jammed with musical boxes, broken automata and bric-&#224-brac from his travels (including a jar that contains the hands of his best mate - ‘it’s the only thing I have left of him’) the tattooed old salt and the young bride form a touching alliance (a friendship that sends Jean into a frenzy). It’s Père Jules who rescues Juliette from Paris, where she’s washed up in a rundown hotel called The Anchor and working in a musical shop, wistfully listening to songs about sailors and water.

Juliette’s Depression-era Paris is initially intriguing, but it rapidly turns into a nightmare. Life is equally miserable for Jean on the barge. In an erotically charged scene the separated lovesick couple feverishly dream of each other, covered in darting spots from the film filters. It’s a beautiful example of Vigo’s inventiveness, a single instance of a treasure chest of images, from the beautiful underwater spectacle where Jean attempts to see a vision of his true love, to a witty little vignette where Père Jules runs his fingernail along the groove of a record and hears music playing. He bewilderingly repeats the gesture until the camera pans back and reveals the mischievous cabin boy playing the accordion. It’s a joyous flight of fancy, touchingly emblematic of the film itself.

Eithne Farry

Les enfants du paradis

Les enfants du paradis

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 November 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur


163 mins

It’s a wonder that this wonder-filled film ever got made. Work began on Les enfants du paradis in 1943 when France was occupied by the Germans, there were power shortages, rationed film stock, and a suspicious Vichy government that declared that films couldn’t be longer than 90 minutes. The epically involving Les enfants du paradis runs at three hours, and the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner were forced to make their contributions clandestinely. To have made a simple, domestic drama in these circumstances would have been impressive, but Marcel Carné’s film is a riotous, romantic costume melodrama, with magnificent sets: the action takes place in a foggy duelling ground, backstage at the theatre, in a grand mansion and a rough and ready rooming house with over a thousand extras, many who were in the Resistance, milling through vividly recreated 1840s Paris.

The opening shot is a tumultuous, joyful street scene, a miracle of perspective in which a thronging crowd mass along Le Boulevard du Crime, in the theatrical district, where a dizzying array of street acts, from strong men to tight-rope walkers advertise forthcoming attractions. The camera gradually focuses on individuals in the crowd, Garance, the enigmatic heroine of the film, played with a cool, self-possessed insouciance by Arletty, and aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), who flirts with her. Falsely accused of being a pickpocket, Garance is saved by the melancholy Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), who wittily mimes the true circumstances of the crime, earns a rose from Arletty’s breast, and is immediately overcome with love. There are two more men in Arletty’s life: Lacenaire, a ruthless dandy of the criminal underworld with a villainous moustache, a frilled shirt and a neat line in bleak, cut-throat wit, and the Count Edouard de Montray, a cold-hearted, upper-class duellist who makes his aristocratic appearance towards the end of the first part of the film.

Affection, unrequited love, jealously, obsession and artistic ambition are played out against this theatrical background. It’s a complicated film that explores the nature of performance, with Baptiste’s clever mimes adding an extra layer to poet Jacques Prévert’s witty, stylised script. Baptiste acts out his heartbreak on the Funambules’ stage, as he falls in love with a statue, played by Garance, who comes to life and heads off with Harlequin, acted out by Frédérick. In the second half of the film (entitled ‘The Man in White’), the love story remains as complicated as ever, an unhappy, but involving drama of domestic pragmatism versus melodramatic passion. The ending returns to the crowded boulevard, crammed with festive Pierrots, for a spell-binding finale.

Carné’s film about actors acting was made in the most trying of circumstances, but the elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes and lovely, poignant orchestral score reveal nothing of the harsh realities of life in occupied France (many of the extras were starving members of the Resistance). The post-war nouvelle vague critics initially admired this impressive example of French poetic realism, but with its careful attention to detail and stylised script, it was a far cry from their own, spontaneous guerrilla-style approach to storytelling and filming and they soon turned against Carné, dismissing his work as the quaint, hidebound ‘cinéma de papa’. Yet Les enfants du paradis, for all its costume drama accoutrements, has a surprisingly subversive heroine in Garance. Older than the typical starlet, enigmatic rather than beautiful, she is entirely self-possessed, her character is adventurous, mysterious, prepared to experience all that life has to offer, and a deliciously elusive counterpoint to the emotional melodrama that surrounds her. Even Truffaut conceded in the end: ‘I have made 23 films, well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis‘.

Eithne Farry