Tag Archives: French cinema



Format: Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 9 May 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Jules Dassin

Writer: Jules Dassin

Original title: Du rififi chez les hommes

Cast: Jean Servais, Carl Mí¶hner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Magali Noí«l, Marcel Lupovici

France 1955

122 mins

Since Rififi is excellent and its excellence has been well recognised, critical assessment is probably otiose. Instead let me wonder what kind of film it is. It can be seen as an archetype of the genre now known as the heist movie (in this case, not so much ‘heist gone wrong’ as ‘heist gone right but…’). By many the film will be best remembered for the bravura 28-minute robbery sequence in which not a word is spoken. Stylistically the film seems influenced by a different genre, the American detective noir of the 30s and 40s. Rififi is no policier, however: the man who goes down these mean streets alone is not a detective but a criminal, and the police play only an incidental role. The genre which Rififi ultimately exemplifies is that of the showdown between rival criminals: trouble in the underworld. A close inspiration may have been Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, of the previous year.

The question of what the film is about leads to the question of its title. The British and American distributors gave up on translation and simply abbreviated it to Rififi. Slang of a past era is notoriously difficult to translate. Use slang from the same period for your translation and you risk making what was once vigorous and fresh seem quaint. Use more recent slang and the anachronism will jar. A bland English translation of Rififi would be ‘trouble’. Perhaps ‘rumble’ would make clearer the suggestion of conflict. But an extra layer of sexual innuendo is added by Magali Noí«l’s nightclub song about her relish for rififi with her man. So what would have been a good English equivalent? ‘Rough and tumble’? ‘Naughtiness’? Too jokey. If only I could think of some suggestive and cool-sounding phrase meaning ‘Trouble among the Men’ - but I can’t.

If the film has a theme it is something like ‘honour among thieves’. Overworked and scarcely plausible now is the idea that there is something to admire in the honour-based value system that supposedly governs (or more often fails to govern) the criminal world. But it is memorably embodied in the central character Tony ‘le Stephanois’, played by Jean Servais, his features impassive but still somehow expressive of pain and determination, his recurrent cough a sign that his cards are marked. The film is his, with associates and enemies falling to one side or the other as he drives the drama through each new development to its grim but fitting conclusion.

I think the key to Rififi is its vividness: the swiftness of exposition, the tellingness of the dialogue, the immediacy of the character portrayals. Perhaps these are all lessons learned from the economical ways of Hollywood noir, but add to this a more European visual imagination, meticulous care with choreography of the action and framing of shots, and a delight in the Parisian locations and atmosphere (distinctly pre-teenager, pre-Elvis, pre-Gainsbourg). Amazing that Jules Dassin, creator of this masterwork of French cinema, was in fact McCarthy refugee Julius Dassin of Middletown, Connecticut.

Available now in a miraculously sharp print to bring out its deep chiaroscuro aesthetic, Rififi‘s status as a seminal crime film is secure.

Peter Momtchiloff

Les diaboliques

Les diaboliques

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 March 2011

Venues: BFI Southbank (London) and key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Henri-Georges CLouzot

Writers: Henri-Georges CLouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, René Masson, Frédéric Grendel

Based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by: Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel

France 1955

114 mins

One of cinema’s great misanthropes, Henri-Georges Clouzot combined a sombre view of humanity with a supreme mastery of clockwork suspense that made him Alfred Hitchcock’s rival and equal. These two characteristics found their peak in Les diaboliques (1955), a noir thriller set in a private school on the outskirts of Paris. Headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a particularly nasty bully who mistreats not only his wife Christina (played by the director’s wife, Véra Clouzot), but also his mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and the boys in his charge. The fragile Christina, who has a heart condition, and Nicole, sporting a black eye as the film opens, are led to comfort each other and conspire to murder their common tormentor.

Read reviews of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Le corbeau and Quai des orfèvres.

The oppressive atmosphere of the school, the high contrast black and white, the evocative shadows and the basic premise characterise Les diaboliques as a film noir, but as noir triangles go, this is a very strange set-up. In the classic formation, two men compete for the attention of the same beautiful temptress (Gilda, The Killers, Out of the Past) and a number of films revolve around a femme fatale seducing her lover into murdering her husband (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Les diaboliques presents a fascinating inversion of the usual pattern, with two women becoming allies to murder the man for whose affection they are meant to compete. The result is a powerful reversal of traditional male and female roles: whereas in classic noirs the (criminal) action is performed by a man on the instigation of a woman, here it is performed by two women; and while the noir perpetrators are usually a couple ostensibly wanting to get rid of the person standing between them, here they are rivals for their victim’s love, or at least they should be.

The lesbian undertones of the situation are clear, especially as the film predominantly focuses on their relationship as they plot the murder, showing their complicity, their concern for each other as well as their disagreements. As they plan a secret weekend getaway to Nicole’s pad to accomplish their dark deed, the sexual connotations of the plot become even more evident, and the crime they are about to commit suggests a ‘criminal’ sexuality, a transgression of sexual and social roles as they overthrow the authority of the man who brutally rules their lives.

The casting further enhances the ambiguities of the plot. Simone Signoret, a blonde and curvaceous 50s sex symbol whose best-known role was as a gangster moll and femme fatale in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), is here masculine, decisive and physically strong. Beautiful and immoral, she recalls the blonde temptress of classic film noir, but in her relationship to Christina, she occupies the traditional position of the man, leading the action and making decisions. The delicate, slender, raven-haired Véra Clouzot is the ultra-feminine half of the couple, and yet, in spite of her physical weakness and moral doubts, her Christina may be capable of murder. As the male/female contrast is paralleled by a good girl/bad girl opposition, traditional images of the sexes are blurred further.

Although the relationship between the two women is central to the film, the sexual ambiguity in itself is not the main theme of the film, but rather an essential part of it. Here, as in many of his films, Clouzot is concerned with the dissolution of certainties: sexual, moral and otherwise. He makes us identify with a would-be murderess confronted with increasingly incomprehensible events before a final twist changes our perception of everything we’ve seen up to that point. Correspondingly, on a formal level, horror and supernatural elements disrupt the noir world established in the rest of the film. In Clouzot’s vision, truth is mutable, love is a lie, human relationships are constantly shifting and the human heart is complex, contradictory and compromised. Formally, morally and sexually, it is a world in which nothing is ever simple or as it seems. The only certainty that remains is that, in Les diaboliques, Clouzot has created not only a perfectly crafted noir gem, but also an enduringly fascinating female double act.

Les diaboliques runs at BFI Southbank from March 18 to 31.

Virginie Sélavy

Boudu Saved from Drowning

Jean Renoir’s restored Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) can be seen in UK cinemas from December 17, distributed by Park Cirucs. Celebrated actor Michel Simon plays a tramp who, after being rescued by a Parisian bookseller, causes mayhem in his bourgeois household. The restoration was carried out through the digitalisation of the original nitrate negative image and a ‘safety’ print. A previously missing scene, probably censored for its provocative content, was restored, allowing presentation of a more complete version of the film.

Comic review by David Baillie
For more information on David Baillie, go to his website.

Two films by Jacques Tati


Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 29 November 2010

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jacques Tati

Title: Les vacances de Mr Hulot

Writers: Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange, Pierre Aubert, Henri Marquet

Cast: Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud

France 1953 (re-edited 1978)

88 mins

Title: Playtime

Writer: Jacques Tati

Cast: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Georges Montant, Billy Kearns, Léon Doyen

France 1967

124 mins

Two holidays: a week at the seaside; and 24 hours in Paris. Tati’s best-loved film, which made him famous; and his magnum opus, which ruined him. Through each, Monsieur Hulot wanders bemused, creating disorder, and shyly paying court to a comely young lady whose demure elegance sets her apart from the high-spirited fun-seekers. But in the years between the two, how the world has changed…

Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) has been a perfect and delicate source of joy for six decades. It is risky to praise it, lest one seem to trumpet gentle charms that are better left to be discovered. I think of Evelyn Waugh’s words on P.G. Wodehouse: ‘[His] idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.’ The delight of Hulot’s idyll gains poignancy from an undertone of melancholy.

Tati re-edited Les vacances twice after its initial release. Hulotians who are accustomed to the 1978 version will welcome the opportunity to see the original 1953 version, seven minutes longer, which is included on a second disc of the 2010 BFI reissue.

Playtime (1967), by contrast, is notorious as a folly and a commercial disaster - but how richly it repays attention. It does not give itself easily: it demands concentration, and its emotional dividends are ambiguous. The screen is often full of small-scale action, with no obvious focus, and no clear narrative line. There will be smiles but few laughs. Yet it is unique as a beautiful, subtle, wry meditation on human physical presence in the modern world. If it were to be remade, I can imagine it as a ballet. It awakens the viewer to the extraordinary expressive variety in the movement of people - and indeed of things, for Tati’s miraculous ability to conjure visual humour and poetry from the objects that surround us is as strong here as anywhere in his work.

It is impossible to watch Tati’s films without thinking that they, and in particular his character Hulot, ‘stand for’ something, embody some set of values or some life-aesthetic. But it is not easy, nor perhaps desirable, to define what that is. Hulot is gentle, courteous, kindly, old-fashioned. He is curious about, but challenged by, the new. And Tati’s first two films, Jour de fête (1949) and Les vacances, are surely paeans to modest traditional French ways. But despite the strong vein of sentimental conservatism in Tati’s work, it would be wrong to make a simple inversion and see the next two, Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime, as reactionary critiques of the modern world. Certainly these films show Hulot as puzzled by and alienated in the modern built environment, which plays tricks on him and frustrates his aims. But they are also two of the most joyous and visionary realisations in art of the new beauty, the beautiful newness, that can be found in the urban world. The domestic spaces of Mon oncle still look like design classics today. And ‘Tativille’, the French Cinecitt&#224 that he designed and constructed for Playtime in 1964-5 on the outskirts of Paris, was actually a pioneering development, pre-empting and even influencing the futuristic remodelling of French cities. (Only in 1961 were building restrictions in Paris relaxed to allow high-rise planning, and the results were not seen until the latter part of the decade.)

What Tati shows us is the element of comic misrule in our interactions with each other and our surroundings - and how this makes our world more habitable. Chance, mischief, improvisation, serendipity: these, rather than planning, discipline, obedience, authority, are the forces of the universe that help us to find our place in our negotiation between the natural and the constructed world.

Peter Momtchiloff

DVD of the month: Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno


Format: DVD

Release date: 12 April 2010

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

Original title: L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot

France 2009

102 mins

This documentary about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished 1964 psycho-thriller L’Enfer is as tantalising as it is frustrating. Clouzot remains one of the most masterful of French directors, having produced such unsurpassable classics as The Raven (Le Corbeau, 1943) and The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, 1953). A meticulous filmmaker as well as a master of suspense to rival Alfred Hitchcock, he inexplicably seems to have lost control on the big-budget production of L’Enfer. The long-lost raw footage is intriguing and dazzling, infused with swirling lights and blue-lipped, cigarette-puffing fantasy temptresses. A real shame, then, that although directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Mederea have managed to speak to numerous members of the original crew, this behind-the-scenes investigation has so little to say about the reasons behind Clouzot’s failure to complete the film. In spite of this, the undiminished power of Clouzot’s extraordinary images makes the documentary a fascinating watch.

Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy

Buy Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno [DVD] [2009] from Amazon