6 May 2021

Édouard Niermans's Le Septième Juré (2008)

Le Septième Juré is an adaptation of Francis Didelot's novel of the same name (1958). A film of the same name was also made by Georges Lautner in 1962, set in Pontarlier, Doubs.

Grégoire Duval (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is a chemist who lives with his wife Geneviève (Isabelle Habiague) in provincial France and then one day, while fishing and in a moment of insanity strangles a young woman in a barn. This matter occurs at the end of the Algerian war and many French people are racist, which provides a suitable occasion for the Algerian Khader Boualam (Lahcen Razzougui), the woman's last lover, to be tried for the murder: he is just the scapegoat France needs.

But Grégoire is on the jury and tries his best to point out inconsistencies in the trial: he is wracked with guilt that an innocent person possibly faces the death sentence and he has sleepless nights. He tells his wife the truth but she swears him to a vow of silence because Grégoire's being found guilty would destroy them.

In the end Grégoire can't live with himself, hangs himself in the same barn, and leaves a confession of two murders which are promptly destroyed. So much for justice.

Stéphane Brizé's La Loi du marché | The Measure of a Man (2015)

This film has been compared to some of Ken Loach's film, and of course those of the Frères Dardenne, who must to some extent themselves be influenced by Ken Loach: Loach is a huge name in European Francophone countries, and only a few weeks ago the left-wing Édouard Louis, who originally stems from a basic working-class background in Picardy, published a booket containing a conversation he had with Loach: although without the humour of Loach, this superb film carries the same gritty realism and empathy for the downtrodden, the laissés-pour-compte, as the British director's.

Thierry (Vincent Lindon) is long-term unemployed ex-factory worker with a wife, and a child with severe communication problems. He runs the whole gamut of useless bank advice, scratching a living in poverty, and worse-than-useless unemployed courses which leave people more disillusioned and helpless than before. Eventually he finds a job as a security guard in a supermarket but has to walk out of it because his dignity won't allow him to collar cash-strapped fellow workers for stealing. Welcome to the modern world of work in which class solidarity is a thing of history. A super film which, as I say in the post immediately below, owes something to Patrice Deboosère's Lundi CDI.

Patrice Deboosère's Lundi CDI | Probationary Period (2010)

 

This is a short lasting seventeen minutes. Éric (François Godart) is looking of a CDI, or Contrat de travail à durée indéterminée, a permanent work contract. He begins working as a supermarket security guard, although from the beginning he seems unsuited to the task: his reaction to his boss José (Éric Savin) calling a young child's parents to report him stealing seems a little exaggerated. But more is to come: a woman is caught stealing underwear and she breaks down in the office, causing embarrassment to Éric. She says she has no money to pay for the goods but says he can take it out on her body as his boss does. Éric is dumbfounded, takes the electronic device from the clothing and tells her to go.

In the car park she gets in her car, takes her wig off and phones the supermarket manager, telling him that he eventually cracked: 'trop affectif' ('too emotional'). And so we realise that this is a strong comment about the brutal reality of the business world.

Originally, Vincent Lindon had the idea of turning Lundi CDI into a feature film, although he later learned that Stéphane Brizé had adopted the idea: Deboosère's short inspired Brizé to make La Loi du marché. There are in fact a number of similarities between the two films.

5 May 2021

Francis Veber's L'Emmerdeur | A Pain in the Ass (2008)

No, this isn't the legendary L'Emmerdeur (1973) with Jacques Brel and Lino Ventura, directed by Édouard Molinaro and inspired by Francis Veber's play Le Contrat (1971), but the same film directed by the original playwright Francis Veber, and if that doesn't confuse people nothing will.

But then this is a François Pignon film, starring Patrick Tamsit as Pignon and Richard Berry as Milan. Milan is a hired killer intending to assassinate Randoni (Michel Aumont), who is about to give evidence in a trial concerning political corruption, and his hotel room overlooks the Palais de Justice: yeah, OK, there has to be a suspension of disbelief otherwise no film.

Pignon is obviously a Veberian Pignon, meaning he's stupid, although probably by no means that stupid, maybe even more clever than most of the rest, but certainly shunned by society, and here his wife in particular: she (Louise as Virginie Ledoyen) has gone to live with psychiatrist Wolf (Pascal Elbé), who is definitely more stupid than Pignon.

Pignon is so distressed that he wants to kill himself, but brings down not only his shower head but his water supply in the process: time for the domestic to help, but Milan assures him he'll take care of the job, hiding his artillery at the same time as he tries to pacify Pignon. There's a Pignon in all of us, a hero and a coward, a genius and an idiot, a philosopher and a Colin Wilson, but Veber hits out at all stupidity and mindless pretentiousness. I loved this film, but I absolutely have to see Édouard Molinaro's original movie.

4 May 2021

André Téchiné's La Fille du RER | The Girl on the Train (1986)

This film was inspired by Jean-Marie Besset's play RER, which in turn was inspired by a true event in 2004 in Paris when a young woman went to the police to register an anti-Semitic attack on her on the D line of the RER. It provoked a wave of protest in the country, with a great deal of media interest. A few days later she admitted that she'd invented the story.

Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) is rollerblading and attracts the attention of Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who's doing the same. And he's pretty insistant on getting to know her. Jeanne is unemployed and lives modestly with her mother Louise (Catherine Denueve) who looks after children as a livelihood. When Franck finds a job the young couple live together, until Franck is severely wounded by a knife blow over a drug deal. It's then that Jeanne's life begins to crumble, along with her mind. I would hardly think that this film has anything to do with racism, more the fragility of psychology, especially in the younger generation.

Philippe de Broca's La Gitane | The Gypsy (1986)

I'd not seen any of Philippe de Broca's films before, but this is quite simply a disaster. There are very few reviews of it but most of those admit that this is a very bad film for him. This was the eighties, so perhaps we can forget a comment to the effect that a temperamental computer must be female as it's indisposed once a month, but not the rest of this apparently characteristic blend of comedy and thriller.

Hubert (Claude Brasseur) is a banker divorced from Brigitte (Stéphane Audran) for ten years, although she still frequently contacts him, and she and his daughter Florence (Valérie Rojan) insist his lover Elsa (Clémentine Célarié) is a pute. His secretary Mlle Chaprot (Marie-Anne Chazel) also has eyes for him, although he calls her ugly because of her glasses and slight lack of make-up.

And then the explosion happens: the beautiful gypsy Mona (Valérie Kaprisky) steals his car, he reports it to the police and suddenly the not only beautiful but extremely intelligent, enterprising woman is part of his life, she visits his office, his home, robs the museum of some treasures, robs his bank, has him chase her all over the world, up the Tour Eiffel, they're in love, and that's as far as I'm going. Yes, a disaster, but there are a few moments of interest.

Could it be that the gypsy Ali Baba 'cave' of recycled wonders influenced Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Tire-Larigots in Micmacs?

Jacques Doniol-Valcroze's L'Eau à la bouche (1960)

Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, one of the co-founders of Cahiers du cinéma, is also one of the half-forgotten directors associated with the Nouvelle Vague. He only directed seven films. L'Eau à la bouche is scored by the music of Serge Gainsbourg, the tune of the same name being played several times, sometimes using the words, others only the music, as with Gainsbourg's more uptempo 'Judith'. The film is perhaps representative of the new sexual freedom, with six of the main characters here pairing off.

Virtually the whole of this film is a flashback to the day before, when three people were intended to come to the their late grandmother's château where one of the granddaughters – Miléna (Françoise Brion) – has been living. The other grandchildren are Fifine (Alexandra Stewart) and Jean-Paul (Paul Guers), although just for a laugh Robert (Jacques Riberolles), Fifine's boyfriend, is pretending to be Jean-Paul, to the annoyance of Fifine who nevertheless doesn't say anything. Also present in the château are the lawyer Miguel (Gérard Barray) who has come to read the will, the sex-mad butler César (Michel Galibru) and the new maid Prudence (Bernadette Lafont), plus the all-knowing Florence (Florence Loinod), the cook's granddaughter.

As night falls César sleeps with Prudence, Fifine with Miguel and Miléna with Robert, who is denounced under his true identity by Prudence in the morning. With the coming of Jean-Paul the scene returns to the beginning and continues with Fifine greeting her brother.

All this is played out gloriously theatrically in the sumptuous fading splendour of Château d'Aubiry, Céret (Pyrénées-Orientales), where the only telltales of ruin I noticed was in the broken windows of one of Gustave Eiffel's greenhouses.

Mouth watering.

3 May 2021

Claude Goretta's Pas si méchant que ça | The Wonderful Crook (1974)

Claude Goretta got his idea for Pas si méchant que ça from two news stories: one about the head of a Swiss business in financial difficulties who could only pay his employees by staging hold-ups, and the other of a man who kidnapped the son of a CEO by making him laugh by dressing up as Pinocchio. The idea is that, well, the robber here, Pierre (Gérard Depardieu), tries to calm his victims by showing them that he's not as nasty as that.

Pierre and his wife Marthe (Dominique Labourier) are living a comfortable bourgeois existence in the family woodcraft business which his father (until illness and death) has always been in charge of. And then things go wrong, the artisanal practice is menaced by plastic. But Pierre doesn't want to sack anyone, he'd rather rob businesses than that. And then one day he robs a post office, fires a shot at the ceiling and Nelly (Marlène Jobert) faints. Pierre rushes over the other side of the counter to help her and that's the start of a weird friendship. How was she to know that the gun was no longer loaded?

Eventually they become lovers, she – much to his disgust – even carries out a hold-up herself, heavily disguised and holding up an instruction card to hide her sex. Pierre's leading a double life, both very separate from the other. Until he's inevitably caught and the two women can only look on as the police arrest him.

Gilles Grangier's Le Voyage à Biarritz | The Trip to Biarritz (1963)

In a few seconds, Fernandel can turn joy into sadness, hope into despair, farce into pathos. Le Voyage à Biarritz manages to include comments on the cruel facelessness of economic reality, the class system, the brutal nature of the commercial world, the mindlessness of the paparazzi, the changing nature of society in general and – for good measure – the perceived artificial, mechanical nature of the English; and yet at the same time the film very much remains a traditional comedy. It's based on Jean Sarment's play of the same name, first staged at the Comédie-Française in 1936.

Guillaume Dodut (Fernandel) is the slightly clownish, hot-tempered but loveable stationmaster at Puget-sur-Var (today known as Puget-sur-Argens) who is furious that the last train to stop at the station is to be withdrawn and he has a furious slanging match with coach driver Louis (Rellys) in Le Café de la Gare, which is run by Fernande (Arletty in her last film role). He grabs Louis by the lapel, calling him a fossoyeur (gravedigger), meaning he's in part responsible for the death of rural train stations.

But he's prevented from going further in his anger with Louis when the postman delivers a letter from London, from his twenty-five year old son Charles (Jacques Chabassol). Since Charles was five and expressed a wish to visit Biarritz, the family have learned by heart the blurb about the town and for twenty years Gauillaume has nurtured a burning wish to visit Biarritz with his wife Madeleine (Hélène Tossy) and Charles: he knows all about the delights of the hotels and the scenery. Unfortunately, Charles has other ideas: the letter reveals that he has passed his exams in London as an engineer, although not that he is friendly with the boss of the engineering company, or that he intends to marry Marjorie (Anna Massey): that would be a huge blow to his father, who wants his son to marry Thérèse (Catherine Sola), the station ticket girl.

There are two wonderful scenes in which the English are satirised, the first being when Charles visits Marjorie's family for tea. Her parents simultaneously take the teacups to their mouths, simultaneously put the cups down, simultaneously put a marmelade sandwich to their mouths, simultaneously put them down: all to an infuriatingly repetitive, toy-like musical score: this is a foretaste of Guillaume's later visit to London, where he sees the Changing of the Guard, and says 'On dirait des automates..les soldats de bois' ('They look like robots...wooden soldiers').

Guillaume in London sounds an odd thing, but he's won fourth prize in a Café Bolivar competition: a day in the capital. The coffee company has drawn up a full day for him, including many photo opportunities, many occasions for advertising the coffee, as newspaper vans follow them around and Guillaume has no chance of seeing his son. In fact the last thing his son wants is to be seen with his father in his stationmaster unifrom as it would no doubt put his future in-laws off if they realised anything about Charles's humble beginnings.

But Charles does return to visit his parents, although while they're about to eat the phone goes and it's his London girlfriend Marjorie telling him that her parents were so enchanted by what he's told them about Biarritz that they've decided to spend there holidays there, and it goes without saying the they want him there too. So Charles invents a story to the effect that he's being called away to Biarritz to work as an engineer and he wouldn't have any time for his parents even if they went to Biarritz too: a lie, but a half-lie. Guillaume's wife has already understood the truth: the upwardly mobile Charles has moved on to fresh pastures, or as Fernande puts it, the heartbroken Guillaume is on a different track to his son.

Or maybe not. Charles will be losing his roots, trading his natural, fun- and sun-filled Provence for boring, fog-filled clockwork England. So he fixes Louis's engine, brings more passengers to Thérèse's ticket office than ever before, and she's so sexy and fits so snugly into his arms. Guillaume, of course, provides the final image of the film as he walks the platform with the inevitable toothy, horse-like smile. Precious.

2 May 2021

Jean Boyer's Le Chômeur de Clochemerle | Easiest Profession (1957)

No comment on the ridiculous English translation of the title of this film set in the fictitious Clochemerle. Fernandel (here Tistin) almost always plays the part of the good, constantly smiling toothy, gummy guy, as in this film, where he's at first a tramplike poacher avoiding the gamekeeper Beausoleil (Marcel Perès), who nevertheless enjoys an illegal rabbit stew with Tistin. And then Tistin has a brilliant idea: in a place of full employment, he applies to be a paid member of the unemployed, and succeeds.

He achieves this by the mayor M. Piechut (Henri Vilbert) rigging the vote because he believes that this places Clochemerle at the forefront of social justice, for which Tistin is paid 10,000 francs a month, or the equivalent of over 20,000 euros in today's figures: not a bad haul for doing nothing. But unfortunately the villagers strongly object to Tistin being paid to do nothing, and soon almost everyone is against him.

Until, that is, he starts to do any odd jobs asked of him, and the villagers reward him for it, which he eventually puts in a bank account to the benefit of the village. Result? He's awarded a medal and marries his beloved Jeanette (Maria Mauban). It's all good fun, although I'd have preferred an ending similar to Renoir's Boudu sauvé des eaux.

This film is based on novels by Gabriel Chevallier, who based Clochemerle in Vaux-en-Beaujolais, which now rejoices in the representation with a house with murals of Chevallier's characters, a pissotière, a Clochmerle trail, etc.

1 May 2021

Francis Veber's Le Placard | The Closet (2001)

This can hardly be called one of a series, as there isn't a series, although the main character François Pignon (less often Perrin) appears in Francis Veber's superior comedies a number of times: and he appears as different actors. In part, Pignon is Veber himself, and perhaps the main thing the Pignons (or Perrins) all have in common is that the main character is at variance with consensus reality: they may be shy, obsessional, or any one or a number of other removes away from the norm, but they're out of step. Period. A personal comment: political correctness hasn't even begun to understand the problems it's faced with, and to treat sexuality as a binary is absurd.

Here, François Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) – whose wife has left him taking their son with her – is a minor accountant for a condom company and is facing the sack. Is suicide a possibility? His new neighbour Jean-Pierre (Michel Aumont) seems to think so and tells him that if he jumps from his balcony he'll ruin his (Jean-Pierre's) car: not very neighbourly. So Jean-Pierre invites François in for a drink and tells him he'll find a solution to his problem. And that is: François will have to come out of the closet, admit that he's gay. He isn't, but that's not the point: dismissal on discriminatory grounds is the point, so Jean-Pierre has some compromising photos photoshopped, meaning they're flying all around the office, and of course François's boss Kopel (Jean Rochefort) has problems aplenty.

Francis Veber has a knack of making some really amazing films out of apparently very little material.

30 April 2021

Édouard Molinaro's La Cage Aux Folles (1978)

Édouard Molinaro's La Cage Aux Folles is an adaptation of a play of the same name by Jean Poiret in 1973, which in turn was inspired by Charles's Dyer's Staircase (1966).

Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) and Albin (Michel Serrault) are a homosexual couple who run the drag cabaret La Cage Aux Folles, and in fact live in the same building. Albin shows openly camp behaviour, the flat is full of camp signs, such as Greek statues, a pot shaped as a pair of buttocks, etc. Renato has a son, Laurent (Rémi Laurent), from a brief relationship with a woman and the problem is that Laurent wants to marry Andréa Charrier (Luisa Maneri), the daughter of the ultra straight-laced Simon (Michel Galabru) and Louise (Carmen Scarpitta). Obviously Andréa's parents want to meet Laurent's parents, but another problem is that Simon is député of an ultra-conservative political party.

So Renato has to hide certain incriminating objects, although he's still reluctant to hide Albin away while the future parents-in-law are there. He contacts his previous lover Simone (Claire Maurier) to pose as his husband. In the end the worst happens and Albin turns up for the occasion dressed as a woman, and the future in-laws are naturally shocked by this turn of events. When Simone turns up and Albin's wig is off they soon discover the truth. Meanwhile, journalists outside are waiting for a scoop.

Charrier sees his career in ruins if they leaves by the front of La Cage Aux Folles, although Albin's plan is to dress the Charriers in cabaret, which they do and the marriage takes place.

Obviously a farce resting on disguise, hackneyed stereotyping and gags which today would probably be unacceptable, but interesting as a period piece.

Gabriel Axel's Babettes Gæstebud | Babette's Feast (1987)

An article by Cynthia Green in 'Jstor Daily', 17 January 2018, titled 'The Writer Behind Out of Africa' and concerning the film adaptation of her short story' Babettes Gæstebud' (1958) is subtitled 'For Karen Blixen [...] role, purpose, fate and destiny are intertwined.' This is quite evident from this austere, understated, moving film of rigidity, painful self-control, acceptance of fate and lost life.

The nineteenth-century setting is a tiny village on the west coast of Jutland, where the sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) live with their authoritarian, possessive monster of a Lutheran pastor father. They never marry, but after their father is dead – thirty-five years after they feel forced to reject a succession of suitors – they accept, free of charge, the young French woman Babette (Stéphane Audran) fleeing from the civil war as housekeeper and cook.

For fifteen years Babette dutifully works for them serving humble fare as befits the Lutheran austerity of her environment. But a friend in Paris has been regularly buying her a lottery ticket, and she wins 10,000 francs. But, unbeknown to the sisters, her plan is not to return to Paris but to celebrate the late pastor's hundredth anniversary by inviting twelve guests to a remarkable feast at the house. This involves having very expensive food and drink brought in from Paris. The sisters are alarmed by such ostentation, but it's too late for them to go back on it.

The guests' sensibilities initially prevent them from commenting on the luxury of all the courses, the champagne and fine wine, although one of the guests is a former suitor of Martine's: the now General Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle), man of the world and connoisseur of food and wine. Unlike the religiously constipated guests, he makes many comments on the fare and declares that the only time he has eaten so well was at the highly reputed Café Anglais in Paris. The drink obviously helping, the other guests slowly overcome their reluctance to enjoy the meal from hell and there is reconciliation.

The sisters had been expecting Babette to leave for Paris on the proceeds of her lottery win, but she isn't going anywhere. She no longer has any attachments to Paris and all her winnings have been spent on the feast: in her former life, she was head cook at the Café Anglais. Philippa says she'll be a great artist in paradise and enchant the angels.

29 April 2021

Jacques Deray's Borsalino (1970)

I've no wish to go into the details of the plot of Borsalino, a name which incidentally relates to a brand of hat, and there are many hats in this crime film set in 1930 Marseille, but it could well be America, specifically Chicago, because for the French the American cinema (indeed, for many French people America itself) is a place of wonders. 

But this is the Marseille underworld, full of gangs, violence, easy money, and easy women. But the essential element here is that this is a screen encounter between two legends of French cinema: Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo: here known respectively as Roch Siffredi* and François Capella. The two men – originally enemies, become friends and eventually kings of the underworld in Marseille – but the main problem, of course, is that the town ain't big enough for the both of them: François chooses to leave, but in the end is killed in the attempt. Brilliant cinema this is perhaps not, although it is undeniably a showcase of two film greats. And Charles Bolling's music will haunt you for all time.

*The great porn star Rocco Siffredi (originally Rocco Tano) apparently took his screen name from Delon in Rocco et ses frères and (Roch) Siffredi in Borsalino and Borsalino & Co.

Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier dedicates this to Andreï Tarkovski. Informally it's known as the first of his 'Depression Trilogy', when Trier was going through a bad period. True to fashion, this is a controversial film with its sex and violence, although I feel that the extent of the violence is nowhere near as terrifying or as graphic as Noé's Irreversible.

As regards sex, there's little of a greatly explicit nature, apart from the rather artificial-looking penis moving in out of a vagina a few times at the beginning. This is supposedly (although not in reality) the unnamed characters played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg having sex while their baby climbs onto the window area and falls to his death: his name's Nic, perhaps the only name person given a name in the film (although I stand to be corrected).

The main subjects are guilt and madness. The Charlotte character is recieving psychotherapy, although as a therapist himself the Dafoe character doesn't like it so takes his partner to the isolation of woods to cure her.

The violent parts are sadomasochistic and performed by Gainsbourg, one element of this being her drilling a hole through his calf, attaching a grindstone with a bolt through it, then tightening a nut to the bolt and throwing the spanner under the cabin. At the time he doesn't feel the pain as she's knocked him out by powerfully hitting him in the groin and masturbating him until he comes blood. The other incident is when she cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors. OK, both of these actions are intensely violent in themselves, although they are not shown in any graphic detail.

Is this a masterpiece, Trier exorcising his demons in public, or maybe just (badly) pretentious showmanship? Or both? As this is my first Trier I pass no judgement, but when I get round to seeing more of his stuff I may have reached at more conclusive verdict. Still, I'm in no hurry as I put my exploration of French cinema first.

Jérôme Reybaud's Jours de France | Four Days in France (2017)

Pierre (Pascal Cervo) leaves his longterm boyfriend Paul (Arthur Igual) in Paris and just takes off in his Alfa Romeo, mainly moving around the Clermont-Ferrand area and then through Provence as far as the Italian border. He uses the LGBT app Grindr, reads the messages in toilets, checks out cruising sights (lieux de drague), has casual encounters, etc. At the same time, Paul is with mixed success following him, checking out his movements from the app. In the end they meet up and are together again.

Jean-François Richet's L'Ennemi public nº 1 | Mesrine 2: Public Enemy No 1 (2008)

The second of the two-part film about Mesrine's career as a gangster goes from 1972 up to his death in November 1979, is entirely set in France and we see him in a large number of disguises: becoming increasingly known throughout France, he had to ensure that no one would recognise him. There is also an increasing desire for self-advertisement: not only does he publish the book L'Instinct de mort (1977) about his crimes and all the people he's killed (39, he claims) but he has a fascination for communicating with the media.

He is imprisoned in 1973, although he escapes by holding the judge hostage. He is discovered and sent to La Santé for twenty years. However, he manages to escape over the wall with another prisoner, François Besse (Mathieu Amalric), wearing the uniforms they've taken from prison wardens.

Mesrine is living a wealthy life with his girlfriend Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier) until the Brigade de recherche et d'intervention (BRI) shoot him dead at the wheel of his car. Eighteen bullets hit him, his partner is seriously hurt, losing one eye, and their poodle is also killed. In 2011 she published Ma vie avec Mesrine. For many people, perhaps inevitably because of the glamour attached to him, Mesrine is a kind of hero, a representation of a lawless form of freedom.

26 April 2021

Christian-Jaque's Babette s'en va-t-en guerre | Babette Goes to War (1959)

It's 1940 and the young and naive Babette (Brigitte Bardot) finds herself in France libre in London, set on by Lieutenant Gérard de Crécy (Jacques Charrier) as a femme de ménage. Major Fitzpatrick (Ronald Howard) notices that she strongly resembles Hilda, former lover of the German Général von Arenberg (Hannes Messemer): she could therefore be very useful to the English. After training, Babette is parachuted into France with Gérard, although she fails to land at the right time and takes the train to Paris.

She is arrested in a cafe by the head of the Gestapo, Papa Schulz (Francis Blanche), who recognises her resemblance to Hilda. He arranges a meeting with her and Arenberg, whom he suspects of being a traitor to the Nazis. Arenberg is immediately smitten, and goes with Babette to the Duke and Duchess of  Crécy-Lozère: in reality Gérard's parents. Time to kidnap Arenberg and take him to London. Only, the Gestapo have been following...

25 April 2021

Jean-François Richet's L'Instinct de mort | Mesrine 1: Killer Instinct (2008)

L'Instinct de mort is the first of a two-part crime film based on the life of the infamous Jacques Mesrine (pronounced, he insists, with a silent 's') as related by himself in the book of the same title. Jean-Paul Belmondo had originally bought the rights for L'Instinct de mort, intending to make a film, but this was not to be.

Vincent Cassel is ideal for the role. This first part traces his life from 1959 to 1972, from his being a soldier with the gruelling, violent French war against Algeria. Back in France he has no wish to have an honest, conventional job and turns to a life of crime with his old schoolfriend Paul (Gilles Lelouche), whose boss is Guido (Gérard Depardieu), who will serve as protection to Mesrine. Later, Paul and Guido will be murdered by unknown attackers, although by then Mesrine will be elsewhere.

Mesrine's life in the first part is of him in various countries, briefly in Spain (where he meets his wife Sofia (Elena Anaya), and to whom he is later divorced), but also for instance Québec and the USA. Although he's tried to go straight he's basically a robber and a killer enjoying the high life which he's well aware be be temporary.

24 April 2021

Jean Rollin's Fascination (1979)

 

This is another of Jean Rollin's 'horror' stories, although this film – after over forty years – comes across as very tame for such an expression, although there is certainly some surrealism.

Set in 1905, Marc (Jean-Maire Lemaire) – the leader of a bunch of criminals who's run off with all of the money following a raid – stumbles upon a castle when making his getaway. The place is only inhabited by two very odd bisexual young women, Elizabeth (Franca Maï)* and Eva (Brigitte Lahaie), who very quickly dominate the situation.

Eva also very quickly dominates the gang in pursuit of Marc, who try to beseige the castle: she fells a potential rapist with a knife blow and mows down the others with a scythe.

But this doesn't mean that Marc can escape with the money: the girls are part of a kind of coven, and even though Eva has fallen for Marc she can't, as one of the anaemic clan, resist her 'natural' desire for killing and blood drinking.

*Franca Maï also went on to direct some very odd films as well as write a number of novels.

22 April 2021

Abdellatif Kechchiche's La Graine et le mulet | Couscous | The Secret of the Grain (2008)

As usual with translations, my reaction to La Graine et le mulet being titled Couscous (in English) and The Secret of the Grain (in American English) is negative: if people really enjoy French films, why shouldn't they have them well translated, or not translated at all? The name Couscous is sort of OK I suppose, but The Secret of the Grain? What planet are we on? La Graine certainly refers to couscous, but le mulet refers to the fish mullet, the 'couscous au poisson' meal, so why not try and make that clear? Translations exasperate me, which is why I listen to French films in the original language without subtitles: all right, perhaps I'm privileged to be able to do so, but misinterpretations or misunderstandings abound where French culture is concerned. Enough.

Similarly – oddly, by coincidence, or entirely by design, as with Kechiche's L'Equive – this movie is full of physical or verbal avoidances, distractions, swerves, dodges, call them what you will. Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) is a sixty-one-year-old ship repairer who has worked for the same company for 35 years, although he's obviously ageing and redundancy calls. He no longer lives with his wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) but with Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi), who treats him more as a daughter than a step-daughter. But Slimane also has two biological daughters – Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) and Karima (Faridah Benkhetache) – and two biological sons – Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem), and Majid (Sami Zitouni). And extended family gatherings around the table are the norm, a time of happiness no matter what may be behind the scenes.

Majid is first encountered on a tourist trip around Sète, where this film is mainly set: he screws a woman on the trip, leaving another announcer to make do as best she can. This is the egotistal Majid, who towards the end of the film will leave everyone in a kind a limbo, a situation of avoidance, which perhaps leads to the death of his father. Mercifully, we don't know.

Being made redundant as a ship restorer, Slimane has avoided losing face by setting up a really odd retirement plan: creating a restaurant on the harbour of Sète in a restored ship, serving couscous au poisson as its speciality. But on the grand opening ceremony there's no couscous because Slimane's son Madji – the one with the wandering cock – has seen a potentially very compromising situation with a woman he's screwed, so he avoids things and drives away: with the cooked couscous in the boot. What to do? Get the guests pissed while they wait (a clever avoidance mechanism) and as for Rhm belly-dancing for ages to cause distraction, well: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and obviously Abdellatif Kechichice had his reasons to get Hafsia Herzi to put on so much weight, but I still loved the film.

21 April 2021

Abdellatif Kechiche's L'Esquive | Games of Love and Chance (2005)

 

L'Esquive is called Games of Love and Chance in English, an avoidance of the real name: 'L'Esquive' here is best translated as 'Avoidance',  which is really what the film is about. Certainly we can argue that the mise en abyme, the play within the film – Marivaux's Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard, of which the English name is a literal translation – is also principally about a kind of avoidance, but we'll come to that later.

L'Esquive is set in several working-class HLM areas of 93 (Seine-Saint-Denis), a département high in immigration, social problems, etc. But unlike, say, La Haine or Deephan, Abdellatif Kechiche doesn't concentrate on violence or gang culture, but on the ordinary lives and loves of a group of adolescent students. There is a notable scene of realistic violence with a hand-held camera in which the police search the cooperative kids, but that is all: certainly there's a great deal of verbal violence, but that in part acts as an illustration not only of the frustrations of adolescence but of the use of the language of the kids. They speak FCC, or 'Français contemporain des cités'.

FCC is a variety of French which changes frequently to stay in fashion with itself, and is noted for its use of verlan or backslang, itself a word in verlan (l'envers, or even, perhaps, langue verte (meaning 'slang')): louche becomes chelou, mec keum, flic keuf, etc: there are hundreds of such examples of verlan, all in fact a kind of avoidance of conventional French. Even esquiver itself is 'verlanised' to vesqui. FCC goes much further than this though, such as the altering of word forms: in regular French changes from an adverb of place ('there') to an adverb of time ('now'), the adjective grave ('serious') becomes an adverb ('extremely'), and can even be a gesture of agreement, and so on. Words from other countries can reflect multiculturalism, such as the Arabic kiffe ('love'),  zaama ('so-called'), inchallah (lit. 'God willing'), wallah ('I really mean it'); or Anglicisms such as 'kiss', 'lol', 'cool', 'fun', or 'Miss'.

Returning to Marivaux's play, written nearly 300 years ago, this is being put on by the class as an end-of-term activity. Naturally, the language comes over as strained, rhetorical and unnecessarily polite, but there are of course universals at work here, and the playing of love games is the most obvious one. Sylvia's father intends her to marry Dorante, the son of a friend of his, and because she's alarmed by the prospect of marrying someone she's never seen, she has her father agree to her changing roles with her servant Lisette in order to observe Dorante from a distance: a kind of avoidance tactic, as it were. However, unbeknown to Sylvia and Lisette, Dorante has had the same avoidance idea and swaps roles with his servant Arlequin.

Oh, the film itself. Krimo (Osman Elkharraz) is a kid in the lycée who lives in an HLM with his mother, his father is in prison for an unknown offence, and he has been with his girlfriend Magalie (Aurélie Ganito) for two years. But then he takes a good look at Lydia (Sara Forestier), and the camera moves in on her face in two close-up shots, the second just on her lips, and it's as if the camera is revealing the mind of Krimo: wholly smitten, Magalie is the past and Lydia the future. Well, in Krimo's dreams.

So suddenly Krimo really feels he must play the part of Arlequin in the class performance of Marivaux's play, because Rachid (Rachid Hami playing Dorante playing Arlequin) plays opposite Lydia (playing Sylvia playing Lisette): see? Easy stuff to understand, although the FCC may be difficult for some, vas-y (meaning 'OK' in this case, but in youth language by no means always).

Obviously, Krimo bribes Rachid out of the Arlelquin role and moves in on Lydia. Or rather, not: Krimo has his own psychological avoidance mechanisms: he's painfully shy and gets hopelessly tongue-tied, not only when speaking normally but especially when speaking to Lydia or talking the 'foreign' language of Marivaux, much as he might shun his friends and try to learn the part of Dorante (playing Arlequin). He is, of course, as hopeless at learning an eighteenth-century play as he is trying to woo the beautiful Lydia, who avoids any move he attempts to make towards her. But then, such is the game. This is a superlative, and very clever, very complicated, masterpiece which had many French people tied up in its knots. Mortel, fracassant !

20 April 2021

Aggressive Looking Magpie, Hyde, Greater Manchester

 

I come face to face with an aggressive looking magpie in Hyde. He's cute too, but he doesn't seem to like being stared at. Probably camera shy. OK, this isn't France, but it's the best I can do at the moment.

19 April 2021

Alice Guy's Falling Leaves (1912)


A daughter is smitten by consumption, the family doctor says she will be dead on the fall of the last leaf, and the younger daughter, the one looking at the camera, sneaks out at night to hang leaves to trees to prevent her sister from dying. A passing doctor, who just happens to have discovered the magic cure for the illness, administers it, and within months the young woman is cured.

Violaine Bérot: Pas moins que lui (2013)

 I was fortunate enough to buy this almost unread  and signed copy of Violaine Bérot's Pas moins que lui, the dedication of which reads: 'Cette histoire de corps vieillissant, d'absence et d'amour. 20 ans plus tard..' ('This tale of an ageing body, absence of love. 20 years later...')

Violaine Bérot specialises in unbelievable pain, family ties, etc. She lives in the Pyrenees where she was born. Her books are short, but then why should a book be long unless it's necessary? Pas moins que lui, in between telling an age-old story, is feminist in that it concentrates on the female version of the story, that which is often neglected in so many books.

We all know Homer's account of Ulysses leaving the small kingdom of Ithaca, where he lived with his queen Penelope and never really knew his son Telemachus who was born just before he was called to fight in the Trojan War. Penelope remained faithful, avoiding her suitors, the parasites of the court eager to take the place of her husband. The years went on, little or nothing was heard of Ulysses, Telemachus goes to look for him, and returns. A tramp returns at the same time, a man who will prove to be Ulysses himself.

Bérot's story is important as this is not a mythological tale that the world knows so well. Rather, this is Homer's story from a female psychological standpoint, of absolute fidelity but of sexual frustration over twenty years of very few believable stories of Penelope's husband's fate, of temptation, of resignation. And then of joy. Sort of.

17 April 2021

Alice Guy's Les Résultats du Féminisme | The Consequences of Feminism (1906)

This is an interesting film in which gender roles are reversed: men and women might wear the same clothes as was the convention of the time, but their behaviour is very different. Here, the men are very concerned with their appearances, and some wear flowers in their hair; the men do the ironing, do the sewing, get jealous when the women flirt, drink beer in pubs for hours, etc, but that leads to their downfall: the men invade the pubs and demand that the women come home, but suddenly everything is reversed to normal. A feminist comment? Hardly.

Alice Guy's La Fée aux choux | The Fairy of the Cabbages (1896, 1900, 1902)

The image here is a little blurred, but La Fée aux choux involves a couple who want a baby, but aren't satisfied with plastic or cardboard imitations the seller is offering. So the seller, or fairy if you like, leads them into the cabbage patch where babies are born, and after seeing several samples the man pays for one and the couple leave. Not too sure what point Guy was trying to make here, if any, but this is has to be a classic.

Marquise Lepage's Le Jardin oublié : La vie et l'œuvre d'Alice Guy-Blaché (1995)


Le Jardin oublié : La vie et l'œuvre d'Alice Guy-Blaché (1995) by Marquise Lepage is a biopic of an almost forgotten woman often known as just Alice Guy, who was most probably the first female film director. It's made with the participation of Adrienne Blaché-Channing, Guy-Blaché's granddaughter, who relates much of the story. It also contains clips of Alice (1873-1968) herself speaking about her past.

Alice Guy was born in St-Mandé to the east of Paris and became associated with Louis Lumière: her first directed film was La Fée aux choux in 1895, which is possibly the first narrative film ever made. In spite of the prejudice against English people, she married one 1907: Herbert Blaché, who was born in London. Their honeymoon was in America, which was to be their home for a number of years.

Guy established her own film company there and continued to direct many films and become rich: the actual number of films she directed herself is unknown because many are lost, although the figure may be as many as a thousand: these were essentially shorts. But by about 1918 her marriage was on the rocks, her film company was in considerable financial difficulty, and she made her way back to France in 1922, latterly making living by writing children's books under pseudonyms. She died in the USA.

Alice Guy's most important message to actors was 'Be natural', which is the title of a recent film made about her: Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2019), by Pamela B Green.

15 April 2021

Tonie Marshall's Au plus près du paradis | Nearest to Paradise (1983)

Tonie Marshall's Au plus près du paradis (2007) is inspired by Leo MacCarey's An affair to remember (1957), in French Elle et Lui with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. This film was in fact a remake of MacCarey's own Love Affair (1937). Lovers (ah, so improbably) agree to meet at the top of the Empire State building. Roughly the first half of the movie is in French, the second in English, which is a mistake.

As brillant as the actors Catherine Deneuve and William Hurt are, they can't prevent the disaster that is Tonie Marshall's tedious film. Marshall was the first female to receive the César for film direction in 2000 for Vénus beauté (institut).

14 April 2021

Richard Rome Bealey in Carrington, Nottingham

 

'RICHARD ROME BEALEY,
BORN AT ROCHDALE
7TH FEBRUARY 1828,
DIED AT NOTTINGHAM
5TH FEBRUARY 1887. 
AUTHOR OF
"THE MAN WHO IS KIND TO ANOTHER"
AND OTHER VERSES.
ERECTED IN FRATERNAL MEMORY BY FREEMASONS
OF THE PROVINCE OF NOTTINGHAMSHIRE
26TH SEPTEMBER 1944.'

St Johns church, Carrington. Richard Rome Bealey and his family were almost certainly living at the now demolished 259 Watcombe Circus, Carrington, Nottingham, on his death. In 1885 his occupation is given as 'Commission Agent', although he was bringing in very little money. On 9 February the Manchester City News wrote: 'At the funeral beside relatives were present, Mr. W.H. Smith, Secretary of the Nottingham Literary Club; and many others. The coffin was almost hidden by beautiful wreaths of camellias, hyacinths, ferns and other flowers and foliage. Letters of praise also appeared throughout Lancashire and Nottinghamshire newspapers. A fund for his widow, who had been left destitute with seven children, was started by Rev. Sparks'.

'The Man Who Is Kind to Another' was the name of one of his poems from the book Field Flowers and City Chimes (1866), one of many books he wrote but of which he presumably sold very few copies. Originally the grave was unmarked until the spot was later discovered.

ADDENDUM: Interestingly, in Vol. 37 of 'Papers of the Manchester Literary Club' (date unkown), John Mortimer includes Bealey in with several very well-known working-class and local poets: 'It was at the Literary Club, in days long ago, that I first came to know Samuel Laycock, and at a time when he formed one of a group of singing birds who had found a nesting place there, among whom were Charles Swain, Samuel Bamford, Edwin Waugh, Benjamin Brierley, and Richard Rome Bealey'. (The occasion referred to was evidently before 1878, which was when Bealey moved to Arnold, Nottinghamshire.)

13 April 2021

Arnaud Sélignac's Arletty, une passion coupable (2015)


Arletty (Laetitia Casta) says, in one of her brilliant oneliners: 'je suis comme tous les français, très occupée', with of course a pun on 'occupée (meaning 'busy' as well as 'occupied', as an allusion to the Nazi Occupation. At the end of the film, when the Resistance question her after the war, she says 'Mon cœur est français mais mon cul est international !' ('My heart is French but my ass is international!'.)

That last sentence just about sums up what this film is about: 'la môme de Courbevoie', the female actor Arletty's long and passionate, but also tumultuous, love affair with the German Luftwaffe officer Hans Jürgen Soehring (Ken Duken), a relationship which continued (if after the war from a distance) until Hans's death in 1960. There's an important amorous affair between Antoinette d'Harcourt (Marie-Josée Croze), for example, but Arletty is prepared to renounce that for Hans.

Many other famous characters (obviously appearing by actors) play a part in this, such as Sasha Guitry, Jacques Prévert, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Carné and Jean-Louis Barrault, but obviously Arletty and Hans are the main characters.

Claude Autant-Lara's Fric-Frac (1939)

A fric-frac is a break-in. Claude Autant-Lara's Fric-Fric is a perfectly harmless comedy, and although Maurice Lehmann is given in the screen credits as the director of this film it's generally known that Autant-Lara was largely respoonsible for it: he preferred to keep a low profile after the disaster of Ciboulette (1933), and Arletty (here playing Loulou) said as much herself.

Marcel (Fernandel) played the clerk working for the jeweller Mercandieu with his daughter Renée (Hélène Robert). She's (unbelievably) besotted by him, although Marcel shows no interest, especially when he meets Loulou who's with her improbable sidekick Jo (Michel Simon), the small-time thief who also makes his 'living' swindling people at the illegal card game bonneteau*.

An interesting thing is that Marcel – a typical 'cave' or sucker – not only doesn't notice that Loulou and Jo are small-time crooks, but that he finds the slang they use exotic, and he even has Renée asking in the office what 'doudounes' (tits) are. Loulou and Jo extract information about the jeweller's from Marcel and tie him up, although Renée catches them in the act of the fric-frac and Marcel is more or less forced into marrying Renée and eventually taking over the business when Mercandieu eventually retires. All very unlikely, but nevertheless a very likeable film.

*Bonneteau is set up in busy city streets – particularly if they're frequented by wealthy tourists – which probably explains why I've usually seen it in the Montmartre tourist stretch. It's a highly organised set-up normally using cardboard boxes as tables, with different fake players to encourage gullible punters to raise the stakes, and some members of the team watching out for the keufs. I only recently learned that it's played throughout the world and known as 'Find the lady' in English.

Claude Autant-Lara's Le Diable au corps | The Devil in the Flesh (1949)

Claude Autant-Lara is not a name mentioned a great deal of late, possibly because of Truffaut's criticism, but far more likely because of his extreme right-wing views later in his life: earlier, he had had very left-wing ideas. Le Diable dans le corps is closely based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Radiguet (1923), and like this novel the film shocked. The novel, like the film, shocked because the story concerns a teenager who has an affair with a married woman and makes her pregnant.

For this reason too Autant-Lara's film shocked, although the director was noted for his desire to shock: the film also caused offense because of its apparent attitude towards war – both the film and the book are set in World War I and its immediate aftermath, and lycéen François (Gérard Philipe) auxiliary Marthe (Micheline Presle) have their relationship while her husband is called to the war.

The husband – whom Marthe was pushed into marrying by her parents – returns at the end of the war to his wife, who has just given birth to her and François's child. The only word she says before she dies is 'François', as her husband stands by the bed. François, of course, is not allowed to attend the funeral: Autant-Lara's film is also an attack on conventions, on the bien-pensant bourgeoisie.

11 April 2021

André Cayatte's Mourir d'aimer | To Die of Love (1971)

 

Mourir d'aimer is based on a true story involving Gabrielle Russier, a teacher born in Paris in 1937 who had a love affair with one of her pupils, Christian Rossi, in the heady revolutionary May 1968 and after. Russier killed herself in her flat in Marseille in 1969 as a result of the repercussions of the affair and a number of performers sang songs about it, notably Charles Aznavour's 'Mourir d'amour'. In fact the tragedy has never been forgotten by the French. When Macron was elected in 2017 the newspaper Libération carried an article titled 'La Revanche de Gabrielle' ('Gabrielle's Revenge'), alluding to the fact that Macron's wife, his teacher Brigitte, was twenty-four years older than him (and married) when she fell in love with the fifteen-year-old lycéen.

In this film Russier becomes Danièle Guénot (played by Anne Girardot) and Christian is Gérard Leguen (played by Bruno Pradal (who was a few years older than Christian and with a full beard)). The couple have the apparently full backing of the revolutionary students in the lycée, although the young guy's father is responsible for the imprisonment of Danièle and the incarceration of Gérard in a psychiatric hospital, although it's quite clear that there's nothing wrong with his son: he's in love, not 'bewitched' by Danièle who (contrary to Gérard's father's claim) is no prostitute.

There are obviously grey areas into which some relationships just don't fit legally, and this is clearly one of them. Here, Gérard is in full possession of his senses, as is Danièle. Unfortunately, in this film it's the father who's crazy, and whose ill conceived legal meddling will lead to catastrophie. There are a few wincingly melodramatic touches here, and a little ham acting, but this film remains a very powerful statement.

10 April 2021

Arnaud Desplechin's Rois et reine | Kings and Queen (2004)

Arnaud Desplechin's Rois et reine is an astonishing film, and at 145 minutes it sounds like a long one, although the time goes by very quickly: it's spellbinding too. As regards genre I'd call it a drama, a (sometimes zany) comedy and a thriller, sometimes all of those at the same time. It's also a highly literate and very intelligent movie too. The time isn't linear as it has numerous flashbacks, a fantasy scene, and it has two main threads that come together around mid-point.

Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) is, er, a highly strung violinist who's depressed and finds himself dragged into a psychiatric hospital by HDT (Hospitalisation à la demande d'un tiers*) and he not only puts up a fight but reacts in a really crazy fashion, blowing up at the first psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve) who interviews him, telling her women live in a bubble but men go along a straight line (!) and saying 'Je vais vous dénoncer ma petite connasse' ('I'm going to denounce you, you little cunt'). Psychiatric hospitals are a noted theme in Desplechin's films, as is Roubaix, where Desplechin was born and where there's a kind of slapstick (although frightening) shooting scene towards the end in the greengrocer's shop of Ismaël's father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon): Desplechin is making a comment about what he calls the town's 'mauvaise réputation'.

Meanwhile, we have the art gallery manager Nora (Emmanuelle Devos). Her first husband Pierre (Joachim Salinger) shot himself dead in a row with her, she's about to marry Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin, who looks like a gangster), and she has a dying father. Later, she claims she's loved four men but killed two of them: she feels guilty because of the row and because she assisted in her father's death to ease his pain. The fourth loved man is Ismaël, which is where the story comes together.

Nora was pregnant by Pierre when he killed himself and her son Élias (Valentin Lelong-Darmon) grew up with Ismaël: she wants Ismaël to adopt him, although in the end Ismaël decides that Élias would be better off with his mother and future husband.

It's adoption that brings the two strains of the film together, and this is a theme in itself: Ismaël's grandmother (Andrée Tainsy) originally adopted Abel, and Abel and his wife Monique (Catherine Rouvel) have decided to adopt cousin Simon (Gilles Cohen).

This being Desplechin, there are many cultural references, far too many to mention even if I'd caught them all. First of all, right at the beginning we have the homage to Breakfast at Tiffany's (or Diamants sur canapé in French): but instead of Audrey Hepburn (as Holly Golightly) getting out of a cab and eating and drinking on Fifth Avenue while looking in the window in Tiffany's, we have Nora leaving a taxi with a cup of coffee and heading for her art shop – also to the tune of 'Moon River', of course. There are also quotations from Apollinaire, Yeats, Nerval and Emily Dickinson among others.

I didn't even manage to fit in ghosts, of which Desplechin is fond either in fantasy sequences or memory, but anyway I think I've already said enough to indicate that this is a feast of a film. And one viewing doesn't do it justice.

*Meaning that a third party has called for it.

9 April 2021

Stéphane Brizé's Une vie | A Woman's Life (2016)

Adapted from Maupassant's book of the same name, La Vie is deeply pessimistic and naturalistic right up to the last minute, when a note of hope strikes, although I'm nevertheless half convinced that this is the author being ironic.

Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla) leaves her convent school and rejoins her kindly parents Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and La baronne Adélaïde (Yolande Moreau), only soon to marry what appears to be the first suitor to come along: Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud). After an idyllic honeymoon, flashes of which will be revisited onscreen numerous times as Jeanne remembers the past in her present hell – and this story is mainly of her hell – she is confronted by the reality of her situation.

And that reality is that Julien is mean (bullying Jeanne for using too much wood for heating and too many candles), bullying (treating the domestic Rosalie (played by Nina Meurisse) very harshly), and hypocritical and philandering (he won't entertain the idea of the expense of allowing Rosalie's 'bâtard' to live with them, and yet he's actually the father). This she, pregnant with their first and only child, finds out from the curé, who in an austere scene in which Jeanne's parents are also there, begs her to forgive Julien. Under great pressure, she does forgive him.

Things seem to return to the early happiness, with Jeanne playing almost chidishly with their friend Gilberte de Fourville (Clotilde Hesme), the wife of Georges (Alain Beigel), and all four have a great time playing croquet together. Until Jeanne discovers that Julien is up to his sexual tricks again, having an affair with Gilberte. She starts to waste away, admits the truth to the priest, and says that she believes that life is made up of lies. The priest, seeing the effect this is having on her, urges her to stop the lies and tell Georges the truth. She can't as it would hurt him too much, so the priest says he's going to do it for her: the result being that Julien, Gilberte and Georges all finish by shooting themselves to death.

Back at home, Jeanne learns after the death of her mother that she had been having an affair many years before, with a man who said she was not fit to live with Simon-Jacques. Ah, happy families! But Jeanne has to cope with her own son Paul (played by three characters as he grows), who at the age of eleven doesn't want to go to school and is very much of a problem child. At twenty he leaves with his girlfriend (later his wife) for London, although Jeanne disaproves of her because she thinks she's just eating up a great deal of money.

Paul won't be seen again, although his presence will be felt enormously. Thinking he'd make his fortune in London, he in fact amasses huge debts, and of course it's the every faithful Jeanne who'll have to foot the bills, causing her to age, to worry constantly, and at the end have to sell the property which has been in the family for many generations.

Rosalie – who is in fact Jeanne's foster sister – has returned to live with Jeanne as a friend, and she is firm with Jeanne in telling her that she can't send Paul any more money. Paul's wife dies, he's of course penniless, and sends the baby on to Jeanne. We're left with the two woman making silly faces at the young girl. Maupassant concluded La Vie with the sentence 'La vie, voyez-vous, ça n'est jamais si bon ni si mauvais qu'on croit' ('You see, life is never as good or bad as you think'.) No? First the monster Julien, then the monster Paul, and now a new generation: how will this one turn out?

Claude Goretta's Jean-Luc Persécuté | Jean-Luc Persecuted (1966)

This is a devastating téléfilm adapted from the equally devastating novel of the same name by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, published in 1908 and also reviewed on this blog. It's a faithful adapatation, set in the Swiss mountains and depicting a very bleak environment of deep snow, marital infidelity, alcoholism, madness, murder and suicide.

The lead role of Jean-Luc is played by Maurice Garrel, the father of film director Philippe and grandfather of Louis. Jean-Luc makes his living felling trees and is married to Cristine (Frédérique Meininger), who loves Augustin (Philippe Mentha), but he left some time before and now she is married to Jean-Luc and has a baby by him. But then Augustin returns, Jean-Luc discovers that she's secretly seeing him, which she openlly admits with defiance, and so begins his rapid decline.

When their young child dies Jean-Luc refuses to believe it and continues to cradle the imaginary creature in his arms, drinks heavily and slides into psychosis. Cristine has a baby by Augustin, Jean-Luc locks both his wife and the child in a barn, sets fire to it and throws himself from a mountain.

André Téchiné's Les Égarés | Strayed (2003)

It's June 1940 and people are fleeing from Paris. German aircraft bomb them, and the family or interest here loses its car and its possessions: widow Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children, thirteen-year-old Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and seven-year-old Cathy (Clémence Meyer). Retreating from the road they reluctantly meet the strange seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), who has cropped hair to ward off lice, and has a generally wild and disturbed appearance. But they put their trust in him and escape into the woods.

They come upon a large abandoned house which Yvan knows of – later discovered left by a Jewish family – and although Odile is reluctant to enter property that is not her own she is to learn that people act differently in times of war: the survival instinct comes to the fore, conventional laws are overturned. For a time then this becomes their home and they live in a style to which they're unaccustomed, admidst lush furniture with fine wine.

The family's wariness of Yvan soon lessons and he becomes a kind of older brother or father figure to the children, receiving Philippe's great admiration in particular. He steals from dead soldiers and sets traps for rabbits, fishes and provides for the family, even managing a kind of bemused respect from Odile when he tells her he'd like to marry her. A former teacher, Odile begins to teach the illiterate Yvan how to read and write. He also has a violent streak and is suspicious of any outsiders, being particularly mindful for the safety of Odile.

There's a blossoming of strong physical attraction between Odile and Yvan which climaxes in anal sex, and – after the short family idyll is ended by the police when they catch Yvan stealing and he's sent to a reformatory and Odile and children join the refugees – the mother struggles with her grief when she learns that Yvan has hanged himself but tells Philippe he's escaped.

Loss, emotional and physical turmoil, grief, hiding, lies, brief and improbable friendships and liaisons, such is the nature of France under Nazi occupation, which brings out the best and the worst of humanity.

8 April 2021

André Delvaux's Un soir, un train (1968)

This, André Delvaux's second feature film, is an adaptation of the Flemish novelist Johan Daisne's Le Train de l'inertie (De trein der traagheid) (1950): his first feature was also an adaptation from a Daisne novel – L’Homme au crâne rasé (De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen) (1948).

In her article 'Between Surrealism and Magic Realism: The Early Feature Films of André Delvaux' in Yale French Studies No. 109: 'Surrealism and Its Others' (2006), Georgiana M. M. Colvile writes 'Un soir, un train [...] grew out of the opening pages of Nerval's Aurélia and deals with love, death, creativity, and language.' In her conclusion she states 'in Delvaux's early fiction films, surrealism and magic realism dance a pas de deux, with the danse macabre as a negative mirror, traversed by an Orphean quest for love', and says that Delvaux's early films are more in the spirit of Magritte, Paul Delvaux and Gracq than Breton or Bunuel.

Mathias (Yves Montand) is a univeristy teacher of Linquistics at a Flemish university similar to the one in Louvain where there were strikes and demonstrations between 1967 and 1968. He lives with Anne (Anouk Aimée), a French woman ill at ease surrounded by a culture she has no knowledge of. However she assists in the Renaissance play Elckerlijc, which Mathias is producing, and in which the personification of Death is a prominent presence.

Having just had an argument with Anne, he is surprised to find her on the train he takes to give a talk in another town, although the presence of other passengers inhibit the possibility of any communication. (Communication, anyway, is rare and/or non-existent in Delvaux's universe.) On the train Anne asks Mathias for his copy of Le Monde (which of course is French for both 'the world' and 'people' although she doesn't look at it, and the final shot of her alive is of her looking out of the train window in the corridor, although she will never join the outside: when Mathias awakes he sees the newspaper Le Monde in her empty seat, it is as if she has left the world and its people behind her.

Then things go weird. Mathias tries to find Anne but Hernhutter (Hector Camerlynck) can't help him, and when the train stops for no apparent reason Mathias, Herhutter and Val (François Beukelaers) meet at the side of the trainline and the train moves off without them. Herhutter used to teach Mathias, and maybe Mathias taught Val, but as it is we have three people of different ages – perhaps all the same person – in a hostile no-man's-land in the middle of they know not where. Who lit a fire isn't known, but anyway they keep it going and Val roasts potatoes there.

It gets weirder. The trio arrive at a nearby village, no one speaks their language, they go for a meal and are served something they didn't order, Val dances the strangest dance with a female server who could be another personififaction of death, then others join in, the atmosphere is hostile, and then Mathias is transported as if by magic to a train wreck, where he finds Anne dead (although, oddly, apparently as beautiful as before).

7 April 2021

Alain Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express is a film-within-a-film, a kind of spoof spy film with sado-masochistic elements, or rather a comedy that doesn't really go very far but winds itself into repetitive circles, starts all over again, and then ends with a bang: but a quieter bang than at the beginning.

There's a film director, a producer and a continuation secretary working on the plot of a film, to be called 'Trans-Europ-Express', in a carriage on the Trans-Europ-Express. It's to be about a drug dealer called Elias, and as they create the story we see it played out by Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who changes suitcases with another man after giving the password 'Père Petitjean', and he will use these magic words a number of times between the Gare du Nord and Antwerp, the town of his destination. In Antwerp he passes a row of houses, all with a prostitute in the window, although when one, Eva (Marie-France Pisier), comes up to him, he tells her that he only likes 'rape', and she agrees for extra money. After various escapades he learns that the whole business was only a dummy run to test his aptitude, and that the 'drugs' were in fact only powdered sugar.

So Elias is sent on a second journey, although when he meets Eva again he discovers that she is a police informant. He ties her up and strangles her, goes to a night club where he sees a woman stripping, is surrounded by the police and shot dead in the back yard. The three on the train think that diamond smuggling may have been a better idea for the film.

6 April 2021

Alain Robbe-Grillet's L'Immortelle (1963)

Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay L'Année dernière à Marienbad, which was directed by Alain Resnais and released in 1961. L'Immortelle is Robbe-Grillet's first film as director, and is perhaps less opaque than expected. The, er, action takes place in Istanbul, where a French teacher, N (Jacque Doniol-Valcroze) meets the alluring and mysterious Lale (Françoise Brion), who has other names.

Lale (which mean 'tulip') becomes N's guide and his lover, although she is elusive. She disappears and he looks for her, eventually finds her, although she dies in a car crash after seeing a dog belonging (it appears) to one of the men who have been trailing the couple. N. dreams, and dreams, and drives a car, visiting the same spot as where Lale dies, and he too crashes and dies. A haunting film.

Penelope Houston of The Spectator called this film 'pretentious' but with a 'hypnotic allure', which gives me pause for thought. There's pretentiousness and pretentiousness, let's not forget: any true artist of any nature should aim for pretention because it's designed to reach beyond the conventional, beyond the tedious norm, exploring new territories; but then, there are the pretentions of cranks, phonies and cod-philosophers such as the justifiably forgotten and wilfully unacademic Colin Wilson. Robbe-Grillet, on another very different hand, is a brilliant writer and brilliant film maker who will live on.

Bruno de Stabenrath: L'Ami impossible (2020)

This is a 526-page book concerning a multiple murder ten years ago, and which still has France in thrall largely due to various 'sightings' over the years of the guilty man who escaped, Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès: he's been 'seen' in thousands of places all over the world; he was thought to be living as a monk in south-east France; discovered bones near where he is last known to have been proved to be animal rather than human; and relatively recently a man looking nothing like him was arrested at Glasgow airport.

Like Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, Bruno de Stabenrath (as the 'de' indicates) is of aristocratic origin, although the cultural interests of the two – both living in Versailles – are mainly of popular American roots: this can clearly be seen from a Youtube clip from November 2020, where Stabenrath is interviewed remotely from his home, a photo of Elvis Presley clearly seen on the mantlepeice in the background. From their schooldays through a number of decades until the disappearance of Ligonnès, the men were friends, and this book begins with their youthful pursuits of music, young women and the obsession with America which the country holds for so many French people.

Stabenrath – born in 1961 – appeared in a few films in his earlier life, but became wheelchair-bound after a car accident in 1996. He then took to writing books, of which Cavalcade (2001) – largely about his accident and adapted to film in 2005 – was the first. His friend Ligonnès – who married Agnès when he was thirty – very much lived a fantasy life in spite of becoming the father of four children. In 1990 Ligonnès achieved his ambition of touring along the whole of the legendary Route 66, which took him eighteen months, with his friend Michel Rétif (whom Stabenrath improbably calls Micha Frostif). He also spent some time in Florida, setting up company there: his foolhardy business ventures were to cost his wife dearly, in the end very dearly.

Joining Ligonnès at some time in the USA was his faithful friend Emmanuel Teneur, in the book called Rémy, who would follow Ligonnès around France, moving to various places his family moved to, such as Provence and (the final town) Nantes. Agnès was not a little jealous of Emmanuel, although he often helped Ligonnès out with financial loans: a lonely alcoholic, Emmanuel was a non-practising homosexual who even remained friends with Ligonnès when, in Emmanuel's absence, his friend broke into his home and stole 6000 euros and his family jewels.

And then there's L’Église de Philadelphie, a religious sect set up by the Comtesse Geneviève Dupont de Ligonnès, Xavier's mother: she predicted the imminent end of the world, claimed the Catholic church was infested by the devil, and sent out monthly newsletters of her divine revelations to the dozens of followers who financially supported the sect. Both Xavier and Agnès firmly believed in the 'church', although Xavier – in a tremendous blow – lost faith in 1995 when a predicted divine happening didn't happen, but although Emmanuel knew it was a con he kept a low profile and didn't reveal his thoughts.

All the time Ligonnès – who is essentially making what little money he can (and certainly from his down-at-heel appearance it's very little) as a sales representative – is getting increasingly desperate, and concocts wild get-rich-quick schemes. He's now so much in debt that he not only only robs his friend Emmanuel but also empties his sick father's bank account. And he even hooks up with a former girlfriend from his early days when his parents owned a home in L'Île-de-Bréhat (where he met Emmanuel) and cons her out of 50,000 euros: when he tells her things have gone wrong and that he needs another 25,000 she refuses.

And then he discovers his wife is frustrated in a number of ways, and reads her emails: she's sex-starved, has begun a relationship with a certain Icham, and is being conned into a weird mediation course. To top it off, he later finds that Icham is an anagram for Micha, or his friend Michel. His life is collapsing around him.

The desire to create a new life is fully understandable, and perhaps many people in Ligonnès's position would simply disappear. Which is just what he did, although why did this normally completely unviolent man proceed with great deliberation to kill his wife and four children in their home with a rifle after drugging them, and bury the bodies in the garden in bin bags, adding large quantities of quicklime to ensure that they would decompose quickly? And why should he send four-page letters to relatives saying the American drugs squad had nominated him as an agent to go to the night clubs infiltrating drug cliques? Yes, they had called upon a fifty-year-old man to do this – the state of his mind is unimaginable.

Nevertheless, his strategies paid off and it was about ten days before the police discovered the bodies: he had plenty of time to do a disappearing act, and was last seen at an ATM in Roquebrune-sur-Argens after spending the night in an F1 hotel – this was an area he knew very well as his family had spent some time in Saint-Raphaël (which for some reason Stabenrath insists on calling Sainte-Raphaël).

No one knows what became of Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, although Stabenrath is convinced that he is still alive: he wouldn't possibly have subjected himself to such rigorous planning if he'd wanted to kill himself. I'm not too sure of this reasoning as Ligonnès was so egotistical that he'd have wanted to keep up appearances suicide or no suicide, but whatever the outcome this is an amazing read.

3 April 2021

Robert Bresson's Quatre Nuits d'un rêveur | Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)

This is loosely based on Dostoevsky's White Nights. Quatre Nuits d'un rêveur doesn't have any obvious religious references as there are in some of his other films, although the male protagonist Jacques almost treats (mainly in private) Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) as a god-like being. We first see Jacques hitch-hiking into the countryside to make somersaults in the grass, although in the evening he's back in Paris and sees what appears to be a suicidal young woman along the quai.

Jacques having prevented her from jumping, the two sit on steps and tell each other about themselves. Jacques is an artist in constant search for the right woman, whereas Marthe has already met the man of her dreams, the unnamed Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, whom she's known as a lodger in the flat she shares with her mother. He's had to leave for the States but promised he'll return a year from then, telling her where to meet him at a particular time exactly one year from then. But he didn't meet her.

Jacques escorts her home and they agree to meet, same time same place, the next night. This continues, and in spite of Jacques acting as a go-between, giving a letter written by Marthe to her lover's friends, he doesn't turn up. Meanwhile, in the day (between painting) Jacques is recording his love for Marthe on tape, the last recording just being a repeated 'Marthe' over and over. On the fourth night of meeting Marthe he confesses his love for her, she realises that her former lover didn't deserve her love, and they become lovers.

Er, well not physically, and spiritually only for a few minutes: Jacques buys her a scarf, they continue walking, Marthe sees her former lover, runs up and kisses him, goes back to Jacques and kisses him as a friend, and then returns to the unnamed lover. Time for Jacques to return home and back to his paintings the next day.