Scott’s Movie Journal #8 – French New Wav Edition
The past month has hardly been lacking in quality viewing for me – I feel like I’m still digesting Basic Instinct, which I saw for the first time two weeks ago and very much look forward to revisiting down the road – but I hit what seems to be my annual hunger to dive back into the French New Wave, a subject that always gets me thinking and typing.
I’ll start by saying, with the hope that I’m not overly straw-manning, that there seems to exist a perception that the French New Wave is overly-decorated, overly-represented, and generally given too much attention. The further I dive into it, however, I find exactly the opposite. In Richard Brody’s indispensable book on Jean-Luc Godard, Everything is Cinema, he notes that between 1959 and 1962 alone – the first few years of the New Wave – 162 people made their first film. Whatever most of us know of the New Wave, it is almost certainly too little.
A word about titles – for those with contemporary American distribution in the form of streaming or discs or whatever that use an identifiable American title, I went with the American title, so that readers might better find them. For those that are, as far as I can tell, not currently available through shall-we-say “traditional” means, I largely went with the French title, as their assigned-upon-release American titles are usually quite bad. I know it can come off as pretentious, but what’ll you do, it’s how I feel about it.
Three by Claude Chabrol – A Double Tour (1959), Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), The Third Lover (1962)
(all first views)
I am absolutely not straw-manning when I say there are a number of cinephiles who feel Chabrol is under-recognized among the more notable members of the New Wave, and on sheer numbers alone, it’s hard to disagree. From 1958 to 1967, he made fourteen feature films; of all the directors associated with the movement, only Godard worked faster. The difference that I can perceive at this point, having seen six of Chabrol’s fourteen, is that Chabrol lacked the lightning-rod film that broke out internationally. Godard found his immediately with Breathless, Truffaut hit twice with The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. Other members of the New Wave enjoyed similar moments – Varda had Cleo, Demy had Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Rohmer with My Night at Maud’s, Resnais with either Hiroshima or Marienbad. But Chabrol? Despite early commercial and critical success with Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, Chabrol’s career stagnated during the New Wave – he was churning out films at a remarkable rate, but none caught on in their time, and it doesn’t appear to be until after the Wave had crested that he really found his place.
All of which is to say that these three gave me little reason to re-evaluate his place in the Wave, which is not to say the films are not good – quite the opposite. Each of them draws out an incisive, tension-filled premise without assigning them the explicit qualities of a thriller. Each delays any of violence until the final act, and often until the very last minutes, which – contrary to the expectations of the genre – actually makes each of them less interesting.
A Double Tour was Chabrol’s first color film, and coming in 1959, probably the first color film of the New Wave as well, and right away, as Bernadette Lafont throws open her windows to take in the French countryside, dressed only in her underwear, as cha-cha music blasts out of her small radio and she flirts with the gardener and the milkman, the film establishes immediately the sheer pleasure of its first half. Which isn’t to say everyone’s living purely idyllic lives – patriarch Henri (Jacques Dacqmine) is unhappily married to Thérèse (Madeline Robinson), openly carrying on an affair with their neighbor Léda (Antonella Lualdi); Henri and Thérèse’s daughter Elisabeth (Jeanne Valérie) is engaged to a lout and a drunkard, Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo); and the first we see of their quiet son Richard (André Jocelyn), he’s using a keyhole to spy on their maid Julie (Lafont) as she prances about in her underwear. So you’ve got your classic bucolic setting, stuffed to the gills with potential sources and expressions of conflict, which makes it all the more reductive when that conflict simply turns up a body about forty-five minutes into the proceedings, and despite some increasingly-compelling visual choices, the film is never more interesting as a whodunit than it was as a sharply-wrought family drama. It is immediately apparent, though, that Belmondo was going to be a star with or without Breathless the following year.
Les Bonnes Femmes is much better, quite possibly my favorite Chabrol overall; it has the same frustration of building to an act of violence that feels like an overly simplistic climax to all the tension it had built up, but not only are the preceding 90-some minutes so excellent, there’s a wholly unexpected, totally poetic coda that puts it in a wholly different stratosphere than the rest of Chabrol’s work to this point. The film revolves around four women – Jane (Bernadette Lafont), Jacqueline (Clotide Joano), Ginette (Stéphane Audran), and Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon), all of whom work at the same appliance store (unusually for the New Wave’s reputation, Chabrol’s characters usually have jobs and responsibilities), all of whom have sort of uneasy relationships with men that they’re trying to navigate. The film mostly takes place over twenty-four hours, beginning with Jane and Jacqueline getting picked up by two (ob)noxious businessmen and taken around Paris on a whirlwind tour of its seedier delights, through their stultifying day at work, and onto the next evening, where they will more or less go back through the same motions.
Jane is the most outgoing of the bunch, and Jacqueline the most withdrawn. The latter pines for true romance, while the former is happy to keep men at a distance for a good time, no matter how risky the scenario. One of the interesting things the film does with this divide, over the course of its running time, is show how pervasive male pursuit can be, how one does not need the architecture of a thriller to make it clear the dangers – either violent or not – of simply walking home alone at night. Chabrol’s camera, guided by his and Jean-Pierre Melville’s frequent cinematographer Henri Decaë, is attuned to the way women can be pushed to the edges of their own lives, their space taken up by boisterous men or simply the awareness they could be out there, around any corner. The film’s portrait of Parisian nightlife is at once completely envious and more than a little tawdry. There’s always a show to see or a crowd to immerse oneself in. After a show on the second night, around 10pm, the girls are standing around wondering what to do, when one of them hits on the idea of going to…a swimming pool? And then they just go to a swimming pool where tons of people are splashing around having a good time at near-midnight? A moveable feast indeed.
The Third Lover is the shortest of the bunch, only 79 minutes, and has an appropriately intimate scenario – Albin Mercier (Jacques Charrier) is a French journalist working in a village outside of Munich, writing articles about how the Germans live as part of a widespread peace initiative throughout Europe in the years following Allied occupation of Germany. Problem is that Albin lied about speaking German and is just there to make a buck, and having a miserable time of it at that, until he meets Hélène (Audran again; she and Chabrol would marry two years later), a French woman and wife of Andreas (Walter Reyer), a successful writer who lives in the village’s most impressive house. Albin naturally falls in love not only with Hélène, but with the whole life she and Andreas lead, and conspires to steal it all out from under them…until it turns out Hélène may already have a lover, and that the marital bliss he sees them enjoy may be a whole lot more complicated that it superficially appears.
Most of the film is told in voiceover, and Charrier has a good voice for it, dry and sharp and just a little bit pained as he pathetically lusts for every bit of the couple’s attention and rues even the slightest, even nonexistent rebuke. One would like to say they have never felt as he does, resentful of friends’ attention to others or its lack to them, and one would further like to say that such jealousy is never driven by sexual or romantic desires, but certainly Chabrol (writing for the first time since Le Beau Serge without his frequent collaborator Paul Gégauff, though IMDb notes some uncredited dialogue work) is clear and honest about from whence these feelings stem and to where they are likely to lead. I’ve seen Carrier in one other film – Michel Deville’s winning Because, Because of a Woman (plus a role so brief in Varda’s The Creatures that I have no memory of him in it) – and already regret how few his acting credits are. He’s extraordinarily good-looking, and has the air of a more innocent and naive Alain Delon, the combination of which opens up untold dramatic possibilities, many of which are dug out quite excellently here. At least until the inevitable and still-disappointing violence.
Le ligne de mire (Jean-Daniel Pollet, 1960)
Pollet is a new name to me, and this is one of only two films he made in the New Wave period, and it’s not hard to see why he might have had trouble making more. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a totally remarkable film, now – to me – one of the essentials of the Wave, but it’s just as inaccessibly dense as Last Year at Marienbad, without that film’s glamor or romance. Near as I can piece together the story, there’s a sort of pleasant but lonely man who is staying at his uncle’s castle, and occasionally bringing friends there, and/or just remembering things that happened there, and/or imagining things that could happen somewhere between there and Paris.
For all the advertising around the New Wave that revolves around how cool and hip it is, it’s sometimes helpful to place it alongside the nouveau roman movement happening in French literature at the same time. I’m not terribly well-read (in any regard, really, but let’s keep it to nouveau roman for now), but I have read three or four novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a key figure in the movement (and later screenwriter of – yes – Last Year at Marienbad), and their emphasis on repetition, on these sort of isolated details that the reader has to combine into a whole, was very much on my mind while watching Le ligne de mire, which keeps looping back around to the same music, the same establishing shots of the castle, and some of the same images and incidents in a way I found quite hypnotic and moving.
The 400 Blows (François Truaffaut, 1959)
(second view; last seen…2007 or 2008)
I don’t know how or why it took me so long to return to this film, which I love very much, but it’s a strong early example of how the New Wave could tackle classical narrative without totally corrupting it. The 400 Blows is a linear story that is not overly interrupted by tangent or experimentation, but its lack of resolution to its narrative, or resolution to the themes it introduces, plants in the audience the ability to help tell its story.
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
(seen too many times to count)
“After all, I’m an asshole.” So begins Jean-Luc Godard’s feature film career, as much of a statement of what would come over the next sixty years as one could possibly hope for from a young artist. My artistic admiration for Godard is infinite. I have seen…I count 31 features, but Godard’s filmography is famously difficult to parse; I have at any rate seen all his New Wave films. This is only a fraction of his career output – IMDb assigns him 129 directorial credits. But I’ve yet to see a Godard film that was less than completely fascinating, and especially for the 60s stuff, it can be difficult to appreciate from this distance just how radical it was.
To take Breathless as an example…it’s not just about the jump cuts – it’s about the street photography, often caught on the fly and without any kind of formal location management; it’s about the scene structure, which could last for a few seconds or go on for almost a half-hour; it’s the way the characters regard the camera, or don’t regard the camera, that totally opens the film up. There’s a total fluidity to the film where it is capable of doing almost anything at any time, lead by an unpredictable character who has no interest or and possibly no capacity for redemption. There’s something tender about Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) that he ignores, that Patricia (Jean Seberg) hopes too much for, that will sustain neither of them.
My regard for Godard as a person, to loop back around to that, is pretty low, and Breathless evinces these qualities as well as anything else. Godard’s films are persistent in both their admiration and contempt for women, largely in equal measure. There’s an element of Godard that takes pleasure in Michel’s flippant disregard for anything in women besides their sexual qualities, but it’s important not to read Godard only in Michel. He’s also in Patricia, in the way she continually puts him in his place and can’t give herself over to his fantasies, his lack of regard for society and social responsibility or even personal responsibility. He is a total outlaw, the way Godard always fancied himself, and often presented himself in interviews. Patricia is a student, a worker, an inquiring interviewer, and many of Godard’s women in the New Wave years are much more responsible than his men – a quality he both admires and disdains, much as he seems to feel about women in general.
As always, whether this push or pull makes for compelling art, that’s on each viewer.
Le cœur battant (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, 1962)
Doniol-Valcroze is responsible for one of the very worst New Wave films I’ve seen, 1960’s A Game for Six Lovers (also known by its both less-appealing and less-accurate French title, L’Eau à la bouche, or “Water on the mouth,” or “Mouth watering”), so maybe I shouldn’t have gotten too excited by the initial promise this held. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays an artist pining after his dealer’s secretary (Françoise Brion), who needs to rush off to the Mediterranean to meet her lover Juan. Trintignant decides to drive her there himself, hoping to use the time they’re together to seduce her himself. This is all terrific stuff, one of the finer explorations of the ways in which men and women want to be together but aren’t quite suited to be, and whether or not that ultimately really matters.
Problem is, we later find out that the painter has been orchestrating this entire trip and manipulating the circumstances, lying to the secretary to keep her tied to him as long as possible. This flattens the entire conflict of the film, making it too easy to turn him into kind of a scum and her into purely a victim, when their interplay was far more dynamic than that, constantly fluctuating power and control. Then to make matters worse, it rather abruptly ends (yeah, spoilers for a bad movie that’s hard to see) with her dumping Juan in favor of Trintignant, with no explanation at all for why she’s suddenly okay with his deception.
Anyway, I suppose it’s good to be reminded, however lamely, that the period produced its share of stinkers.
Les distractions (Jacques Dupont, 1960)
Sadly this looks to be one of only two Dupont narrative features, as this was very good. As much as I try to convey that mid-century French films were more than just crime dramas…well, many of the crime dramas were really damn good. Here, Belmondo plays a journalist whose old war buddy (eventual Band of Outsiders co-lead Claude Brasseur) accidentally kills a cop. Belmondo is just rolling in dames, so he drops his buddy off with a girl who lives in the country, hoping the cops won’t look for him all the way out there. But the girl resents being treated like a hotel, and the war buddy is a little anxious, so eventually the two of them start to fall into bed before the war buddy feels guilty and runs away. This leaves Belmondo with no idea where he’s gone or if he’s safe, and a good chunk of the movie is Belmondo trying to go about his business while wondering about his friend’s safety. Very strong dramatic premise, and again, whether or not Belmondo was a bankable star, he’s already acting like one, easily carrying the film, and the way the film eventually gets the two back together is touching in a sort of Hawksian way. Terrific stuff.
The Lovers (Louis Malle, 1958)
(second view; last seen in 2012)
I really fell for this film back when I first saw it – on Criterion’s Hulu channel! – many years ago, and wrote then about the way Malle orchestrates the widescreen frame, one of many elements that continued to astound while watching it again. This was only Malle’s second film, released just eight months after his first – Elevator to the Gallows – premiered, one of many great one-two directorial debut punches in this period, and he was only twenty-five during production. He had previously assisted Jacques Cousteau and Robert Bresson, so, as training goes, one could certainly do worse, but he’s doing the kind of visual choreography here it takes many directors many more years and many more films to get even close to, and it’s little wonder that his career became so multifaceted and difficult to pin down. Talent like this is bound to explode in many directions.
Les grandes personnes (Jean Valère, 1961)
After Breathless, Jean Seberg pretty much had the run of things in France. One of rare stars who made the American press take notice and was fluent in both languages, she was a huge asset to the era, even if the stuff she made after Breathless was considerably less noteworthy. This shouldn’t be considered a dig, as those I’ve seen – this in particular – are still very good, just following a more classical structure and aesthetic.
Here, Seberg plays – you guessed it – a young American girl living in France for a short spell. This girl, her name’s Ann, she’s got an uncle who’s a doctor, who’s called to help a woman named Michele (Micheline Presle), a fashion designer, who just tried to commit suicide. Ann has few commitments, and is rather enamored of the fashion world, so she agrees to help look after Michele, and the two become fast friends. Through her, she meets Michele’s onetime beau, whose lack of affections may have driven Michele past the breaking point, and, well, one thing leads to another.
Much of the film is told in a classically dramatic style, and there’s as many reasons not to lump it in with the New Wave, but I was particularly taken with the way it handles voiceover, which occasionally intrudes on the action as characters recall comments others have made – some of which we’ve heard before, some of which we haven’t – that fills out the story in a decidedly non-classical way. It’s also, as noted, just a very good movie overall, and those are always worth calling out, and it has a great sequence of Jean Seberg dancing, more joyful and uninhibited than I’ve ever seen her onscreen, which is a whole lot of fun.
Les petits matins (Jacqueline Audry, 1962)
We’re just barely starting to get introduced to Audry, who as far as I know was the only woman working in the French studio system before the New Wave hit, and even then, this is by my count one of maybe seven French films directed by a woman during the prime 1958-1967 New Wave years, all of which is too bad. The three Audry films I’ve seen – this, No Exit, and Olivia, which got a splashy new release a couple years ago – are all really distinct and exciting works, though perhaps largely due to my own preferences for the era, Les petits matins (which poetically translates to “Early mornings,” much preferable than the American title “Hitch-Hike”) is my favorite so far.
Agathe Aëms, in remarkably her sole acting role of any size, plays a young woman also named Agathe, who we meet on a very rainy Belgian beach, whereupon she suddenly decides to travel to the south of France, where at least they have sun. We know almost nothing of her background or her plans beyond this trip, if in fact she has either. She’s eighteen and she wants to go to the beach; what else do you need to know, really. And that’s the film. She climbs into (almost) any car that will have her and spends several days fending off the attention of men of various ages who all want the same thing from her, and which she’s loath to give any of them. Still, Audry – working from a script from frequent collaborator Pierre Laroche and newcomers Stella Kersová and Pierre Pelegri – and Aëms treat each suitor with a scowl and a shrug, suggesting nothing uncommon about the experience, even if each is decidedly unwelcome.
The location photography is frequently gorgeous, Aëms has a great unpracticed quality that brings the right degree of amateurishness to the stacked cast (among many, she runs into such luminaries of French film as Arletty, Pierre Brasseur, Lino Ventura, and Bernard Blier), and there’s a very fine note of subtext on the way Audry ends the film between Aëms and New Wave star Jean-Claude Brially that suggests a forward-looking quality, uncommon to filmmakers of Audry’s age during the New Wave, but consistent with the kind of trailblazing she so regularly engaged with prior to this.