“In 60 years, the only French military success has been against those battle-hardened juggernauts: Greenpeace.”
I was telling that — or a similar Francoweenie joke — and freely admitting being anti-French in the presence of some film-buff pals at the Toronto Film Festival, when one of them, a Francophone, gently rebuked me: “And yet, you seem to like their movies an awful lot lately.”
Which is true. The two best films I saw at Toronto in 2001 were both in French, the two best films I saw there in 2002 were both in French (though one was actually made in Belgium), and the best U.S. release of 2002 is also French. The fact is that the more you know about the cinema and its history, the harder it is to loathe France as thoroughly as all conservatives should.
The first public film screenings were held in France, in 1895, and in the century since, France has remained the only country besides the United States to have always had a world-class cinema. (By contrast, consider Italy and Russia, which had the world’s attention, respectively, in the ’40s and ’50s with neorealism and in the ’20s with montage, but which also had decades-long periods of producing practically nothing exportable.) French cinema has waxed and waned, certainly, but it has never been out of the international picture. It is the national cinema with the strongest canon outside of Hollywood’s, and the only one with a variety of masterpieces from every era. These are some of the most important and, in my opinion, enjoyable examples of the French canon. All are available on home video and most are revival-circuit staples.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, 1928): Although directed by a Dane, this holy-but-emotionally-grueling film, the greatest of all French silents, came at the end of the decade that solidified Joan’s place in the French national mythology. Dreyer shot almost nothing but close-ups of Joan and the judges at her trial, which he telescoped into a single day while segmenting into distinct movements, as in classical five-act tragedy. Maria Falconetti’s performance in the title role is a portrait of pure sainthood, the height of human aspiration, but one “made on the knees.” The actors wore no makeup, giving the film a wildly fleshy feel. It’s as if sainthood emanates from the dirt you can see in the illiterate peasant girl’s fingernails and from the spit coming out of one furious judge’s mouth. A torture wheel, intercut with Joan’s face, jumps out at the audience so fast and so breathlessly that we almost faint along with her. The Criterion DVD is as good a silent-film print as I’ve ever seen on home video (though getting used to a choir singing words during a silent film took me some time).
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939): This film was an unmitigated commercial disaster, was banned by both the French government and its German conquerors, and had its original prints destroyed in Allied air raids. Only the recovery of working materials in the mid 1950s made it possible for the film to be restored to almost its original form. This history has given Rules a bit of the “film maudit” quality about it and frankly, I found myself baffled by it myself on first viewing, though I was watching an atrociously fuzzy TV print on a cheapo channel. Needless to say, a good print turned me around completely, and this is my favorite French film — endlessly rich, intricate, and precise. It combines the conventions of boudoir farce — characters change alignments through all manner of switches and coincidences during a hunting week at an old country estate — with a rich portrait of masters, servants, in-betweens, and wannabes (Gosford Park shows how horribly this kind of material can go wrong). Things are as corrupt downstairs as up, and every parallel is drawn as the shooting party spins wildly out of control. Appearances, needless to say, are always kept.
The Wages of Fear… (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953): This is probably the most plainly entertaining film in the French canon — at least after the first 30 minutes or so, which are almost painfully slow, and childishly anti-American in that Gallic way. But the slow start has its purpose. Clouzot wants to show his characters’ Latin American world as just aimless ennui and explain why they’d risk their lives — it’s not just for $2,000 from an American oil company, but also to relieve their boredom. But a little of that goes a long way, and Wages doesn’t get cooking until we get to the central story — but then… does it ever “cook.” Two teams of drifters are paid $2,000 to haul nitroglycerine across a mountain range in rickety trucks with no brakes. The film is as effective a thriller as has ever been made; it’s hard to say much more than that, since the film works on such a visceral level. In the best-known sequence (and one of the best editing jobs you’ll ever see), the truckers have to negotiate a three-point turn over a ravine using a rickety bridge made of rotting wood and frayed rope. There are also famous shots of men trapped in an oil slick, yet the film also understands the importance of understatement — as with a shot of a mute puff of smoke drifting over the horizon.
The Earrings of Madame de… (Max Ophuls, 1953): This may be the most gorgeous tragic soap opera ever made; there’s certainly nothing obviously better. It’s a tale of high-society infidelity structured through the journey of a pair of diamond earrings through several different sets of hands. Ophuls is best known for his moving-camera shots, and the opening shot of this film prowls around the title character’s incredible boudoir while she hums thoughtlessly in a near-perfect bit of characterization. But there’s more to Ophuls than his tracks. There’s a sumptuousness of material, of gorgeous excess, as details and decor just spill off the screen. And Ophuls, a wonderful director of actors, also gets career performances from Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, and Charles Boyer. I particularly like the way we see love grow between De Sica’s baron and Darrieux’s Madame de… (who is never named) as Ophuls in one shot shows us dances from what seem to be several balls. The simple lies Madame tells about the earrings turn out to have enormous repercussions. The first several short scenes are rhymed with several of the film’s later scenes, which basically repeat the same actions — the church prayers, etc. — but with everything having been changed by the earrings and the lost love they represent.
A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956) — The ostentatiously austere films of the Jansenist Bresson generally leave me begging the second hand on my watch: “Faster… PLEASE!!” but this is the one exception. Bresson’s quiet, inexpressive, and deliberately un-psychological style perfectly accommodates the subject matter: the story of a French resistance fighter trying to escape a German camp. There is no political speech-making, no “human interest” back story, and the central character, played by François Leterrier, keeps his thoughts to himself, concentrating on the only thing that matters: escape. The minimalist style thus has a reason for being. The character’s retrospective voiceover narration cues us in to what he’s thinking and why, and the result is not as obscure as many of Bresson’s films. The film contrives to be so still yet so threatening that, as you watch it, you could hear a pin drop.
My Night With Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969) — Unfortunately, Rohmer’s work is probably best known to U.S. filmgoers as the object of Gene Hackman’s mockery in Night Moves as resembling “watching paint dry.” Certainly his dialogue-heavy films lack spectacle, but Rohmer would probably be the canonized French director most congenial to NR readers. He’s widely known as a political conservative and mostly makes richly ironic fables that gently mock the self-conscious rites of contemporary romance among the French upper classes. His self-possessed protagonists are irritating but intensely lovable as they shape themselves in dramas of their devising. But those plots never come out as their authors expect, thanks either to their own character flaws or to the strategems of others. Or, they sort of work out — unbeknownst to the characters involved. Rohmer made at least a half-dozen masterpieces, and Maud is the earliest — about an affianced Catholic man (trying to be) tempted to stray. The film doesn’t take the sort of latitudinarian wink of the easy French stereotype — rather, it examines that very Gallic type without ever being heavily moralistic.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel, 1972): This film makes no logical sense and is filled with anti-clericalism, bourgeoisie-baiting, and casual cruelty, and was made by a man who said “Thank God, I’m still an atheist.” It taunts a social circle of six rich, perfectly dressed zombies with a nightmare world in which they forever plan meals, but never eat. Vignette piles upon vignette as the characters are kept from their grub by… whatever tickles their creator’s fancy. They show up for a dinner date on the wrong day, get sickened by a body in the next room, appear in one another’s dreams (and even a dream-within-a-dream), or suddenly appear onstage. Discreet Charm offers the pleasure of being led up the garden path by a wry jokester. The intellectual points, if any, are pretty half-baked — okay, so society, our subconscious, the church, and so forth all frustrate our carnal desires… meaning what, exactly? But the film goes down so easily while moving from wacky vignette to silly divertimento with such simple and, yes, discreet charm, that we happily go along for the ride.
Time Out (Laurent Cantet, 2002): The lead performance in this film — about a middle manager who drives around aimlessly and engages in some petty scams rather than admit to his family that he has been fired from his job — ranks with the two or three greatest male performances ever. Aurelien Recoing, an actor previously unknown to me, somehow manages simultaneously to portray a convincing Innocent Everyman and a convincing Liar Guy. Recoing’s plain, open face conveys charm, boredom, obsequiousness, and humiliation in turn with the subtlest changes of expression. He can be equally convincing baring his soul or serving a banquet of blather. The other things that cannot be over-praised in this movie (easily the best released in the U.S. in 2002): the opening sequence, plus the ways he is shown killing time; the hilarious debate with his father about African aid projects and the precisely-observed parody of U.N.-speak; and the confrontation with his family at the end, where he reveals his motivation, which has little to do with rebelling against capitalism (or, more precisely, modern bureaucracy) as such and everything to do with the oldest of human motivations, pride — followed by the oldest of human reactions, shame. In four viewings, this last scene has never failed to reduce me to a blubbering, tear-stained mess.
— Victor Morton is deputy national editor of the Washington Times.