THE 100 GREATEST FILMS FROM FRANCE, BELGIUM, NETHERLANDS AND SWITZERLAND. July 2009. Below you will find what I consider to be a a given moment on a given day the one hundred best films from France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland. Each film is given a 295-300-word entry. The first 15, a stab at my most favorites of these films, are given in order of preference ; the remaining 85, in chronological order—and in alphabetical order where there are multiple titles for a given year.
There are certain omissions. Obviously, films I haven’t seen or have forgotten seeing cannot be included. Also, films in Africa, such as those by Jean Rouch, as well as Jean-Louis Bertucelli’s Ramparts of Clay, have already been included in a previous list of mine, The 100 Greatest Films from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and are not included again here, for no other reason than to give other films a chance. You should also be forewarned that nothing or no filmmaker has been included for purely historical interest or importance. Cinéaste Olivier Stockman has reasonably suggested that Georges Méliès ought to be represented because, in addition to his “personality and vitality,” “his work created a vital link between the live show and the concept of cinema going as a legitimate form of entertainment/art.” Alas, the few films of Méliès that I have seen do not strike my fancy—although the one a bit of which is shown in Heddy Honigmann’s Forever (2006), a film included in this list, absolutely amazes me, and I describe it in my entry on Honigmann’s film. So, in a way, Méliès is included in the list below.
In any case, 100 is a hard number, and various inclusions and omissions are bound to disappoint. (Why is there nothing by Jacques Becker, Henri-Georges Clouzot or Albert Lamorisse?) However, I have done my best, and it is possible that a film possessing multiple nationalities is included in one of the other lists. Jon Jost’s Oui non (2002) posed a different problem, though. Officially, it is a film from Italy but was shot in Paris with everyone speaking French; it is therefore included below, in Part II. The list is indeed divided into two mutually tagged parts. At the conclusion of this part, the remainder of the list is tagged for easy access. It includes entries 49-100.
Here, then, in order of preference are my favorite 15 films from the countries involved, mostly France:
1. D’EST (1993). Like Dziga Vertov’s lyrical Three Songs of Lenin (1934), From the East is a photographic essay—a documentary survey—of humanity. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Äkerman traveled from Germany to Poland to Moscow. She had always wanted to make a film about the diaspora of the Eastern European Jews, and, in a transfigured form, D’Est became this for her. In each face she encounters throughout her journey she feels the history with which she, Jewish, is investing it, and this history includes not only the death camps but also Stalin—like Hitler, an anti-Semite. “Road pictures” are drifty things reflecting the impermanence and uprootedness of human lives, and the “impermanence” and “uprootedness” of Äkerman’s tracking camera destabilizes figures in often stationary positions, transforming them into a metaphor for lost and scattered Jewry. Äkerman also films numerous people walking, which contributes to the same thematic result.
Äkerman’s dark of night resonates with a sense of Jewry’s eternal tragedy: one’s home, or even someone’s life, always being taken away—the nothingness to which the rest of the world is ever poised to consign Jews by scattering them or their ashes to the winds. The Soviet Union has ended, but its former citizens, apparently unfazed, go on with their mundane lives. They, too, are scattered to winds, and thus this continuation of ordinary existence cocoons them from the sea-change that has taken place, as Äkerman’s camera penetrates and deconstructs the event of their survival, wringing from it her metaphor for Jewish endurance.
We feel the loss of each face, each form, that the camera passes by, and, because there are so many of these souls, we are never passive in watching this nearly wordless film, for we are always catching up with it.
Please also visit my long piece on D’Est: https://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/03/22/
2. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928). Who was the chief architect of her martyrdom? The English invaders, who imprisoned her? The French clergy, who tried and condemned her? God? The girl herself? The people, who identified with her and gave her martyrdom political purpose?
Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer thus entered fifteenth-century France and collapsed the difference between present and distant past, not to construct an objective history, but to show opposing subjectivities at Jeanne d’Arc’s trial: her insistent faith; the heretic that her judges, at the behest of the English, felt compelled to subdue.
Using composition, camera placement and camera movement to isolate Jeanne within the frame, and a dissonant editing style wherein consecutive shots sometimes appear deliberately mismatched, Dreyer lays bare the politics of official persecution. Moreover, he plumbs a solitary soul’s duress under this persecution and shows the transformation of the witnessing masses from an amorphous mob into a responsible voice—and fist—of moral protest. Transcending images of the exploitative circus that Jeanne’s execution attracts, Dreyer’s film achieves startling clarity and eloquent emotion.
Her unadorned face in varied closeup, at the center of the film is Maria Falconetti giving a tremendous performance, among the most celebrated ones in all of cinema. What became of her? One legend claims that she so identified with her one major film role that she ended up in an insane asylum, convinced she was Jeanne. Likely, the actress returned to the stage. Falconetti’s “madness” surely is an antifeminist lie taking aim at so powerful a female image.
Falconetti enrobes us in the silence of Jeanne’s destiny, much as Dreyer enrobes us in the silence of silent film, with which added scores or orchestral accompaniments uncomprehendingly tinker. Falconetti’s ageless, haunting Jeanne helps make Dreyer’s Passion a mystery there is no coming out of.
3. IN PRAISE OF LOVE (2001). The former enfant terrible of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard has made more brilliant films than anyone else. At seventy, he achieved his masterpiece: Éloge de l’amour.
The film is divided into two parts. The first part centers on a filmmaker’s project about a love affair. It is filmed in luxuriant black and white (cinema past). Shifting to two years earlier, the second part is, however, videographed in saturated color (cinema future). The order is accurate; past follows present because “the past” here is the filmmaker’s memory in the present, in this instance triggered by the suicide of a young woman whose grandparents also are suicides.
The French intriguingly investigate memory as part of people’s intelligent lives. Italians, by contrast, mine the nostalgic—the emotional—properties of memory.
Reflections from the first part: History has been replaced by technology; politics, by gospel. “There can be no resistance without memory of universalism.” In the second part, the grandmother, a Resistance fighter during the Second World War, recalls that money then was a means to something, not an end. Her and her husband’s story is now being bought by Hollywood. Because they have no memories of their own, Godard reminds us, Americans buy the memories of others.
Haunted shot after haunted shot encapsulates the idea of memory. Scenes of nighttime Paris, besides evoking memories of futuristic ones in Godard’s earlier Alphaville (see below), seem to enter the dominion of memory. Here is a film saturated in memory—memory as a force that participates in inventing current reality. Here is a film in which the tone of a woman’s voice “brought ideas to life.”
Memory is omnipresent. “You can think of something only if you think about something else,” something familiar.
We’re creatures of habit—creatures of habitual memory.
4. PICKPOCKET (1959). Burdened by his history, a young pickpocket approaches us in voiceover in Robert Bresson’s electrifying Pickpocket. Michel is poor, and that’s the principal reason for his stealing, until, that is, the thievery becomes addictive and compulsive, thereby becoming its own motivation. Bresson does not reduce Michel’s humanity by categorizing him as a criminal. Instead, the hinted connection between Michel and the lieutenant who escapes the Gestapo in Bresson’s earlier A Man Escaped (1956), both of them being in a constant state of anxiety, imparts to the pickpocket some of the Resistance fighter’s heroic humanity. Bresson’s largeness of directorial spirit gives his film a religious aura—that and, on the soundtrack, the outbursts of quasi-religious music that either strengthen or tweak the film’s religious identity. You choose.
On the other hand, though, Bresson shows dehumanization, Michel’s and others’. At the racetrack, in the police station or the Metro, closeups focus on money and its movement from one hand to another, or from one place (such as a pocket or pocketbook) to another (such as a hand)—money taking precedence over humanity and directing the course of people’s lives. Rock-bottoming out, however, Michel may be ultimately guided to his redemption by another “hand”: the invisible hand of God.
Each shot is concise, passionate, radiant, and the dialogue is so minimal, elliptical, even cryptic, that we must invest ourselves imaginatively to bring a clear, continuous sense to the film. In the absence of much talk, we hear things wonderfully: footsteps; doors opening and closing; automobiles—all the sounds, in fact, that Bresson has included and emphasized, translating each, along with each black-and-white image, into its essence. As ever, Bresson refreshes our sense of material life, which too often otherwise falls into jadedness and complacency by becoming detached from our sense of spirit.
Please visit also my long piece on Pickpocket:
5. WEEKEND (1967). A savagely satirical take on “modern times,” Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend—or Week End—is one of the signature films of the sixties. (A gloriously agile performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud helps certify this.) A typical bourgeois couple take a weekend drive to visit the woman’s mother, whom they murder for her money. The woman later joins the band of revolutionaries who have murdered her spouse, whom they eat for lunch. An alternative title might be: Ties That No Longer Bind, including patriotic ties to nation.
Godard lays claim here to the most celebrated tracking shot of all time: a massive, seemingly endless, corpse-strewn traffic stall revealing the enormity of human folly as disparate, blindly self-contained fates are headlong-prone to one explosive end. Pitched complicitly and elegantly between determinism and documentary discovery, the sunlit shot proceeds gradually, shifting from a straight, rigid course to a course slightly, subtly more relaxed, and catching about the honking metal hulks belligerent confrontations and witty scenes of resourceful recreational activity. What a shot!
Scarcely less remarkable, though, is a later one that likewise discloses Western civilization’s bankruptcy: a fixed, rotating—continuously panning—camera, flattened by its slow pace, and thus adding inexorability to the noose-like circle it draws around a pianist, encapsulating Western culture, who plays Mozart in a farmyard—a scene both lovely and incongruous. With great love for the music and an appreciation of the irrelevancy of Mozart to so many oppressed lives, Godard can lament the passing of such perfect beauty while yet keenly feeling the need to erase the social and political inequities that have enabled high culture to exist and that still seek to sustain it. Were Godard not tugged in these opposite directions at once, his apocalyptic Weekend would not be the heartrendingly beautiful thing that it is.
6. THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE (1935). When Jacques Prévert wrote for Marcel Carné (Le jour se lève, 1939; Children of Paradise, 1945), the result would be fatalistic; but his one collaboration with Jean Renoir, The Crime of M. Lange, is bursting with warmth, humor and humanity. The son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste, Renoir enjoyed his greatest period in the 1930s, when he was a Communist (which he later denied). Renoir’s Crime fits his politics—and soul.
Lange is an exploited young worker in a publishing firm. His alter ego is Arizona Jim, the adventurous, liberated character about whom he writes in his spare time. When his boss disappears, the boy and his co-workers transform the business into a cooperative. But guess who unexpectedly returns, disguised as a priest? What’s to be done?
The workers’ cooperative expresses the communard in Renoir. France’s regrettable history on this score, her willed amnesia regarding her ill-fated 1871 political experiment in Paris, makes the cooperative in the film something to be cherished—an imaginary opportunity for France to redeem a part of the past. As far as movies go, the moral choice of the decade falls to those in the border town who must decide whether to turn in to the police Lange’s loyal girlfriend and the fleeing “criminal,” who dispatched (as Jules Berry plays him) a smarmily charming embodiment of evil, or let the couple go on their way across the border. It is remarkable how the situation predicts moral choices that persons in France would face during the next decade. But even if one discounts this touch of prophecy, movies do not get more profoundly (as distinct from artificially) exciting than this one.
With its fresh invention and moral vigor, The Crime of M. Lange anticipates the nouvelle vague by nearly a quarter-century.
7. MADAME DE . . . (1952). In early twentieth-century Paris, Louise (Danielle Darrieux, sublime), a comtesse, has two great loves: her Catholic faith; Baron Fabrizio Donati. Her marriage was probably, for her, one of financial convenience; but André (Charles Boyer, brilliant), a military general, loves Louise. When the two men come to fight their fatal duel, André, the instigator, uses the pretext that the baron favors diplomacy over war—a professional division. In reality, the class division between them is more relevant; it galls the General that his wife loves Donati, not him. The humorous triviality of the duel’s pretext shelters André’s pride, then; this sketches in a method that Ophüls uses throughout, where a light touch masks a harsh, even potentially lethal reality.
The film opens rapturously, with a seemingly perpetually tracking camera adopting a subjective viewpoint as Louise’s hands anxiously ransack her finery and her jewelry box in search of the right thing to sell. Marital dissatisfaction has driven up her debts. We catch a glimpse of her as she glances into a mirror—a fractured integrity and identity.
In a way, the film subjectively expands a patch of objectivity: the cut-and-dried newspaper account of Madame de . . .’s “lost” earrings. The film’s most celebrated passage traces the course of Louise and the Baron’s falling in love. With the music continuous, the event is compressed from a series of public dances over time. Their illicit love consists of nothing but stolen moments that their increasingly tight embrace poignantly tries to make private as they inhabit the space of their own emotions, oblivious to the other couples on the dance floor who, in the swirl of the waltz, often appear as Louise and Fabrizio’s faint shadows predicting the lovers’ tragic end.
We feel a rush of feeling, the passage of time.
Please also visit my longer piece on Madame de . . .:
8. THE MILKY WAY (1969). According to Luis Buñuel a “journey through fanaticism,” La Voie Lactée follows two poor pilgrims in the present, one young, one old, an atheist and a believer, through southern France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where St. James the Apostle’s bones are presumably interred. Their various encounters, along with a stream of historical vignettes, compose a surreal landscape of Christian dogma, heresies, hypocrises, blasphemies. There are also visions and miracles. This brilliant comedy is as fluent as spun silk.
At a village inn, where the pair stop, a priest and a police officer genially converse. Painstakingly the priest explains the dogma of transubstantiation to the officer: The body of Christ is not contained in the wafer, but in the sacrament of the Eucharist the wafer becomes Christ’s body—actually; not symbolically. When the restaurateur mildly asserts that the body of Christ is in the Host like the hare is in the pâté he is serving, the vexed priest counters that in the sixteenth century the Pateliers were burned for that heresy. Now the priest has a revelation: the restaurateur is correct! When the officer expresses surprise at this contradiction, the priest, really vexed, flings hot coffee in his face. Men in white cart away the priest. Thus Buñuel exquisitely mocks religious dogmatic “thinking” (such as currently afflicts Islamic and U.S. Christian fundamentalists). A subsequent argument, about grace versus free will, between a Jesuit and a Jansenist leads to a duel.
Jesus—he spits on the blind and they can see!—and the Marquis de Sade are among the cast of characters. Sometimes, historical characters cross paths with our twosome.
Buñuel: “Bourgeois morality, for me, is immoral and to be fought[—t]he morality founded on our most unjust social institutions, like religion, patriotism, the family, culture.”
9. LA COMMUNE (PARIS 1871) (2000). Fiction yielding to documentary; documentary, to fiction: British filmmaker Peter Watkins, on this occasion working in French, achieves an exhilaratingly elastic result with his ten-hour La Commune (Paris 1871), of which only a version shortened by four hours has been exhibited outside France.
La Commune (Paris 1871) is about the doomed Parisian commune that popularly arose during the last gasps of the Franco-Prussian War; a huge cast of nonprofessionals playing the communards slip out of their historical roles to reflect on the state of France and of the current world, engaging in citizen discussions—in their period costumes!—that (like so much else in the film) stress the connections between past and present. Frames interrupting the action provide, moreover, a wealth of relevant written information, not to mention shafts of irony, as the past and the present each becomes a lens through which we apprehend the other. Watkins, then, has fashioned an eclectic work that captivates by capturing a number of levels of flux, interaction, analysis, self-reflexivity.
Although he is scarcely known for merriment, Watkins wrings wry humor from his present-tense disclosure of the past by interjecting into it modern televised media coverage of the unfolding events, thereby comparing accounts that differ according to the reporters and commentators involved—that is, according to their independence or allegiance to the state.
Shot in thirteen days, in and about an abandoned warehouse, using visually rich black-and-white Beta Digital videotape, the film allows viewers to feel that they are entering history, which here has an immediacy that makes the tragic end of the Paris Commune devastating to watch.
This people’s film reflects the feelings of working-class men and women who want to better their own and their children’s lives, and details the reactionary forces arrayed against their hopes.
10. L’AGE D’OR (1930). A candidate for the title “the world’s most incendiary film,” Luis Buñuel’s The Golden Age was withdrawn from circulation after its Parisian launch led to riots provoked by two fascist groups, the League of Patriots and the Anti-Semitic League. (The United States denied the film a commercial release for fifty years!) One would think that the passage of time would have relegated L’Age d’Or’s inflammatory nature to the regions of quaintness. Not so. The film’s excitement remains intact.
This eclectic work opens with a brief documentary about scorpions that suggests the poison-tailed nature of another species of animals: us. Cave-dwelling bandits show that humans also do whatever they can in an effort to survive. This is the associative way the entire film works. Both the scorpions and the men, impoverished, have only themselves as resources—in addition to whatever they manage to take. Boats arrive; people mount the rocky terrain. They pay their respects to a grisly expanse of skeletons in religious garb—the surreal translation of a bandit’s vision of mumbling clerics! The official ceremony is interrupted before it begins. A couple rolling in mud are pulled apart. Their coitus interruptus becomes the film’s persistent motif. A shot of the woman, in agony while alone in her apartment, leads to the sound of her flushing toilet superimposed on a fantasy of “flushing” land that looks like a swamp, a slide, of shit. In the street, the man heartily kicks an object of bourgeois affection: a small dog. Buñuel, bless him, is really sticking it to propriety and domestic order.
The film’s exhilarating social satire and liberated air, as well as its insatiable Jesus by way of the Marquis de Sade, astound.
Salvador Dalí contributed to the script.
11. A MAN ESCAPED (1956). Unsurprisingly, one strong nondocumentary about the Nazi death camps is Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stop (1948), for which the filmmaker drew upon her own internment at Auschwitz. Robert Bresson was a prisoner of the Germans in Occupied France for a year. His Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, ou Le Vent souffle où il veut, is similarly authentic—and taken from actual events.
In Lyon in 1943, Resistance fighter Fontaine, based on André Devigny, is the prisoner of Germans, who have condemned him to die. Fontaine plots his escape. Long self-sufficient, he must cross a chasm of suspicion to an ambiguous cell-mate, a teenaged boy who may be a plant. Will Fontaine take the risk and include this stranger in his plans?
A Man Escaped is one of the great works of French Existentialism. It is also unmistakably Bressonian, emphasizing the sights and sounds punctuating the routines inside the Gestapo prison. Throughout, subtle lighting implies, too, a gracious presence in the frames. When a fellow prisoner tells him that God will save them, Fontaine responds, “Only if we give him a hand.” But how? All one can do is make personal choices and accept their consequences.
Fontaine, at the last, does the humane thing. We know the outcome, from what happened to Devigny. Yet each fresh viewing revives the suspense that Bresson’s filmmaking, including Fontaine’s voiceover, develops by bringing us into the young lieutenant’s mind in the moment. And just as Fontaine is ultimately rewarded by escape, to execute which his companion proves absolutely essential (God at work?), we are rewarded with one of the most moving shots in cinema: the camera at their backs, the two men, side by side, walking their way at night, barefoot, to freedom.
The Spirit breathes where it will.
12. THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939). Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu is the progenitor of 1960s mansion- or hotel-party films such as La notte (1961), Last Year at Marienbad (see below) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). The Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio, terrific) organizes the weekend get-together at his country chateau. Among the guests are his best friend, his wife and her lover, who is a national celebrity, and his mistress. Intrigues unfold, including among the help. At the last, a bullet meant for one person finds a fatal home in another, occasioning a bracing, dignified speech by the host.
Classes intertwine and collide. The film bursts with both sharp and humane social observations, often achieving a rollicking sense of the emotions that drive us all, such as jealousy, no matter our station in life. Its most brilliant passage portrays a hunt on the Marquis’s estate. The help prepare for the hunt, in which the aristocrats will participate, by whacking trees in the woods to set on the open run every lodging and burrowing creature. But, by dint of metaphor, might not the help also be the quarry? The methodical hunt is ghastly, with animal after animal shot from the sky or on the ground. Prey flutter and twitch in their death throes. It is a miniature of the war on whose brink France at that moment stood, and the leisured warriors—the hunting party—project onto the animals they subdue their own anxiety. It is a denial—a displacement—of their dread of annihilation, as individuals, as a class. Sexual intrigue unfolds even in the midst of the hunt, and the animal that a guest espies may actually be a human one.
Life goes on until it stops—or is stopped by a bullet.
13. LES CARABINIERS (1963). Across cultures, with twenty-four years dividing them, Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard, neorealismo and nouvelle vague, unite: cinema’s dream collaboration of the decade. Les carabiniers, a brilliant antiwar film, was adapted, from Beniamino Joppolo’s play, by Rossellini, Godard and Jean Gruault, with Godard directing. Perhaps Godard and Gruault translated and amended Rossellini’s adaptation. It would be interesting to know how this remarkable film evolved.
Reversals of fortune in war sum up war’s futility. Two brothers are recruited to be soldiers. In the service of their king they do their duty; they rape, kill and plunder, only to be put to death themselves by revolutionaries opposing the king. Critic Roy Armes describes the film as a Brechtian fable.
In black and white, hastily shot without concern for compositional refinement, repetitively punctuated by gunfire on the soundtrack and by abrupt cuts and title cards on the see-track, raggedy, minimalist and blessedly free of all “entertainment value,” Les carabiniers prompts us to analyze what we see and hear rather than seducing us with attractive surfaces. (The film begins with a voice summoning military music—music we then hear as the opening credits roll.) Moreover, the film is nonprofessionally cast; there isn’t a Bardot or Belmondo in sight. Newsreel inserts of war footage and a montage of nondescript photographs further contribute to the correctly highly distanced result. This style is compelling; it suits the film’s thematic assault on the dehumanizing properties of war. Doubtless, Rossellini, Godard et al. were motivated by the Western world’s then-current tour of duty in Vietnam, but the masterpiece they wrought, which approaches the force of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal in addressing war, the worst idea that we have borrowed from lower species, has universal and, appallingly, persistent application.
14. THE PHARMACY (1972-75). In the years just before Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, which signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, Joris Ivens and wife Marceline Loridan took their cameras into Pharmacy No. 3 in Shanghai, which in addition to dispensing drugs manages an outreach program of medical services (after attending to peasants, pharmacists work in the fields alongside them), an extension of the pharmacy’s in-house medical care center.
The employees have developed five rules for themselves: to show the same concern for both steady customers and transients, for those who buy and those who simply want information, and for those who buy a lot and those who buy a little; to be equally attentive to customers no matter how busy the pharmacy or whether it is day or night. Their goal is to wholeheartedly serve the public.
There is a fascinating discussion of the competing motives of profit and service; at a weekly employee meeting, one of the participants reconfirms, “We should be concerned [above all else] with people’s needs.” This has nothing to do with dictate (“The customer is always right”) and everything to do with what the workers themselves feel should be motivating them.
La pharmacie Nº 3: Shanghai keeps widening, eventually integrating the employees and patrons into the bustling life of the port city. The opening shot at dawn evokes a Turner painting; the closing one, a long-shot of Shanghai citizens under umbrellas in the rain, Ivens’s Regen (1929), to “de-exoticize” the Chinese.
This documentary is more relaxed and fluent than other brilliant documentaries by Holland’s Ivens; the difference may be Loridan, born Rosenberg, a teenaged survivor of a Nazi death camp. There are no tirades against capitalism, only a warm embrace of Chinese humanity.
15. MOUCHETTE (1966). From Bernanos, Bresson’s austere, elliptical Mouchette begins with a woman, alone in a spare church, wondering aloud how her family (husband; three children, including an infant) will fare following her imminent death. We hear her footsteps trailing as she exits the shot. The camera remains fixed, the steadfastness of God, perhaps. Its back towards the camera, a solitary empty chair suggests the departed woman’s soon-to-be-vacated life. The film will end with what appears to be the suicide of the now deceased woman’s daughter, 14-year-old Mouchette. In fits and starts, Mouchette rolls down a hill, entering and departing frames, the camera pausing to remain on the vacated scene rather than following her, just as it had done with her sick mother in church. We miss the point of entry when Mouchette tumbles into the river, but (through a partial barrier of trees) we note the evidence on the surface of the water.
Woods at the outskirts of the provincial village: the intricacy of leaves in daylight. Two men occupy the scene; one, the game warden, hides from the other. In silent inserts, his eyes appear as they, and we, espy a poacher, who is using a twig and looped string to trap a game bird by the leg. It works. The caught bird flutters desperately. After the poacher departs, the game warden undoes the “noose” and lets the bird go. When we see Mouchette, whose name means “little fly,” walking home from school, we associate the bird with her. Later, drunk, the poacher will rape Mouchette and let her go. But is Bresson challenging us to transcend literary symbolism and, by penetrating Mouchette’s sullen mask, her defense against an inhospitable universe, embrace her humanity?
Materiality yields to spirituality when Mouchette drowns. Perhaps Mouchette, for the first time, is going home.
Please visit also my long piece on Mouchette: https://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/03/17/
In chronological order (except where there is more than one entry for a particular year, in which case the same-year entries are in order of preference), here are the remaining 85 films: Part I of the list, which you will find immediately below, includes entries 16-47.
16. LES VAMPIRES (1915). Written and directed by Louis Feuillade, in its current abbreviated form running nearly seven hours, Les Vampires influenced the future architects of surrealism (Aragon, Breton, Eluard), Fritz Lang, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Marcel Carné, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Olivier Assayas. (The original Mabuse serial, 1922; two emissaries’ walk through guests at a ball frozen mid-step on the dance floor in Les visiteurs du soir, 1942; the Cat Burglar in To Catch a Thief, 1955: much derives from Feuillade’s film.) Blending airy naturalism and dark though entrancing intrigues bordering on fantasy, the ten-part serial finds contemporary Paris in the grip of a devilishly clever criminal gang led by The Grand Vampire and an eternally black silk-tighted Irma Vep (an anagram for vampire). Identities shift, as in a dream. The viewer appreciates the law (and their adjunct, a reporter investigating the crimes) but nonetheless holds dear the rogues, who oppose bourgeois literalism and sentimentalism. This is an intoxicating film—one that pirouettes off the murder of a Russian ballerina.
Shadows, kidnappings, killings, theft, chases, battles of wit—all this is here; but there are also ghostly imagery and set-pieces. In dusky daylight, her impossibly graceful figure-in-black stealthily making its way across a rooftop, Irma Vep is her own shadow—at once, reality and dream, charm and threat, athletic appearance and close-to-dissolving illusion. Aristocratic guests, gassed (“a delicate perfume floated through the ballrooms” at midnight), try desperately to exit a grand room, which they find impossible to do; slumped on sofas and in chairs, as fixed as the furniture, they are robbed by the gang, which weave around them in a radiant inadvertent mockery of their minutes-earlier turns on the dance floor: one of cinema’s greatest passages.
The French love “their” Poe—and the Vampires have once again escaped!
17. J’ACCUSE (1919). Unlike his own 1938 “remake,” Abel Gance’s silent J’accuse! is a great film, perhaps a masterpiece. Made during the Great War and incorporating actual combat footage into its romantic melodrama about two soldiers, both from the same village, both of whom love the same woman to whom one of them is married, J’accuse has a real connection to the spirit of Zola, which the “remake” does not. Each version, while thematically similar, tells a different story. The silent version is one of the most massively moving antiwar films I have seen.
There are few, if any, decorous shots here; each shot instead is expressive, although one needs to be patient sometimes for this to become plain. A seemingly clichéd shot, when repeated, becomes haunting; a seemingly overwrought shot, when it also is repeated, becomes deftly ironical. The camera on occasion moves, following a character (humanity is at the center of J’accuse!); this surprises in a 1919 film.
But more surprising still is the inclusion of an instance of marital rape. Knowing that her husband wouldn’t remember doing this (the rape scene is, incidentally, terrifying), Edith attributes her pregnancy to a German soldier’s assault. Brilliantly, Gance accompanies her account with a seemingly expressionistic attack by German soldiers, all shadow and no substance—a visual indication that the pan-protective explanation is bogus.
War is initially folded into the romantic melodrama; gradually, the melodrama folds into the war, which shifts from background to foreground.
In the “remake” the dead rise up to warn people of the coming world war. In the original they confront the villagers with their sacrifice, to determine if that has helped in any way. They point out instances of ungrateful behavior, but commend the living anyhow: Christian sacrifice, Christian forgiveness.
The living owe the dead.
18. LA TERRE (1921). Zola’s 1887 The Soil transplants King Lear to rural France. In the novel, the earth is alternately described in erotic and cosmic terms, as a woman and the Mother Sea from whence we come and to which we return. At the close of André Antoine’s silent film, naturalism rises to become the sheer organic poetry of Nature.
Too worn to farm it any longer, Fouan (Armand Bour, tremendous) gives each of three parts of his land to a son or son-in-law, but the younger generation’s greed and betrayal eventually render Fouan homeless and starving. In the novel, each blow that the old man is dealt further erodes his sense of authority and importance, which is bound to his sense of patriarchic entitlement. Antoine’s version simply has Fouan’s material strength progressively deteriorate.
Nevertheless, the film is extraordinary. Visually, it interrelates wild and domestic animals, and humans, that is to say, the domesticators of animals; we are shown wild animals as they are being poached and farm animals as they contribute to farmers’ lives. A transformative shot in this regard: a truck is opened at the back, with the camera facing this opening from inside the truck. The numerous sheep appear black because of the darkness of the truck’s enclosure. They also appear wild in their haste to exit the enclosure. Below, on the ground, white sheep appear in an orderly procession. Within the same frame the dark sheep, billowy, formless shadows, reach the ground and, themselves white in sunlight, meld with the definable sheep, encapsulating domestication and metaphorically envisioning the process of civilization: disciplined by light, the emergence of humanity from dark, primitive impulses.
Fouan, a tiny figure beaten by downpour in a seemingly illimitable ground, dies as a young woman rises from bed to face the sunlit day.
Please visit also my long piece on La Terre : https://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/
19. MENILMONTANT (1926). Estonian-born Russian emigré Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant, from France, opens explosively. A grinning lunatic hacks to death a man and a woman with an ax, orphaning the couple’s two daughters, whom we watch playing outdoors with a cat, lamenting their loss at their parents’ graves, and walking together from the cemetery down a desolate path lined with a small number of bare trees. A dissolve shows the pair farther down the path all of a sudden; and, while it is likely he stopped filming in between the two points, Kirsanoff thus established the idea, the possibility, of a jump-cut. Mark Donskoi, moved and impressed, used Kirsanoff’s lyrical method of transposing a human figure farther along in a significant foot-journey to conclude his Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938). Indeed, shards of Ménilmontant’s expressiveness would make their way into many other famous films. Alas, the two main characters, unlike Gorky, would remain anonymous—except to us. At some level, one cannot help but think, their orphaned fate is correlative to Kirsanoff’s own separation from homeland, also instigated by violence, the 1917 revolution and the subsequent Soviet state.
Kirsanoff follows the sisters from the country to Paris, which electrifies amidst speedy tracking shots and use of hand-held camera, correlative to the world of possibilities now seemingly before the girls. The world, though, shrinks; they begin and end working in a sweatshop. In between, a man comes between them, undercutting their one source of emotional support: each other. One becomes pregnant, while the other becomes a prostitute. Also, their parents’ killer re-enters the picture.
As in Dickens, melodrama is a vehicle for social and psychological inquiry into the plight of the downtrodden. Kirsanoff’s dazzling technical versatility—different camera angles and distances, superimpositions, dissolves—never overwhelms the sad, delicately spiritual human story.
20. THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1927). Being bourgeois is a balancing act, and René Clair, adapting Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel’s play, hilariously pricks that balance with his satirical needle in his most visually expressive, brilliantly edited comedy, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie. The indefinite article in the French title better suggests the film’s light, casual air.
The nineteenth century is coming to a close. Clair has moved up the play from the 1850s; by evoking a time that some original viewers could recall, but only barely, he is better able to suggest how stuck in time are bourgeois notions of propriety and elegance, how stuck in trappings and property is the bourgeois mind-set.
It’s all about a woman’s hat. While the married woman couples with her soldier-boy in the country, a horse chews up this hat. The horse is transporting Fadinard by carriage to his Paris wedding. Lieutenant Tavernier demands that Fadinard replace the Italian straw hat, or else he will demolish Fadinard’s house: the ultimate bourgeois threat. One cannot blame Tavernier: Madame’s husband might notice the hat and put two and two straws together. Madame is property after all—and all this reflects on the marriage about to happen. Meanwhile, someone in the bride’s party can find only one glove to wear. An overhead shot revealing a plethora of women’s hats taunts both the missing glove and the partially eaten hat. Apparel, appearances: these are what matter.
The film opens on the wedding announcement and immediately cuts to the wedding day, with all its attendant nerves and commotion. Thus Clair implies that the wedding brings to fruition the announcement, not the mutual love of those getting married. The adulterous woman faints a lot.
Pauline Kael: Clair’s film “is so expertly timed and choreographed that farce becomes ballet.”
21. L’ARGENT (1928). “Money passed through like a cyclone.”
Marcel L’Herbier’s dazzling assault on capitalism updates Émile Zola’s 1890-91 novel Money, part of the Rougon-Macquart series, from the 1860s to the 1920s and, alas, remains current. The plot turns on the rivalry between Saccard and Gunderman, two financiers. They operate in a world that reeks of money—wealth without bounds or taste; Saccard is a plump, brutal speculator, a financial Id, and Gunderman a lean, cooler, more ultimately conniving and controlling financial Superego. (The reception area of Saccard’s office sports a circular world map indicating his rival’s holdings—an image of the world domination that both men pursue.) Saccard arranges a stunt to benefit his Universal Bank: Jacques Hamelin’s flight to French Guyana (a parody of Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris), where, engineer as well as aviator, Hamelin will exploit natives for the rigging of Saccard’s oil drilling operation. Hamelin is a dupe, whose perfectly symbolical trouble with his eyesight helps get his signature on a document that ties his legal fate to Saccard’s fraudulent schemes; meanwhile, in Hamelin’s absence, Saccard pursues Hamelin’s wife.
Inspired by Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), L’Herbier has created a stunning, opulent 2¾-hour spectacle that brings a rich variety of avant-garde techniques into mainstream filmmaking, as well as dynamic use of mobile camera (including cuts between different traveling shots), a breathtaking variety of camera angles, and a deliberate rushing back and forth between the prosaic and bursts of poetry. Many of L’Herbier’s techniques, including point-of-view shots, amidst colonialist exploitation, showing Hamelin’s foggy vision, destabilize frames to suggest the exploitative, self-delusional, sandcastle-building nature of money-pursuit and Mammonism.
Zola called money “the dung on which life thrives.” L’Herbier: “[M]oney was really the bane of all filmmakers, since we couldn’t do anything without it.”
22. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928). A man (played by the director) sharpens a razor, walks out onto an upper-story balcony and, underneath the full moon, cuts straight across a seated, willing woman’s eyeball. Director Luis Buñuel hated this idea of co-scenarist Salvador Dalí’s. Good.
The 17-minute film jumps ahead eight years and bounds sixteen years back. In a summary shot outdoors, the woman seems displeased at what the man is showing her. All that’s visible of him, alongside her face, is his wristwatch on his outstreched arm, with his opposite hand pointing out the time. Time! After a series of anticlimaxes suggesting reprieves from time’s end, the film closes on a stunning image of the couple buried standing in the earth, their faces visible, dead.
It is the power and (still) surprise of the film’s images, and of their collision and connections, that account for the film’s reputation as an essential work of Surrealism. Many of the dreamlike images reflect the idea that sexuality is an obsessive defense against mortal awareness. A bicyclist falls down on a Paris street. The overhead shot, correlative to the woman’s gaze from her upstairs hotel window, reveals the two wheels of his bicycle right below him—a displacement of his testicles. Mobility is power, sexuality, life; but this burp of temporary immobility connects to the image of permanent immobility at the end.
Another image: man groping woman’s under-the-blouse breasts; in the next shot, he is blind, her groped top, naked; next, her naked buttocks have replaced her breasts. Many things appear in two’s, including two nitwit priests, roped to a piano, being dragged across the floor.
At one point, the man’s mouth disappears; next, there is a beard there. The woman checks an arm pit, but we know better the source of the displacement.
23. THE STARFISH (1928). Everything is ambiguous in Dadaist-to-Surrealist Man Ray’s— Emmanuel Radnitzky’s—L’étoile de mer, whose very title finds the star of the sky in the “star” of the sea. Accompanied by a poem by Robert Desnos, Ray’s silent masterpiece revolves around a man and a beautiful woman as they walk outdoors or otherwise unite. As its object, she embodies his desire—and the eternal mystery of this desire. But she is a tease. When we watch them as a seeming couple mount the stairs to her room, watch her undress and lie down in bed, we assume that he will follow; we assume that he also assumes this. No; the title card reads “Adieu.” Obediently, he takes his leave. Or is it he who has said “Adieu” to cover his embarrassed disappointment? Or to tease her? In life’s dance of desire, someone has to lead, someone has to follow. When they earlier seemed to be walking together, was one in fact leading the other?
Much of the time images are distorted, out of focus. (Ray, who cinematographed, had smeared his camera lens with vaseline.*) At other times, images are supernally clear. Dream and waking, possibly—or do both sets of images belong to dreams, the latter belonging to a fever dream whose “distortion” is its brilliant clarity?
A starfish is encased in a glass jar; another, mysteriously, thrillingly alive in its vast sea-home, is as erotic as the rip in a paper curtain that invites us in.
“And if you find on this Earth a woman of sincere love.” We expect a main clause to complete this title, but it never does, unless it is this, a couple of title-pages later: “You do not dream.”
But you do. All desire is dreamt, even as it is lived.
24. REGEN (1929). It is only minutes long, but Rain—now restored to completeness—is one of a kind. The year before, Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens launched his prolific, globe-trotting 60-year career with The Bridge; but, fine as it is, that film cannot predict the astonishing lyricism of Rain. Besides co-directing the film with Mannus Frånken, Ivens co-cinematographed it with Chang Fai and edited it.
Dziga Vertov and Boris Kaufman shot material for their Soviet The Man with a Movie Camera (1928) over four years; another black-and-white silent, Ivens and Frånken’s film also took time to compose. Several rainshowers in Amsterdam over many months were meshed into a single event encompassing darkened sky, splattered pavement below and, in between, radiant humanity busily in motion. The result is a luminous meditation on human transience amidst Nature’s volatility—if you will, permanent impermanence.
Time’s rush, the passage of life—everything in the film contributes to the development of this theme, including overhead shots of barges pushing through the frames, and scores of people in the street hurrying away from the camera (to which they are oblivious) to get out of the rain.
Some insist that everyone is smiling in the film. I do not see this. It doesn’t matter. Regardless, the film is not a lament. The metaphor for humanity’s fleeting role in Nature is executed without selfconsciousness. Ivens and Frånken transcend the mortal condition they suggest—and we feel this transcendence. On one level, then, Rain is a film about the power of film, of art.
Among its accomplishments, Rain remains exemplary for its fluent use of hand-held camera, which, on this occasion, seamlessly disappears into the viewer’s captivated eye—a poor indicator of the technique’s eventual agitato trademark.
Rain is the little film that could. It still can. It still does.
25. A PROPOS DE NICE (1929). Crisp and exuberant, full of youthful iconoclasm, stingingly ironical, Jean Vigo’s documentary A propos de Nice satirizes the resort crowd on the French Riviera. Its restless camera, both in terms of movement and the rapid-change variety of camera angles and positions that Vigo devises with the assistance of cinematographer Boris Kaufman (Dziga Vertov’s brother), conjoins with the often frantic human activity to create a sense of exhaustion. Camera rotation, creating sideways and upside-down views of buildings, and a bit of fast motion only deepen the impression.
Vigo contrasts reality/Nature to human artifice. Beach hotels in the opening aerial view, real, could pass for a studio miniature. The first “guests” and “tree” we see are plastic, and this “outdoor” scene is really indoors; suddenly a croupier’s rake removes the figures, and Vigo cuts to the rake doing its usual work, removing chips from a hotel gambling table. Subsequently there are shots of real trees, ocean, beach, sunlight.
A huge papier-mâché head is being painted—the gargoylish satire of a resort guest. Later, it is one of a host of such monsters in a parade, with rows of onlookers oblivious to the mirror-image of themselves that (at least in Vigo’s mind) they are confronting. Conversations are “unnaturally” framed so that only one participant is visible. There is a montage of guests resting in the sun; their feet and legs are shot to seem strained and stressed. Guests aren’t relaxed but posing relaxed—a part of their fakeness. By contrast, hotel employees are shown busily at work, efficiently doing what needs to be done, and other proletarian faces appear genuinely animated. Vigo also contrasts posh guests with the nearby poverty of locals. Closeups of a soldier’s medals and a church-top cross expose some of the villains of the piece.
26. LE MILLION (1931). Nothing could be lighter or more buoyant than René Clair’s warm-hearted musical-comedy parodying operetta/opera, Le million.
The brilliant opening shot travels weightlessly along Parisian tenement rooftops; alternative lives to those in Clair’s preceding film, Sous les toits de Paris (1930), will be shown to us. Romance is in the air—and revelry. Their sleep interrupted, two men slip and slide across the roofs to peer into the jubilant apartment. (Among those dancing, we fleetingly glimpse a bridal gown.) What is going on? “Haven’t you heard what happened?” a reveler asks, looking up. “No.” The revelers sing to the pair of insomniacs, beginning their account of the day that’s now coming to a close. As the scene dissolves to an interior one that morning, we realize that we the audience are represented by the two men on the roof. Is this reality, or are we asleep, dreaming? Obviously a gorgeous fabrication (Clair’s resident genius set designer, Lazare Meerson, at work again), the rooftops and windows had begged this same question. At the movies, are we not all dreamers?
Some “dreams” that we encounter in movie theaters are complex. Its string of dupings and misleading appearances slyly commenting on a frantic race to locate a winning lottery ticket inside a poor boy’s lost jacket, Le million is about tenuous rather than assured lives. Heavily in-debt artist Michel (René Lefèvre, epitomizing the charm of youth) must find and hold onto that jacket of his! Among other things, this will lead to one of the funniest passages in creation: on the opera house stage, the mime of a rugby scrum.
We dreamers get the happy ending we want—ah, but we’re ever mindful of the social reality from which we and our co-dreamer, Clair, have effected young Michel’s escape.
27. NEW EARTH (1933). In 1920, Dutch workers embarked on a massive project of reclaiming fertile land from the sea, draining it for agricultural use, and closing off the Zuiderzee, an inlet of the North Sea, to prevent flooding. Largely fashioned from his own material, Joris Ivens created Nieuwe gronden, a hymn to both humanity’s struggle against Nature and the combined efforts of engineering and labor that sometimes succeed at this struggle. By 1932, “3,680 acres have been planted. Ten thousand workers working in two shifts, 12 hours a day for 120 months, have conquered new ground. . . . However, the wheat of the world is not raised for food but for speculating.” This shifts the focus of Ivens’s brilliant documentary from the harvesting of wheat to the withholding of wheat from the market, calculated to keep the price of wheat high. Newsreel testimony of the current worldwide hunger crisis of arrives in the film’s stunning final movement.
Headlines: ENORMOUS GRAIN SURPLUSES, GRAIN PRICES AT RECORD LOW, GRAIN MARKET COLLAPSES, MILLIONS OF TONS OF HIDDEN GRAIN LIE ROTTING.” Ivens inserts a new shot to accompany the narration, “There is too much grain and not enough work”: in long-shot, against a cloudy sky (symbolizing the Depression), a line of men walk in single file into an unseen future.
More headlines: CHEMICALS USED TO RENDER GRAIN INEDIBLE, DESTRUCTION OF HARVEST. This in effect mocks the long, hard efforts of the Dutch workers we watched earlier. The narrator notes: “We’re bursting with grain! Thirty-one million unemployed are starving worldwide.” There is a massive hunger march in the U.S., where greedy capitalism is up to the same tricks at humanity’s expense. Ivens inserts a shot of a starving child into a litany of crops that are being burned or tossed into the sea.
28. UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE (Renoir, 1936). Light, tragic, Jean Renoir’s Une partie de campagne, from Maupassant, is exquisitely ironical.
Townsfolk on a Sunday 1860 country outing, Dufour, a Parisian shopowner, noting carnivorous fish, and his employee look down at the river from a rowboat. Both speak of Nature as something separate; but the camera lithely dips down to catch their watery reflections, visually implicating them in the rapacious aspect of Nature they miss seeing in themselves. They agree that Nature remains a “closed book”; with gentle mockery, the camera slips back up—a book-closing gesture!—to the combined portrait of their complacency.
The employee is daughter Henriette’s fiancé—a bourgeois arrangement. Intimately conversing, mother and daughter sit on the grass. Nature is achingly open to Henriette (Sylvie Bataille, glorious), engaging her tenderest sympathy—brimming feelings she cannot explain. Henriette asks Mme Dufour if she ever felt that way. “Sometimes I still do,” her mother confesses, her foolish mask, hiding marital disappointment, briefly giving way to warm humanity.
Two strangers, working-class youths, pair off with mother and daughter while Dufour and his future son-in-law fish and nap. Alone in the woods, Henriette and shy Henri, emboldened by Nature, make tremulous love, fall deeply in love. Nature, adoring this new couple, sparkles before turning dark and stormy on a breeze; for the preexistent marital arrangements, bound by class considerations and family-sanctified, cannot budge. In a one-year-later coda, both their lives shattered, boy and girl chance upon one another as each separately haunts the scene of their moment together. A scattering of words passes between them. They part, now for the last time.
Curiously, despite Renoir’s professed intention to finish this film after the war, it already is complete.
Cousin Claude Renoir’s beauteous cinematography is lyrical, light-sensitive; Joseph Kosma’s music, enchanting wistful, piercing.
Please visit also my longer piece on Une partie de campagne :
29. LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937). Before the world changed its mind about The Rules of the Game (1939), The Grand Illusion was considered Renoir’s masterpiece. It is certainly the greatest “escape movie” ever made—but, here, the escapees aren’t criminals but three First World War soldiers in a German prison camp: an aristocrat (Pierre Fresnay, Hitchcock’s “man who knew too much,” brilliant); a mechanic (Jean Gabin, wonderful); a Jewish banker (Marcel Dalio, himself Jewish, also brilliant). By its attempt to cast each class against itself, war is “the grand illusion”; but class also is “the grand illusion,” because it wilts before the new alliances—ones not based on class—that war by necessity forges. To Renoir, then a communist, perhaps the most striking illusion is the belief that the world would not change. The world must.
In praising this widely cherished film, some slight its content—its visual expressiveness—in favor of its humanistic attitude. Consider: Comparing captors and captives in the prison camp, parallel tracking shots weigh nationalistic differences that class affinity among old-order aristocrats fails to cut across, clarifying the tension inherent in the whole idea and execution of a tracking shot: the obliteration of the boundaries of successive frames before a conclusive curtailment is finally, as it must be, reached—a tension between restriction, rigor (in Renoir’s film, the past) and liberty, freedom of movement, aspiration (here, the future). Renoir thus explored and expanded his chosen medium, much as his father had done with his.
Perhaps only one other film, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), expresses the idea of freedom as well as this one. Those who pay lip service to the idea but who hold no core allegiance to it will not be as moved as are others by La grande illusion.
30. LE JOUR SE LEVE (1939). Written by Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert, Le jour se lève would remain Marcel Carné’s finest film. Its narrative complexity includes two interlocking romantic triangles and two different views of a single murder, one from outside the apartment in which the man is shot, the other from inside the apartment. Things indeed are paired in this film; two of its romantic characters, both orphans, are named François and Françoise. These pairings, as well as the pervasive atmosphere, suggest a dark dream. The film’s signature poetic realism unfolds in the German shadow across Europe that’s about to grip France. It evokes the fatalistic mood of a Europe which is increasingly left with only a soul to call its own.
The film opens with the camera looking down upon a horse-driven transport; the camera slowly moves up to find the window of the apartment in question. This combination of mise-en-scène and camera movement seems visually contradictory, dreamlike, impossible; when the camera moves upwards, it seems somehow to be moving downwards. Although nothing is reflected (as in water), we feel we have entered an inverted world.
Jean Gabin, tremendous, gives his best performance ever as François, the working-class mensch who is slowly dying anyway by what he must inhale at the factory where he works. François is the one who pulls the fatal trigger and is therefore cornered by the police. Despite his sturdy appearance, François is as vulnerable—as transient—as the rest of us. We well understand his dispatching the despicable Valentin (who else? Jules Berry) in a fit of rage.
François meets his fate in a world glistening with symbolism. For instance, he is survived by his ringing alarm clock. Perhaps he has woken up in a free, a more just Europe.
31. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946). Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, based on the fairy tale by Mme Leprince de Beaumont, is both historical allegory and a hymn to freedom—an epic about the Occupation and the Liberation of France.
Embodying the Occupation, the majestic Beast is trapped between two modes of existence, those of free man and beast; its emotions as it pines for Belle convey the anguish of a fettered France recalling freedom and the enormous struggle by which this was achieved.
Belle, a domestic drudge, embodies Christian sacrifice aimed at bringing her father ease, comfort. While her sisters ask him for every nonsensical thing under the sun, Belle asks only for a thing of simple, natural beauty: a rose. Attempting to save their home and possessions (their bourgeois existence), the father is condemned to death by the Beast when he stops to snap off a rose from a bush on the grounds of the Enchanted Castle. Alas, Belle’s appearance of virtue is inseparable from her sisters’ bourgeois materialism. One props up and rationalizes the other. Belle is the victim that France has become under the Occupation. She is the still perfect appearance of France—sculpted, statuesque—cut off from the living, breathing free soul of France.
Cocteau’s magical film is formally wondrous, a visual poem: the castle’s interior staircase indoors seems to appear from out of the darkness enrobing it just to guide Belle’s light steps up or down; sensuous slow motion is applied to Belle’s first entrance into the castle, transforming her heavy outfit into seemingly eternal waves and folds. The most ecstatic moment: at the end, the slight dip down to the ground and then the flight to the heavens as the Prince takes Beauty, now fully alive in his arms, to his castle.
Please visit also my long piece on Beauty and the Beast :
32. THE SILENCE OF THE SEA (1947). Jean-Pierre Melville’s (Grumbach’s) stunning debut is an adaptation of the short story by Vercors, “Le silence de la mer.” Static shots and short pans of a countryside village appear under a motionless, silent sky punctuated by cirrus clouds—on one level, the eternal “sea” of the title. It is 1941, and this is Occupied France. A German officer takes up residence in the home of an elderly man and his niece, who remain silent to him, the man at his pipe, his niece at her knitting, as the officer each evening fills the silence with his family history and professions of love for France. (He loves French literature as much as he does German music.) Even his appearance in civilian dress cannot shake the silence of the sea.
The uncle’s voiceover turns the film into a journey into the recent past. The film is haunted by the humiliation of France’s occupation and by the sheer exercise of historical memory, where individual recollection merges with the “sea” of national experience. Similarly, Melville haunts the past, shooting his film in the very house that Vercors chose as the setting for his story. The ticking of a clock and the officer’s (in effect) monologues, by their interruptions, underscore the silence of the sea.
Appearing mute at middle-distance in a darkened doorway, the villager represents conscience, while his niece, whom the officer pointlessly loves, embodies the unyielding soul of France.
The naive officer believes that Germany’s occupation of France is forging a benign connection between both countries. The film records his disillusionment. Melville anticipates this with a brusque cut: after the sentimental officer waxes about how “the city” opens the German heart, Melville shows the German assault on Paris.
Jean-Marie Robian and Nicole Stéphane beautifully play uncle and niece.
33. BLOOD OF THE BEASTS (1949). Along with Henri Langlois, Georges Franju in 1936 founded the world’s most celebrated film archive, La Cinémathèque française. (Two years earlier they had co-directed a 16mm short, Le Métro.) After the war, Franju went solo, launching his career with the short documentary Le sang des bêtes, which surveys, in graphic detail, the routine inside a Parisian slaughterhouse, composing in stark images a freezing reflection on the violence that human existence may require in order to sustain itself. But it is we the viewer who are moved to reflection; we watch workers simply going about their killing business with apparent indifference to the bloody and lethal outcome, and as a result we watch hard for small signs of affect that might suggest the humanity that is being suppressed in order to put meat on French dinner tables. Franju’s images combine the brutal and the lyrical, reportage and poetry; irony, too, becomes a prominent element of the director’s distinctive style: One of the film’s narrators describes sheep being led to their slaughter as “following like men.”
We may say then that Franju’s documentary unfolds in the war’s hangover. The connection is elusive, but somehow its description of “normal routine” within so brutal a context suggests French accommodation to the German occupation, even collaboration. The soulless labor inside the slaughterhouse evokes wartime French activity divorced from the soul of France.
The hanging carcasses is too complex an image to interpret easily. It evokes something more than the human slaughter that the war exacted. The routine labor surrounding these carcasses suggests the compelling capacity of war to draw humans into its killing reality. It is an image of war’s dehumanization, both on the battlefield and at the homefront. It expresses horror that despite so much death “life goes on.”
34. DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1950). Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne is, like Mouchette (1966), from Bernanos. It, too, is about human pain and suffering. His fourth film inaugurated Bresson’s use of non-professional actors to help achieve an anti-dramatic stylization. Bresson is after the essence, not a photographic copy, of human behavior—much as he pursues the essence of objects.
Claude Laydu is wonderful as the unnamed young priest who arrives in Ambricourt to assume parish duties and never fits in. He keeps a diary, whose entries we hear as voiceover, in an attempt to solidify the accuracy of his observations and sense of things; but he is almost always mistaken. The discrepancy between reality and our interpretation of things plays out in his experience, which is both distinctive and representative of our own.
Bresson’s style is often described as spare and minimalist. Be prepared, therefore, for a gorgeous film; Bresson’s Diary consists of his courageous first steps toward what would become his purer, more essential style, although already its materialistic details yield a store of spirituality.
It is impossible to resolve this brilliant film’s ambiguities—and this is deliberate on Bresson’s part. How much that we see, correlative to the experience that the priest records in his diary, is close to accuracy, exaggeration or wide of reality? (Simultaneously, the hostility he encounters from parishioners seems unlikely and utterly convincingly provincial!) It is left for us to ponder whether the priest’s stomach cancer is a projection of the crossroads of his self-pity and attraction to martyrdom.
Even this boy’s death is ambiguous. The final, long-held shot of a cross: what does it mean? The boy’s acceptance into heaven, or a perpetual barrier to his entrance? Is his earthly suffering still too much for heaven to bear?
35. GUERNICA (1950). “Women and children have the same red roses in their eyes—their blood for all to see.”
On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Germany bombed Guernica, an ancient Basque town, burning it to the ground. The newsprint photograph of this outcome, with which Alain Resnais’s 13-minute documentary opens, seems to be dissolving into dots. Working its way up to Pablo Picasso’s commemorative painting made the same year as the event, Guernica shows, first, decades-earlier drawings and paintings of his that are especially suggestive, in this context, of innocence—an innocence that the Luftwaffe has now destroyed. Accompanied by sounds of bombardment, pieces of artwork, themselves seemingly targeted, partially disintegrate. Paul Eluard’s script, heard as poetic voiceover, laments war as the destruction of innocence.
Resnais never shows Picasso’s Guernica in its entirety, only bits and parts of it—isolated pieces, often given a blacked-out surrounding. The fragmentation again suggests bombardment while also creating its own kind of cubism. Hands are a motif that thread continuity between Picasso’s Guernica and his earlier artwork: hands that are tenderly embracing, prayerful, stretched up in horror; hands of connection, and hands of inconsolable loss. The black-and-white film, exceptionally dark, marshals a somber use of negative space and as often invokes Goya (in his bleakest etchings) as Picasso. The elegiac refrain “Guernica” haunts.
A field of sculptures, in context suggestive of a graveyard that war has generated, replaces the painting, culminating in Picasso’s 1944 bronze L’homme au mouton, which in contrast to Guernica is shown (frontally) whole. Its depth, in contrast to the painting’s flat patches, appears to animate it; the sculpture is alive with hope, the lamb in the man’s arms symbolizing the renewal of innocence.
Brilliantly edited by Resnais, Guernica is among his most powerful films.
36. HOTEL DES INVALIDES (1952). War’s hype and the legendary status that the state officially confers on warriors versus war’s killing and maiming reality: Georges Franju’s 23-minute Hôtel des Invalides assaults France’s military mystique.
It is a subversive documentary, commissioned by the French government as a national self-advertisement; but Franju’s cunning handling of the material created a powerful antiwar film, a model of how an insinuated level of meaning can undercut surface meaning.
The film begins as an innocuous tour of the French National Military Museum in Paris, which includes halls of military displays, a care facility for veterans, and a chapel. Holistically addressing the ideology that perpetuates war as a necessary, even noble endeavor, it takes institutional aim at both the military and the Church, and intellectual aim at such concepts as heroism and honor. We hear voiceover, sardonic for being disembodied, as well as trite guides, themselves disabled veterans, and we overhear the touring visitors on their tour, in particular, a deflatingly unimpressed young couple. Franju cuts between ghostly military exhibits, punctuating these with closeups of details (for instance, a medal for valor), and all-too-real mutilated men. A famous cut juxtaposes a statue of Napoleon with a veteran in a wheelchair. In effect, Franju is confronting the idea of war, so attractive to so many, with the horrific consequences of war for actual human beings. The guides are a reminder that war is in part perpetuated by stricken warriors who feel compelled to justify and validate their own sacrifices and the ultimate sacrifices of comrades-in-arms.
The film’s subtle indirection accumulates into a quiet voice of reason and conscience revealing what individuals perhaps subconsciously feel about war in the face of its direct and official sanction and approval. The tour of L’Hôtel des Invalides unwinds somewhere in the mind of humanity.
37. FRENCH CANCAN (1954). Jean Renoir’s French Cancan, the best musical film of the 1950s and his first film in France since The Rules of the Game (1939), occupies the middle of his Technicolored studio-bound trilogy, in between The Golden Coach (1952) and Eléna et les hommes (1956). It is about romantic entanglements in 1880s Paris and the launch of the Moulin Rouge, with its revival of the boisterous, bawdy cancan.
Films whose frames suggest Impressionist paintings tend to be academic. Peter Bogdanovich makes this distinction: Renoir’s film suggests Impressionist painting, not specific paintings. Moreover, it coveys art and life’s interaction, the continuous translation of one into the other, their common ground of creativity and humanity. Nini, the laundress who comes to lead the cancan dancers, an advancement that requires sacrificing her personal life, exemplifies another kind of creativity: someone’s laboring on herself as though she were a work of art. We watch Nini re-create herself.
Jean Gabin is magnificent as Charles Zidler, the financially plagued impresario who founded the Moulin Rouge, who is here called Henri Danglard. We watch him in pursuit of his dream—a new way to please his soul and his beloved France: what Renoir wanted to do. Near the end, Danglard remains backstage on opening night as the cancan is performed, not watching, but listening and viscerally in sync, so that he can retain the dream.
Renoir immerses his camera in the dance so we feel we are a part of it—the dance of spirit on the floor, with its connection to all art, form releasing spirit, spontaneity, as in the birth of a child. The scene, more fragile than it seems, has passed, along with Renoir’s father, Pierre-Auguste, who epitomized it. His son’s final masterpiece gathers poignant affection for life’s fleeting moment.
38. LOLA MONTES (1955). Lola Montès, Max Ophüls’s final, uneven, but intermittently most brilliant film, projects twentieth-century self-objectification and selfconsciousness back into the nineteenth to address the emergence of the idea of celebrity. Its case in point is an actual celebrity, Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, a.k.a. Lola Montès, ersatz dancer, acrobat, and scandalous lover, including of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook, superb), who was dethroned by the 1848 Revolution.
The film’s point of departure is a circus whose focus is Lola’s life; Lola (Martine Carol, as untalented as Lola) plays herself. The ringmaster, knowing the public that his audience represents, describes her: “A master of cruelty with the eyes of an angel.” A human being is thus reduced to a caricature, a “femme fatale.” “Remember the past?” This question signals a “realistic” flashback; but is it reality or a reaction to the theatrical performance? Franz Liszt is the first of Lola’s lovers to appear. Liszt leaves Lola by coach; cut to Liszt’s coach departing from the circus stage. Similar confusions of theatricality and life ensue.
Lola’s childhood is given short shrift—another reduction of her. Backstage, Lola asks the child who plays her, “Would you like to play the part for the rest of your life?” The implication is that “Lola” is just such a role for Lola. “I do as I please,” she insists, but her unhappy marriage to a drunk was her way of escaping the marriage that her mother had planned for her.
With a weak heart poised to stop her life/performance at any moment, Lola ends, a caged commodity, as the camera withdraws and a new audience, our surrogate, moves forward to enter the tent. We who thrive on celebrity are the ones who have reduced Lola. The camera retreats into us.
39. NIGHT AND FOG (1955). The subject of the Holocaust has generated countless documentaries, including outstanding ones as the twentieth century drew to a close: Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (1989), Héctor Faver’s Memory of Water (1993) and Dariusz Jablonski’s Fotoamator (1998). But, closer to the event, Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard remains the finest.
Resnais’s theme is the need to preserve historical memory—memory ever poised to slip away. At the sight of the Auschwitz death camp, careless green grass sways in the breeze, while black-and-white photos and newsreel snippets commit the reality of Auschwitz to flypaper. A long overhead shot of a blank field is held until the camera descends to reveal the surrounding barbed wire fence, with this ironical accompanying voiceover: “A placid landscape . . . An ordinary field over which crows fly”—author Jean Cayrol’s reference to Van Gogh’s symbol of matter’s passage into ephemera.
The film’s signature mode is the tracking shot. The camera surveys the camp, noting the massive fence, this time from the inside, and remnants of some of the abandoned structures. The film cuts from one tracking shot to another, edited to compose, seemingly, one mind’s haunted journey, perhaps the return of a ghost. As the camera explores one of the barracks, we hear, “No description . . . can restore [the inmates’] true dimension: endless, uninterrupted fear.” What we cannot grasp is already lost.
Intermittently, Night and Fog revisits human horrors—historical memory’s overload: S.S. surgical experimentation on prisoners; the bulldozing of mounds of corpses into a mass grave. The commentary ends by weighing the matter of collective guilt (“War nods, but one has one eye open”), addressing denial and revisionism, and wondering aloud how much “the next executioners” will resemble ourselves.
40. THE SEINE MEETS PARIS (1957). After a decade spent making films in Eastern Europe, Joris Ivens went to Paris; La Seine a rencontré Paris won at Cannes. His East German Song of the Rivers (Das Lied der Ströme, 1954), with music by Shostakovich and lyrics by Brecht, composed a hymn to labor and international workers’ solidarity along six rivers worldwide, to which the new film adds the Seine. “The Seine is a factory,” Jacques Prévert’s poetic commentary states; “the Seine is work.” Much of the film is shot from measuredly paced river barges, and some of it indeed shows laboring humanity. But there is more than that. This river, runs the voiceover, “is a song from the headsprings. ‘She has the voice of youth,’ says a woman in love, smiling.” This masterpiece conjoins French lyricism and Dutch sturdiness.
Silence, made all the more mesmerizing by Philippe Gérard’s harpsichord music, explodes into sound: men at work excavating; a plethora of boys playing on a stack of logs; girls in a circle singing a song; the sights and sounds of traffic; the weight of a dog splashing into the river to retrieve a toy; a downpour of windy rain into the river (we see umbrella-ed souls in long-shot moving across an aqueduct), recalling Ivens and Mannus Frånken’s great Regen (Rain, 1929).
Prévert’s script: “A river like any other, and I’ll be the first to lament her. And the Seine hears laughter and slips away like a cat.” Images of and from the river accumulate an undertow of melancholy: three women walking together; against a tree, a girl asleep in her sleeping boyfriend’s arms. A child’s bicycle rises from the river, retrieved by a man wearing underwater goggles and an aqualung.
Prévert: “There once was the Seine. There once was life.”
41. TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (1958). Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, who also took the lead role of a sanctimonious journalist, Deux hommes dans Manhattan is a procedural. Two men, journalist Moreau and photographer Delmas, investigate the disappearance of France’s ambassador to the U.N. Their nocturnal search takes them throughout the electric city and into “darkest Brooklyn”—a reference that always cracks me up. Two Men looks back to a number of films, including two noirs by Jules Dassin, The Naked City (1948) and the London-set Night and the City (1950), and with its complex tone—a mix of journalistic objectivity, spooky mystery skirting luridness, macabre comedy—and tortured lonely lives, it looks ahead to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
It turns out that a heart attack killed the French diplomat in his mistress’s apartment. His daughter shadows the investigative pair while her mother, the one most in the dark, waits for some word from her spouse. For her, it’s another one of those nights.
The dead man had been a true hero of the Resistance. A quarrel ensues as to how to treat the “story”—sensationally, which will mean big bucks, or tactfully, which is to say, deceptively. Melville knows his Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948); Moreau and Moreau’s boss insist on “printing the legend.” Delmas, a cynic and the one struggling hardest to make a living, is slower to come around.
At one level, the two men are warring aspects of a similar job description; at another, they are both differently wrong. One adheres to the past; the other must cope with the present.
Widely regarded as one of his failures, even by Melville, this is actually one of his most brilliant, most moving works—and the black-and-white cinematography, by Nicolas Hayer and Melville himself, is peerless.
42. LES MISTONS (1958). Nice, France. Bernadette, about twenty, is the object of interest of a horde of schoolboys on summer holiday. The narrator, one of them grown up, explains, “She awoke in us the luminous springs of sensuality.” The film opens on the open road as Bernadette, wearing a skirt, rides her bicycle towards a back-tracking camera.
Alas! Bernadette is “Gérardette”—with her fiancé, Gérard, half of an increasingly conjoined couple. The camera now withdraws to show Bernadette and Gérard riding bicycles side-by-side, holding hands, briefly letting go, holding hands again. The pair exacerbate the boys’ sense of exclusion from something wonderful, mysterious: sexual experience; broadly, the adult world they ache to be part of.
A lateral tracking shot shows the boys, seated on the ground, smoking cigarettes: conformity in rebelliousness.
Gérard is young, muscular, sturdy. Looking at him, who would think about death? The schoolboys’ attempts to torment the couple turn incredibly nasty when they send Bernadette a cruel postcard during Gérard’s absence for a few-week bachelor excursion prior to his marrying her, the love of his life. Mountain-climbing, Gérard loses his footing, his life.
What do schoolboys know about death? We have seen them play shooting-death. One pretends to shoot another, who falls to the ground pretending to be dead. In homage to Jean Cocteau, the director of Les mistons (The Brats) applies reverse motion to the “fallen” child, restoring him to upright life, to express the schoolboys’ innocence regarding death. François Truffaut’s 17-minute film ends with Bernadette, widowed despite the wedding that never occurred, walking down a street towards the camera, which finally pans upwards to the sky. The narrator tells us this woman ceased to matter to him from that day forward—only, his reminiscence of her is haunted.
A lyrical, ironical black-and-white masterpiece.
43. A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (1959). Godard’s A bout de souffle (literally, Out of Breath) helped define the nouvelle vague, the 1950s movement in French cinema that denoted freedom: freedom from the constraints of conventional, worked-through, tied-up narrative, freedom of personal expression, freedom of roving inquiry, and a freedom of camera motion scarcely seen since Dziga Vertov took to the streets of Moscow in the 1920s to record the pulsating synergy of Soviet life. Here is a film that bursts with spontaneity, in cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s gorgeous, unaffected black and white.
The film follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, tremendous), a young hoodlum, from Marseilles to Paris, where he romances Patricia (Jean Seberg, wonderful), an American abroad. A cop killer, Michel is eventually shot to death in the street.
Our dynamic relation with movies: How does the interaction between us and film shape and detail us? Michel’s toughness is an act; but when the “act” is what one relies on, it determines behavior. A related issue: the extent to which movies have so conditioned our perception of reality that we sometimes address this perception as though it were reality.
Breathless has become synonymous with the jump cut—the visual jerk that results when consecutive frames are deleted from a continuous onscreen action. Besides being a distancing device to snap us to analytical attention, the technique reflects the characters’ dissociation from reality and the emotional gap between them.
Patricia says to Michel, “I want to know what’s behind that mask of yours.” But Patricia often also appears enigmatic; and, standing over his corpse at the end, she adopts Michel’s mask, with her duplication of his Bogart lip-rubbing gesture. Patricia, then, had also meant, “I want to know what’s behind my mask.” As do we. As does Godard—in terms of his own mask.
Please visit also my long piece on A bout de souffle:
44. THE 400 BLOWS. François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows has drawn a measure of affection perhaps equalled only by The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, King Vidor, 1939) and La strada (Federico Fellini, 1954). Some rainy days the head says Bresson but we pop The 400 Blows into the DVD player instead. Some of us grew up with this film and don’t know where Antoine Doinel ends and ourselves begin.
Antoine, Truffaut’s alter ego, is, of course, the world’s most famous schoolboy. Priceless scenes take place in the classroom, reveling in the lively pupils’ dear, quirky behavior. Truffaut once said the only reason to make films with children is to express your love for children. Few films are so full of love as Les quatre cents coups—this, despite the fact that it perfectly blends objective realism and personal commitment.
Here, Paris, the City of Lights, the City of Love, is also the City of Adolescence, rendered in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Henri Decaë. A liberated use of camera is one of the hallmarks of the nouvelle vague. Like Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933), Truffaut’s film is an anthem of freedom.
Antoine’s troubled home life leads to his delinquency. His mother and stepfather have him put into a reformatory. Antoine’s escape is unforgettable: the stirring, aching tracking shot of his flight through the countryside, resolved in the single most celebrated shot in all of cinema: at shore, a startling freeze frame of the boy, who, with no place to run, blindly faces us—we (frozen, too) who cannot reach him to comfort him.
Fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud’s monumental, heart-piercing performance as Antoine, is, along with Chaplin’s in City Lights (1931), perhaps cinema’s most cherished. And dear Jean-Pierre is still acting, confounding late ’80s reports he had passed on.
45. EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959). Based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Jean Redon, Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage is a somber, poetic horror film. Plastic surgeon Génessier is its mad scientist (Pierre Brasseur, grim, concentrated, powerful). Encapsulated in his recklessness at the wheel of his car, his arrogance results in facially disfiguring his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob, superb). Christiane wears a mask that shows two soulful eyes but otherwise hides where there no longer really is a face. Her widower-father performs operation after operation, each an attempt to graft onto Christiane another face. These surgeries are performed in secret, their privacy abetted by the fact that Génessier has declared somebody else’s dead daughter as his own. In each case, Christiane’s body—or, perhaps, soul—has rejected the grafted skin. These potential new faces for Christiane come from young women whom her father murders. Dr. Génessier, then, is a serial killer.
Contributing to the grisly horror is the dark, surreal chamber in which Génessier’s dogs are kept locked up, each in its own cage; banks of cages flank both sides, receding into an empty, shadowy space. Strays, these dogs parallel the doctor’s human victims; Génessier uses them to experiment on, in an effort to perfect his face transplant procedure. Finally, Christiane, fed up with her father’s experiments on her, releases the dogs, which proceed to attack, maul and kill their master as though they are the avenging spirits of the murdered girls.
Once, Génessier must truly have loved Christiane; but the film commences after that point, when Christiane is his principal “guinea pig.” The form of Génessier love for his daughter has eerily outrun any content of genuine feeling. In this light, Franju’s intent may be satirical; Eyes Without a Face is a masked assault on reactionaryism.
Please visit also my long piece on Eyes Without a Face:
46. LES BONNES FEMMES (1960). Written by Chabrol and Paul Gégauff, Claude Chabrol’s masterpiece depicts the bleak, harsh world of four Parisian shopgirls. Along with Que la bête meure (1969), this is Chabrol’s most personal film, as well as his starkest and most exacting. Its initial hostile reception found Chabrol (after a dip into rank commercialism) replacing its style with a silken, elegant one that yielded many beautiful results, but nothing to compare with the profound tragic disposition of Les bonnes femmes.
Chabrol signals his intent. The opening credit sequence, in gray daylight, shows Parisian traffic from an unsettling low camera angle. Immediately afterwards, blaring lights punctuate pitch blackness—a brusque shift to nearly lurid visuals that undoes the commercial come-on, “City of Lights.” We hear an offscreen voice at the Grisbi Club huckstering naked women, commoditizing humanity and suggesting the vulnerability to economic and other forms of danger of close-by shopgirls Jane, Jacqueline, Rita and Ginette, who work together at an appliance store.
Chabrol expertly handles the individuation of the shopgirls and their participation in a group identity, a joint fate.
Empty workdays, off-hours fun, romantic connections and pickups: the moment of truth between Jacqueline and the man on a motorcycle who has been shadowing her, who is as lost and compulsive as G. W. Pabst’s Jack the Ripper (Pandora’s Box, 1928), who yet saved her from drowning in the community pool, brings things to a head in Federico Fellini’s woods (The Nights of Cabiria, 1956).
Robin Wood has remarked that even the shopgirls’ dreams have been constricted by their limited environment, debasing these dreams. Theirs is a life absent transport, transcendence.
A four-shot of three of the girls and Jane’s fiancé, a soldier, “cages” them at the zoo.
Chabrol’s closing passage is the most heartrending in cinema.
47. PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT (1960). Fascism continued after the war to be the principal shadow of murder (and self-murder) stalking the world and individuals in it; Paris Belongs to Us, written by first-time director Jacques Rivette and Jean Gruault, is the most terrifying political thriller ever made—one that expands the stalking shadow even while teasingly explaining it away. Encompassing a vast “organization” that may or may not exist, but certainly exists in the mind of Philip Kaufman, whom McCarthyism has driven to Paris from the U.S., this shadow remains a shadow and yet something substantial enough to affect and even determine several lives we see or hear about, leaving a trail of deaths whose final explanations are by no means certain, merely instead the most recent “explanations.” The film’s brilliant “conclusion” may confuse; but that’s the point. “Evil has many faces.”
Rivette evokes a stark and fluent black-and-white 1957 Paris, one that closes open-endedly on an elusive, haunting image of birds flapping across the Seine. Student Anne Goupil investigates the apparent suicide of Spanish radical Juan, whose death insinuates a spiritual or other connection between Franco and Richard Nixon, who (listen closely) is discussed in the background of one scene. In the process Anne takes up a role in a theater group’s production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, thus launching Rivette’s delight in the interactivity of play and reality, artifice and life. The Shakespeare comes and goes, but the “reality” surrounding it is increasingly revealed to be, in a sense, “staged.” Inward threats meet outward ones, or create them, or are created by them in a vision of floating paranoid realities complicated by a series of relationships, including romantic ones, but also Anne’s relationship with older brother Pierre, which seems inordinately restrained but becomes the tragic center of her life.
48. LOLA (1960). With a tip of the hat to Marlene Dietrich’s character in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), Anouk Aimée dazzles as Cécile, a dancer who goes by the name of Lola at work, where she entertains American G.I.s, in Jacques Demy’s first feature and enduring black-and-white masterpiece, Lola. Nervously breathless, this Lola is like a tremulous shadow flickering as gorgeous light across the screen; the essence of her presence is that Lola seems perpetually poised to take her leave.
Seven years earlier Michel, the love of her life, abandoned Cécile without explanation; she has sex with a sailor who reminds her of him. Frankie, headed home to Chicago, thinks he is in love with Lola, who crosses paths with out-of-work childhood friend Roland, who is definitely in love with her. But Lola’s heart belongs to Michel.
The action unfolds in Nantes, whose streets and structures contribute—pardon the oxymoron—a dreamy realism to what critic Roy Armes has aptly called “a gay, lighthearted work, a sort of musical without songs and dances.” Indeed, Demy has fashioned a musical film, one that is richly scored by Michel Legrand (and there is one sung song, and another melody that in the States is sung as “Watch What Happens”), and that has dancing around the edges. In anticipation of Demy’s other masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the dialogue seems poised in the direction of being sung. At film’s end, coincidentally, three characters are headed to Cherbourg.
Characters keep running in to one another, have “doubles” that constantly remind others of them and of heartache.
Lola’s gaiety seems to encapsulate the comedy of human behavior, the ways in which we cope with longing, loss and practical responsibilities; it is the mask we wear amidst the tragedy of life.
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This is a breathtaking list. I’ve seen many of my own favourites, as well as films that I haven’t discovered yet. Thank you.