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I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.
I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all. Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a joy, beginning with the stars: The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.
Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar‘, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.
The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:
a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.
b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)
c) The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest — create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen
d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories
e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others — is what’s being shown
f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual
g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.
Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil
– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image
Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard, Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They, the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.
In Les mystères Delon Bernard Violet writes of how the hijack scene on the plain is considered a great moment in film history/ un grand moment du cinéma; and how Delon himself is described as ‘secret, élegant, doué, consciencieux, mûrissant’/ secretive, elegant, talented, conscientious, maturing’/; grave, inquiet, inquiétant, volontaire, beau’/ serious, troubled, troubling, willing, handsome’; ‘félin, secret, inquiet, lucide, désenchanté’/ feline, secretive, troubled, lucid, disenchanted’; séduisant, élégant, mystérieux, audacieux, maître de soi/ seductive, elegant, mysterious, audacious, master of himself’ 1. Not bad.
All qyotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pp. 288-289
A narratively crude but visually elegant French cop flick, Le tueur is a fatalist noir that doesn’t psychologise and doesn’t explain. It’s told very leanly through a series of chases and shootings, often filmed on location, and well evoking the seedy underbelly of the Pigalle of the period, with its porn films, sex shops, shady cons. It’s got one musical motif, very effectively deployed throughout the film (and not to be confused with the dreary theme song at the end that sings out the themes of the film to us), and perhaps over-uses the zoom so characteristic of the period. Change is one of its themes, and we see it not only in the narrative conflict between old and new styles of policing but also in the film’s use of landscape and location. Le tueur is a document of Paris in the process of change, with the building sites that would become the Tour Montparnasse and the Forum des Halles used prominently and effectively.
Commissaire Le Guen (Jean Gabin) has spent seven years of his life catching ruthless killer Georges Gassot (Fabio Testi) only to find him judged mentally imbalanced and locked up in relative comfort. As the film begins Gassot, fakes his way through several tests and fights his way out of captivity. His brother François (Jacques Richard)is waiting for him outside and drives him away to the relative safety of Marseilles. However, Gassot can’t keep himself from going out of his hideout and into the city’s red light area, where he hooks up with Gerda (Uschi Glas), a prostitute from Hamburg but also gets spotted and returns to Paris with Gerda. François Tellier (Bernard Blier) puts pressure on Le Guen to catch him as quickly as possible and Le Guen, after seeing several of his ploys fail and only three months from retirement, places Fredédo Babasch (Gérard Depardieu) in jail so as to befriend François, who’s been caught, and help capture Georges.
Almost a century of cinema greatness in twenty seconds: Gabin and Depardieu share a shot.
What’s unusual about Le tueur is that, as the title suggest, the protagonist is the killer. He’s not crazy but he’s ruthless. As the film begins we’re told that he’s fated to have bad luck. He knows it; even attempts to cut the bad luck line out of his hand with a knife; all he dreams of, dreams he shares with Gerda, is to get a bit of money and run off to a hot country. But it is not to be.
Fabio Testi, is very handsome, very athletic, and very inexpressive. I found him perfect for the part. The film has Gabin, with watery grey/blue eyes that have seen everything and can hide as much as they reveal. His Le Guen is an old school strategist, not above trying to orchestrate events to get the justice he believes Gassot deserves and that the courts won’t grant him. There’s also Bertrand Blier as Le Guen’s boss, with his crushed hound dog face, every look an expression of disappointment and evocation that nothing good in the world will happen ever. In the last quarter of the film, Gérard Depardieu appears in one of his first roles, a live-wire whose every movement is energy, humour and hope. And in the middle, what they’re looking for, who they’re all chasing after is….a blank.
The world that this cypher, this bearer of bad luck, this dreamer who’s every attempt to realise that dream makes life more of a nightmare, is beautifully framed and lit for us by the great Claude Renoir in the Eastman colour that so vividly brings out certain blues and yellows and reds. Here, as is right, blue predominates. I’ve put a considerable selection of stills from the film, in chronological order, so you can appreciate, the compositions, the use of colour, the artful creation of this dark, blue, world that the film presents so well.
In spite of its cast and it’s look, the film has been accused of offering the same satisfactions as episodic television; a judgment I find harsh but understandable; how one appreciates this might depend on whether and how much one values lean spare storytelling and a relative lack of psychologising.
I love the Maigret films; they offer the double satisfaction of thrilling you with some of the worst humanity has to offer – though usefully shown tastefully – and then restoring order; moreover, that rebalancing is itself done in an orderly and systematic manner; one we’ve learned to know and enjoy playing along with.
In this one, Gabin’s first outing in the role, (he would inhabit it twice more, reunited with director Jean Delannoy in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre / Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959) and Maigret voit rouge/ Maigret Sees Red, (Gilles Grangier, 1963), the first images we see are a knife being thrown right into the heart of Paris, then we’re shown the shadow of a pipe in close-up (see below). It seems to me that those images, which start the film, embody the appeal of this type of detective film: violence at the heart of a community and threatening to rip it apart and then the cozy comfort of a pipe, with its suggestions of pensiveness, its indication that brains will win over brawn, that reason will transform chaos into order, that homeliness will be restored. These films do not disown the animal, the emotional and sexual impulses, but they’re always the source of the crime. Intelligence and thought are the way to remove such unruly impulses from social structures: the films are a paean to reason. If Maigret sets his traps correctly, the killer will be caught.
Maigret tend un piège starts at Place des Vosges, in the Marais district. It’s set in the film’s present but it already has a nostalgic tone. The Place des Vosges has a butcher shop, ladies knit and chat with their neighbours outside their flats, everyone seems to know each other. Then, we’re introduced to a young woman returning from work, a violinist, husband at the café, child asleep upstairs. Of course, she’s murdered. Typically, we’re not shown who’s done it. We see only a gesture of gloved hands re-arranging a belt: a gesture that will prove telling. Then, again, in typical fashion, Maigret is called for (anonymously), we’re introduced to the basics of the case (a serial killer on the loose in the Marais, one who’s already committed four crimes, and is after the same type of woman), and then we’re introduced to the main character (Maigret is longing to retire, we’re made to think he’s alone but then a wife is introduced; he’s got a whole corner display case on top of a cabinet to hold his many pipes, they’ve built a house in the country in the village his wife’s from – this is a film that assumes Parisians have strong links to rural areas); lastly the suspects are introduced one by one, as one by one suspicion is removed until the real killer is found.
One of the wonderful things about the Simenon films, and true also of this adaptation is how tightly plotted they are. So here for example, the first suspect is Barbereau (Alfred Adam). He’s married to Louise (Jean Boitel) who had an affair with the previous owner of the butcher shop and is thus resented by his widow Adèle (Lucienne Bogaert), and the son Marcel (Jean Desailly). Marcel is married to Yvonne (Annie Girardot), just the type the serial killer’s been murdered. Marcel will be a suspect; Yvonne will be both a suspect and a potential victim. But who has access to Barbereau’s butcher shop? Everything is neatly tied together.
The film offers many pleasures: the depiction of milieu, the tight plotting, the way the narrative is constantly interspersed by comic bits (I particularly love Guy Decomble, whom you might remember as the exasperated schoolteacher in Les quatre cent coups/ The Four Hundred Blows (François Truffaut, 1959), ‘performing’ a phony suspect for the waiting press) , Lino Ventura as Maigret’s sidekick, Annie Girardot. But above all there’s Jean Gabin. I don’t know if it’s due to his training in the music hall but he makes everything interesting. He’s on, never overdoes it, but every little gesture, every response, even the act of listening is rendered worth watching. There’s a lovely moment, where he’s at home, tired and wiggles his pudgy middle-aged toes that I think his symptomatic. He conveys the character’s feeling but also gives the audience a flourish; he knows we’re watching and wants to give us something extra. It’s expressive and endearing.
Maigret tend un piège is a well-paced film. Delannoy keeps the camera in constant motion in a way that is unobstrusive yet creates a flow. On the other hand, everything seems to be shot with the camera at eye-level, which I can’t quite figure out as I suspect some of the scenes might have been more dramatic with more variation in angles.
What bothers me most about the film is that what initially seems the casual sexism of the period turns into something more vicious by the end. There’s a scene when one of the suspects, a cabaret entertainer, is at home drinking tea and his girlfriend appears from the shower to show her breasts to the audience and one thinks ‘oh French cinema was so advanced!’ But later we learn how the killer is coded as being homosexual (he’s never had sex with his wife in all the years they’ve been married. It’s what drove her into the arms of the dancer and later to murder; moreover, it’s all the fault of his mother. If she hadn’t driven him to paint and play sonatas, he might have ended up a normal boy, who didn’t kill women because he couldn’t get it up for them. These films, striving, as they do to reassert social order are also quick at removing any kind of otherness. They’re inherently conservative. I don’t generally mind. But I did here.
An efficient cop film, with touches of the spy thriller; not a masterpiece but a good and representative example of the genre in France, worth seeing today for the considerable pleasures it offers; and of historical interest because: it confirmed the stardom Lino Ventura had achieved the year previously in Le Gorille vous salue bien (Bernard Borderie, 1958); the screenplay is adapted and with dialogue by Frédéric Dard, one of the most famous and prolific crime writers of the last half of the twentieth century; the screenplay is also co-written by Claude Sautet who was also First Assistant Director on the film, and it is this meeting between Sautet and Ventura in Le fauve est lâché that would lead to Classe tous risques (1960) and L’arme à gauche (1966); and, on a more minor and perhaps personal note, it deploys Boris Vian’s great ‘Fais-moi mal Johnny’ in a scene where it evokes the associations you’d wish it to: rebellious youth in a slightly dangerous bohemian setting.
Le fauve est lâché begins excitingly with an assassination. Important papers touching on national security are stolen, and the French Secret Services (DTS) arrive on the scene. As this is happening, Paul Lamiani (Lino Ventura), a former forger turned resistance hero and secret agent, now retired, is shown busily running his own bistro and blissfully ensconced in family life. Secret Services try to reel him back into his old life, ‘For France’. But it involves betraying an old comrade and Lamiani will have none of it; with a touch of Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, he replies, ‘You keep your mind on France, I’ll take care of my bistro and nothing else’.
The DTS, Direction de la surveillance du territoire, the French National Police operating as a domestic intelligence agency, won’t take no for an answer. They play dirty, plant some fake money in his mattress, and threaten to revoke his license and his family’s livelihood until he co-operates. Thus the film sets up a tension between male friendship, the family and national security. It’s a tension that is missing from many contemporary cop flicks or action movies and whose value is worth underlining: the action is always underpinned, motivated, given emotional resonance by weightier and more complex consideration. What’s important in life? What is the value of friendship? What is one willing to sacrifice for family and children? What is it to be a man in France in 1959?
As a ‘polar’, a cop flick, Le fauve est lâché has plenty of fight scenes, well-filmed and interesting to us because of the divide between what was considered exciting in 1959 and now. Could a simple punch up between two men with little cutting be exciting? Well, yes. Moreover, Labro lets us see a completed action: thus, when the squat if not quite podgy Ventura jumps down a cliff, you see him do it, and understand what it’s cost the character physically. To say that action is imbued with feeling in the film is not to deny the pleasure of the set-pieces, particularly the spectacular one shot outside the cliffs of Etretat and also the one within the cliffs, where Lamiani is imprisoned by barriers, surrounded by enemies, and with the high tide threatening to drown him. It looks extraordinary (see below) and generates suspense.
In Lino Ventura (Editions First: Paris, 2014), Phillipe Durant claims that Ventura had no confidence in Labro’s handling of the action sequences and that Claude Sautet, 1st Assistant Director as well as screenwriter on the film, took over the filming of the ‘falaises d’Etreta’ sequences: ‘With the star’s support, the assistant becomes director…With him the scenes achieve an intensity that Labro would no doubt have been unable to achieve….Thanks to Sautet, Le fauve est lâché, acquires a new dimension. Not that of a great work but at least that of an honest action film’.
Ventura’s contract for the film had stipulated, amongst other things, not only a salary of 3 million francs, twice what he’d earned for Le Gorille vous salue bien, his first big hit in a starring role, but billing above the title: so he went into the film as it’s star. However, the success of the film confirmed that stardom. Le fauve est lâché was a box office hit. Budgeted at a modest 82 million francs, it did almost as well as Le Gorille vous salue bien with 2.1 million tickets sold and better than Le Valse du Gorille, the sequel to Le Gorille vous salue bien, which Ventura had turned down amidst fears of typecasting and in which he’d been replaced by Roger Hanin.
The trailer for Le fauve est lâché (see above)is most instructive on what Lino Ventura’s star persona represented in 1959. Trailers are so interesting for highlighting, revealing, explaining a star’s persona at any given point. The trailer offers a promise of certain characteristics on view or to be displayed by the star; a promise to the audience to explain the particular embodiment of a type with the associated pleasures audiences may expect from it. The voiceover tells us, ‘You know only him but look at him well. See how this time he’s calm, tranquil, a quiet father retired from business, at least a certain kind of business. He’s all placid behind his counter. But don’t believe it! It’s sleeping waters. Dynamite which covers…and here is the wildcat released, unchained…This man is dynamite, a sort of force of nature against which we’re helpless…This is the hero of Le fauve est lâché. There he is, more violent, more captivating than ever. This man is Lino Ventura’.
The film delivered on the promise of the trailer. Ventura has presence and he embodies the type well. But what the audience was allowed to discover for itself was just how good an actor Ventura had become. See the scene above: Gangsters have kidnapped his son in exchange for the secret papers and he’s calling Secret Services to inform them that this is where their dirty tricks have led to and that his son means more to him then his country. It’s all done in one shot which begins with him bouncing down the stairs, pushing his employees out of the way, dialing, getting his gun out of the drawer and into his pocket, and as the camera slowly moves into a close-up, unleashing his wildcat onto the authorities. See how his fists clench, how his voice rises to almost a scream, but how his eyes remain focussed, still. It’s this emotional unleashing from a place of relative emotional placidness that gives it the power that it has. And it’s also an example of how the film gains by building its action sequences on family melodrama.
The film was released on the 21st of January 1959; as we’ve seen, a considerable hit; and well-reviewed: Jean de Baroncelli in Le Monde wrote: Yesterday ‘gorilla’; today, wildcat; Ventura has in a few months become the no. 1 heavy-weight champ of French Cinema’. Watching Le fauve est lâché one understands why.
 Soutenu par l’acteur principal, l’assitant deviant réalisateur…Avec lui, les scenes atteignent une intensité que Labro n’aurait sans doute jamais pu susciter…Grâce a Sautet, Le fauve est lâché acquiert une nouvelle dimension. Pas celle d’une grande oeuvre mais au mons celle d’un honnête film d’action (loc 1783 on Kindle, translation my own)
 ‘Hier “gorille”, “fauve” aujourd’hui, Ventura est devenu en quelques mois le “pos lourd” no 1 du cinema francais. Translation my own, Phillip Durant’s Lino Ventura, loc 1783, Kindle.
I’m a sap. I know. But this gets to me every time. The music is by Michel Legrand. Catherine Deneuve is the young girl in love. The almost as beautiful Nino Castelnueovo is the young man who loves her back but is conscripted into two years of military service. You might note the influence of the MGM musical: –the streets were painted so that the colour scheme could become one of those largely unnoticed but crucial elements that create meaning and feeling in movies — perhaps excessively so: see how in the bar the drink on the table matches the background yellow. Vincente Minnelli was a particular influence on director Jacques Demy and you can detect it in the use of background, décor, costumes and particularly in the flowing camera movements. Everything is consciously put in the frame, everything signifies — that’s why we feel it so deeply. The end, when the couple seems to be floating on air, is particularly lovely — and significant — as the rest of the film is about how all those young dreams are crushed. For many years that type of shot with the camera maintaining equal distance from the characters whilst they seemed to move seamlessly, as if standing still on an a moving sidewalk, was often to be found in Spike Lee’s films but with lesser impact and effect. Seeing it on its first release and far away from home, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his wife, ‘I saw Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.’ One of the great musical numbers of all time and a very wonderful film.
 Kurt Vonnegut, Letters, Edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield, London: Vintage Books, 2013; p. 107.
A charming tale of a couple’s visit to Paris: he’s an American interior decorator; she’s a French photographer; they’ve already been together for two years; but not in her culture, not in her hometown, not with her parents, not in Paris. The film has genuinely funny moments of culture clash, and it’s definitely an intelligent woman’s take on romance. I found it an enjoyable film to see even though it’s not quite good. Adam Goldberg is totally charmless and very badly cast. Daniel Brühl appears as an eco-terrorist who might be gay. I suspect the woman in the audience will laugh out loud and all the men who don’t find Delpy adorable will feel unable to utter the ‘ouch!’-es they’ll so acutely feel. The film doesn’t know how to end, so a contrived voice-over is meant to wrap up what should have been left open and painful. Too bad….but a very promising directing debut from Delpy nonetheless.
1934. A handsome man walking though the countryside in France sees a middle-aged widow get off the bus. She’s carrying a heavy package containing an incubator for chickens. He offers to help her bring it inside and lands himself a job in the farm and a bed with the widow, though that’s not strictly part of the bargain. The vagrant on the road is Alain Delon; the widow is Simone Signoret.
In the first few shots director Pierre Granier-Deferre lays out a location — a farm separated by a bridge over a canal that has to be raised for boats and lowered for pedestrians; a social setting — France in the grip of the economic and political incertitude that followed the Stavisky affair; and dramatises a whole series of antagonistic personal relationships: The widow lives with her father-in-law on one side of the bridge; her in-laws live on the other; the in-laws want to take possession of the old man in order to kick her out and take-over the farm; the widow sees the farm as her right and makes sure she keeps her father-in-law happy to ensure it. On the other side of the canal, her in-laws have a nympho daughter, already with a bastard child, who’s got her eye on the vagrant. Meanwhile the widow Courdec has her weary eye firmly on everyone who wants to take what she sees as hers.
La veuve Courdec is well-made film, an adaptation of a George Simenon novel, where the pettiness of people, their self-interestedness, their plotting for personal advantage, is couched in ideals not quite able to contain and mask the nastiness bubbling underneath them. They’re grasping, base; it’s what’s hardened the widow. She wants Delon, thinks money will keep him, but he’s his own man, goes after the younger tramp, her niece. He tells her quite clearly he fancies her niece because she’s younger. She gets jealous, kicks him out, finds out he’s a killer who has a gun. Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and takes him back. There’s a scene where they sleep together and in the morning he reaches out for her in bed, and his whole body tenses as his hand wonders around the bed. She, looking down on all of this, on him, sees his body relax with relief as he finds her hand and she is moved. She knows his want for her is real. The look that Signoret gives Delon, it’s as if he’s the first person who’s ever showed her any affection.
There’s a great scene after, where we see the widow washing her man’s trousers and lording it over the other women’s disapproving faces. Those women have always disapproved but now they’re disapproving at her flaunting of her pleasure — she flaunts her man’s washing with pride cause she’s still clearly getting some and they’re not – and their displeasure is a further source of pleasure to her.
It’s a very deft film, cleverly directed by Granie-Deferre, and easy to under-estimate. On first glance we might think it akin to a made-for-TV movie but with a bigger budget. And yet, it’s a work that deepens and gets richer upon reflection. In a few shots you have a period, a political background, a rural setting with working people scraping by, each with a motive to hate each other, a killer on the run, a hardened widow too accustomed to petty cruelties, and a cross-set of desires heading in various directions. Granier-Deferre sets out the symbolism of the drawbridge, where people on boats loll pleasantly by but the hatred between the family is entrenched so firmly that lowering the drawbridge is only an opportunity for further hurts. There’s also the incubator, the promise of a richer way of life from giving life, but one that all of society is intent on destroying.
The setting is rural, the look is green, there are the sounds of birds, all Delon wants is some sun, all Signoret wants is a little love. But it’s a world full of hatred that won’t let them have the little they seek. Even the music, a romantic score by Phillipe Sarde, one with elegiac overtones but with a forward movement, evokes that which is dreamed of but will forever be impossible. Speaking of the real feeling between them, between a middle-age woman running to fat and a handsome man in the prime of his life, Signoret tells Delon, ‘Nobody would understand’. ‘Nobody ever understands’ he replies. However, at the end of the film, when we get a little coda informing us that the name of the character Delon plays is Jean Lavigne and that he’d shot two people because he’d simply had enough, we do indeed understand.
Simone Signoret being great
La veuve Courdec has sweeping camera movement, an eye for the image, a feel for period and for people but its core strength lies in its stars, two of the biggest in the history of French Cinema: Delon very effective and Signoret just absolutely great. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she tells Delon her story (see clip above)in front of her deaf father in law, and she raises her voices so her father-in-law can hear her, whilst her mind is still on setting out breakfast, that measures out a life-time of rage, and cuts through the well-crafted, middle-classness of the film into that which hurts, which is real, complex, human, trapped but in revolt. This is the realm of art which the film itself can never hope to aspire to but which the film is the setting and context for. There’s a reason Granier-Deferre attracted all the big stars. He not only helps them shine as stars but provides a platform where they can reach moments of greatness as artists which are not quite within the director’s own grasp.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider dazzle in Le Combat dans l’île, their first film together. It’s a political allegory played out through a melodramatic love story and visualised as a noir. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Clément, the son of a rich industrialist who’s involved with a crypto-fascist revolutionary group that plans to assassinate a left-wing politician. Schneider is Anne, his wife, a foreigner and formerly an actress, ignorant of her husband’s doings until the maid finds a package in the closet that turns out to be a bazooka.
The film reminded me of Ascenseur pur l’échefaud/ Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, France, 1958) in its spare compositions, low-angle shots on people, wonderings through Paris, acute evocation of mood; and also in the close-ups on faces, the use of silence, and even the way the score is used (though here its mostly Mozart instead of Miles Davis). Both films convey a loneliness, a desperation in love and a quest for meaning that can be characterized as existential; and both convey a textured intensity of feeling that nonetheless seems overhung with ennui. I wasn’t surprised to see Louis Malle listed as producer in the credits.
Romy Schneider is at her most beautiful and touching in Le Combat dans l’île; but then, I seem to feel that each time I see her. She’s exquisite here, still with a trace of baby fat but already seeming simultaneously transparent and mysterious; and capable of expressing a great range of emotion with delicacy and feeling. Le Combat dans l’île was her first film in France where she was to make her home and do her greatest work. Her Anne is extraordinary in that she’s able to convey the extrovert’s life one associates with an actress, her knowledge that her husband is shutting that life down, making it smaller, her love for her husband, and, when he beats her, her fear, hurt. and yes, arousal. Schneider not only succeeds in getting an audience to understand her Anne, but also, whilst invoking admiration for her beauty and skill as an actress, simultaneously incites a feeling of protectiveness towards her character. We understand and are with Schneider’s Anne.
Trintignant matches Schneider and is to me the revelation of Le Combat dans l’îsle . He looks very young here and very attractive. There are moments when he comes out of the darkness and into the frame where the lighting highlights long eye-lashes and a full lower lip. He’s short but wiry and gives the impression of being quietly coiled but primed for violence. His political fervor is rendered as an arousal brought on by a feeling of mastery that also helps to explain his relationship to his wife.
There’s a scene mid-way through the film, when Anne and Clément are in the woods, which beautifully illustrates this sudden burst into the unexpected: Like most scenes between Clément and Anne, it is characterized by a hint of violence that is also a hint of sex, and by a mutual affection that nonetheless victimizes her. It’s like they both find that danger sexy, and maybe for the same reason — the clarity of his dominance;. However, she’s also very much a bird with clipped wings and revolts at the same time as she sumbits.
In the woods, he tells her he’s going to kill the former colleague who’s since betrayed him, and she, aghast at the thought but also at what that might do to them, to her, tells him ‘I wanted to live and you’re killing me. You’re destroying me bit by bit. You’ll end up by killing me too.’ As she says this, he gives a kind of gleeful smile, not at the thought of doing so, but because he finds such power exciting; it makes him feel alive. Trintignant then chases after her nuzzling her neck affectionately without letting go of her hold on him, almost as if he loves her so much and is so insecure of his hold on her that he’s got to force it.
These are fascinating and original acting choices on the part of Trintignant and they’re thrilling to watch. I loved the moment where he stares at himself on a knife at breakfast or when he goes to kiss Anne in his final attempt to win her back and tenderly places a fist on either side of her neck before trying to kiss her. One can’t quite decide whether it’s adolescent confusion or underplayed psychosis that Trintignant is intending but these choices vividly convey why Anne continues to fancy him and why she stays whilst also showing how clearly he is capable of killing someone. It’s a great performance, one that makes of Clément a vivid contrasts to Paul (Henri Serre), the other man in what eventually turns into a triangle.
Clément and Paul are blood-brothers from childhood. The film uses them as structural opposites in the narrative; Clément is short, Paul tall; one lives in the city, the other in an old mill in the country; one is married, one is widowed; one is right-wing, the other at least a democrat. One loses Anne; the other wins her; one forbids her to act, the other provides the platform in which she can shine. It’s too bad that the bad guy is a much better actor. Henri Serre then on a career high due to playing Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, looks the part beautifully but diminishes his contributions to the film each time he opens his mouth. It’s very easy to understand why in spite of his initial celbritiy he never quite became a star.
The film gets its title from the final combat between Clément and Paul on the island. The battle is for Anne of course but it’s also for a politic, a way of life, and a particular kind of future. I’m not well versed enough in French history to know what the film is allegorizing though it doesn’t take too great a knowledge of history to note that it’s related to then recent Algerian war,. However, such knowledge is not necessary to appreciate this moody, beautiful film which seems to shape a whole way of life and a set of moral attitudes out of shadows and light; and the way that that light hits fog, fire and ice, in the country and in the city.
Le Combat dans l’îsle is a film of the nouvelle vague by one of its lesser lights (I’d never heard of Alain Cavalier before this). It references Godard and À bout de souffle/ Breathless directly when Clément goes to find his wife at the ‘hôtel de Suède’ room no. 12. It also references Truffaut through the casting of Serre. Pierre Lhomme, who’s work here is so great also worked with Jean-Pierre Melville on L’Armée de ombre/ Army of Shadows (which would have been such a great title for this film had it not already been taken). But these are peripheral reasons to see the film.
Le Combat dans l’îsle deserves to be seen for the beauty of its images, the intensity of the mood it creates, the economy with which the two assassinations are depicted (a lesson to any young filmmaker in how to do very powerful scenes on the cheap), the extraordinary performances of Schneider and Trintingant and the complex and exciting depiction of sexual attraction.
Aside from some of the voice-over narration, so typical of noir, my only complaint with Le Combat dans l’îsle is the knowledge that if Clément’s politics had been left instead of right, it would have been Trintignant rather than Serre, in the final clinch with Romy; and who wouldn’t have wanted that? Yet, if that is so, what does it say about the representation of politics in cinema?
A star vehicle for Romy Schneider, one of very greatest of European stars of the 1970’s. La Banquière tells the story of Emma Eckhart, a working-class woman, persecuted for her homosexuality, who becomes one of the great financial wizards of the twenties and thirties before an all-male establishment plots her demise and, failing to outwit her, resorts to murder. The film is a rise-and-fall narrative which combines elements from Baby Face (the uses of sex to facilitate the social and financial rise of an ambitious woman) and career-women films of the 1940s such as Mildred Pierce (the building of an empire almost single-handedly albeit greatly aided by a community of women) though it lacks the energy of the former and the artistry of the latter.
It’s not without its pleasures however: primarily a superb Romy Schneider in one of her most famous roles and greatest hits, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Horace Vannister, the aristocratic villain, and a very young Daniel Auteil as Duclaux, a rather perverse looking and (perhaps thus) amoral young villain-for-hire. The film also has a very interesting look, beginning with a 1970s idea of silent cinema: black and white, energetic tinkling on the piano, the narrative distinguished from the archival footage incorporated into it by showing the latter in the speeded up form typical of shots filmed at 18 frames per second but projected at 24; then, transitioning into a post-WWI world of muted colours and the restrained elegance big money can buy (the Charleston is relegated to speeded-up black-and-white representation) . The Art Deco furniture and bibelots on display are sublime and make one want to pause the film to stare at them (not a good thing really), the clothes are beautiful, and La Banquière is in everyway a sumptuous production. However, it is also one of those films that remind you that many beautiful things inside a shot do not a beautiful or expressive shot make; one sometimes questions if Girod does in fact know what he’s doing with a camera.
La Banquière should be of interest to anyone intrigued by Romy Schneider, the ‘woman’s film’, and/or representations of lesbianism in cinema. I can’t think of another big-budget, star-vehicle in a period setting where the woman at the centre, the woman who acts and is acted upon, is introduced as a lusty beautiful girl in love with girls, persecuted for that preference and encouraged by her father to lead her own life. We’re shown most of this in the first few minutes of the film: After having been caught in bed by the police with another woman and being brought home in a paddy wagon, her father tells her, ‘don’t be ashamed. They want you to feel ashamed so they can step on you. You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent, the world will smile on you!’. It’s, at least historically, quite an astonishing start.
In La Banquière, all the girls fall in love with Emma, facilitate her rise and/or cushion her fall, and, as Emma is played by Romy Schneider, who can blame them? As the film progresses, she marries for money and status, several times, and has a child, all the while maintaining her primary relationships with women, before we’re shown her desires becoming more labile and expansive. The film is interesting too in that her downfall begins when she falls in love with a man (Daniel Mesguich), younger, selfish, worthless. It’s the type of representation sure to arouse debate in some circles, difficult to categorise and very much worth seeing because of that.
In his lushly illustrated new book, Moments That Made The Movies (Thames and Hudson, 2013), David Thomson, referring to the famous nightclub scene in Morocco where Dietrich sings ‘Quand l’amour meurt’ before kissing a woman and then throwing Gary Cooper the flower she takes from her, writes: ‘the moment is weightier than the film, and more enduring. But these days people like to take their films in bits and pieces – video allowed for that – so one day it may be that no one makes full movies any more, just arresting moment.’
Claude Sautet is responsible for more than his share of arresting moments in cinema: the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider when Michel Piccoli first sees her in Les Choses de la vie; the moment where Yves Montand, full of sea air and lust for life, says, ‘I feel like fighting someone!’ in César et Rosalie; the introduction of Romy Schneider, ‘irised’ through a spyglass, in Max et les ferrailleurs; and many more. His cinema has more than its share of moments that startle either with beauty, meaning or emotion. But his films are always greater than, add up to more than, those moments. Un mauvais fils is no exception.
In Un mauvais fils/ A Bad Son, Paris is seething with strikes, demonstrations, protests but none of the characters in the film can think of anything but their own internal ache. They walk the same streets as people who are aware of and engaged with the surrounding world, drink with them in bars, pass by posters that interpellate involvement and participation from others but which they fail to see. Their thoughts are elsewhere: on what they could have done, should have done, should have been; or on their next fix — the latter being a sign of the failure to measure up to all of the former.
Patrick Dewaere, a singular star and iconic presence of 1970s French cinema, is beautifully cast as Bruno Calgagni, the ‘bad’ son who went to study in America only to be locked up for five years for dealing the heroin he was hooked on but could no longer afford to buy. The film begins as he returns to Paris, where the police greet him at the airport and tell us what got him to that moment. He returns home to find a father who’s loving but also impatient and increasingly reproachful, his very face a picture of disappointment. The son tries to please but always seems to put his foot in it. A scene where he’s drinking with his father at a bar and attempts to impress him by picking up two women, possibly professionals, one for each of them, only to be met by his father’s outrage and disgust is particularly poignant, squirm-inducing and, as we will learn later, hypocritical.
Father and son are loving, both trying their best but failing, albeit each in his own way. The awkwardness, misunderstandings and careless hurtings continue until the father accuses the son of being responsible for his mother’s death; that the shame and hurt he caused her incited a spiral of depression that lead to her taking her own life. This accusation, a breaching of silence that opens the floodgates of anger and blame, is a climactic moment and turning point in the narrative.
We are introduced to Dewaere at the beginning of the film already looking like a cock-eyed spaniel eager to please but bewildered at being wounded, finding himself unloved and drifting in the world through a haze of hurt — that aspect of Bruno doesn’t fundamentally change. He’ll be just as angelic, child-like, sensitive, honourable and manly throughout the rest of the film. But be it careless or cruel, his father’s accusation spurs Bruno to action: his response is to leave the apartment they’re sharing, find a job, make his own way in the world and find his own woman.
Bruno will echo, rhyme, repeat and return his father’s behaviour later in the film when the tables are turned: he will prove himself his father’s son and be just as accusatory and unforgiving when he finds that the affair his father is currently involved with had started way before and might have been just as responsible for his mother’s state of mind as his being in an American jail. It will take him the rest of the film to forgive and come to terms with the father he’s clearly always loved.
Bruno finds some peace when he finds work in an antiquarian bookshop, meets a lovely gay couple and falls in love with Catherine (Brigitte Fossey), herself a former junky. He’s been off the smack for five years; she’s not quite off it, not yet. The film shows the progression of their affair with great tenderness and humanity and without eschewing any of the complexities that such a relationship entails. One of the most touching and moving sequences is when Bruno, understanding of Catherine’s need, lovingly tweaks her with heroin. All this is shown with the arm injected off screen to reduce the most voyeuristic dimension of such a representation and to focus on feeling. The film is refreshingly non-judgmental regarding the drug-taking, really treating it as an illness that good people fall prey to and suffer from rather than, as is often the case, attributing their drug-taking to a lack of character, morals and will.
A LANDMARK REPRESENTATION OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY
If the film’s representation of heroin addicts is sensitive and humane, its representation of gay men seems to me a landmark, one that deserves greater attention, and is one of many reasons to seek out this film. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, published a year after the release of Un mauvais fils details a long and damning list of derogatory stereotypes through which homosexuality had been glimpsed to that point, usually briefly; and often only to be feared, derided or extinguished: the evil lesbian, the pansy, the butt of humour, the subject of suicide etc;
In Un mauvais fils, the contours of the representation remain stereotypical; they’re a short-cut, a way of knowing, and with a root in the real. Thus Adrien (Jacques Fulfilho) is an antiquarian dealing in old books, bourgeois, mad about opera, and supporting a younger foreign lover, Carlos. But as with so much of Sautet’s work, the character is so complex, so human that actor and director endow those contours with shape and shading and thus exceed them.
Adrien loves Catherine, wants to help Bruno, is understanding of all, is the catalyst for the film’s conclusion and, more importantly, figures as as the film’s moral conscience. Un mauves fils even accords him his own little aria, which, whilst not up to the heights of Mimi’s in the La Boheme he loves so much, is such a great speech, such a landmark speech in a history of the representation of gay men in cinema that I attach a clip below and a rough transcript of what he tells Bruno below that. Dulfilho, won a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor, for his work here.
Adrien: ‘You might as well jump, it will at least be faster!’
Bruno:‘You don’t know my life…I needed to escape, at least once’
Adrien: ‘There’s no escape bar jumping out the window! Escape! From what? From oneself? From others? From loneliness? From fear? We escape? We go for a walk? To go where? Here is how things are: it’s nine am, I’m 63, I look at myself and I’m cold and I’m homosexual and I’m covered in debts. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life, the bookstore, Carlos. I’d love to get drunk and then when the effects have worn off I’d be thirty, I’d own the bookstore, everyone would be homosexual, those that are not would be persecuted, Carlos would be left-wing and there’d be no more bullshit! Yes, it would be great! On condition of being able to return obviously.
GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
It is one of the great moments in the film but as I mentioned at the beginning, Sautet’s films, this one included, add up to more than its parts. Sautet’s a humanist in perspective, a classicist in style, and meticulous in all aspects of his filmmaking. See for example, the fluid long takes with scenes shot on a diagonal that somehow creates a vertical space of action on the horizontal wide-screen; or the the subtle and significant shifts in focus as the father and his girlfriend are driving in to work (see clip below). Note too, how in keeping with the themes of the film, the camera often ends on nothingness (see example above), on empty space that is not without significance: the empty space created when characters leave a room to make love in another room so that what they do may be imagined. But also things like the shadow of a staircase bannister once characters have vacated it. This has an effect not unlike that we see in Ozu or on the films of Takeshi Kitano and in Sautet’s film comes across like an extinguished sigh, a place of action where the desired action did not in fact take place.
See also how carefully sound is used, sometimes so that it sets up one scene or continues from another – not unusual but so beautifully done; note too how often we are not permitted to hear what the characters themselves do as a way of creating tension and drama. I’m also very admiring of the colour design of the film (see image capture below), how each scene has its own dominant colour scheme that is carefully choreographed throughout the film’s narrative: the browns and beiges at the beginning, the bright yellows or reds in the construction scenes, the patterning in blue when Brigitte Fossey gets her hankering for her fix in the seaside.
Note too the wonderful editing, sometimes as indicated earlier, lingering a bit too long on the space of action after the action has finished or moved elsewhere but note the beautiful use of dissolves too (see illustrations below); for example, after Bruno vomits in the metro, there’s that wonderful dissolve of the weeping flower over the rainbow and the sky onto the two men at the bookstore. And then, as is so characteristic in this film, the filming is from outside a window so that it reflects the life outside that the characters inside are oblivious too. Truly lovely.
SUBTLE SHIFTS IN FOCUS
SUBTLE USE OF COLOUR DESIGN
DISSOLVE INTO REFLECTIONS OF OUTSIDE
By the time, the film gets to the end, you know, identify, feel for these characters. It’s a melancholy film but one that feels tender and true. The ending with the son just lighting a cigarette and looking lovingly at the father as he sleeps just brims over with unspoken feeling. The film offers no utopian resolution just an understanding, a forgetting, a moving on, a decision to continue and choose love. That feeling is not the result of one moment, it’s the building up of many scenes, many choices of mise-en-scène, many small miracles of acting. It’s very beautiful.
Max et les Ferrailleurs is a noir in colour — bright Eastmancolour in the DVD transfer I saw — fresh as paint, and as brightly coloured as a children’s playground. But it’s a shadowy world that is depicted; one of cops and robbers, bars and cafés, precincts and prostitutes. And if each of the characters that people this world has their reasons for behaving as they do, none of them is saintly and none of their motives are pure.
The film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli), a mono-manically obsessive cop intent on bringing a bunch of two-bit crooks to justice through the manipulations of the psychically bruised but physically peachy Lily (Romy Schneider), the girlfriend of one of the ferrailleurs, the not too bright but not too bad Abel (Bernard Fresson).
As with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet and Jean-Loup Dabadie — and another tightly structured, carefully composed and subtly told tale of morally complex people. But Max et les ferrailleurs is a darker film then either although it’s a darkness that is composed by a layering of subtle shadings. First of all, the crooks aren’t really that bad. They’re just a bunch of guys who prefer to spend all day shooting the shit in a junkyard to working. They dream of a score but are really too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it — until Max sets up his trap for them, a score so easy that they can’t help but fall into it. So who’s the bad guy, the entrapper or the entrapped?
It is no credit to Max that he sets his trap through Lily. We’re told she’s German, born in Bonn, who began street-walking in Munich as a teenager. She’s had a hard life; been pushed into drink and drugs from pillar to post throughout Germany by abusive pimps — to the point where she’s survived a suicide attempt. She’s finally free of all that and is, as Inspector Rosinsky (François Périer) tells Max, if not someone, at least something. She’s in a pleasant, not too involved relationship with the easy-going and rather nice Abel and she’s at home in Nanterre.
It turns out that Max knows the amiable Abel from when they did they did their military service together. Abel doesn’t ask Lily for money and he doesn’t mind that she turns tricks for a living. Max isn’t a bad person, or at least he doesn’t begin that way, but he’s effectively entrapping his friend by paying for the services of his woman. Moreover, Abel is the friendly and nice one. The worse that can be said of Abel is that he’s not ambitious and doesn’t quite stick to the letter of the law. But that is at least as true of Max.
In order to entrap the gang, Max hires Lily. He pays her a lot, too much for someone who pretends he only wants to talk. In fact, it’s through these talks that he begins spinning his web. But he also can’t help looking at her, taking endless photographs and papering the walls of his rented flat with them. She begins to see him as something more than a trick too. They develop feelings for each other as they talk, feelings that they sense but can’t quite admit to; after all, there’s money involved. The camera loves Romy Schneider. Max loves looking at Romy/Lily through the camera. We love what we see, even what he sees, though his looking overlaps into a voyeurism that we share, but tinged with a perversity that begins to make us a little uncomfortable. We love Romy Schneider. Lily’s done nothing bad to Max. Yet, she senses an easy score and is not above setting up a robbery of the bank Max pretends to run.
Max et les ferrailleurs is shot in fluid long-takes. It doesn’t feel as the kind of cinema that blows you away by its use of the medium – it’s certainly not self-consciously ‘cinematic- — until you go over how the story is told in your mind, and think of how subtly, how beautifully, how classically, how economically and how powerfully what is shown and how it is shown affects how you understand and what you feel.
I’ll linger on two scenes here as brief examples. The first (see above) is our introduction of Lily. In a subtle, narrationally motivated way, Sautet gives Romy Schneider a fabulous star entrance. We see her through Max. In fact his face goes in and out of focus as we see what he sees. An iris, meant to stand in for the long end of the telescope, provides a space in which Romy and Abel then appear. We know she’s a prostitute partly because of how she’s smoking and walking and mostly because of what she’s wearing: a ribbon around her neck tied into a jauntily-angled bow (Romy’s signature look for this film, she will wear such a ribbon in different colours in most scenes with Max), high-heeled ankle-strapped shoes, and a shiny black vinyl raincoat that might be a nod to Joan Bennet’s iconic streetwalker look as Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945).
Soon Max’s attention focuses strictly on Lily. His telescope, which began following first the gang and then the couple starts following her movements rather than Abel’s. In fact, his first question to Inspector Ronsinsky is a follow-up for context and background to the interest first aroused scopically. After the Inspector gives Max and us this background plot (the unenviable but inevitable task of ‘supporting players’ in the type of film where stars are, protagonists do, and the rest of the characters tell), we return to look at Lily, and though the images we see at first illustrate what the voice is telling us, that Nanterre has become her home, they also exceed that telling. We see that she’s beautiful, we see that she’s happy, we see that she’s part of a community, her window looks out on a world that calls to her and that she’s a part of; and she’s got Abel, nice Abel, a man who clearly is fulfilling her sexually and supporting her emotionally, in the background, behind her, and to her delight. This is the pleasant and pleasantly functional, if maybe not rapturously joyful, world that Max, with his quest for ‘justice’, will destroy.
The other moment I’d like to linger on is the moment Max succeed in capturing the crooks and goes to tell Lily with the intent of reassuring her that she’s in the clear. A gendarme blows his whistle almost as if to announce the moment. The film then cuts to Max going into a café. The camera follows Max as he goes into the café but then remains outside as he goes towards Lily (the camera first moving right but then left). Why does Sautet leave the camera out? What distance is being created? It’s interesting too that there’s a mirror behind Lily so that his reflection is present in Lily’s reaction to what he’s done. The moment, however, is Piccoli’s as it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t only captured crooks, he’s destroyed lives, he’s de-facto put a death-warrant on Lily, he’s destroyed a potential future for them both, in fact, he realizes he’s worse than the poor sods, too lazy to even devise their own hold-up that he’s just put behind bars. Every nuance of perception and feeling is visible on Piccoli’s face, all understated but understandable. It’s an absolutely great moment in the film.
Max et les ferrailleurs is full of such moments: elegant, outwardly simple, seemingly casual, none of it drawing attention to itself, but capable of expressing all the complexities of what it is to be human in a series of unfoldings that deepen into a highly pitched but silent scream of feeling. A wonderful film.
The original trailer for the French release in 1970 promised that Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life would be ‘about people, people like you, people to whom things happen, things of life: beautiful, sweet, stupid; things of life that make life worth living’. If the ‘you’ referred to is an ideal ‘you’ – richer, more glamorous, more beautiful – then, the film delivers on that promise.
Les choses de la vie begins with an image of the wheel of a car in a field. We realise that a car has crashed in a rural motorway. Inside the car is Pierre (Michel Piccoli), a successful architect. As he drifts in an out of consciousness, we find out what his life has amounted to, what has been important to him: Catherine (Lea Massari), his wife, whom he’s separated from but who he still has unresolved feelings for; Helène (Romy Schneider), the mistress who adores him but whom he finds a bit clingy and demanding; the son, suddenly grown-up and growing more distant by the day; his parents; the problems with his job; the things he did wrong and might never get a chance to fix; flashes of joy experienced whilst sailing with his family or kissing his mistress in a meadow.
Les choses de la vie could so easily be soap opera; could so easily have become what its American re-make, Intersections (Mark Rydell, USA, 1994), turned out to be: a glossy, glamorous melodrama with people one couldn’t relate to and that remained at one remove, as if the pretty-ness of the image was a glass barrier to feeling. Yet, Sautet’s film is something else: even more exquisite to look, but here the look providing a lens through which to see a complex life in a way that is much deeper, much finer.
It’s a poetic film, sad, with an emphasis on feeling and on thought rather than on action; where things are felt but hidden, half-said, mis-articulated; where the narrative shows all the complexities that the characters cannot themselves express, may not yet know, may in fact be trying to hide; a film where things are expressed visually and aurally, as befits a film.
The film is structured around the car-crash, spectacularly choreographed by Gérard Streiff and shown in a variety of ways depending on the mood the film is intent on conveying when it returns to it, as it does throughout the film; it’s the event that anchors the narrative and permits it to drift off in fragments whilst still being experienced as linear; it works as memory, as drifting thought, but it at all times makes sense to the viewer.
We sometimes see it in slow motion, or with the film speeded up, or even with the film being run backward; and when we return to the accident, we sometimes cut to the witnesses of the crash, sometimes to an event in Pierre’s life; sometimes just to his point-of-view as he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened to him. In one instance we see a shiny black boot, stepping on a gorgeous ground of green grass, poppies and little blue flowers. As Pierre tries to focus, and at the very moment in which he realizes he might die, he can still see beauty amongst the black.
One can understand why Sautet thought Jacqueline Thiédot, chief editor, important enough to come first at the end credits. The film is a masterpiece of editing. But really, the film is a masterpiece for many reasons.
It’s full of wonderful moments: the two scenes where Pierre and Helène discuss their relationship, first in the elevator and then in the car, where the shadows as the elevator ascends through floors, or the lime yellow of passing traffic, create a murkiness, a lack of clarity, that symbolizes all of the mis-communication, the pain of Helène’s honest and vulnerable expression in the light, or lack of light, of Pierre’s inability to express his own emotions, in the light, or lack of light, of his silence.
Or the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider at the auction (see clip below), where one can see exactly why Pierre fell in love with her; or those moments of bliss sailing, never to be repeated, already in the past as the image fades to white; or the exquisite pan around the wedding banquet where the dream of what might have been suddenly turns into the nightmarish realization of what actually is in one sweeping camera movement. This is the work of a truly great director.
Sautet here also enjoys the collaboration of an extraordinary team. Not only the aforementioned Thiédot but also an intricate screenplay based on the novel by Paul Guimard which Sautet superbly knitted together with Guimard, Sandro Continenza and Jean-Loup Dabadie, who would later write at least dialogue for many of Sautet’s other films (including the marvellous César et Rosalie). Jean Boffety is director of photography and responsible for very beautiful and evocative images with a lighting design that signifies; one in which, things are half shown as they are half-spoken, capable of great beauty in that wonderful Eastman colour that picks up primary colours and makes them almost shine (sadly it is also the process most prone to fade and turn to red ). Also the camera renders the space almost sculptural in the way that it frames all that happens as spaces of changeable feeling and meaning; all this greatly aided by Phillipe Sarde’s very beautiful score (the film itself is almost structured as a fugue).
A popular success, Les choses de la vie was the 8th highest earning film of its year with 2,959, 682 admissions. It won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film in 1970. It was also nominated for Golden Palm at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film would revitalise the careers of Sautet and Schneider and lead to many future collaborations between them, including Max et les ferrailleurs/ Max and the Junkmen and César et Rosalie, both superb. Les choses de la vie was remade in Hollywood as Intersections directed by Mark Rydell and with Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Lolita Davidovitch. It might be worth noting that the performances of Piccoli, Schneider and Masari are so great they completely eclipse any memory of the American actors, which I saw first. Courrèges did Romy’s chic, career-girl A-line mini-dresses. Lovely.
To my knowledge, Les choses de la vie is not available in the UK or the US with English sub-titles. I hope someone does something about it soon. It’s only a matter of time before Sautet’s great works are re-disovered. Les choses de la vie is one of them.
César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.
César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.
Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular, there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980) which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.
But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.
At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.
These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.
Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be; big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.
The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.
Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie: there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie is exquisite.
Kiera Knightley and Sam Worthington play a well-to-do couple tempted into adultery. She’s a journalist. He works for a property company. His rival is Gullaume Canet, a writer. Eva Mendes is the alluring femme fatale who does indeed lure. The film aims for maturity and complexity but fails and feels rather inept. Worthington is charmless. Knightley is almost good but not quite. The film seems prudish both in what it shows physically and what it depicts psychologically and verges on the dishonest. It doesn’t look good enough either and Mendes and Knightley are sometimes shot in what seem to be their worst angles: Mendes with a bottom-heavy face, all round cheeks; and Knightley with an almost masculine, heavily delineated jaw-bone. Last Night aims for louche glamour but just feels a bit cheap.
If you like Almodóvar circa Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the ‘Think Pink’ number in Funny Face, 1950s clothes, cha-cha music, the look of Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movies, or ironic romances laced with a dash of camp, you’re likely to find Populaire charming .
It’s a relief to see a pretty romantic comedy that doesn’t assume its audience is moronic. However, this is a film where the heroine’s idea of romance and adventure is to simply find Mr. Right; so the sexual politics of the film can at times seem as retro as its chic. It might be best to approach Populaire with the same amused, affectionate and ironic sense of wonder with which the film itself presents its characters and its world.
That said, Populaire is a sustained achievement in that most difficult of elements to get right – tone: light, buoyant, gurgling with glamour but morally girdled. The effect is as if Samantha from Bewitched had twinkled her little nose at Don Draper, squeezed all the sourness out of him, and found him a princess who could type.
Romain Duris and Déborah François play the couple as if the only thing blocking their waft towards a billowy nest of love is their (gentle) butting of heads. The typing contest, filmed like a gunfight at the ok corral if the ok corral were a gleaming art deco hall, is a joy. The whole lovely confection is directed with great precision and crack timing by Régis Roinsard.