Our third podcast on Youssef Chahine films, this one on Cairo Station, a combination of Dickensian melodrama, Marxist analysis, neorealist aspirations, film noir techniques, and with a contemporary relevance in its Incel-on-a-rampage theme. A brilliant work, probably the best we’ve seen so far (though those with a penchant for romance might prefer The Blazing Sun or Dark Waters). The podcast can be listened to here:
In the past few podcasts we´ve been noting how wrong wikipedia is in its description of the films so far, and how it is evident from so many of the reviews that many reviewers haven´t seen the films well enough to describe them accurately.Richard even refers us to the BFI.An exception to this pattern is this brief description of the film in the Ritrovato catalogue.
These are excerpts from the film that are described or referred to in the podcast: we. talk about the sensuality in the film and how shocking that must have been in its time
We talk about the film noir elements in a film that has often been described as neorealist and of the extraordinary conceptualisation of shots and use of depth of field, which can be seen in this excerpt-
Likewise the images below are illustrations of some of the aspects discussed in the podcast, the compositions, the themes of sexual obsession, labour organising, the compositions, the way the frame is peopled, etc.:
Lastly, a description of Chahine and his career from the Ritrovato catalogue:
and lastly Mark Cousins also makes for very interesting reading on Cairo Station in his The Story of Film book
Barrie Wharton has written a very interesting article on the creation of national identity in Nasser’s Egypt that references Cairo Station:
Barrie Wharton, ‘Cultivating cultural change through cinema; Youssef Chahine and the creation of national identity in Nasser’s Egypt,’ Africana, Vol.3, No. 1, 2009
Gabin as he is in La Marie du Port (right), and the much more youthful portrait the poster advertises (left). The image the poster sells harks back to his thirties films, perhaps hoping to appeal to his pre-war popularity and regain it. But it´s also an image that somewhat contradicts one of the film´s main themes, which is about inter-generational love. The film itself I´ve now seen twice and it gets better each time:
The film is based on the novel by Georges Simenon (see above) and tells the story of Henri Châtelard (Jean Gabin), a well-to-do owner of a restaurant and cinema in Cherbourg, the biggest town in the region, who accompanies his mistress Odile (Blanchette Brunoy) to her father´s funeral in the small village of Port-en-Bessin in Normandy, only to fall in love with her sister, Marie (Nicole Courcel). There are several obstacles to the union of Châtelard and Marie: Marie is seeing a young local boy Marcel (Claude Romain), crazy in love with her and threatening suicide; she´s Odile´s sister; there´s a considerable difference in age (one of the things the poster for the film is trying to obscure); Marie doesn´t want to be a mistress like her sister, living the good life but shunned by ´respectable’ people — she wants a ring.
At the beginning of the film Henri and Odile are driving to the funeral of Odile´s father. They get a puncture and arrive late. These first few scenes paint a powerful picture of small town life and mentality. The house is so small, mourners and well-wishers remain outside, on the street. Inside, Marie is feeding the family. Odile and Marie have three younger siblings, which now have to be distributed amongst the aunts and uncles to be brought up. We get a sense of a subsistence culture –whether the children can earn their keep is part of the discussion of how and to whom they will be distributed –and that children will most likely be used as slave labour until they come of age. Odile has escaped this by becoming Châtelard´s mistress. But at a price. She doesn´t really love him, or at least no longer. She´s stuck in Cherbourg where she really want to be in Paris. And she´s being shunned by the village folk she grew up with. Carné well indicates the community´s opprobium towards her by the expression in some of the mourner´s faces as she arrives to her father´s house (below right), something that reminded me of the scene with the nuns at the hospital in Almodóvar´s Live Flesh (below right) and how a series of expressions can not only evoke character but a whole structure of feeling.
Marie is hard-working, dour, conscientious, honest, and Châtelard is smitten from the first moment he sees her (below left), an image significantly rhymed the first time Marcel sees her with Châtelard: interestingly, one is on the inside looking out, the other outside looking in.
Carné surrounds himself and this production with some of the greatest talents the French cinema of the period had to offer: Jacques Prévert worked on the screenplay (Louis Chavance and Geroges Ribemont-Dessaignes are the writers credited); there is beautiful work by Herni Alekan as cinematographer, the legendary Alexandre Trauner is with Auguste Capelier credited for the production design. And the way Carne orchestrates the various elements they contribute tells you all the story you need to know and more, as you can see in the lovely image below, where Claude, in the image that follows the one above right, sees Châtelard and Marie, clearly in love because, as you can see below, in that busy café, surrounded by people, and with Marcel´s own father propped at the bar anticipating the scene to come, the light seems to envelop them alone, a couple, even if they themselves don´t yet know it.
One of the things that´s striking about the film is the presentation of a freewheeling, guilt-free, pragmatic and easy sex-life to almost all of its characters. Marie and Marcel are the exceptions: she too puritanical and serious, he over-excited and dangerously romantic. But they´re young and they will learn.
The clip above is preceded by a scene in which a party leaves Châtelard´s restaurant because their table has been handed over to the local football team who´ve just won a match. The party leave in a huff except for the young woman who goest to the cinema next door. Châtelard has gone there too to eat his lunch and get some peace and quiet. But before the newsreel is over, they´ve agreed to spend the night together. It´s a scene that luxuriates in the cinema itself, letting us see it in wide shots, with the projector throwing a beam of light in the darkness, and the screen itself creating a glow in the space. Note the partial lighting of the characters, allowing us to see their expressions but evoking the covert by the surrounding darkness. Note too the adventurous (at sea) playful (the cat), the structured (army manouvres) the explosive (the guns going off), and the brief that´s indicated in the newsreel being shown but that is also commenting on the action we see.
Another scene that I also found unusual in its attitude to sex is the one where Châtelard and Marie, find Odile (Châtelard´s mistress and Marie´s sister) in bed with Marcel (Marie´s boyfriend). Marie and Châtelard have had a fight, he goes to find Marcel and when he opens the door he sees Odile and Marcel in bed together. Instead of being angry he finds it a joke, laughs, and won´t hold it against them later. It´s a scene unimaginable in American cinema of the period.
What I also found intriguing about the scene is that we´re shown the action through a relay of close-ups that indicate each of the principals´reaction but tellingly we´re never shown a two-shot or a medium shot in which Odile and Marcel are in the frame together, as if the idea really is too incongruous.
When Marie descends the stairs it´s photographed so as to evoke a feeling of hopes plummeting. But it´s not what Châtelard suspects: ‘If you only knew how little I care about Marcel, even if he is with someone else, and even if it´s with my sister’. When Marie admits that she had really come for him, that she hadn´t wanted to say it but it´s true, the camera pans to a little girl, dressed poorly, with a milk can on one hand and a loaf of bread under her other arm, behind a barred and locked gate that casts shadows inside (Châtelard here calls his house a cage). On one level the little girl is there as a narrative device to demonstrate the intrusion of the public on a private and sentimental moment. On a more metaphoric level, it´s clearly a commentary on Marie herself. But what exactly? It´s a moment that´s given considerable weight. It comes just after Châtelard says ‘Oh, so it´s for me that you´ve come’, at which point Châtelard looks left, and a pan follows his gaze to show us the little girl. Does that mean that there will be another young woman after Marie? Is it meant to signify a younger Marie. And does it mean that her choosing to go with Châtelard will be a kind of prison? I´m not sure but it´s an image that raises these and more questions and thus lingers in the mind (see above).
Carné is clearly in love with cinema and the cinema setting allows him to express it to us. Gabin is filmed against cannisters in his office, we see the projection system, posters, the cinema itself and clips from several films. The cinema also affords a nice contrast to the life and world Marie comes from.
La Marie du Port has two scenes set in Châtelard´s cinema. The first is the easy pick-up I discussed earlier on. The second takes place amidst a screening of F.W Murnau´s Tabu. Châtelard speaks of getting old, of time passing. Odile is off to Paris. Marcel to the cruise ships to become a lady´s hairdresser. Maybe he too will go away, in that boat he´s been fixing in the village. Besides one isn´t alone when one travels he muses. Marie comments that he doesn´t have to be alone. But he replies that, as she can see in the film, there are girls in every port, ones that don´t impose conditions: rings, marriage. This is an interesting rhyming scene with the first scene in the cinema: the newsreel, vs Murnau´s romantic and luscious Tabu; they´re alone instead of part of the crowd as in the earlier scene, and more importantly, Marie walks out on him. She´s not that kind of girl. And he will chase after her, offer her the keys to his business, and make jokes about how at the wedding he´ll tell the officals she´s his daughter doing her first communion.
Seeing La Marie du port again I was struck by how queer it seems to me now and not just becaause Carné was gay and he met his long term partner Roland Lessaffre , the sailor next to Gabin above, on the film : Chatelard, unmarried in his fifties, the open relationship he´s established with Odile, the easy pickups in cinemas, the older/younger pairings and the switch the narrative delivers, the dream of escape to the big city, the dream to be a lady´s hairdresser, the homage to Murnau, the identification with the prostitutes and the lowlife, the handsome sailors, the hypersensitive youth who attempts suicide. It evokes a ´structure of feeling´´or a ´’gay sensibility´of another time without anything being mentioned. I read the book yesterday to see if it was just me projecting: it isn´t. The film follows the book quite closely and is a page turner, more ‘exciting’ than the film, but without the depth or any queer connotations. Claude Viau, Marie´s young lover, takes up less space in the novel whereas Carné gives him a whole set of recurring scenes, his own struggle and dream, plus the way he´s visualised. The other question is, if this is so glaring to me now, why did I not notice it upon first viewing in Bologna where the main topic of conversation seemed to be the discrepancy in ages between Chaterlard/Gabin and Marie/Nicole Courcel, understandable as it´s one of the film´s main themes (in the novel he´s meant to be 37 to her ‘six months short of 18).
La Marie du port was shown as part of the Gabin mini-retrospective at Bologna and he´s glorious in it, understated but alive at every, and in every film he´s got a moment of expression that brings a character alive. The moment below is characteristic. The scene is really about Marcel and his father (Julienne Carette, the poacher in Renoir´s Rules of the Game). Gabin´s just responding. But look at how he responds; his expression evoking a whole lifetime experience of dealing and humouring drunks, completely relaxed and at ease, yet indicating a strength capable of dealing with every situation.: a man who knows how to handle himself. It´s wonderful.
As is the film. It´s a great film that hasn´t yet gotten it´s due, possibly because Carné and Gabin, separately and together, have so many other more famous masterpieces in their filmography. Don´t let that deter you.
The best instance I´ve ever seen of film as philosophy. The set up is simple: whilst a teacher draws an ear on a board, a student in the back row drown him out drumming up noise with a pencil on a desk. Each time the teacher turns around to face the students the noise stops only to returns as soon as he turns his back. Exasperated, he asks who did it. Faced with silence, he tells the seven students in the two back rows that unless someone turns in the culprit, they will all be suspended for a week.
The fact that it is an ear the teacher is drawing is, as Ehsan Khoshbakht writes in the catalogue for Ritrovato 2019, significant in that it introduces the theme of listening/surveillance.
In the first case students express solidarity and no one denounces anyone. The film then goes on to ask each of the parents of the children whether they think their child did it; if so, whether they should turn themselves in; and if not, whether they should denounce their colleague or express solidarity. As each of the parents answers, the plot thickens, class allegiances are teased out, the moral dilemmas become denser, more complex. In this first section some politicians, artists, writers –even the leaders of Jewish and Christian communities also weigh in.
In the second case, one of the accused names the culprit and is allowed to return to the classroom. And in this section, along with the parents, educational experts, ministers, and celebrities from the first section, Kiorastami also includes the opinions of members of the new regime. Was it right for the student to break solidarity with his colleagues and inform? What is the price of having done so for him and for his colleagues. What is the price of solidarity and what is the price of informing? Is the teacher to blame for having set up a situation in which no one can possibly benefit?
The film was made in the mids of the Iranian revolution for the Institution for the Educational and Intellectual Development of Youth and Children. Filming started whilst the Shah was in power and ended after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared an Islamic Republic. The film was banned immediately after its premiere only to resurface almost thirty years later online and at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. Upon seeing it there Mehrzad Bakhtiar wrote that:
In addition to still-popular celebrities like Iranian actor Ezzatolah Entezami and filmmaker Masoud Kimiai, First Case, Second Case includes a cast of important political figures: Ebrahim Yazdi, for example, was an active member of the National Resistance Movement as well as the Freedom Movement of Iran. He became Foreign Minister after the revolution, only to step down in less than a year in opposition to the hostage crisis. Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, then director of the Islamic Republic’s Radio and Television Network, would replace Yazdi, only to be executed in less than a year for allegedly plotting to assassinate Khomeini. Other figures include Kamal Kharazi, who would become Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Khatami administration, and Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, the notorious Revolutionary Court magistrate who sentenced a great number of former government officials to execution.
…The obvious, retrospective irony, of course — the element that makes this film even more compelling now than when it was made — is the sight of so many important figures supporting a revolution that would come to embody a totalitarian government, itself completely intolerant of the very same rebellion and resistance they promote in their films.´
Azin Feizabadi has written of how the film is a time capsule of the 1979 Iranian Revoultion and remains a pivotal political work:
‘The pedagogic problem which the film proposes had a strong symbolic value for the political circumstances of that time; namely a filtering program by a fraction of the Islamic Republic under the name of ‘Cultural Revolution’.
This filtering program consisted of purge, crackdown and arrests of members from other political groups in the chaos that followed the 1979 revolution. Their methods – similar to the disastrous pedagogic method of the teacher in the classroom scene of the film – were snitching, forced treason, forced confessions and forced whistle-blowing of targeted members from opposition parties against their own friends, family and comrades. By complying, they would receive lower prison sentences and reduced punishment. By refusing they were guaranteed life long prison sentences or the death penalty’
I did not know any of these experts or celebrities whilst watching the film. Or even much about the Iranian Revolution. And whilst such a knowledge certainly adds a layer of complexity to the film, it is not necessary to understanding the full moral force of the ideas being explored. A 46 minute film that gets richer, more complex, as it unfurls. A film rich in ideas whose viewing feels morally enriching. A great film.
Richard Layne, Nicky Smith and myself in a post-screening discussion of a 1968 print of Under Capricorn screened at Bologna´s Cinema Ritrovato that ranges from the impact of the colour to the length of the shots, Bergman’s performance, the appeal of Michael Wilding, wether Joseph Cotten´s hair was a wig, the film´s connection to Hitchcock´s earlier Rebecca, and whether the character played by Margaret Leighton is Mrs. Danvers in Australia. The discussion then moves on to some commentary on Destry Rides Again, Jean Gabin, and how there´s no hope for cinema if even a Ritrovato audience is piggy about using their phones during screenings. It was recorded during lunch so there´s quite a bit of background noise which in my view adds ambience without detracting from the conversation itself.
A gorgeous restoration of a Clouzot classic. Bardot has killed the man she loves, who also happens to be her sister’s fiancée. But what she’s really on trial for is for being a woman, for being young and for being unconventional. It’s 1960 France that the film really judges and finds wanting. Clouzot fills the frame with dozens of pretentious hypocrites or figures of authority, condemning them all. Bardot, always at the centre, is a beacon of beauty, truth, and liberty. She accepts who she is, chooses to act in freedom, and takes responsibility for her action. Bardot’s Dominique Marceau is French Cinema’s greatest and most romantic existentialist heroine. Bardot in La verité is what people claim falsely for Brando in The Wild One. She and the film are both great.
The thrills and quiet desperation of working class life in Bethnal Green, vividly rendered in this exciting noir. The film doesn’t just tell us a story but evokes the ‘structures of feeling’ of a whole way of life, one that unlike in Ken Loach’s films, recognises poor people’s pleasures: the thrill of illicit sex, of betting and crime, the joy of what can be done with a simple mouth organ; the little treacheries, the lies and power ploys that even nice people engage with to get what they want. The film works with the greys of family life, we get to know what it is to settle but also to love; the reasons why a stepmother might not be very nice to her stepdaughters, why otherwise good people give in to temptations, how a Jewish family with high moral standards resists and accommodates criminality and both suffer and gain from it as a result. Through it all, the tedium of this rainy Sunday in Bethnal Green is lashed through with crime and passion, ending with a marvellous set-piece at the rail-yard. Googie Withers is the personification of surly discontentment as a good-time girl who’s settled for a quiet life with an older man only to have all her old passions explode when her old flame escapes from prison and tries to find shelter in her busy home. She throws enough shade to shroud all of Bethnal Green in a fog of dashed hopes, sexual expectation and seething discontent.Brilliant.
A crude home movie; made by someone who doesn’t really know how to make them — me; but which nonetheless evokes how wonderful it was to see classic films at the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna during the Giornate del Cinema Ritrovato.
There were all kinds of magical experiences watching films in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna during the Giornate del Cinema Ritrovato but the one of seeing Rocco e i suoi fratelli/ Rocco and His Brothers in this particular context – the Piazza Maggiore, with thousands of spectators, a huge screen, a special stand purpose-built for the projector so it can be sufficiently high to have enough ‘throw’ to fill that particularly huge screen – to be able to in this context ‘experience’ this particular story, the story of Italy, the story of leaving home, leaving mi paise, which stands not just for one’s village but for one’s land, one’s country as both an imaginary but also in a phenomenological sense, in which the film itself posited a kind of saudade, that kind of felt love for a people and place one longs for still but which is far away and maybe never was but that is imagined so vividly, and which one’s love for that imaginary is still felt so strongly that it is rendered alive, and the sadness for its loss so vividly juxtaposed with the fullness of the feeling for what once was; a country you feel, experience, touch, sense, and which you carry the memory of like a half-sensed reverie, missing and longing, yearning and loss, all mixed up with a desire for an entwined affect. This story of mid-century Italy is now also the story of so many in a 21st century world; and the problems of the film resonate not only with their specificity but with their universality. It was truly great; and not only the work in itself but also the experience of watching it in this particular context. Doubly great.