Tag Archives: Gaston Modot

La Bandera (Julien Duvivier, France, 1935)

la bandera

Annabella was the sensation of the moment in the French cinema of 1935 and gets top billing in La Bandera. But it´s Gabin´s film all the way, one he considered part of his ‘Palmarès,´his Greatest Hits, those which contributed to the construction of his persona as the defining star of 1930s French cinema, and by extension key to an understanding of French culture of the period. One can see it as a dry run for Pépé le Moko (1937) also directed by Julien Duvivier: a young man on the lam, exotic locales, male camaraderie and derring-do. One could group these films together with Gunga Din (George Stevens) for an interesting comparative study of French and American masculinity in relation to Orientalism in the action/adventure genre. 

Its Orientalism aside, La Bandera is great glamorous fun.  But can one cast it aside? It´s so central to its pleasures, all those extraordinary close-ups of Annabella encased in golden collars, bracelets, coins, veils. Perhaps one can only find it fun because one is  unaffected by its effects? These are questions I asked myself. But only in retrospect. 

The trailer well conveys the film´s themes and its attractions: ‘Can a life of heroism and abnegation erase the error of an instant? The trailer shows off the spectacle of army manoeuvres and promises ‘L’atmosphère vibrante de l’Espagne/ The vibrant atmosphere of Spain’ …You will passionately follow the painful adventures of Jean Gabin, ennobled by discipline, softened by love, crowned by a soldier´s heroic death…You will find your favourite star, Annabella, in an entirely new guise´.  Drama! Action! Humour! 

La Bandera delivers on all the promises of its trailer. It´s great trashy fun, no expense spared, with plenty of spectacle, exotic locales, stars, an extraordinary marriage sequence where Annabella and Jean Gabin drink each others´ blood, and one of the great death scenes Gabin would become famous for,

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As you can see above, Duvivier brings great visual flair to the film.  The still is from the great opening scene: a drunken couple is wandering through the streets of Paris. A man comes out of the shadows. She embraces him and asks him to join them for a drink. He gently pushes her aside and wonders off. As he does so, she realises her dress is stained with the blood from his hands. The camera tilts up to show us it´s Rue St. Vincent. It´s visually and conceptually brilliant. A great dramatic beginning to the story. 

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The murderer of the rue St. Vincent is Pierre Gillieth (Jean Gabin) and when we next see him he´s wandering the ramblas in Barcelona. The film ostensibly had location shoots in Barcelona and in Tetuán in Spanish Morocco, and the production was allowed to film in the military barracks of the latter thanks to the intervention of Franco, a few years later the Generalissimo of all of Spain, due to Franco, a famous cinephile, being a fan of Gabin´s. It´s worth noting that the film was made a year before the Spanish Civil War erupted. A few years later being a member of the Spanish Foreign Legion would not have seemed so attractive a proposition.

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Though there was location shooting in Barcelona, what we see are mostly process shots of Gabin wandering the Ramblas and the Barri Gotic/Gothic Quarter. However, one of the Barcelona scenes that really stands out, for me a marker of the differences between American and French cinema, is the nightclub scene below: nude women and drag queens are part of the picture — along with the usual thieves and prostitutes — that Duvivier so dazzlingly and dynamically visualises:atmosphere, spectacle, titillation, and a key dramatic moment where Gabin is robbed of what he´s stolen and is the impetus for him joining the Spanish foreign legion.  

 

The film contains a dazzling dream sequence to show us a whole array of male torsos as a context for expressing how haunted Pierre/Gabin is by his crime (see below), how others are equally disturbed by their past, and then finally Gabin´s satisfied stretching as he tells his colleague to shut up before he inventive cut (what is it called?) moves us onto love street. 

 

 

And of course Gabin is his own form of spectacle, certainly as visualised by Duvivier:

Steve Neale, developing and challenging some of Laura Mulvey´s ideas on the male gaze, has argued that a male spectator could bear to look at the erotic display of male bodies but only if it was part of, and somewhat displaced by, action. Those muscles of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in 80s/90s action cinema can be displayed in the way they were because they evoked power and were the basis of the violence to come. They could not be displayed purely for erotic pleasure but as a preamble for power, strength, violence. Brad Pitt and later stars and filmmakers changed all of that of course. But the action/adventure genre was one of the few sites were the male body was allowed to be displayed without excuses and Duvivier makes full and early use of that in La Bandera. And it´s not just Gabin we see. I post an image of Gaston Modot below simply because he´s wearing my favourite tattoo in the film, one which mysteriously disappears upon his death scene, a sad continuity error.

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La Bandera is also an interesting reminder of how men´s bodies, and what are considered fit male bodies, have changed since the thirties.

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I post the clip below, mainly for the line ´’vous êtes fort´and the way Gabin nonechallantly responds ‘oooof’. These films, and this one in particular, are not just about strength and being macho but about masculinity moralised: What is a good man? What qualities are endowed by nature and what must be worked for and acquired?

 

If Gabin is constantly praised for his strength and virility, — one of the questionable señoritas in the nightclub scene even says, ‘que macho!’ about him –, his virility is always relational. And the film has one character clearly coded as being both camp and comic, the comic relief but literally the butt of the joke, to comparatively shore up that which we´ve shown of Gabin (though in various ways all of the supporting characters fulfill this function).

 

In a very interesting piece on the film, David Cairns has written, ‘the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has yet to be invented and named, but that’s what this is nonetheless — and social realism is exciting as hell to me.  The film can be seen as a precursor to the later poetic realist films Gabin would do with Marcel Carné such as  Quai des brumes (38), Le jour se lève (39), which some have seen as precursors to film noir. As you can see below, there´s certainly a lot of imagery one would later associate with noir in the film. 

But it´s precisely the mix of genres, conceived of as attractions for a popular audience and executed to be as visually enticing as possible, that continues to charm. A blockbuster success of the period, a cornerstone of Gabin´s persona and with images of Annabella photographed as if she were Garbo or Dietrich and much better than later on when she would go on to Hollywood (and marry Tyrone Power).

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José Arroyo

 

Cela s’appelle l’aurore (Luis Buñuel, France/Italy, 1956)

asi es la aurora

I went to the ballet last night. But what I woke up thinking about this morning was Buñuel’s Celà s’appelle l’aurore. Why isn’t it better known? In the opening scenes a lady faints, insects swarm around dead fish, a man beats a donkey that won’t move, workers get hurt at a factory through the cost-cutting measures of a careless owner and a young girl gets sexually abused by her grandfather whilst the whole family wails around her. ‘Sadly, she’s now old enough to remember,’ says the Doctor (see images below). Buñuel acknowledged it as one of his favourite films, designating it as a ‘love-yes-police-no film’.1

 

It’s from 1956, the first film Buñuel made upon his return to France, and is relatively conventional and quite extraordinary. Gaston Modot and others from L’Àge d’or appear. Kosma did the music. The film contains Buñuel’s usual witty anti-clericalism (see image below). ‘It was not well received. The film is just one cliché after another,’ wrote Eric Rhomer, a huge ado about nothing’. But John Baxter, in his Buñuel writes that Rohmer was then so right-wing and Catholic that colleagues like Ado Kyrou called him a fascist. (p.244).  Truffaut, writing in Cahiers du Cinéma also dismissed the film: ‘I dislike Celà s’appelle l’aurore because it’s badly acted: that’s all there is to it.’ How wrong he was. There’s much much more to it. But Truffaut was often blind to the political implications of any work.

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‘Many people have said, “A Buñuelian detail.” Okay’, says Buñuel, ‘but I’m sorry, sometimes reality inserts its own Buñuelian touches all by itself. When the Americans invaded Africa during the Second World War, they found a monument of Christ and used it to string needed telephone cables. And since the doctor had been in Africa, he has this photograph in his home: Jesus’ face hung full of insulators and cables. This is not an invention of mine.’ 4

The film can be read as supporting armed insurrection and all the usual institutions (the church, the police etc) are shown to be corrupt. That aspect of the plot revolves around a young tenant farmer, Sandro (Giani Esposito) recently back from laying his body at the service of the liberation of his country but now about to be thrown out of his job and home because his wife Magda (Brigitte Eloy) is dying with tuberculosis and he’s been neglecting the fields. The landowner is completely unsympathetic. The tenant’s personal problems are none of his business. Turning a profit is. A new tenant (the aged but still handsome Gaston Modot, see image below) arrives with his own family even whilst the wife of the previous one is on her deathbed). The new tenant is kind enough to drive the couple to stay with friends but the wife dies on the way. The husband loses his mind and decides to kill the person responsible for all of this, the rich-landowner and indusrialist Gorzone (Jean-Jacques Delbo). He does, and in the middle of a party where the police chief, the priest and all of the pillars of the establishment are enjoying the lavish hospitality of the careless murderer. After the deed is done, Sandro runs to the Doctor for help. Who does the Doctor side with? Sides must be chosen in the world that Buñuel depicts for us here, so how does one behave morally and ethically in so choosing? ‘Valerio is led by love and friendship to act against his own class by defendng a worker who has committed a revolutionary act,’ write Bill Crohn and Paul Duncan in Luis Buñuel: The Compete Films, p. 105.

 

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Even a deathbed is no guarantee against eviction

There are scenes in the film that without quite taking flight into the sphere of surrealism nonetheless extend it a hand so as to show the finger to an uncaring world. In the scene below, for example, Doctor Valerio (Georges Marchal) is at a nice restaurant trying to comfort his wife (Nelly Borgeaud) after she’s fainted. She hates Corsica: the poverty, the misery, the lack of culture, the way he’s too busy and never has time for her. She wants to go to Nice, family, civilisation. At that moment, almost out of nowhere comes an elegant figure gliding on a bicycle, sitting on the handlebars, playing a violin and smoking a huge stogie. It’s a thrilling image, a nonsensical one. The camera cuts back to the couple but then the violin player appears, this time on foot. The wife screams ‘I can’t stand it. Make him stop’ at the sound of the music. But the violin player carries on even as they get up to leave and until the moment that he gets paid. This is so typical of Buñuel: the insolence, the black humour, but the dignity too. There’s a feeling of esperpento, that life is to be revealed in all its tragedy, objectively and to the point where one can only laugh. As soon as the Doctor hands over the bill the street performer’s playing, which has been a torture to the wife, stops. But not before. He’s a professional. (I’ve gone to such lengths in describing because the clip below is in French with Spanish subtitles, but worth seeing even if you don’t speak either of those languages).

 

 

The doctor sides with the people. Lucia Bosé, who appears to bring love and passion to the doctor’s life and beauty into ours (see below), also makes her choice. She risks her well-being by sheltering the fugitive and in doing so proves she’s more deserving of Valerios love than his wife; so frail, so delicate but, with the help of her father, so firm in taking care of life’s little niggles: They’re the ones who informs the police, thus betraying Valerio and condemning Sandro to his short and tragic fate . It’s great. And increasingly relevant to the time we live in.

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The pull of Lucia Bosé

There are a few images of undoubted interest to Buñuelians that I’d like to draw your attention to below:

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The Police Inspector, Comissaire Fasaro, played by Julien Bertheau, is associated with the writings of the Paul Claudel, the right wing and Catholic writer whose poem to Pétain in 1940 led to accusations of collaboration with the German invaders. Here his work on theatre is interestingly pictured amongst the paper and stamps of officialdom and bureaucracy but also amidst the restraints implied by the handcuffs. He’s also often pictured in front of a crucifixion by Dalí. ‘That is to say that Dalí and Claudel were a poet and painter of the police, thogh both are excellent, of course,’ says Buñuel. 2

Above I’d like to draw your attention to the image of the women, united in their grief for the child who’s been molested, and offering succour and emotional support to the mother prostrated with grief at what she must feel is her fault (she allowed her father, who already had a reputation for that kind of thing, to live with them). Note how the move to the next scene is a dissolve, and how the tragedy and poverty of one class melts into joy and ease of a higher one through the clearly phallic and here central symbol of the palm tree.

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The owners of the means of production in the well appointed drawing room of their mansion in Corsica, with a portrait of Napoleon, a native son, posing in an authoritarian stance,  given pride of place, fitting for the owner of the factory where workers are carelessly hurt and the vineyards where peasants are cruelly evicted from their home on their deathbeds

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Buñuel’s foot fetishism is not neglected in this film, and the Doctor taking his socks off is given way more time, and more significance, than is usual.

Cats appear throughout the film, in the beginning (see first set of pictures, amongst children and decaying fish) wild, abandoned. The doctor picks up and strokes a street cat by the sea. Sandro, caught between the might of the lion, and the homeless kitty he strokes and nurtures, contemplates murder. We see other animals also, each behaving according to their nature; the donkey who won’t budge in spite of the beating (see first set of pictures), later the turtle, offered as a gift, who turns itself over, and walks away in close-up.

The film often shows us the people it sides with behind bars or filmed outside veiled windows, denied the freedom to move, love, even live.

But the film offers resistance (the murder; Valerio refusing to shake the Inspector’s hand) as well as  love and brotherhood, even in death (right) and ends on an image of love, camaraderie and hopefulness amongst those who offered help and resisted. The sign on the right is an advertisement for Dubonnet that begins with Du Bon, ‘that which is good’. ‘I acknowledge that tht scene is a bit symbolic,’ says Buñuel. 3

It’s a surprisingly rich film and I’m sure a closer look will un-peel even more layers than I’ve been able to draw out here.

 

According to wiki, ‘Film critic Raymond Durgnat has called this film the first of Buñuel’s “revolutionary triptych”, along with La Mort en ce jardinand La fièvre monte à El Pao: “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.”

José Arroyo

  1. José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, edited and translated by Paul Lenti, New York: Marilio Publishers, 1992, p.122
  2. ibid, p.123
  3. ibid. p. 124
  4. ibid p. 126