We return for the third part of our conversation with Hussein, offering an Egyptian perspective on Youssef Chahine’s career, its contexts and its significance. In this episode we touch on ‘The Sparrow’,‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, ‘Adieu Bonaparte’ and ‘Alexandria…Again and Forever‘. We discuss how one of the songs of The Sparrow was released before the film, and has seeped into Egyptian pop culture without people necessarily knowing its source, like the phrases discussed in our last conversation. We also discuss the famous Egyptian Actor’s Union Strike of 1987, the influence of Netflix, how Alexandria….Again and Forever might be under-appreciated…and more.
We will return for a final episode discussing the last stage of Chahine’s brilliant career beginning with ‘Cairo as Seen by Chahine’.
Hussein helped me find an Egyptian equivalent to imdb to name all the actors that appear in Alexandria Again and Forever as themselves in the depiction of the famous strike, and I include the cast list with the actors named and pictured below:
Hussein redresses some of the political aspects of the films that were quite overlooked in our earlier podcast. Most importantly, the strike by the Egyptian Actors’ Union of 1987. There are very scarce resources on this strike but thankfully Chahine did a whole film revolving around it. The Egyptian parliament had passed laws governing unions that would have allowed the term of each head of the union to run forever. One of the remarkable things about the film is how Chahine filmed the fictional strike in the exact locations where it had happened with the people who had participated in the strike, inserting footage of the actual strike, documentary footage from the union’s conference that was organized as part of the strike. The conference issued a declaration that eventually lead to the government backing down and rolling back the changes in the union law.
The extraordinary Taheyya Kariokka (above) at the height of her fame on the left, and managing the Actor’s Union on the right.
Chahine on the set of Return of the Prodigal Son
Michel Piccoli, Youssef Chahine, Mohsen Mohieddin and director Patrice Chereau, who played Napoleon for Chahine, at the time of Adieu Bonaparte.
We will continue with our fourth and final episode next week
Patrice Chereau is Napoleon, out to conquer Egypt. Michel Piccoli is Cafarelli, one of Napoleon’s generals and a man of science. Cafarelli falls in love with Ali (Mohsen Mohieddin) AND his brother, Egyptian patriots who learn to love him but — Ali at least — not that way. It’s an anti-colonial, very queer film, not afraid of placing poetry in the midst of impressive spectacle. The first of Chahine’s France-Egyptian co-productions involving Humbert Balsan. It got bad reviews from both the French and the Egyptian press upon first release and has since become a classic, the only one of Chahine’s films we’ve been able to find released on blu-ray (and as a ‘Heritage’ film in France). The podcast touches on all of these subjects and, when scenes are discussed, clips are provided:
The version shown on Kuwaiti television with English sub-titles discussed by Richard at the beginning of the podcast:
and what follows are clips from scenes discussed in the podcast:
a: the beauty of the film itself and the uses of Egyptian landmarks.
b) the wonderful scene with Patrice Chereau as Napoleon dancing
c) the uses of poetry. A film that is not afraid to deploy it narratively nor nor create it visually.
d: Anti-colonial struggles
A lesson in love: power dynamics, desire, sex, affection. Chahine dramatises it with many colours and in various dimensions.
I hadn´t seen the film for years. I´d forgotten how beautiful it is. Each frame a painting, as they say, filmed by Raoul Coutard. And each evocative, expressive, beautiful. But it´s 24 of them a second, part of a shot, often accompanied by dialogue or Georges Delerue´s beautiful score. And there´s Bardot, and Piccoli, and Jack Palance and Lang and Bazin and cinema as it once was, and even then in the process of becoming something else. I couldn´t stop myself from grabbing frames. It´s on MUBI.
La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden is the second of what Raymond Durgnat has labelled Buñuel’s “revolutionary triptych”, along with Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956) and La fièvre monte à El Pao (1959) : “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.” Each is also a France-Mexico co-production with big stars. In this one Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal and, as Phillip Kemp tells us in the fine essay on the film accompanying the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, Michel Piccoli, in the first of seven films he would make with the director, more than any other actor.
The film is split in two halves. In the first, diamond prospectors in some Latin American country are arbitrarily revoked their rights to the claims they bought and given twenty-four hours to vacate the area with all their goods the risk of forfeiting them. The ruling powers are authoritarian: might is power; power is law; power is wielded capriciously and unjustly. The people rebel but don’t act cohesively and lives are lost without much ground being won. Both Tony Rayns and Victor Fuentes have written of how in the first half of the film Buñuel drew on his understanding and knowledge of the Miners’ Strike in Asturias in 1934 and also on some of the happening during the Civil War.
The second part of the film is when the main stars have to escape and get stranded in the jungle: the criminal adventurer (Georges Marchal) the prostitute (Simone Signoret), the priest (Michel Piccoli), the rich prospector (Charles Vanel) and his daughter Michèle Girardon) all struggle to survive; and as they do social categories fall asunder, old dreams die, Paris gets torn to burn and illuminate, pen and paper can lead to freedom, The Garden becomes a jungle, prayer books can light fires, ants eat snakes before people do, diamonds get thrown into the sea, the jungle can bring forth jewels and champagne, some go mad, and some survive…at least for now.
It’s a very great film, a complex one that dramatises Buñuel’s perennial themes of exile and entrapment but also deals with authoritarianism, colonialism, people’s natures and their capacity to change, religion as passive upholder of exploitation; and allegories on the Edens in the real world and those in our minds. Phillip Kemp mentions one can trace an attempt to replicate the success of Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (1953)/ The Wages of Fear: Charles Vanel is in both. Tony Raynes and Victor Fuentes both see Nazarín (1959) as Buñuel’s subsequent development of the character of the priest, here played by Michel Piccoli and then by Francisco Rabal in the later film.
In a very illuminating interview that is an extra in the Masters of Cinema edition, Tony Rayns says, ‘We can see his very fluent, very neutral, anonymous visual style. The film is filmed almost entirely in follow shots, pans following action. There are not attempts at expressiveness in the compositions. There are no particular emphasis or editing tropes that are there either in the film language or in the composition of individual shots. This is studiedly neutral from Buñuel’s point of view, and that became his trademark style….He didn’t look for emblematic compositions. He didn’t look for shots that would startle us. His version of Surrealism is that the uncanny, the inexplicable, the mysterious, should be integrated as much as possible within the flow of seeming naturalism so that it would be more effective as a startling device. He didn’t want the sudden shock. He wanted the underlying disquiet or the underlying wonderment. For him that’s what Surrealism meant.’
La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden deserves much more attention than I’m able to give it here. All I want to point to now is that Simone Signoret, beautiful and in a gorgeous Eastmancolour, gives a performance that must rank amongst her very greatest (though there’s so much to choose from). Phillip Kemp writes that Signoret proved particularly difficult, ‘because she didn’t want to do the film..She had to go through New York on her way to join us in Mexico so she slipped some Communist documents into her passport, hoping to be turned away by American immigration, but they let her through without a murmur. Once here and on the set, her behaviour was at best unruly, at worst very destructive to the rest of the cast’. If so, she was worth it. Her presence at the height of her beauty and in colour plus her performance are in themselves reasons enough to see the film today (though there are many others). Death in the Garden is now available on blu-ray in a very beautiful transfer as part of the Masters of Cinema series.
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.