Tag Archives: Simon Signoret

La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, France/ Mexico, 1956)

 

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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 (1956and 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.

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Revolt and Death

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.

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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.

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Prayer books do have their uses…

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.

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A priest in exile

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.’

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Jewels in the jungle

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.

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José Arroyo

 

Le chat (Pierre Granier-Deferre, France, 1971)

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A film that makes one re-think notions of good and bad in cinema: On the one hand, Pierre Granier-Deferre is such a heavy-handy director,  with the conceptual and symbolic dimensions of Le chat so underlined and over-signalled: birds fluttering outside windows, sirens circling, golden youth of long ago seen through hazy irises in flashback; the little house surrounded by wrecking crews turning the old world to dust; garbage trucks regularly reappearing at their front door, perhaps to pick up the wreckage of the protagonist’s lives: there are times where one can’t control the giggling (see the trailer posted below). On the other hand, any director who can get actors to do what Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret do here, alone and together, deserves all the praise there is. They are so gobsmackingly good — so electric – and the roles they play so great — offering such scope and variety of human character and emotion, and changing through time to boot — that one can only offer admiration and gratitude.

Julien Bouin, a retired typesetter, has been married to his wife Clémence (Simone Signoret) a former circus worker for over 25 years. He now can’t stand her. Everything she does irritates him. Why, she asks? Is it cause she got old and fat, cause she drinks? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that one day he stopped loving her. Because of that, she now hates him too. They shop separately at the same shops, keep their food under lock and key in separate cupboards, cook different dishes in the same kitchen, sleep in the same room but in different beds, do little mean and spiteful things to each other. Every day.

 

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Gabin’s Julien on the left; Signoret’s Clémence shut out of his life and thus a reflection on the lower right hand side of the screen.

Gabin plays  Julien as quiet, all closed-in; neat, carefully dressed. A mild-mannered man who does things carefully, systematically but who won’t be pushed to do what he doesn’t wants to He’s a man who takes pride in doing things carefully and well. Also, he still needs to love; and not the kind of physical love that one can get anywhere either but an outlet for real feeling. He finds it in his cat. It drives Clémence mad that a cat who neither needs it nor appreciates it becomes the recipient of the love Julien should be bestowing on her. She tries to shoo the cat away, attempts to lose him in the supermarket. But no, he returns to steal the attention, the caresses, the love that rightfully belongs to her. So, one day, she kills the cat….

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Julien spying on Clémence

We know Signoret was a great beauty. She’s someone who did speak many languages, and we can believe she plays the seven instruments Clémence claims to be able to. And we can understand the bewilderment, anger, fury that this little typesetter not loving her incites. We see the defiance in every glug of whisky, the determination in the speed with which she manouvers her bad leg through the shops, no limp is going to hold this woman back: the Chinese silk robe in the loud red of someone who demands being noticed. The cigarillo on the side of a mouth. Only the loss a her husband’s love could lead her to crocheting with the fury of someone who wants to commit murder. But the film underlines one can’t hate that much without it being overlaid by love: Signoret communicates the tenderness beautifully. Gabin also.

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Clémence once had an exciting life she gave up for Julien

Le chat beautifully conveys a gamut of human emotion – characters who feel that much is Simenon’s gift to the filmmakers; it is fitting that he is billed alongside the ‘monstres sacrées’ of french cinema and above the title of the film . The director’s gift to the actors is to give them the space to be these people and to showcase them properly for us. Then the actors…well. Watching Gabin and Signoret together play this couple is like watching two great opera singers duet in a Verdi aria: raw, vivid, fine, delicate, explosive…. And watching them seems to me to be essential to anyone who wants to know what great acting in the cinema can be; they bring out areas of human feeling, emotion and experience that lesser actors don’t even known exist.

In the interview that accompanies the Studiocanal DVD, Granier-Deferre speaks about how the producers had not wanted Signoret. Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres, her previous film, had been a failure, and she was (most unjustly) being blamed for it. They went through all the other names of fancy actresses and finally Gabin asked Granier-Deferre: ‘you’ve really got your heart set on that Signoret?’ ‘Yes’. He calls the producer and says ‘If Signoret is not in it, I don’t do the film’. ‘Six hours later I got Signoret,’ remembers Granier-Deferre. Good thing he did too. Because Signoret and and Gabin are the only reasons to watch the film; they make one feel it’s essential viewing; and it certainly is to fans of Gabin, Signoret, Georges Simenon or anyone who’s interested in seeing great acting in the cinema.

 

José Arroyo