We conclude our dalliance with Jean-Pierre Melville with 1970’s Le Cercle rouge, a heist film with an impressive cast of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, and Yves Montand. We discuss how genre conventions operate in the film – the shortcuts an understanding of genre provides allow details to make the difference, Mike suggesting that it all comes out through character relationships and quirks.
In discussing Le Cercle rouge, we think back on what we’ve learned about Melville’s style, themes and interests. For Melville, emotional attachment is dangerous and makes one vulnerable; it’s a rather bleak outlook, but José argues that his films aren’t without their romantic aspects. Mike remarks upon the way in which Melville’s style has been interpreted and appropriated by the filmmakers he influenced, noting that the vivacity with which, for instance, Quentin Tarantino effuses about Melville is not reflective of Melville’s films themselves, which are slower and more pensive than you might be led to expect. To José, it’s existentialist cinema through and through, and, naturally, he loves it.
Yves Montand is ridiculously handsome and sexy in Carné’s Les portes de la nuit. He’s at least a foot taller than anyone else in the frame, hair pompadoured, his shoulders made even wider by the zooty suits of the period; and he’s referred to as Tarzan. That plus his public persona as an immigrant man of the people associated with the Communist Party gives one an insight as to the range and depth of his popularity as a pop idol of the period, and what it represented. The film itself was a flop.
A young and sexy Yves Montand and the ever beautiful María Félix in Les Héros sont fatigués/ Heroes and Sinners (see below). As you can see from the posters above, the filmmakers hoped the sex would sell the film’s more complicated themes of de-colonisation in Africa, German unification, European conciliation, and what happens to men after the struggles they sacrificed their lives to are ended. A melodrama/adventure film/ political statement that does not quite fully work but that is so fascinating I plan to watch it again. María Felix is introduced being pushed around by her partner, a former collaborator and anti-semite, for sleeping with black men. Curd Jürgens won the best actor prize for his performance at the Venice Film Festival that year for this film. Gert Fröbe is at least as good as a concentration camp survivor.
Frantz Fanon would publish Black Skins, White Masks in 1952; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also came out in ’52; Aimé Césaire Discours sur le colonialism in ’55; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in ’58. This film is made amidst ideas on race and colonialism that were live in that period, by filmmakers who were actively engaged, who contributed to the development and dissemination of political and aesthetic ideas, from the left, in the public sphere of post-war France.
Director Yves Ciampi had made a famous film on the Liberation of Paris, Les compagnons de la gloire — La division Leclerc dans la bataille, headed the Film Technicians Trade Union, and would go on to marry Japanese actress Keiko Kishi. One of the writers, Jacques-Laurent Bost, might be more famous to cinéastes today as the brother of Pierre Bost, the screnwriter François Truffaut singled out for his ire in ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma Francais’. But those more familiar with French culture would know him as the war correspondent hired by Albert Camus to cover the fall of Berlin. He was at the liberation of Dachau and was one of the first people to write about the Holocaust. He was also, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a founding member of Le nouvel observateur, a key member of that particular group of existentialists and the lover of Simone de Beauvoir. Montand was for most of his life a life-long leftist, closely associated with the communist party, and his brother Julien Livi was a member of the Communist party, one of the leading post-war Trade Unionists and Genera Secretary to the ‘Fédération du Commerce, des Services de de la Distribtuion (CGT) de l’alimentation’ from 1956 to 1979. Even María Félix, who seemed to skate elegantly over politics and had seemingly had no qualms about working in Fascist Spain or Peron’s Argentina just a few years earlier, was then involved with Jean Cau, Sartre’s former secretary and a writer who’d published Maria-Nêgre, a novel about the tragic love affair between a black GI and an Italian girl set during the libertion of Naples and published in 48.
The filmmakers lean left, most of them with personal experience of racism, and perhaps because of that the film engages with and dramatises issues of racial relations in a post-colonial setting with a seriousness and relative depth that is rare in cinema, particularly the cinema of that period. As the title card that precedes the film (above) tells us: ‘This film is set in in one of the black republics of Africa. In these republics, young and independent, a black elite educated abroad has introduced a language and way of life far removed from African morays. In spite of that, these countries have preserved most of their ancestral traditions.’
Les heros sont fatigués is ostensibly an adventure story about a former flier now stuck piloting merchandise across Africa, who gets his hands on a shipment of diamonds, and decides that selling them for himself might be his ticket back home. But the colonial structures and relationships of this former British colony keep getting in the way. In the first few minutes of the film, Michel Riviére (Montand) hitches a ride to Free City, the capital, stops off at the house of the only contact he has and this is what we’re shown (see clip below): the camera follows him into the house, what we hear is American blues, one of the young women working is topless, the young child is naked, there’s a rooster on top of the fridge. It all looks ‘pittoresque,’ othered, overly atmospheric, and arguably racist in the way it fails to distinguish between black American and African cultures. But then, listen to the head of the household’s speech. ‘He was nothing more than a thief…We have no need of your kind here. Our country is young and we are free. Can’t you understand?’ Visually and aurally the film gives mixed signals. But there’s no misinterpreting the speech, one that frames the rest of the film just as powerfully as the text before the film’s beginning excerpted above.
María Félix gets a great introduction — her transgression here is that she has a black lover, Sidney (Gordon Heath), and without hiding it from her partner either. But the scene illustrates why in order to understand the power and force of María Félix’s stardom, one has to see her in her Mexican films. There she’s presented as a force of nature, a beauty both indigenous and rare with a touch of the divine and more than soupçon of devilry. She’s ‘Woman’ in all her many guises and everything happens around her. Here, she’s the illustration of a theme.
As you can see in the clip below, we see her through Montand’s look. He goes to the door, moves towards the window and spies on François (Jean Severin) screaming at Manuella ‘You’re white. You belong to us’. ‘Shut up stupid’. The fight continues in voice-over but the camera follows Montand as he now goes into the bar and asks if they have a room. ‘If she lets herself be touched by her Negro, I’ll shoot her and him with her.’ Then note how everyone’s gaze turns to Montand, François moves to occupy the space between Manuela and Michel. And then in the next shot, she moves in between the two men, foreshadowing what is inevitable, ie, the two stars of the film start a love affair, as François says, ‘She’s sleeping with black men. Can you imagine? Her!’ And then another character, who we will learn is a Republican ex-combattant from the Spanish Civil War, intervenes and says of François. ‘He’s got a good stomach. In France he ate jews; here it’s Blacks’, thus linking them together in the film’s thematisation of race. I wanted to draw attention to this because it’s Félix’s introduction; and in many ways it’s very powerful. But the focus is almost entirely on Montand or on the question of miscegenation and racism. She barely gets a word or a look in.
The themes of colonisation in its changing forms is shown in different ways. At the very beginning as Michel enters free city, we see a big billboard advertising Coca Cola (see frame grab, below left). Later on when Sidney (Gordon Heath) enters the bar to propose marriage to Manuella and François reaches for the gun, its symbolically shown to us as surrounded by American dollars (see frame grab, below left). One empire has left but another is taking over with a different form of colonisation but just as murderous. One of the characters says ‘there’s only two white women here and they’re both colonised by blacks.’ But that’s missing the point, which is that one master is giving way to another, and that Coca Cola can serve one empire just as military presence did a previous model.
Like in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear — Montand’s first big hit in the movies — much of the narrative here revolves around a bar in which series of outcasts stuck in a third-world country pass the time and scheme on how to get out. But Les héros sont fatiguées is more overtly political: François Severin (Jean Servais) is the collaborationist judge who helped send Jews to the gas chambers; Hermann (Gert Fröbe) is a former German politician sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for his politics, now stuck repairing watches in Africa; there’s also more than a hint that Pépé (Manolo Montez) fought on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (see the posters around his bed, bottom left); and of course Wolf Gerke (Curd Jürgens) Michel’s equal and opposite, is revealed to be a former Luftwaffe flyer (see the image of the lighter, below right), who fought on the opposite side.
The film offers a conciliation between Hermann and Wolf, they both dream of German re-unification. And the last image in the film will be that of Wolf and Michel supporting each other as they make their way out of the country and into a new life as partners (see below).
I was very intrigued by the scene below, as structurally and thematically complex one. In the scenes at the bar Michel and Wolf have a deal going but Michel is hoping to double-cross him by escaping on a boat. Wolf and Hermann, previously poles apart in politics, use Christmas as an occasion in which to offer a toast for peace and for German unification. It’s also where Manuella has to tell Michel that François has sabotaged their escape plans and hopes to find another solution by visiting Sidney, her black lover and a powerful person in the country’s new order. It’s a bit after this that Michel and Wolf will realise their commonality in spite of having fought against each other in the war and bond.
The scene cross-cuts between the bar inside, the populace at large celebrating in their own indigenous customs; and the Europeanised hoi polloi adopting foreign customs in dress and dancing. It’s the last bit, where Manuella goes into the haute-bourgeois black party that intrigues me, partly because it must have been so rare to see in the cinema in 1955. Here the tables are turned. Manuella, who started off life as a Consul’s daughter, is here looked upon as the outsider, slightly trashy, out of place and possibly not knowing her place. It’s where Sidney throws Manuella physically out of the party and Villeterre (Gérard Oury), the fixer who’s arranged to buy Michel’s diamonds at a fixed price, tells Sidney, ‘Come on, come on my friend. Make a gesture. Be jealous, by all means. But don’t be racist.’ How are we meant to look at this scene? Are we meant to be with Sidney and the black bourgeoisie?; are we meant to look down on them?; are we meant to think they’re gotten too big for their britches, have forgotten to be African and badly imitating a culture that doesn’t suit them? I’m not sure. Yves Ciampi is not a good enough director to be both clear and complex in his filming of the scene. But for me this is the scene the film is worth seeing for.
There are other attractions of course, Maria Felix exhibiting a degree of flesh that must have been shocking then. She’s constrained by being limited to only one outfit but she does what she can for her fans by making her hair do the work expected of stars (see below right). Montand is very sexy also. Curd Jürgens and Gert Fröbe are excellent. The score, featuring some of the biggest hits of the era (Edith Piaf et) is a delight. The fim’s aims and its politics are admirable. But it’s well filmed without being exciting (The Wages of Fear is a useful contrast here as well). It’s also a bit muddled in that it loses the action/adventure strand of the film in its attempt to include the politics and the picturesque. And yet, without being great, it’s interested me enough to write 2,000 words on it.
As discussed on our podcast on Z in Eavesdropping at the Movies, Z is a great political film marred by homophobia. In talking to friends about it, many of whom had seen the film on its original release, it became clear that they could not remember this aspect of the film. And yet it seems to me to be central. Vago (Marcel Bozuffi) and Yago (Renato Salvatore) are the film’s main henchmen with Vago taking particularly glee in the damage he causes.
In the first clip (below), shortly after we’re introduced to them, and as Yves Montand’s voice talks of the problems of society and the great ideals he espouses, Yago follows Vago’s gaze, tells him, ‘shit, that’s all you think about’, the camera moves up to show us where Vago’s gaze is leading to, and we see an adolescent boy in his undies. Vago grins knowingly and says, ‘yes’. I have mixed feelings about this.
I like that Vago is unashamed of his desires. I like that Yago, particularly as he’s played by the amiable open-faced Renato Salvatore, knows of it; that Vago is out to Yago and that the latter jokes about this in what seems a ‘natural’ way. I don’t think the response would be any different if Vago had been looking at a woman, say. However, it’s very clear that Vago is meant to be the anti-thesis of the handsome, intellectual, heterosexual, idealist, Doctor/Poltician/Saint played by Yves Montand. Montand’s voice-over is the context through which we see and follow Vago’s gaze.
In the second clip (below), Vago, who has earlier wanted his name in the paper, now, since the police are making a case out of the incident he caused, wants it out. What the clip shows us is that the newspaper editor is gay and there’s a suggestion of trading sex for favours. This feeds into the old cliché of gay men forming a cabal. Vago then runs to the bar next door and clicks his heels. Is this because he doesn’t have to have sex with the editor who’s his age but too old for him? Is this because his mission’s accomplished? Because he’s high on the havok he’s wreaked? Perhaps a combination of all these? After he clicks his heels he runs to the bar, positions himself next to an adolescent boy, makes sure their hands touch, first trying to make it seem by accident and then very deliberately so. The stereotype of the homosexual preying on vulnerable adolescents rendered explicit, and particularly disturbing in a film which finds cause and reason for and which humanises every other poor person complicit in causing damage that day.
If it’s not enough that Vago is the anti-thesis of Montand’s Z, preying on young boys and part of a secret homosexual cabal, by the end of the film we’re told he’s a convicted felon found guilty four times, including once for raping a young boy whilst a camp counsellor. So to add to all the damaging stereotypes presented so far, this homosexual is a convicted pedophile.
But that’s not the end, as you can see below, Vago’s thuggery is shown to be brutally misogynist as well.
I find this representation of gay men simultaneously exiciting, unusual and reprehensible in what is meant to be a left-wing film. It’s typical of the era’s politics where the ideal left wing figure is that which Montand represents here (and particularly so considering his star persona of working class Communist man of the people; a model of virility who married Signoret and bedded Monroe); and where to be the era’s most reviled figure is to be that which Vago represents. I suspect the only reasons to make Vago an exuberant thug rather than a mincing queen is to condense clichés of that most reviled by the era’s Marxists into one figure. The gleeful thuggery and lack of shame is what makes Vago unusual and exciting. But to put this figure forth at a time when gay men were actively oppressed in all areas of life seems to me to be reprehensible and one of the film’s great flaws.
We visit a French-Algerian political thriller from 1969. It also happens to be a bona fide classic that won a ton of awards, enjoyed great popularity, and even succeeded in markets where it was subtitled or dubbed. Neither of us has seen it before; both of us are glad our first encounter with it was on a cinema screen.
We discuss its relevance to society today – the reason the MAC is screening it, no doubt – the precision and economy of its editing and storytelling, its control of information, its title, its geographical setting, its surprising sense of humour, and indeed something we both found left rather a bad taste in the mouth. We also run down the eleven films from 1969 that outperformed it at the US box office, and Mike teaches me about The Stewardesses.
Recorded on 11th January 2018.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link
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.