Monthly Archives: January 2012

Flammen & Citronen (Flame and Citron, Denmark 2008)

Thure Lindhardt as Flame (left) and Mads Mikkelsen as Citron

Thanks to BBC4, I’ve finally managed to see this film which forms part of a recent surge of World War II films produced in countries occupied by the Nazis. I hope to report on Max Manus from Norway soon and there is already a posting on Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009). Another recent title is the Hollywood film Defiance (2008) – though it was made by Polish-American Edward Zwick.

Each of these films explores an aspect of war in occupied territories that isn’t so well known outside the domestic market and may indeed be news to younger domestic audiences. The films tend to have been big successes at home and to have gained wider distribution overseas. ‘Flame’ and ‘Citron’ were historical figures, working as assassins for the Danish resistance. Posing as police officers they carry out orders from British intelligence delivered via a controller in Copenhagen. The local police and ambulance services support them but they have to be careful not to attract the attention of the collaborationist police force comprising Danish Nazis – and, of course, the whole panoply of German Occupation forces, but especially the Gestapo.

‘Flame’ (he has red hair) is a 23 year-old in 1943. His father, a hotel owner sent him to Germany in 1940 and his exposure to the Nazis he worked alongside confirmed his worst fears. ‘Citron’ (named because he worked on Citroen cars as a mechanic) is a family man and the war wrecks his marriage. The two aim to assassinate only Danish collaborators and difficulties arise when they are told to kill three Germans, including a senior army officer and his wife. From this point on it becomes impossible for the duo to know who is ‘controlling’ them and what the eventual aims of the resistance might be. It seems that they can only depend on each other.

This is a much darker film than the Norwegian and Dutch films. The production, by Nimbus Films included shoots in the Babelsberg Studio in Potsdam as well as in Copenhagen and Prague. Director Ole Christian Madsen used a moving camera and staged action in long shot on almost empty streets but also in crowded bars etc. Overall the sthe production cost nearly 7 million Euros – very expensive by Danish standards. I thought everything worked very well. Madsen claims to have been inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres. I’m not sure that it reaches as high as that masterpiece, but certainly I found it gripping and thought-provoking. I confess that after two series of The Killing and now halfway through Borgen on BBC4, I’m starting to spot Danish actors. There are three in this including Peter Mygind who plays a seemingly unreliable character, just as he does in Borgen. Stine Stengade (also in a similar role to her Borgen character) strikes perhaps the only odd note as a rather conventional femme fatale figure in what is otherwise a downbeat and realist portrayal of resistance activity, far removed from Hollywood heroics.

The more I see of these kinds of films, the more I admire the people who could carry out resistance under occupation – not because I’m being carried along on a nostalgic flag-waving wave but because I recognise human beings taking risks and accepting both likely failure and possible death because they believe in something or someone.

2011 Global Box Office News

The closing figures for annual box office returns are starting to come in and very interesting they are. We’ve compiled an overview gleaned mainly from Cineuropa and Screen International. It’s an uneven picture with records being set in some territories and worrying falls in others.

The winners in Europe appear to be Norway, France and the Netherlands, all three experiencing their best returns for a very long time. Norway’s admissions for local films are the highest since 1976 and this is good news for the world’s first ‘digital only’ territory. Local films (40 of them released in 2011) are driving the Norwegian market. The French admissions total is the highest since 1966 at 215.6 million with 20 local films attracting over 1 million admissions each and the top two films of the year were both French – Intouchables and Rien à déclarer. In the Netherlands admissions were up to 30.4 millions – the highest figure since 1978 – with local films taking nearly 22%. It’s worth noting that these three territories are amongst the leaders in the switch to digital distribution and projection. Cineuropa also reports that the Netherlands has benefited from an expansion in screens and seats over the last 5 years. Norway is perhaps in the strongest position re the current recession but there are concerns that because local production depends on public sector funding to a large extent, the current austerity programmes may have an impact in 2012/3.

French films did well in their local market – as did Italian films (though the overall Italian market was down). In both cases American films suffered and the domestic market is down in the US to its lowest level since 1995 with admissions at 1,276 million. Box office is also down 4% and with anxiety about the decline in the DVD market, Hollywood is looking down the barrel. The studies must hope that VOD grows quickly in the next couple of years. 3D has not proved to be the magic bullet though production totals are keeping up and 3D market share is holding.

In Spain, local films increased their market share to 15% and the overall box office was up.

In Denmark, overall admissions fell slightly to 12.6 million but local films, especially comedies, took 28% of box office.

Czech Republic admissions 20% down with local films and other European films suffering most. Multiplexes have digitised projection faster than single screens and Hollywood blockbusters are benefiting. Romania is another territory where the audience is ignoring local productions in favour of Hollywood. Although Romanian productions continue to earn plaudits from film festival juries, the domestic audience for some of these films is only a few thousand.

Portuguese admissions fell by nearly 900,000 to 15.7 million with a 3% fall in takings. US films took 80% of the market, European films only 5%.

In Finland the fall was from 7.6 million to 7.1 million with local films suffering most, losing 10% of market share.

The biggest film across Europe appears to have been the final instalment in the Harry Potter franchise. This is good news for the UK film industry (which makes the films even if Hollywood takes the major profits) with The King’s Speech also doing well. Overall it’s been a good year for British film in both commercial and critical terms. Admissions rose slightly  to 171 million and British films (including co-productions) took nearly a third (£295 million) of total box office. Besides The King’s Speech, the biggest winner and biggest surprise was The Inbetweeners, a TV sitcom adaptation about a group of ‘lads’ on holiday between school and university which took £70 million. The film has now been sold to an American independent but otherwise has hardly been seen outside the UK. Is this the UK equivalent of those blockbusting French hits that don’t seem to travel?

Meanwhile, Australian box office revenue is down by 3% and admissions fell by nearly 8% to 85 million (still a strong figure on a per capita basis). Screen International suggests that this fall is due to the lack of a big Hollywood box office driver like Avatar during 2011. Harry Potter was again the No 1 film. A rare Australian local success, Red Dog, took over Aus$20 million, but overall local films won less than 5% market share. In New Zealand box office revenue was down 9% in 2011.

Early reports from Japan suggest that box office will be significantly down in 2011. Mark Schilling in The Japan Times forecasts a fall of as much as 20%. Only part of this can be attributed to the tsunami and nuclear power disaster. Once again, the lack of a blockbuster title like Avatar is mentioned. Local productions have also fallen back . (But it’s worth noting that anime took the top two local slots with the latest Studio Ghibli and a new Pokemon title.) Hollywood must worry though. Japan, like Australia, is a major market and if audiences are getting fed up with sequels, the future doesn’t look good.

The Celluloid Ceiling – Women in Hollywood

Screen International reported today on the findings of the Center for Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University. The centre’s survey of employment on the Top 250 domestic films at the US Box Office in 2011. Although the survey found that there were marginal increases in the overall employment of women – a 2% increase in total employment since 2010, but only 1% since 1998 – the striking figure is that only 5% of the directing roles on the 250 films went to women. Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar success is still likely to be an isolated incident for American films unless something changes dramatically in the mind-set of studio executives. As it is, the report comments on women’s opportunities thus:

“Women were most likely to work in the documentary, drama, and comedy genres. They were least likely to work in the horror, action, and animated genres.”

Teachers and researchers can download an executive summary of the findings from the link above. The same website has a useful list of links and books/articles on women in the film and TV industries here.

Nanban (Friend, India 2012)

The three college students played by (from left) Jeeva, Srikanth and Vijay

Remakes are a way of life in the popular Indian film industries. Hollywood is always a source of ideas as well as films from other major industries – ‘unofficial remakes’ – but the main traffic in remakes is between the different language cinemas. Many titles are made in one language and then simply dubbed into one or more others. Sometimes films are made in two languages almost simultaneously by the same director – most famously by Mani Ratnam with Raavan/Raavanan (2010) and Yuva/Ayitha Ezhuthu 2004 – in each case a Hindi and a Tamil production with different casting. Most common , however, is the simple remake of say a Malayalam film as a Tamil production or a Telugu film as a Hindi production.

Nanban is one of the major Tamil films of the year, a blockbuster aiming at the religious festival period which includes Pongal and lasts from 13-16 January. Nanban is a remake, but not just any remake. It is the official Tamil remake of one of the biggest-selling Bollywood titles of all time, 3 Idiots (2009) starring Amir Khan. To meet this challenge the producers Gemini Film Circuit hired Shankar, the successful director of the last two blockbusters from Superstar Rajnikanth, Sivaji and Endhiran.

In my posting on 3 Idiots I expressed my disappointment in the failure of screenwriter Abhijat Joshi and director Rajkumar Hirani to properly represent the satire on the education system offered by the novel Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat. The bad news is that Nanban uses the Joshi/Hirani script almost to the letter and therefore suffers from the same problems associated with changes in character roles and insertion of comedy routines at the expense of satire and observation about higher education in India. The good news, from my perspective, is that Nanban is even more enjoyable on its own terms and is arguably a ‘better’ film – whatever that means.

I’m prejudiced because I tend to prefer Tamil films to Bollywood. It isn’t a fair comparison I know because I’ve only seen the best of Tamil Cinema and I suspect that the routine mainstream Tamil features are not quite the same. The problem has been that we simply don’t get the UK Tamil releases up here in West Yorkshire. But for some reason, Cineworld decided this year to screen two Tamil films in their original language during the January festival season in Bradford. Usually we have to make do with a Hindi version (e.g. of Raavan and Robot – the Hindi dub of Endhiran). I’m guessing that there are very few Tamil speakers in Leeds/Bradford – a few hundred at most – whereas there are many thousands of Urdu/Hindi speakers. The question is, how many of the Urdu/Hindi speakers in the South Asian diaspora want to read English subtitles in order to access a Tamil film? I don’t know, but in the afternoon showing of Nanban there were just three people in the audience, one of whom might have been a Tamil speaker. I should stress that Nanban has done very well in the UK. Over the opening weekend it took £113,000 from just 24 prints (across the UK – see locations here) with a screen average of over £4,700 for No. 13 in the chart – and all this from a new independent distributor ‘RJ Overseas’. I wonder what they will make of the experiment? I hope it continues.

So why do I prefer Nanban to 3 Idiots? I think that there are three reasons:

1. The casting offers four younger actors for the ‘3 idiots’ and the principal’s daughter. It’s interesting that the production used two Tamil actors, Srikanth and Jeeva, who closely resemble Madhavan (once himself a Tamil star) and Sharman Joshi. Vijay, very much a rising star in Tamil Nadu, takes the Aamir Khan role and  Ileana D’Cruz takes the Kareena Kapoor role. All four were believable as both students in their early twenties and successful young thirty somethings. I was amazed to discover that Vijay was actually 36 when he made the film – even so, he’s eight years younger than Aamir Khan. The problem with the Bollywood version is not just that the stars are too old but that they are also so identifiable with a specific star persona. This is probably true of the Tamil stars too. I don’t know the Tamil star image, but the actors seemed to give performances less marked in this way.

2. Although the script sticks closely to 3 Idiots, the songs and their ‘picturisation’ are quite different. Shankar pulls out all the stops with shoots in Europe and the Andaman Islands. The songs themselves by Harris Jayaraj weren’t particularly memorable for me – but some of the lyrics (all of which were translated in the English subs) are extraordinary. One song includes the word ‘love’ sung in several different languages. Costumes, settings and camerawork work well together and the other feature of the film’s presentation is the use of animated inserts and visual effects – from companies in Hyderabad and Shanghai.

3. This is a bit more tricky. As a broad generalisation I would say that Nanban offers something closer to a representation of a ‘real India’. This is partly achieved through location shooting (the main location is a college in Tamil Nadu and Simla in the earlier film is replaced by Ootacamund and Coimbatore) and partly through casting. The minor characters root the film in the South. Many characters are darker-skinned and Dravidian in appearance. But . . . there seems to be an aversion to using darker-skinned young women for the dance sequences and on reflection I do think Shankar could be charged with a potentially racist portrayal of the sister of one of the three (i.e. the young man from a poor background). Both my viewing colleague and I winced at the portrayal of this young woman (the ‘joke’ is that no-one will marry her because she is ‘ugly’ – and ‘too dark’?). See a local response, arguing this point strongly. I’m reminded of the similar wince-inducing representations in the UK production, East is East (UK 2002).

On the whole, I enjoyed the film very much despite its failure to develop a strong satire and I was particularly impressed with Vijay. Even though I could predict every scene, I was entertained for the whole three hours and towards the end I was ridiculously moved by the very sentimental take on friendship – but then, I find it hard not to cry in Hollywood films sometimes.

Much of my initial interest in 3 Idiots was focused on how the film would perform internationally. Nanban hasn’t got quite the same level of initial international exposure, though it is out in North America, UK and Australia as well as Singapore and Malaysia. It may eventually find its way to South Korea and other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately it has already suffered quite badly from piracy – though most cinemas in Chennai were completely sold out for the first five days before the film actually opened. A Telugu dubbed version opens in Andhra Pradesh on 26 January (some of the Tamil stars have a following in Telugu Cinema).

Gemini HD Trailer (no English subs):

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (US 2011)

The first meeting between Lisbeth and Mikael (I'm intrigued by this still which shows cigarette smoke – but no obvious source of a burning cigarette). The extent of smoking in the film is one of its controversial features as a mainstream Hollywood film.

I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.

My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.

The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.

The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:

“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me.  You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.

. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)

I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.

Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.

Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!

Education possibilities

Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.

I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.

Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).

Roman Holiday (US 1953)

Ann (Audrey Hepburn) and Joe (Gregory Peck) in Roman Holiday

Last year I enjoyed watching some of  Audrey Hepburn’s early films collected in a DVD box-set. The only drawback was that Roman Holiday was not included. Now I’ve finally managed to see it I realise that it is an important production in relation to the concept of global film – as well as an extremely entertaining film.

Audrey Hepburn’s first Hollywood film (for which she won an Academy Award) was directed by the legendary William Wyler shooting wholly in Rome. The story by Dalton Trumbo (working incognito as he was blacklisted at the time by HUAC as one of the Hollywood Ten) is very simple. Princess Ann (Hepburn) is a young royal from an unnamed European country visiting Rome on a European tour. Bored by her engagements and desperate to experience the nightlife of Rome she ‘escapes’ from her Embassy but only after she has been given a strong sedative. Falling asleep on a city pavement she is rescued by an American journalist (Gregory Peck) who takes her to his apartment. When he realises who she is, the journalist plots to make some money from an exclusive interview but the Princess is unaware of his plans and simply wants to have fun in Rome. They have a day of adventures – but what will be the outcome? Around the time that the film was released in the US in September 1953, Princess Margaret (younger sister of the recently crowned Elizabeth II in the UK) was in the news when her affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend became the focus for public discussion. How much Trumbo drew on this ‘real’ story, I don’t know, but it probably helped sell the film.

Global Hollywood

The major studios began to produce films in the UK very early and Paramount had a studio in London in the early 1920s. In the 1930s various small studios in the UK made ‘quota quickies’ on behalf of the Hollywood majors. There were also working relationships between the Hollywood majors and mainland European producers in the same period but it wasn’t until the Americans arrived in Rome in 1953 and founded ‘Hollywood on the Tiber‘ that the modern concept of ‘Global Hollywood’ began to take shape. When William Wyler set up the production of Roman Holiday he was able to use the resources of Cinecitta – then one of the best studios in Europe – and also to shoot in local palaces and on the streets of Rome. In some of the extras on the DVD a Paramount executive claims this was the first film to be shot on location in Rome in this way and even the film writer/scholar Molly Haskell (who should know better) claims that the shoot pre-dates and predicts the Nouvelle Vague. Of course it does, the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica amongst others had been made in this way since 1944 and indeed Ingrid Bergman had left Hollywood and begged for a part in a Rossellini film after seeing Roma, citta aperta (1945) in a screening in America. The main difference between Wyler’s film and neo-realist classics such as Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D is that Wyler had two big stars and a fully functioning studio machine behind him.

Hepburn and Peck together – looking like a couple really having fun.

In some ways, Trumbo’s script suggests neo-realism in its simplicity and lack of contrivance. But perhaps the major similarity is in the beautiful cinematography. Wyler hired two veteran European cinematographers. Franz Planer had thirty years experience and had worked for Max Ophuls in Europe and Hollywood. Henri Alekan had shot Beauty and the Beastfor Jean Cocteau in 1946 and had also worked in Britain. Between them they created fantastic deep focus compositions as Ann scampers through the backstreets after leaving the Embassy – nighttime cinematography with deep black shadows in film noir style followed by sunlit scenes of joyful abandon in the second half of the film. It really is a visual treat throughout.

Gregory Peck is excellent in the film but Audrey steals the show. This was her first Hollywood film, but she had already appeared on Broadway and in British films, including Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People. The Anglo-Dutch Hepburn had an aristocratic background in Holland and she had been a dancer and a photographic model in the UK before becoming known for her films. This background meant that Princess Ann was the perfect role for her but it is her sheer personality and winning smile that drives the film along. Wyler was a great filmmaker but I can’t remember any of his other films being so much fun. Roman Holiday hasn’t dated in any way and it’s not difficult to understand why Audrey Hepburn is still as popular as she ever was (perhaps more so). But what makes the film work most of all is that it seems to follow the neo-realist idea that the story emerges from the characters and locations and is not imposed on them as in so many subsequent American films.

Les enfants du paradis (France 1945)

Once voted the best/most popular French film of all time and showing almost continuously in Paris for forty years or more after its release, Les enfants du paradis is almost a sacred institution. In the 1960s and 1970s any aspiring cinephile would be expected to have seen the film on one of its numerous outings in North America or Western Europe. Now it has been re-released in the UK by the BFI on a restored digital print. At 190 minutes and showing, as originally intended, in two parts within a single programme, it was a real Christmas treat for me and if it comes your way isn’t to be missed.

The title translates loosely as the “children of the Gods” – a reference to the popular audiences of working-class people who occupied the cheapest seats in the the ‘illegitimate theatres’ of Paris in the 1820s. By extension this includes the popular audiences of 1940s French Cinema as well. This is a crowd-pleasing picture of great intelligence, lovingly crafted under difficult circumstances and it hasn’t dated at all.

Background to the production

In 1940 the German occupation of Paris and Northern France had a significant impact on French Cinema. Many important directors (e.g. Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier), technicians and actors fled to the US or the UK (where they could join the Free French forces). Some Jewish film personnel moved to the South, hoping to avoid persecution under the Vichy puppet regime. The German authorities banned showings of certain pre-war films and forced filmmakers into productions with innocuous narratives. They also set up a new company, Continental Films, with a healthy production budget and recruited some of the best of the remaining French film personnel. One of the production teams most affected by these developments was that of director Marcel Carné and scriptwriter Jacques Prévert. These were two of the creators of what was known as ‘poetic realism’ in France in the second half of the 1930s – the forerunner to film noir with the use of low-key lighting and doom-laden narratives. It was these films with their dangerous romanticism imbuing desperate narratives in titles such as Quai des brumes (1938) and Le jour se lève (1939) which the Nazis banned.

Like all the other French producers Carné and Prévert were forced to consider historical subjects for their next production in 1941. Les visiteurs du soir turned out to be a medieval tale of the battle between Good and Evil. This was deemed distant enough from contemporary reality for the Nazi censors. Contemporary stories had to ignore any references to wartime conditions and so the only way that filmmakers could comment on the Occupation was via allegory or metaphor. It was in this context that Carné and Prévert conceived Les enfants du paradis. Work began in 1943 on two out of a possible three linked stories based on real characters and events in the Paris theatreland of the Bourbon Restoration (1814-30). The production was based at the Victorine Studio in Nice where a giant Paris set of what was known as the ‘Boulevard of Crime’ was to be erected. Nice was chosen so that long-time collaborators like the Jewish art designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma could be close by (though still in hiding). It was also good to be away from Paris which was only to be used for some interiors and post-production. The production proved very difficult once the Allied invasion of Italy altered security considerations in Nice and the production was halted for a period. Carné then appears to have delayed completion until virtually all of France was liberated. At this point he was able to convince distributors and exhibitors to agree to show both stories in the same programme with an interval and the premiere was in March 1945.

Garance (Arletty) amongst the crowds when she is being accused of being a pickpocket

The film

Film historians disagree as to whether the film is part of the poetic realism movement or whether it marks a new mode of ‘quality cinema’. Certainly it continues the tradition of finely crafted films. It was these films that Truffaut would attack so mercilessly in the early 1950s as the ‘cinéma du papa‘.  It is certainly true that many of the films were built around their carefully honed scripts and this was Prévert’s contribution. For monolingual audiences it’s difficult to know how well the French language is used but even in translation it is possible to recognise that Prévert has a poet’s sensibility. But the main defence of these films is that they weren’t dependent on script alone, they also delivered high class performances, fantastic sets and lighting and great cinematography. Truffaut was being polemical of course and I haven’t seen any of Carné’s 1950s films but the important point to make is that tastes change and it was important to denigrate the ‘quality films’ in the 1950s in order to promote La nouvelle vague. Now, with more distance, we can appreciate the achievements of the 1930s and 1940s in French Cinema.

The subject matter of Les enfants is of interest to us partly because it helps to explain how melodrama developed as a theatrical practice. The narrative is constructed around Garance, the character played by Arletty, and the men who attempt to have a relationship with her. Garance first appears as a beautiful woman with no background who is obliged to work as an ‘attraction’ in a sideshow on the ‘Boulevard of Crime’ – the main thoroughfare for entertainment in Paris. Walking through the crowded streets she is pursued by a gifted young actor (played by Pierre Brasseur) and then rescued by a mime artist (Jean-Louis Barrault) when she is accused of pickpocketing. The mime artist is drumming up business for Le Théâtre des Funambules (a theatre originally specialising in acrobatic displays where the great mime artist Jean-Gaspard Deburau established himself). Theatres like this were not allowed to stage performances with speech so mime, dance and elaborate display with musical accompaniment were what the crowds paid their few sous to see. Thus was melodrama born. By the end of the century as cinema appeared the stage melodrama would feature live animals, steam trains and spectacular sets. The relationship between this illegitimate theatre and the classical patent theatre down the street is explained through the story of the young actor Frédérick Lemaître who begins in Le Théâtre des Funambules but ends up in the patent theatre where he transforms a dull play into something that appeals to more popular tastes.

As well as the actor and the mime, Garance is also pursued by two other men. Lacenaire is the local master criminal, again based on a historical figure who would have become the focal point of the third part of the film, and Le comte de Montray is the nobleman (based on the Duc de Morny) who rescues Garance at the end of Part One. The other character worth picking out from the long cast list is ‘Jericho’,  a figure akin to the ‘spiv’ of austerity Britain in the 1940s – the man who can get you anything on the black market. He’s the one who trades in gossip and supplies the Funambules with all the odd props it needs.

Garance and Lacenaire in the second part of the film.

Allegory

By delaying the film’s release until after most of France was liberated, Carné in a sense avoided both the scrutiny of the censors and the possible pleasures of making comments on the Occupation (though making comments on recent history was still a sensitive matter post 1945). Still, it is fascinating now to try to discern how French audiences (who clearly loved the film) might have ‘read’ the narrative and characterisations. Garance is clearly France, the ‘prize’ to be captured. As played by the extraordinary Arletty, she is beautiful and gracious but also mischievous, deceptive and intelligent. After the war, Arletty, despite a wartime affair with a German officer, became something of a national icon. Lacenaire is possibly representative of the Communists working in the resistance and Jericho represents the collaborators, spying on everyone else and profiting from their misery. The mime artist and the actor seem to me to be two sides of the majority of the French population – keeping silent and getting on with life but keenly observing or hiding their real thoughts behind the bluster of a masquerade. The comte who comes to Arletty’s rescue is possibly the agent of the Brits or the Americans.

You don’t have to struggle to identify the story of 1940-44 in the narrative. The film is full of spectacle, action and witty dialogue and they alone can provide the basis for a highly entertaining three hours – but a bit of background helps to explain why Les enfants du paradis is such an important film.

Here are some notes I put together for an introduction to the film at the National Media Museum in Bradford. I titled them ‘Contextualising Les enfants du paradis‘ and included background on ‘Poetic Realism’: LesEnfantsNotes