Category Archives: French Cinema

Classe tous risques (France/Italy 1960)

classe-tous-risques-1960-11-g

This could be an image from a neo-realist film on the streets of Milan.

The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.

I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.

All in the Family Week 3

In the third week of this course we discussed Cherchez Hortense and then traced links through to other French comedies. We made various links, the most important of which was via the star of Cherchez Hortense, Jean-Pierre Bacri.

We looked in some detail at Jean-Pierre Bacri’s work with his wife Agnès Jaoui via an extract from Comme une image (Look At Me 2004). The extract featured a succession of shortish scenes, at the centre of which was a family lunch at the country house of the publisher played by Bacri. This character is very different from the Bacri character in Cherchez Hortense. He’s waspish and cruel, always putting people down. But he is also generous in providing contacts and support, even if he doesn’t know how to help in a gracious way (and he is himself vulnerable). In fact most of the characters in the film are ‘flawed’ with various weaknesses and each is capable of forms of betrayal, hypocrisy etc. Yet Bacri and Jaoui manage to construct their narrative so that it performs a coherent social satire on families and relationships that is both socially accurate and very entertaining. There are few laugh out loud moments but this is a true comedy in the sense that there is a resolution which is happy for at least one couple.

We then traced Bacri’s career back to the 1990s noting how prolific he has been. We looked at two trailers. The first was for the film adaptation, by Cédric Klapisch, of the successful stage comedy that Bacri and Jaoui wrote in the early 1990s. The film of Un air de famille from 1996 provides another example of a ‘family dinner’ that goes wrong. This is more clearly a comedy, though still with a dark satirical edge. We noted the similarity to certain British theatrical comedies (and the play has recently been performed in London). Bacri and Jaoui have also worked with the director Alain Resnais on a musical comedy tribute to Denis Potter, Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson, 1997) – Resnais has also adapted Alan Ayckbourn (as Smoking/No Smoking in 1993). Finally on Bacri we looked at a trailer for Didier (1997), a very broad comedy including slapstick that demonstrates the range of Bacri’s roles.

In the latter part of the session we looked at the recent work of François Ozon on Potiche (2010), also an adaptation, this time from a ‘boulevard comedy’. ‘Potiche’ in its slang usage means a ‘trophy wife’ – in the unlikely shape of Catherine Deneuve, wife of a factory owner who takes over its operation when her husband is ill. ‘Excessive’ in its use of colour and design (the story is set in the 1970s) the film draws on elements of farce as well as serious social issues about gender equality. We just had time to squeeze in the trailer for the more recent Ozon comedy Dans la maison (2012) – a much darker (but also very witty) comedy starring Fabrice Luchini from Potiche and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Week 3’s notes to download: FamilyWeek3

All in the Family Weeks 1 and 2

In the first week of this Evening Class course we started with the first 90 seconds of The Searchers, featuring the melodrama tableaux of the family as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards rides towards his brother’s homestead. I was surprised that quite a few of the students were unaware of The Searchers – or of its influence on later films. This extract and discussion helped us to think about the family as a symbol in that most American genre, the Western. Thinking about a classic Western in this way offers a completely different ‘way in’ to a familiar genre. The French title of The Searchers – The Prisoner of the Desert seems very appropriate when we consider that Ethan is a man whose bitterness means that he can’t enter the family home/the ‘community’ which represents the ‘civilising’ force in the West, but must instead roam the desert. There are so many connotations of the struggle over values in 1950s America here!

We then looked at three examples of different kinds of family films as a preparation for the full screenings on the course over the next few weeks. Pour elle is a French thriller in which a woman is imprisoned after a conviction for murder. Her husband, believing she is innocent, attempts to organise her escape so that the couple and their small son can be a family again, somewhere overseas. Khosla Ga Khosla is an Indian family comedy, one of the ‘new Bollywood’ films. A civil servant plans his retirement which will involve building a dream home just outside Delhi but the land he has bought is occupied by a local gangster – will the family rally round and find a way to oust the gangster? Finally we looked at Still Walking, the highly personal film by Kore-eda Hirokazu about the 24 hours of a family reunion. In each case we looked at just the opening 6 or 7 minutes in which the main narrative of the film is introduced. I hope that students will want to watch the remainder of three enjoyable and interesting films.

Week 1 notes (pdf) are downloadable here: FamilyWeek1

I introduced the Week 2 screening with the suggestion that the UK poster for Cherchez Hortense was grossly misleading, suggesting a romcom starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The French poster gives a much more accurate representation of what is actually in the film. Here is the UK poster:

cherchez_hortense_ver2_xlgand here is the French poster:

cherchez hortense

I also introduced Pascal Bonitzer with some background on his earlier scriptwriting career and talked a little about Jean-Pierre Bacri, the lead in the film, and his partnership with Agnès Jaoui in other French comedies, some using a similar milieu.

The full notes for the Week 2 screening of Cherchez Hortense are here: FamilyWeek2

All the material relating to this course is now tagged ‘All in the Family’

Look at Me (Comme une image, France-Italy 2004)

Ettiene (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.

Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.

‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.

Agnes Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

Agnès Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.

Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!

Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):

Looking for Hortense (France 2012)

Isabelle Carré and Jean-Pierre Bacri

Isabelle Carré and Jean-Pierre Bacri

Here is a French film that has probably achieved a UK release because of the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas. She has a pulling power for specialised cinema audiences in the UK almost unmatched by any other star actor. She’s fine in the film – but she doesn’t appear that much. We’ve had plenty of discussion on this blog about how she is cast in French films and whether or not the script will attempt to explain her accent. In this case she is ‘Iva’, a theatre director in a long term relationship with Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) who teaches ‘Asian civilisations’ and specifically a class for French business people attempting to develop projects in China. The couple have a young teenage son and things are not going well. Iva has asked Damien to speak to his father, a senior legal figure, in an attempt to persuade him to intervene in the case of a young Serbian woman who is faced  with possible expulsion from France after her residency permit has been withdrawn. (I didn’t quite follow the convoluted relationship between Iva and this woman and therefore I’m not sure about the Scott Thomas character’s background in this script.) Damien has a very poor relationship with his ego-centric father and finds this task very difficult and this will eventually create a further series of problems on top of everything else.

Kristin Scott Thomas looking beautiful and melancholic in a secondary role

Kristin Scott Thomas looking beautiful and melancholic in a secondary role

The film is intended as a comedy and, applying the test used by Mark Kermode to evaluate Hollywood comedies, I have to report that I laughed out loud several times. But this is a very Parisian sort of comedy, a comedy of manners and a comedy that requires quite a lot of cultural knowledge – I’m sure that I didn’t get all the references and someone looking for a frothy romcom should stay away. But if you like talky, intelligent films with terrific performances and witty dialogue, it’s very good.

The director is Pascal Bonitzer, who has made several features but is perhaps better known as a veteran scriptwriter – most frequently for Jacques Rivette, but also for André Techine, Raoul Ruiz and several others since the mid 1970s. He says that the character of Damien has some of his own traits (Bonitzer wrote the script with Agnès de Sacy) and Jean-Pierre Bacri does an excellent job. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for UK audiences, the hangdog face surely will. Bacri has appeared in the last three films by his partner Agnès Jaoui. This blog carries very positive  responses to Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008) for instance. Like that film, Looking for Hortense combines moments of silliness with quite moving scenes and serious social issues. It takes great skill to mix these ingredients together and produce a coherent film that appeals to the intellect and the funny bone. I think that Pascal Bonitzer manages to do that but I was bemused by the title and only after reading reviews did I understand that ‘Hortense’ is actually the family name of the character who rules on the residency issues that Damien must discuss with his father. I don’t want to spoil the plot but I do want to pick out Isabelle Carré who plays the character who in effect joins all the stories together. She is excellent and like Bacri, an actor I have seen before and whose performances I’ve enjoyed (in Anna M. for example). I just wish it was easier to see French films of this quality on a more regular basis. This week I saw or heard another reference to the ‘difficulties’ subtitled films have in the UK – even when bland Hollywood fare is being dumped into UK multiplexes.

Press Book and other background material

And here is the UK trailer (quite good in not giving too much away):

Thérèse Desqueyroux (France 2012)

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Claude Miller died soon after completing this his 15th feature film. It was a distinguished career which included a period when he was production manager for first Jean-Luc Godard and then, for some time, François Truffaut. (See this obituary for more background.) Two films from him as writer-director that I remember enjoying are Un secret (2007) and Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). The first of these drew on Miller’s own background, born into a non-religious Jewish family, and the second was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with Sandrine Kiberlaine as the central female character under pressure. Both the anti-semitism of French society in the twentieth century and the pressure on a young woman feature in Thérèse Desqueyroux, an adaptation of a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, previously adapted for a film by Georges Franju in 1962. Mauriac is a canonical figure in French literature and won the Nobel prize in 1952. His granddaughter Anne Wiazemsky was an actor in the 1960s and 1970s and later a novelist. She married Jean-Luc Godard and appeared in several of his films.

I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier adaptation (in which Emanuelle Riva takes the central role) so I’m not able to make comparisons, but I would certainly be interested in seeing the Franju film. The lead in Miller’s film is taken by Audrey Tautou and that was one of the attractions for me. It was interesting to see Ms Tautou in a role that challenges audience assumptions about her star persona (cf her role in Delicacy (2011). The story is set in a very distinctive location – the Landes pine forests of Aquitaine, south-west of Bordeaux – in the 1920s. Thérèse is introduced as a teenager playing idyllic games with her friend Anne. Both girls come from local families which own large acreages of the forest, making a good income from wood and resin collection. But whereas Thérèse is the daughter of a radical and thinks for herself, Anne is more conventional – though her obvious enjoyment of hunting might be read in different ways. The surprise is that six or seven years later Thérèse agrees to marry Anne’s brother Bernard – like his sister highly conventional in his attitudes towards love, marriage, family and status. The mystery is why Thérèse allows herself to fall into this trap and her first test is how she will respond when her sister-in-law has a romantic affair with the handsome son of another local family. Bernard decrees that the affair is unsuitable and that the family’s good name is being besmirched. The young man clearly has Jewish blood – Thérèse refers to his family as ‘Portuguese’.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

The National Media Museum programme guide described the film as a costume melodrama which led to certain expectations and I want to explore what ‘melodrama’ might mean in these circumstances. Thérèse as the central character is certainly a potential melodrama figure – in particular as the woman ‘in peril’ in the suffocating embrace of Bernard’s family. I think that there is a case for relating this to the ‘woman’s film’ scenario. On the other hand, there is no female best friend to confide in (the relationship with Anne changes) or much of a possibility of a ‘positive’ romance to pursue. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for scenes of ‘suffering’ as an intelligent and curious woman is expected to ‘behave responsibly’. Melodramas are usually concerned with emotions that are repressed or suppressed – and which then ‘return’ or are ‘released’ through an excess of music, colour, cinematography, mise en scène etc. In this case, there is a certain austerity about the mise en scène and the music, although often there, seemed unobtrusive (mostly classical piano pieces) to me. However, the dark house in the forest is clearly Gothic and when Thérèse meets Anne’s lover it is, of course, by the sea. The internal/external world is also represented through a series of sequences which might represent Thérèse’s thoughts, dreams or nightmares.

I won’t spoil the narrative but I will reveal that the resolution is not perhaps what we might expect after Therese is driven to fairly desperate measures and if you have seen the marvellous earlier film with Audrey Tautou, À la folie . . . pas du tout (2002), you might see a resemblance in the final shots of the two films. The hint of Hitchcock is also shared by the two films. I suppose I’m suggesting here that there is an element of film noir in this melodrama. I was intrigued to discover that Claude Miller decided not to follow the flashback structure of the book but instead to tell the story in a linear narrative – which actually makes the story more mysterious (and alters the portrayal of the husband).

When I came out of the film I wasn’t sure if I had ‘enjoyed’ it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a form of melodrama and that Claude Miller demonstrated great skill in his last film. All the performances are good and Ms Tautou has successfully extended her range. As Bernard, Gilles Lelouche also acts against his established character type (he usually plays comedic roles) and he also succeeds. I’m not sure that the film got the promotional push it needed on its UK release so you might struggle to find it but during a summer of tedious blockbusters this is an intelligent gem and I hope that I’ve intrigued you enough to want to see it.

The film’s Press Book is here (in French and in English).

Here is the Australian trailer (it reveals something about the plot that I have largely concealed):

The Girl From Nowhere (La fille de nulle part, France 2012)

Jean-Claude Brisseau as Michel and Virginie Legeayas Dora

Jean-Claude Brisseau as Michel and Virginie Legeay as Dora

Here is a film that had both Variety and Screendaily railing against its pretensions in the face of a prestige prize win – the Golden Leopard at Locarno. Writer-director – and in this instance, leading man – Jean-Claude Brisseau is an auteur of the ‘second wave’ of French directors after Godard and co. Born in 1944 he began to direct in the 1970s but is generally known for just two titles, Celine (1992), nominated for a prize at Berlin and Secret Things (2002) which Cahiers du cinéma selected as its film of the year alongside Kiarostami’s Ten. Secret Things was an ‘erotic thriller’ and Brisseau was later fined and given a suspended sentence for sexual harassment of two of the women he auditioned for the film. He then released a film with a narrative based around a similar scenario to that which brought about the prosecution. This might explain why, when he eventually turned away from erotic narratives, he made a low-budget film using his own savings (around £50,000) which was immediately in the black after its Locarno win since the prize money eclipsed the budget.

Fans of Secret Things (which even Roger Ebert reviewed as an enjoyable and well-made sex film) will find that although there are a couple of nude scenes in The Girl From Nowhere, the narrative does not develop as a cynical viewer might expect given the pairing of an old man and a young girl. Michel (played by the director) is a retired maths teacher who lives alone after his wife’s death 29 years earlier. He occupies a spacious Paris apartment he inherited via his wife’s wealthy family (Brisseau’s own flat – so you get to see his tastes in books and films). He spends his time reading and watching films and writing a book questioning philosophical and religious beliefs. Disturbed by a commotion in the stairwell outside his apartment one day he discovers a young woman being beaten up by a man who then runs off. He takes the young woman into his apartment. She is clearly injured but refuses both doctor and police. He decides to look after her until she recovers, but then finds out that he needs her – specifically to help him with his book, but also because she reminds him of his past.

The low-budget keeps the action restricted more or less to the apartment and the surrounding streets and much of the film comprises conversations between the two principals. If you don’t like talky French flicks this may well put you off. Personally I found both characters interesting and engaging. The digital camerawork by David Chambille using mostly available light is accomplished and presented in 16:9 framings. The music track is used sparingly and overall this is a well-made little film. Brisseau has taught film at the main French film school, FEMIS and on a technical level the film is a good advertisement for the possibilities of low-budget films. The only time I was really conscious of the lack of budget was when the plot requires an outside shot to be still without wind – but the wind in the background is clearly visible ruffling hair etc. The other facet of the film that made Variety and Screendaily so irate appears to be the fact that Brisseau is not a professional actor. This never occurred to me watching the film. I thought both principals were fine. Virginie Legeay clearly knows the director well since she was at FEMIS and she worked with him on his 2006 film The Exterminating Angels – the one based on his legal problems. On that film and this one she is also credited as Assistant Director.

So what goes on between the old man and the young girl? I won’t spoil the narrative pleasures, only reveal that there are moments of ‘paranormal’ activity – quite well presented and sometimes quite disturbing. It’s also noticeable that Legeay’s character is called ‘Dora’, famously one of Freud’s case studies. Michel is reading Freud (but ‘the girl’ does not exhibit the same behaviour as Freud’s Dora). In general thematic terms, the conversation is about loneliness, memory, dealing with growing old, romance and relationships – issues which the two characters can discuss and possibly offer forms of support to each other.

5579303_origThere are two reasons why I would recommend this film. First, it is a well-made film with intelligent and interesting characters that certainly kept my interest. The paranormal incidents added to the intrigue. Second, the whole venture challenges the role of film critics. What makes a film ‘pretentious’? For that matter what makes for ‘good acting’? Is it indulgence to cast yourself in a role or simply pragmatic if you don’t have the funds to pay an actor? Is ‘cod philosophy’ a bad thing in constructing a film narrative? You can watch the film yourself and decide.

The Girl From Nowhere toured the UK and US as part of the French Cinema export programme ‘Rendezvous With French Cinema 2013’ but it hasn’t got a UK cinema release. Instead a DVD is released by Matchbox on July 8. The distributor has gone, perhaps unsurprisingly, for a cover emphasising the eroticism angle, but this is misleading about the narrative as a whole. The image refers to one of the ‘paranormal’ moments in the narrative.

The DVD is available from Amazon and other online retailers.