The French Connection: Notes on Some French Films and Cineastes
By Robert J. Cardullo
This essay consists of notes on some well-known, and lesser known (especially outside France, in particular, and Europe in general), French films and film artists. Some big names are represented here, like Jean Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard, but not by their big or biggest pictures. Other directorial names, such as Claude Chabrol and Jean-Pierre Melville, will ring a bell for educated moviegoers and observers of French culture, but probably not for anyone else. Charles Denner himself was a distinguished, if virtually unknown (again, outside France and Europe), actor in films by Chabrol, François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Alain Jessua. For this work, he deserves commemoration, as do his directorial counterparts for theirs – particularly those, like Melville, who have never commanded a wide audience.
As for French screenwriters, I am sorry to say that none are represented in what follows (as are no cinematographers or designers). Screenwriting lags behind every other aspect of filmmaking; it has always lagged behind. Directing, acting, cinematography, design and the other components of film have always been dependably better than writing. Here is one inferable reason for the worldwide imbalance: writing for performance (this applies to the theatre, too) is more difficult than any other element in performance. The good news is, this is perhaps less the case in French cinema than in the cinema of any other nation except Italy. The bad news is, despite the fact that the Frenchmen Charles Spaak and Jacques Prévert are among the best writers ever to have composed screenplays, they live in virtual anonymity – and have done so since their deaths in 1975 and 1977, respectively.
This essay, naturally, will not change these writers' state, nor will it elevate the status of a director such as Melville or an actor like Denner. My only hope, apart from sheer remembrance, is to call attention to the achievements, as well as missteps, of all the French film artists discussed.
In 1971, an interviewer asked the French director Jean-Pierre Melville whether he would like to see his Bob le Flambeur (1956) reissued. Melville said, "No… I don't see the point… If I ever find my real script for Bob le Flambeur I shall remake it." Melville died in 1973. (Neil Jordan remade the film in 2002 as The Good Thief.)
I don't imply treachery on Melville's part. Directors, at least as much as most people, speak grandiloquently in interviews. I'm glad that Bob le Flambeur started being shown again in the summer of 1982 (when I saw it for the first time), but more because the re-release draws attention to Melville than because of the film itself. His remark shows at least some dissatisfaction with the picture, and on the basis of my knowledge of Melville, which is enforcedly small, I can see why. Bob le Flambeur is one of his several attempts to do a Parisian version of an American crime film, relying on atmospherics and on characterisations that are more poster-like than profound. The film shows clearly that Melville's chief interest in crime was as a vehicle for style, yet it's precisely on stylistic ground that Bob le Flambeur wavers. This picture nevertheless also shows why, along with Melville's three previous features, he had a notable influence on the French New Wave, which was then being born.
His real patronym was Grumbach; he was a Parisian Jew of Alsatian origin. He changed the name to Melville, he said, out of admiration for the author of Moby Dick (1851), who was only one of his many American admirations. Melville – Jean-Pierre – became one of those figures, familiar in every art, who are not well-known to the public but who function as minor deities to at least some of their fellow artists, especially in their own countries. Born in 1917 and mad about films even as a small child, he started in the cinema after World War II, working on that proverbial, ever-available shoestring, doing his own producing, writing and art direction. His second film, in 1950, was made from Jean Cocteau's 1929 novel Les Enfants terribles at Cocteau's own suggestion after he saw Melville's first film (The Silence of the Sea ), which says something – if something still needs to be said – about Cocteau's perception. (Melville thought there was a second reason: Cocteau wanted to launch his latest "discovery", Edouard Dhermitte, who played the role of Paul in Les Enfants terribles.)
Melville acted, too: he played a leading role in his third film, Two Men in Manhattan (1959), and sometimes played in other people's films. For instance, he's the novelist who gets interviewed in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. (The 1960 picture also contains a reference to Bob le Flambeur. At one point, Michel asks whether he can borrow money from Bob Montagné – the full name of Melville's protagonist – and is told that Bob is in jail.) Melville was too old to be an "official" member of the New Wave, but they admired him because, among other reasons, he was one of the first Frenchmen to respond to the sheerly cinematic qualities of the best American popular film, and because he had a passion for the realities of Parisian life and atmosphere. The best aspect of Bob le Flambeur, in fact, is its capture of Montmartre's streets and cafés.
Still, the film disappoints. Partly this is because Bob the Gambler is thinly played; it needed a French William Powell, and Roger Duchesne doesn't nearly fill the bill. Partly it's because, after the excellent opening shot of Paris, the look of the film becomes commonplace. Henri Decaë, who collaborated on other films with Melville (The Silence of the Sea, Le Samouraï ), did better photography for him elsewhere. The use of the camera is always deft; the look of the frame is often commonplace. And partly this is because the script degenerates from genre exaltation to genre exploitation, from (say) Dashiell Hammett to Damon Runyon. It ends as one more "perfect crime" story with a trick finish. It's noteworthy that the dialogue – in the adaptation of Melville's original story – was written by Auguste Le Breton, who wrote the 1953 novel on which Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) was based, one of the memorable "perfect crime" films.
So I'm glad that Melville's interview statement concerning the reissue of Bob le Flambeur, quoted above, was disregarded; I'm glad to have seen this picture; and I hope that more Melville films (he made a total of 13 features) will come along soon. I'm also glad about another statement by Melville – one that cannot be disregarded.
To wit: in an article on Orson Welles and Gregg Toland first published in Critical Inquiry in 1982, the author, Robert L. Carringer, "reveals" that the famous opening shot of the attempted-suicide sequence in Citizen Kane (1941) was not pure deep-focus but was a matte shot, "an in-camera effect that has never been recognised as one." In Rui Nogueira's little book Melville (1971), however, the director says that everyone in Paris in the late 1940s "was wondering how Orson Welles had done certain shots in Citizen Kane" which had not been released there until after the war. Especially discussed was that shot on which Carringer comments. Says Melville: "Of course Welles never explained how Toland had done it… but after seeing the film innumerable times, I came to the conclusion that he shot this sequence as a composite."
Melville thereupon attempted the same sort of shot with Decaë in his first feature, The Silence of the Sea. The rest, as they say, is film history.
A distributor called Rialto Pictures has become a source of discomfort. Rialto, founded in 1997, specialises in reissues of older films, mostly foreign but also domestic, that deserve to be seen again – in new prints and with new subtitles. Mafioso (1962, Alberto Lattuada), Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica), and The Fallen Idol (1948, Carol Reed) are only three of the several dozen they have brought back. To see again a film that one long ago admired and now dislikes is somewhat upsetting. But, oddly enough, the upset is even more acute when one's opinion rises on a revisit. Of course one cannot be surprised that the opinion, say, of 1969 differs from the opinion of 2019, but it is uncomfortable to realise that the earlier opinion has been on mental file for decades. Then a grim fact looms large: absolutely every opinion of earlier works that is stored in the memory does not truly represent what the latter-day person thinks.
This itchy realisation applies to all the arts. If someone asked me what I think of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878), I could respond volubly, but I would, in a sense, be fibbing. Forty years have passed since I last read the novel, and all I am now doing is recalling memories. I, the present writer, don't know what I think of Anna Karenina. All of us carry in our minds hundreds and hundreds of opinions about art that are not, in one degree or another, those of the persons we have become. Naturally the problem is insoluble: one cannot revisit every work of art in one's past every year. But when this problem is highlighted by a film that is reissued, the critic has to face a cold fact about traversal through the years: the coursing of time has much more length than breadth. We move on and leave behind us much of what is present, or what we thought, at any one moment.
In the summer of 2007, Rialto gave us Le Doulos (The Finger Man), directed in 1962 by Jean-Pierre Melville, who adapted his screenplay from a 1957 novel of the same name by Pierre Lesou. ("Doulos" means "hat", but in the slang of the day it signified "stool pigeon".) Rialto is fond of Melville: in 2006, it gave us Army of Shadows (1969), a drama about Occupied France. Le Doulos itself nestles amid Melville's policier films. Those crime pictures are only part of his range, but they are so keenly original, so seductively confident, that they have done as much for his lustre as any of his films.
The story of Le Doulos is no great shakes. It deals with a group of Paris crooks and the ultimate discovery that one of them is an informer. The account is jostled along by several sharp surprises, but what really clutches the viewer – and very quickly, too – is the seriousness of the film, despite its tricky plot. For this is more than a gang of criminals. Melville makes us believe that such men and their women inhabit a society, secret and enclosed and complete, that exists within society at large. Though these men sometimes shoot one another, they are all members of a family. This idea is obviously not a Melville monopoly: other directors have used it. But Melville seems, more persuasively than most, to collude with us. He assumes that for 108 minutes, we will hang our personal standards in the closet and slink with him through these dark alleys.
Right from the opening sequence, in which a man walks towards us through a long tunnel – the shot hints at underworld as habitat – we are in the hands of a director who knows precisely what he wants and how to get it. This assurance is the most enticing aspect of the film. The story is engaging enough, though the ending has a sniff of facile solutions. But Melville is concerned less with that story than with its ambience. It was my realisation of this – the style as the work itself – that shook me when I saw Le Doulos again. When I first saw the film, I was bothered by the story. What I once thought about this picture is now Rialto-revised.
The two leading roles are played by Serge Reggiani, who was Simone Signoret's doomed lover in Casque d'Or (Golden Helmet, 1952; Jacques Becker), and Jean-Paul Belmondo, who at that time seemed the casual Atlas supporting French film on his shoulders. (Belmondo had already made Breathless (1960) with Jean-Luc Godard; the closing sequence in Le Doulos reminds us of that film.) Reggiani was a quiet actor with a resonant effect. Belmondo was a sexy, amoral prince who seems to be visiting this story and taking considerable part in it just because he happens to be there.
At any rate, Rialto, which by 2007 had reissued three Melville films, has given his reputation new shine and has to a degree embarrassed me to myself, because of the opinion of this film that I had been holding for so long. Still, I hope for more such embarrassments.
By 1997, the French star Alain Delon had more or less retired, but a 1967 film of his was finally released in the United States in the winter of 1997, in its original version. Le Samouraï was directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, a hero of the French New Wave, who wrote the taut screenplay from an uncredited and unlocatable – and therefore perhaps invented – source novel titled The Ronin, attributed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to one Joan McLeod. The picture, which is about a Parisian contract killer, wasn't brought to the US until after the success of The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola); Melville's film was then doctored and ridiculously retitled The Godson, which greased its exit. Finally restored 30 years after the fact, it was given its real American premiere at the Film Forum in New York (and, in 1999, was paid a homage of sorts by Jim Jarmusch in his movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai).
The original title is wrong, too. Not only is Le Samouraï free of literal samurai décor, it features a so-called samurai who accepts commissions to kill merely for money; for the feudal Japanese samurai, honour and ethics were involved. Delon's character is simply a technician with no criterion except efficiency and no purpose except cash. He has the composure of a robot and a committed inhumanity. Though he has a girlfriend who adores him, he accepts her adoration rather stonily. He is alone, in other words. He lives within himself. Melville gives him no antecedents or explanations, few feelings, and very little dialogue. A schemer, this man's drama is in the rupture of his schemes.
Melville's establishing shot at the start establishes more than place. We see a shadowy, mean room; two windows at the back are pasted with grey light. It's like a stage set in black and white. Then we see that there's a man present, an inhabitant of this darkness, lying on a bed, smoking. It's only after Delon leaves this room that some colour – not much – enters the film. The silent stalker slips out of his lair into the world, kills, then withdraws. Photographed by Henri Decaë, Le Samouraï is like an icy ballet, the stylistic success in a crime film that Bob le Flambeur (1956) doesn't achieve.
What Melville quite rightly counted on to bolster his film, to answer questions and also to suggest new ones, was Delon's face. Grey-eyed, delicate, almost angelic, Delon's face is so unconnected with his profession that we are strangely awed. Antonioni used this contradiction differently in Eclipse (1962), by making Delon a busy stockbroker. Melville uses that face to effect a reversal of convention. Here is a cold, calculated killer, with no overt claims to our sympathy. Delon's killer needs to justify nothing, needs no winsome little girl or friendly ice-cream vendor (for example) to prove that, underneath it all, he is a mensch. He is, almost in a doomed way, simply what he is, one kind of professional in a world of differing professions. Underneath his almost sculptural frigidity, the Delon character is of course a sociopath. Yet, through Melville's intense emphasis on his face, we are held.
The action is lean and chilling – forged in steel, as it were – but it's Delon's face that holds us. We want to know more about this man though we doubt that we will. Thus, in this instance, the film medium exercises a peculiar strength: it transforms an actor's face, in and of itself, into a protagonist.
Army of Shadows
The French director Jean-Pierre Melville, long deceased, has become an almost private idol to some cinephiles; but unlike many such idols, he deserves more renown. Melville began making films in 1945, right after his military service; suffused with admiration for American films, he set out to use American genres in his own way. A prime instance of his Gallicised use of Hollywood is Le Samouraï (1967), unforgettable, in which Alain Delon plays a professional killer – a familiar film figure, but one swathed here in existential mystique.
A story I've heard about Delon, possibly true, applies to Army of Shadows (1969). In 1967, Melville was reading his screenplay of Le Samouraï to Delon to see if the actor would accept the leading role. After the director had read five or six pages, through which the protagonist moves silently, Delon said, "I'll do it." "But," said Melville, "you haven't even had one line of dialogue yet." Delon said, "That's why I'll do it." This taciturnity is very marked in Army of Shadows, which had its sorrily belated American premiere in the spring of 2006. The total amount of dialogue in the script makes it a contender for the "Least Talk in a Sound Film" prize. What is cannily winning is that, as we begin to realise how little is being said, we also realise that this procedure is exactly right for this picture.
Based on a 1943 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel, Melville's screenplay is about the French Resistance during World War II, a subject with which, in the course of his military service, he had personal experience – as did Kessel. The very first shot puts facts before us with clenched-jaw reticence. It is a long shot of Paris's Arc de Triomphe. A column of soldiers in the distance moves from the left toward the Arc. There they wheel and come down the Champs Élysées towards us. As they approach, we see that they are German. A sad history has been synopsised for us in our assumption that they were French and, in our discovery, otherwise.
It is 1942. The story, which need not be sketched here, is taut, evoking a special fright that is tinged with gratitude – about matters that we know will eventually turn out well for the cause, if not for the individuals. The film centres on a group of Resistance fighters in civilian clothes who are seemingly carrying on civilian lives. The head of the group is played by Lino Ventura, an actor little known in the US despite a four-decade career that ended in 1987, during which he reminded many of the Frenchman Jean Gabin – not in looks but in quiet power. His colleagues are played by, among others, Simone Signoret, an attractive stalwart of French film, and Jean-Pierre Cassel, who was charming in his early balletic roles but who has a terrible non-dancing role here. Serge Reggiani, who played Signoret's lover in the musky Casque d'Or (Golden Helmet, 1952; Jacques Becker) and had a leading role in Melville's Le Doulos (1962), appears briefly as a barber whose part in the Resistance is to shave Ventura without reporting him. Reggiani's acceptance of this tiny role is, I assume, a bow to the subject and to Melville.
One particular bit of luck for this reissue is the fact that Melville's cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme, was on hand to help with the restoration of this 37-year-old film. The result is a paradoxical beauty. Very many of the scenes are in sunlight – Melville avoided such facile stuff as shadows for suspense – yet they are chilly. The seasons vary, but the general effect is of a bright winter day that is freezing. Army of Shadows, indeed.
To see a film about the Resistance these days is a peculiar experience. Who could want such conditions back again? But if in some pernicious way that should happen, would there be people – ordinary people who had been living quite ordinary lives – who would behave as these people do? May the question remain theoretical: still, it nags.
Band of Outsiders
One of the first to add to the 21st century's continuing flow of refurbished foreign film was Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders. It was made in 1964; in the summer of 2001, it was reissued in a fresh print with more idiomatic subtitles, giving us a new look at Godard. When the picture initially appeared, it was part of Godard's relatively new attack on the pieties of filmmaking, an attack that persisted as such through Weekend in 1968. He certainly did not become conventional after that, but his irruptions became – and remain – a dependable part of the cinematic world. (Born in 1930, Godard's most recent film is The Image Book, made in 2018.) The enfant terrible has become, aesthetically, a reliably eccentric old-timer. This reissue therefore had, and still has, its Memory Lane aspect.
Band of Outsiders is about two young men and a young woman in Paris. The men, who drive around in a flashy car, are apparently criminals, though very unskilled ones, and are bent on stealing a vast amount of cash from the young woman's wealthy aunt. They cajole the young woman into helping them, all the while competing for her favours. She sleeps with one of them, but the competition between the duo continues until one of them is killed in a shootout. The remaining couple flee to South America with what little money they have managed to salvage from the robbery.
The mode of the film is parody of the trite crime flick, represented by the American B-movies that get mentioned along the way. Whenever triteness looms, when we think we know what is coming, Godard does something else. The three principals have drinks in a café and start out about their business when suddenly they stop to do a quite complicated dance number, obviously well-rehearsed, as if a whim had just occurred to them. When the three are about to enter the rich aunt's house and rob it, they induce the young woman to take off her stockings – because they'll wrinkle her skin. Then each of the men uses one of her stockings as a burglar's mask. In broad daylight, they carry a ladder around the outside of the house and try to enter an upper window. Later they tramp noisily through the house. When the owner, Aunt Victoria, appears, she merely orders the robbers to leave, which they do not. They stuff her in a wardrobe, where she appears to smother, but her death does not seem any more real than all the rest. It is as if she were merely playing dead as part of this spoof – and in fact she is, as Aunt Victoria is ultimately shown to be alive.
In Godard's first feature, Breathless, made in 1959 and as vital as ever, he used some of the stylistics of the past, particularly of Jean Renoir – for his own ends, of course. Still, he used them. From then on, he attacked or ignored them, often quite light-heartedly. Band of Outsiders itself may be revolutionary, then, but it is a revolutionary soufflé.
Two or Three Things I Know about Her
Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967), reissued in the fall of 2006 in a fresh print with freshened subtitles, is an astonishment because, almost 40 years after its initial release, it still astonished. Godard burst into the film world in 1960 with the unprecedented, invaluable Breathless and followed it swiftly with a spate of films, some of which were more heterodox than fulfilled. Then he made Two or Three Things, his best film since his first, a picture that was – and breathtakingly still is – both revolutionary and absorbing.
The "her" of the title, the director tells us in voice-over narration, is the Paris region; but he also tells us that it is Juliette Jeanson, a young wife (played by Marina Vlady) with children; and he tells us, as well, that it may be Vlady herself. A promotional poster for the film offered additional, different meanings for the "her" of the title, each one a French feminine noun: the cruelty of neo-capitalism; prostitution or the modern call-girl; the bathroom that 70% of the French don't have; the terrible law concerning the building of huge complexes; the physical side of love; the life of today; the war in Vietnam; the death of beauty; the circulation of ideas; the gestapo of modern structures. These intertissues are parts of the ceaseless, seemingly disconsolate inquiry that the film makes into the texture of Paris life, personal lives, even political lives (as in the case of Vietnam, which was very much present in French thinking at the time). Prostitutions of several kinds register, as the promotional poster suggests: in French politics, in the renovation of Paris by profitable construction, and literally in Juliette's daytime hours in a brothel to increase the family's income. (Her husband never asks her where the money comes from!)
All these subjects would nourish a conventional film, which doesn't interest Godard. The method he uses is anti-method, a rejection of the strictures contrived by the world he is criticising. Shots of cranes, of street signs, of interesting faces, of café talk – of anything that catches Godard's eye or mind – slip into the film's story like sudden thoughts, and the effect is of super-reality: alert consciousness rather than formal construction. The result is like a frozen impromptu, which certifies a Godard aim through most of his career. He seems to hate the fact that film is filmed. He tries over and over in his work to subvert movie-ness: sometimes he shows the camera, sometimes he has people say they are in a film, sometimes he inserts seemingly random thoughts and sights, and so on, always to make the picture seem as spontaneous as the form permits.
On the soundtrack of Two or Three Things, the director whispers his commentary, some of it philosophical query at the college-dorm level – shallow, yes, but genuine. (This phrase could be reversed.) What keeps the film tingling, however, is the fact that we feel it is actually being made (yet again) at the moment we are watching it. Since 1966, so much in filmmaking has strained for novelty, yet Godard's film, as of 2019, is still avant most of the avant-garde.
Life Belongs to Us
A film new to America at the time, Life Belongs to Us – by Jean Renoir, one of the cinema's departed masters – was given its American theatrical premiere in New York in the summer of 1987, as part of Joseph Papp's Film-at-the-Public series. In 1936, at the height of the Popular Front period, the French Communist Party wanted a propaganda film, and Louis Aragon suggested that Renoir direct it. The latter agreed, though he did not direct or write all of it. Two of his colleagues were Jean-Paul Le Chanois and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Subsequently Renoir said that he was not a Communist, which the viewer finds a bit difficult to believe – almost wants not to believe. In those days, with fascism swelling, with French democracy short-sighted and idle, the film's message could have provided at least a transient hope.
Life Belongs to Us is a succession of sketches, documentary sequences, and newsreel clips carefully arranged. Some of the fiction sketches are tonally much like Nazi films of the period – showing disheartened people being inspirited by a new faith – with the nouns changed. Other scenes include: a millionaire losing a fortune in a gambling casino and the next day levelling pay cuts on the workers in his factory; Hitler orating while on the soundtrack we hear only a dog barking; French fascists beating up a vendor of the Communist newspaper L'Humanité, then themselves being beaten by outraged bystanders; a finale in which masses flow across the countryside singing 'The Internationale'.
Some viewers insist that the film has true Renoir touches. They escaped me. What didn't escape me, other than the blatant propaganda and the poor photography, was the retrospective pathos. I couldn't help thinking, for instance, of the Moscow Show Trials (against so-called Trotskyists), which were going on at just about the time that this picture was made. I couldn't help wondering how many of the people I was looking at ended up in slave-labour camps (and ovens) of the Nazi, as opposed to Stalinist, kind.
"The film isn't mine, but I worked on it," said Renoir of Life Belongs to Us in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels in 1972. And that about sums it up – especially the first part of Renoir's sentence.
Elena and Her Men
Jean Renoir's Elena and Her Men, made in 1956, had not been shown theatrically in the US since 1957, when it was released here, dubbed into English, under the title Paris Does Strange Things. In the summer of 1986, the Film Program at the Public Theater in New York brought us the original version, subtitled. I assume there is also some dubbing in this French version because the leading man is the American Mel Ferrer. Ingrid Bergman, the leading woman, plays a princess who was made Polish, I infer, to explain her accent in French. (She too may have been dubbed. At any rate, Renoir is said to have thought her French barely adequate, especially since she went home every evening and spoke Italian with her then-husband, Roberto Rossellini.)
I had never seen the film in any version and hurried, in 1986, to what I expected to be a disappointment: which it proved to be. This flip remark – about a man who made masterpieces and had immense influence on other directors – is justified as much by the writings about this film as by the film itself. Renoir subtitled Elena and Her Men a "musical fantasy" and treats it as a divertissement with some knives hidden among the flowers. I don't think the knives are very sharp or the flowers very beguiling, but nowhere does he imply the aspirations that have been attributed to Elena by others. Jean-Luc Godard, for instance: "'The' French film par excellence… because it is the most intelligent of films. Art and theory of art, at one and the same time; beauty and the secret of beauty." François Truffaut found Elena and Her Men to be one of "the [four] best feature films made in France during the war".
Concede that these two young Cahiers du cinema critics were then promoting the "personal" approach to filmmaking that Renoir certainly embodied. Still, those comments by Godard and Truffaut were part of an impassioned rhetoric that became exemplary for critical mimics at home and abroad (particularly the US) and that helped to establish the auteur view of Renoir, among many lesser talents. This view takes the director's style as the career's principal achievement. It tends to blur distinctions among individual works, or, even more idiosyncratically, it exalts dubious works in the career as if to controvert non-auteur critics (like me) who prefer the Renoir films in which his style is employed to more fulfilling purpose. So Elena, as I feared, did not live up to its advance billing.
It is set in Paris at the turn of the century, but it centres on a woman's intrigues to promote a military dictator clearly based on General Georges Boulanger (1837–91), whose rightist plotting had collapsed over a decade earlier. Now to make a flirtatious musical comedy on that subject at any time would have risked trivialisation of grave matters. (Boulanger committed suicide rather than let himself be arrested for conspiracy and sedition.) To make such a musical only 11 years after the end of World War II verges on the callously recuperative. "History in… Elena and Her Men… becomes subordinated to the demands of art," wrote Leo Braudy. The same might be said about the musical show Springtime for Hitler contained within Mel Brooks's The Producers (1967).
Bergman, a widow, agrees to marry a rich elderly businessman because she needs money. In a crowd honouring a popular general on July 14 (Bastille Day), she meets a wealthy young idler, Ferrer. He introduces her to his friend the general, Jean Marais, who is smitten with Bergman at first sight even though he has a devoted mistress. Then the general's advisors ask Bergman to use her wiles on him, to persuade him to seize power – especially since a war threat with Germany has flared over an accident with an observation balloon. (This, from the maker of La Grande illusion , could be tolerable only if it were funny.) Bergman's wealthy general, to whom she is now affianced, agrees to the scheme out of patriotism. The final sorting-out takes place in a small-town brothel, which is used, not like the brothel in Genet's The Balcony (1956) – a symbolic place where prostitution and power intermingle – but for conventional male fantasy, a haven where all the girls are gorgeous and everyone is jolly. The last offence is to show us that French men and women, including the crowd surrounding the brothel, are more interested in lovemaking than in politics. Bergman ends up with Ferrer, the general goes off with his mistress, and France is saved from dictatorship by l'amour.
Elena and Her Men needn't have been Godard's "most intelligent of films". It could indeed have had exactly the same risky script if it had been in the hands of a René Clair or Ernst Lubitsch. But Renoir plods in his attempt at intelligence. Apparently, in order to have a light touch, he needed a serious subject, as in that great film The Rules of the Game (1939). He deliberately reminds us here of that pre-war picture: part of Elena is set in a chateau, it has love chases with servants, and it even includes a fat female guest. The reminder was a further mistake.
No director of Renoir's talents could make a film without showing them. His style is visible in Elena and Her Men and mostly consists, as usual, of attempts to meld theatre and film. In the first scene, for instance, he "deepens" the screen by pivoting from a two-shot of Bergman and a friend at a piano, seemingly alone, to show us two people playing cards beyond them in an alcove – the way a theatre director might suddenly turn on the lights upstage. When Bergman's carriage is trapped in the July 14 crowd, we first get the size of the crowd only by the people visible through the carriage window – another theatrical effect. But every sequence that is supposed to be feathery and tickling – like the later misplacing of a child in that crowd scene – sorely lacks the touch that Clair could have given it.
Even if it were better than it is, Elena and Her Men would still sag because of its two leading actors. Renoir made the film, he said, because of Ingrid Bergman: "I wanted to see her laugh and smile on the screen." She looks beautiful, and she does laugh and smile a lot, but none of this makes her a competent comedienne. (It's a Danielle Darrieux role.) As for Mel Ferrer, the idea of associating charm and elegance with him gave me the only laugh in his performance. (This was a part for Gérard Philipe.) Renoir's casting of Bergman and Ferrer – presumably with at least one eye on the international box office – thus sank the ship before it was launched.
Charles Denner, 1926–1995
In Paris, in July of 1971, I went to visit Charles Denner, the sterling French actor who died in 1995. I had been overwhelmed by his very different but equally beautiful performances in two unjustly neglected films of the 60s, Claude Chabrol's Landru (1963) and Alain Jessua's Life Upside Down (1964), and was much more keen to talk to him than to the glitzier people offered by the government's film agency (UniFrance). I did see some of the others later, but for me Denner came first, in this quick trip to meet some French artists whose work had appealed to me. What he did and gave on the screen had to have come from somewhere, and I'd long been interested in learning more about him.
The French guide who took me to Denner's apartment in the Rue Carnot – and a modest building it was – had made a mistake. We rang Denner's doorbell at the appointed time, but only a dog barked inside. Then my guide remembered that she had set the meeting for my hotel. She called the hotel and was told that Denner was there, waiting. When we arrived, he was sitting quietly in a corner of the hotel's small garden, hatless, wearing a windbreaker and smoking a cigarette. After my apology, which he shrugged off, I told him that in a way I had met his dog before him. He smiled and said something to the effect that maybe he ought to quit while he was ahead.
Some film actors seem larger or smaller than their screen selves when you meet them. Denner was exactly the same size: short, solid, composed but agile. His cheekbones seemed, as on film, to suggest gaunt resolution. His nose was strong, declarative. His voice, as I already knew, was vibrant, with a touch of roughness under the music. He was cordial in a quite formal way, but he seemed pleased that a foreigner had sought him out. I told him why: because of his work in several films, including, from 1968, François Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (where he played the artist) and, from 1969, Costa-Gavras's Z (as the friend of Yves Montand whom the opposition tries to run down with an automobile), but especially for those two major roles. (It's a disgrace to have to identify in this way – as I guess I must – an actor of Denner's quality.) He glowed a bit. I told him I wanted to know more about the man who had done those performances. Would he tell me about himself?
He nodded and lit another cigarette. He had been born in 1926 to a Polish Jewish family who lived near Krakow, and he had been brought to France when he was four. His earliest ambition was to be a cantor in a synagogue. He was in his early teens when the war came. He had joined the Resistance and had met an older man in his unit who became his intellectual mentor. They read Racine and Molière together (Denner even memorised the latter's 1666 play The Misanthrope) in their hideouts. After the war, though he had never seen a play or a film, he decided to be an actor. He went to study with the renowned Charles Dullin, largely because he knew Jean-Louis Barrault had studied with Dullin, and Denner venerated Barrault's performance in Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carné).
He first worked in political theatre with a group of French-Jewish actors called the Companions of the Ark. In 1949, Denner was engaged by Jean Vilar, the founder of the Théâtre National Populaire, for Vilar's annual festival at Avignon, and he was with Vilar until 1953. By the time of our meeting, he had appeared in 130 plays (and had also made numerous television appearances). When he spoke about acting to me, the term he used over and over is "composition", in both the musical and painterly senses. And how did film acting differ from theatre acting for him? "In the theatre I am naked. In films I am naked in a closed room."
Denner's first film was a small part in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1957), one of the earliest works of the French New Wave. Claude Chabrol saw him in a celebrated Vilar production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), in which he had played the Hermann Goering character with a red wig and lots of padding, and chose him in 1963 for the character of Landru in the film of the same name – slim with a shaved head and a bushy black beard. A year later, Denner played the lead in Jessua's Life Upside Down, a man whom we see slide slowly, dreamily, happily into immobilising mental illness.
I told him I thought that Landru, a serious version of the Bluebeard story, ought to be played on a double bill with Charlie Chaplin's black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Denner took that as a considerable compliment and said that he himself had dared to hope this might happen sometime. (It never did, to my knowledge.) I told him that I would show Landru every year in a film society if an undubbed 16mm print were available (as it was not in the early 1970s). But I could easily get Life Upside Down for a film series, I told him. "Je suis très content," he said, and looked it.
In later years, among many other roles, he played the lead in Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women (1977). But before that film was made, he did Claude Berri's The Two of Us (1967), Truffaut's Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1972) and Claude Lelouch's And Now My Love (1974). My impression at the time was that Denner, though hardly a star, was known and liked by American cinephiles on the basis of these pictures.
He more or less disappeared after 1986, spending his last decade fighting cancer. Denner's death, on September 10, 1995, at the age of 69, was a sharp reminder that his best work belongs in the gallery of the best acting in film history, and ought to have the same (somewhat slim) chance of being remembered as the rest of that gallery. In any case, I say again to him: goodbye and thanks.
Claude Chabrol, 1930–2010
The film world changed late in the summer of 2010. One element left. For the previous 50 years or so, no matter what else was happening in that world, we knew that Claude Chabrol was making a film. He died on September 12, 2010, in Paris, at age 80; and that flow of (practically) a film a year halted. His work, varying of course in interest, rarely varied in the quality of its making. Besides the obvious fact that his films will be missed, we will also miss the constant knowledge that one is coming. (Well, one more came: Inspector Bellamy , with Gérard Depardieu.)
Chabrol's career was singular. He began as a critic in the Cahiers du cinema group, and with one of that group, Éric Rohmer, he wrote a book on Alfred Hitchcock. He made shorts. In 1952, he married (the first of three wives) and, with some money that his wife inherited, he made his first feature, Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge, 1958). The prestige of this work and Chabrol's very active support in every way helped to promote several other artists in the New Wave.
After a few more films in that Cahiers atmosphere, works of some sort of social or textural adventure, his consequent work, without losing any of its formal distinction, became more popular. It would be teasingly inaccurate to call him a sell-out, for he was seduced by the pleasure of making films into making as many as he could. A number of commentators have quoted John Russell Taylor's remark that it is difficult to evoke Chabrol's films on paper "because so much of the overall effect turns on Chabrol's sheer hedonistic relish for the medium."
Far from the tone of his earlier pictures, most of Chabrol's subsequent films involved mystery and murder without being anything like thrillers of the conventional type or even like his adored Hitchcock. His stories almost always had a core of character pertinence. Character was usually his chief concern – entanglements, oppositions, collusions and (drastic) results, all seen with a kind of Gallic sophistication and all slightly tinged with comic despair. The action was never less than immediate and whole, yet often we got the sense that he was sitting next to us, saying, "Now look at this."
Chabrol's chief latter-day attempt at something different, Madame Bovary (1991), was not one of his best. For myself, insofar as I can sort through in my mind the dozens of Chabrol films that I have seen, two immediately stand out: This Man Must Die (1969), in which a man seeks the runaway driver who killed his child, and Landru (1963), in which the director treated with magical irony the Bluebeard story that Chaplin had used in his "comedy of murders" Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The two pictures could and should be shown together.
It is almost enough to say of Chabrol's career that Landru (featuring Charles Denner in the title role) is a fit companion for Chaplin, just as Le Samouraï is a fit companion for Kurosawa or Coppola (if only to show how different Melville's 1967 film is from The Seven Samurai , on the one hand, and The Godfather , on the other). As for Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir, well, they don't really need companions: Godard is sui generis, and Renoir at his best is the best.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021