Category: French Cinema

The Guardians (Les gardiennes, France-Switzerland 2017)

This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.

Hortense (Nathalie Baye) and daughter Solange (Laura Smet)

Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Paridier (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the younger sister of Clovis? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.

Francine (Iris Bry) does much of the heavy work on the farm

Hortense says goodbye to her son Constant (Nicolas Giraud) watched by her brother Henri (Gilbert Bonneau)

Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.

The harvest in 1915 when the women work together

Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.

Iris Bry has an open and attractive face as Francine

Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.

I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.

Édouard et Caroline (France 1951)

Director Jacques Becker (1906-1960) was at his peak as a filmmaker in the late 1940s and 1950s, having spent much of the 1930s as an assistant to Jean Renoir. In the late 1940s and early 50s he directed a series of ‘social comedies’. Édouard et Caroline is one of these. The denouncement of the so-called ‘Quality Cinema’ or the ‘Cinéma du Papa’ (as François Truffaut called it) by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma spared Becker’s work. In her introduction to this film on the Studio Canal DVD, Professor Ginette Vincendeau describes Becker as being ‘in between’ the reviled quality film directors and la nouvelle vague directors. This was partly because of Becker’s association with Renoir and partly because the young critics recognised both the skill involved in Becker’s work and the stamp of a ‘personal vision’ similar to that which the Cahiers critics celebrated in the work of Hollywood directors such as a Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock.

Édouard et Caroline is almost like a theatrical stage production in that all the action takes place in two contrasting flats/apartments in central Paris (but in different arrondissements?) with only an opening and closing street shot and a few glimpses of staircases. Yet it is also highly cinematic with Robert Lefebvre’s fluidly roving camera. The dialogue and collaboration on the script is the responsibility of Annette Wademant who went on to also wrote significant films for Max Ophüls. She was much younger than Becker and this might have aided the sense of vitality in the interchanges between the central couple. With the camera movement and dialogue, the editing by Marguerite Renoir also helped keep the narrative moving. Because Becker was considered too ‘difficult’ and demanding and because the script in this case was so sparse, he had difficulty finding backers. Consequently the film had a small budget and a strict 30 day shooting schedule with penalties for over-runs.

An early stage in dressing when Caroline asks which shoes to wear

The titular characters are a young woman from a wealthy family (played by Ann Vernon) recently married to a young man from a poorer background (Daniel Gélin) who is a talented (and properly trained) pianist. They have little money and are living in a one room flat. All the action takes place over a few hours on the night when they have been invited to a party given by Caroline’s wealthy and well-connected Uncle Claude (Jean Galland). He has rented a grand piano and offered Édouard the chance to play for his special guests, some of whom may be able to help him get work and build a career. But Édouard is nervous about the opportunity and feels uncomfortable at the prospect of mixing with the haute bourgeoisie. Claude’s son Alain (Jacques Francis) presents another irritation with his snobbery towards Édouard and designs on his attractive cousin Caroline.

In genre terms, this film mixes elements from Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s with the sharp social observation of Jean Renoir and the sophisticated comedy of a Billy Wilder. As the dreaded party developed in Claude’s salon, I also caught a whiff of later Buñuel (Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962)). Others have suggested the comedies of Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. I don’t mean to suggest that the film is a mish-mash of styles. Instead it is a coherent social comedy with some darker moments and a developing satire of wealthy Parisians. The plot is simple but the characterisation is strong. The young married couple, brilliantly played by Vernon and Gélin, clearly love each other but the social stress of the party creates divisions between them that get blown up to dramatic proportions. I haven’t mentioned the careful set dressing and costume design as part of the mise en scène. Costume offers the twin drivers of the narrative. Edouard has that familiar split reaction to entering ‘high society’. He despises the flummery of evening dress but feels he must have the correct attire or people will look down on him. The whole thing is disturbing him and when he can’t find his waistcoat, he gets angry. Has Caroline misplaced it? She has her own problem. She feels a different version of the same unease, thinking her pretty  dress is now out of fashion and then attacking it with a pair of scissors to make it more like a current couture outfit. Becker and Wademant are able to use these two concerns to drive a wedge between the couple and to disrupt the party and Édouard’s eventual piano playing.

The wealthy guests gather for a song and a dance after Édouard’s playing.

I’d like to say more about the music Édouard does actually play (or rather ‘act’) since a professional musician’s hands double for him. I’m not knowledgeable enough about classical music to comment (I believe it is Chopin) but I do know that Becker himself was a jazz fan and he uses musical taste as one of his weapons in skewering the wealthy patrons here. They listen to Édouard’s playing politely and applaud appropriately but later we see them dancing enthusiastically to the kind of dance music Édouard (and Becker) despise. To add further indignity Becker introduces an American played by William Tubbs. Tubbs was an actor in several French and Italian films in this period. Here he speaks French with a terrible accent but proves to be much more perceptive about Edouard’s talent than the others.

I enjoyed this film very much, particularly the playing of the two leads and the fluidity  and choreography of the camera work and direction. The DVD (I think there is also a Blu-ray) has two other extras as well as Ginette Vincendeau’s excellent introduction. One is a long and detailed interview with Annette Wademant, Ann Vernon and Daniel Gélin much later from French TV. The interview, full of details about the production was part of a TV broadcast of the film. What a marvellous idea. Why have we never had such detailed coverage of film in the UK? Finally there is an interview with Becker himself in which he talks about his love of jazz and discusses his satire on those who don’t understand the music. I was prompted to watch the film after watching Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). Tavernier tells us that the first film he remembers seeing as a child was by Becker and that several years later as a teenager in the 1950s he began to realise that Becker was one of the greatest French directors. Tavernier’s analysis of Becker’s work is fascinating and has encouraged me to search out more of Becker’s work. He emphasises that Becker was one of the first French male directors to present women as central characters in their own write – something Ginette also discusses, suggesting that Édouard et Caroline suffered in the eyes of critics, partly because its mix of comedy and romance was taken less seriously than ‘masculine’ genre films.

Here’s a very short trail for the film from French TV which allows you to meet William Tubbs and to see Caroline’s dress after her modifications:

L’apparition (France 2018)

Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) works in the convent’s factory making duvets. Has she really seen the Virgin Mary? photo © Shanna Besson

L’apparition is a film with a UK cinema release by MUBI. No doubt it will eventually appear on MUBI’s streaming service. I’m surprised that the film did get a release in cinemas given the present hostile environment for foreign language films in the UK. It has several good points to recommend but at 137 minutes and relatively little ‘action’ it’s quite a difficult sell I would think. Some of the reviews have compared it with aspects of The Exorcist or a Dan Brown adaptation. I can see the connections but I’m not sure that they are helpful references.

The ‘apparition’ of the title refers to an event as understood by Roman Catholic ecclesiastical practice to involve a vision of the Virgin Mary – a ‘Marian apparition’. There have been many such events in history such as those of Saint Bernadette in the mid-19th century and more recently in Fatima, Garabandal and Medjugorje. At the beginning of the narrative the protagonist Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon) is returning from a journalistic assignment in the Middle-East (for the French newspaper with the largest circulation, Ouest-France), during which things have gone badly wrong with the death of his photographer partner. Jacques has PTSD and an injury affecting his hearing. He takes sick leave but is approached by the Vatican to become part of a ‘canonical investigation commission’ looking into this new apparition which has created considerable public interest in the French Alps. Jacques is an agnostic and his role is simply to ask questions of the young woman who has made the claim to have seen the Virgin. The remainder of the team will make observations based on their own specialisms.

Vincent Lindon – honesty, reliability, solidity (and potential for anger)? photo © Memento Films

After the opening scenes and Jacques’ summons to Rome, the next section of the film becomes ‘procedural’ as the newly-formed commission travels to the Alpine region of South East France where the site of the apparition seen by Anna Ferron (Galatéa Bellugi) has become ‘commercialised’ and a big attraction for pilgrims from around the world. 18 year-old Anna lives in a convent (where she operates a machine that blows the feathers into convent-branded duvets). She has two ‘protectors’ (beside the nuns). Her local priest has defied the Vatican to be her spiritual guide and there is a multi-lingual character who seems to represent a congregation in the US. He organises TV coverage of Anna’s appearances.

The film’s writer-director Xavier Giannoli had some success with his previous film Marguerite (France 2015) with Catherine Frot. In fact L’apparition is his seventh feature and several of his films have featured major French stars or well-known character actors. Giannoli wrote the film for Vincent Lindon and as one of the most reliable figures in French cinema he is expected to carry the whole film. Lindon often looks serious and sombre, as he does here. We trust him. We feel his pain. We also know there is an inner strength and the possibility that he could explode into violent action. But it is still a tall order to keep it going – and hold onto the audience – for over two hours without much support. That said, Galatéa Bellugi is always watchable as Anna.

The canonical investigation begins and Jacques asks the questions . . . photo © Shanna Besson

But is it interesting you ask? Well it might depend on your own religious/spiritual beliefs. Like Jacques, I’m an agnostic and once Jacques has performed his role as a disinterested interviewer I did wonder how the narrative would develop. It fairly soon turns into a familiar crime investigation – at least in terms of procedural conventions. Jacques meets Anna outside the formal proceedings, he visits the apparition site and tracks down Anna’s past. He even has a wall full of photographs and maps etc. in his room. As a journalist he wants to find the facts and he suspects that he hasn’t been offered the truth. I’m guessing that the concept of ‘truth’ is what Giannoli sees as the philosophical question. The Vatican and the other commission members follow practices that have their own internal logic about how claimed apparations and miracles should be evaluated. They are concerned to be seen to treat the claimants with compassion, but not to undermine the authority of the church. They have established criteria to use in a ‘canonical investigation’ so this is a carefully negotiated application of faith/belief and institutional values. It’s difficult for the rest of us to get engaged in this which is perhaps why we prefer the familiar excitement of Jacques’ investigation which tends to put human feelings at the top of the agenda. But perhaps this belief in journalistic investigation is just as constructed as the Vatican’s faith in its actions? In the Press Notes, Xavier Giannoli makes the point that:

. . . one should not imagine that the Church hopes for and encourages the authentication of apparitions. On the contrary, I think they are a hindrance to them . . . Faith doesn’t need proof or it’s no longer faith.

The ‘chase’ for Jacques and the fate of Anna and the tourist attraction that her vision has created involve the kind of narrative twists commonly found in crime fiction. There is also a coda in which Jacques finds a different kind of resolution, symbolically located in the desert. I was still with Jacques by the end of the narrative and I was moved by his relationship with Anna. I didn’t find the canonical investigation as interesting as I thought I might. There is a music score for the film in which Giannoli sees Arvö Part’s music which:

. . . doesn’t predispose you to accept the possibility of the supernatural. His music leaves room for silence, doubt, profound humanity and the poetry of doubt.

I’m afraid it didn’t do that for me or at least it did some of that but mainly seemed too relentlessly mournful. I’d have liked more of the visual expression offered by the feather-blowing machine. Overall, the presentation of the commercialisation of the apparition site and the pilgrimage industry is very good. In terms of religious belief it would be interesting to compare this film with Stations of the Cross (Germany 2014).

Diabolo menthe (Peppermint Soda, France 1977)

One of the stunts pulled by the girls to undermine their teacher

Diabolo menthe was the first film directed by Diane Kurys who has become associated with films about women’s stories, some of which are autobiographical. As Carrie Tarr (2000: 240) has suggested, the film’s critical and commercial success on its release is due partly to the impact of early 1970s feminism which helped create an audience for women’s stories. Kurys would go to produce seven films and this first success would see her name associated with women’s films – something she herself resisted. (See ‘Maternal Legacies: Diane Kury’s Coup de Foudre (1983) in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds) French Film: text and contexts (2nd ed), London Routledge.)

The film begins at the end of the summer holidays with Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ playing on the soundtrack as one of the central characters, Anne Weber (Eléonore Klarwein), leaves the beach in Normandy after her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) is enticed into the sea by a boy. It’s the last day of the holiday and the girls are waved off at the station by their father. Next day their mother (Anouk Ferjac) sends them off to the first day of the new school term in the academic year 1963-4. Anne is 13 and Frédérique 15 so they will generally go their own ways in the strict single-sex school. The Jewish Webers are always going to be on the outside. Although the main focus is on Anne, we will also follow something of the stories of the Frédérique and of the girls’ mother. They only see their father on rare occasions. The film’s title refers to a soft drink served in the café which is Frédérique’s hangout, but which Anne visits in an act of bravado.

Frédérique (right) and Martine (Valérie Stano), the class rebel. Anne looks over Martine’s shoulder

The film is like a diary of the school year with incidents at school matched by the embarrassments of domestic life – like going on a picnic with mum’s new boyfriend. Some of the teachers are mean and unpleasant and the film has fun with them. We also meet some of Anne’s friends in her class and elsewhere in the school – and also Frédérique’s classmates. Many of the incidents involve what I can only guess was/is very common in girls’ schools – finding ways to avoid gym and double maths, cheating in class, asking your mum for a first pair of stockings etc. I recognised some of the stunts that we pulled around the same time in school – and the cruel way we treated some of the less confident teachers (see the image above). Kurys is very clever in the way she weaves more serious issues into a narrative about teenagers in school. One of these is the attempt by middle-class parents to ‘expose’ teachers in the school with leftist backgrounds. Anne finds herself unwittingly part of this at a friend’s house and at the same time her mother is being condescended to as a mother who isn’t home for her children. Significantly, it is the one teacher who seems aware of questions of pedagogy who prompts her class to ask questions about politics. One girl movingly offers her personal testimony about being witness to an OAS terror attack in Paris and being horrified by the policing of the aftermath. Frédérique will get deeper into the political issues at school, challenging the fascists and anti-semites.

Anne and the boy who picks her up at a dance

The writing is very sharp about the petty squabbles between the two sisters and about tastes and pretensions. Frédérique aspires to be an intellectual who claims to have seen a Resnais film, but agrees to go with Anne to see The Great Escape – but draws the line at the idea of seeing the Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (UK 1963). (This is the third mention of Richard or his songs in the film and a Shadows instrumental follows – presumably the Beatles hadn’t broken in France at this time?) For some reason, I can’t find images of Anouk Ferjac as the mother, but she does have an important role in the narrative. Carrie Tarr comments on that mainstream film convention that sees the mother in this kind of narrative as ‘angel’ or ‘witch’ – sacrificing all for her daughters or strangling them in her apron strings. Mme Weber (I don’t think we hear her first name) is a more human figure who tries to be strict about school but has fun with her daughters and tries to do her best for them, but still have a life of her own. The film accurately represents the period (i.e. I recognised what would have happened in the UK in 1963) but by modern standards the girls have a lot of leeway and do things that might now be considered ‘shocking’ – such as when Frédérique hitch-hikes alone or Anne is alone in the house for a few days. Frédérique’s close friendship with an older man, one of the other girls’ fathers, also provokes.

The film ends as it began, back on the beach a year later. It’s a good-looking film, photographed by Philippe Rousselot (who went to Hollywood in the 1980s). I liked the montage of stills that show Frédérique on holiday and overall Kurys, on her directorial début, does a great job in representing school life and marshalling such a large cast. My only visual problem with the film is that with all the girls wearing the same white coats in the classroom it’s sometimes difficult to tell if we are in Anne’s or Frédérique’s class. The film was shot in the ‘real’ Lycée Jules Ferry and I was intrigued to discover that Ferry was the politician responsible for enshrining the concept of laïcité (secularisation) in the French state education system.

The Monthly Film Bulletin review of the film by John Gillett on its UK release in 1980 is short and not particularly helpful. He makes the obvious point that all French films of this kind will inevitably be compared to Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959) and there are certainly elements that Diabolo menthe shares with the earlier film. But there are important differences and as Tarr detects stories like this which involve three central female characters needed to be made in the 1970s and this one hit the spot. Gillett seems to read the film as being mainly ‘about’ Anne’s alienation – from school and her family. I didn’t read it that way. I think she is experiencing what many younger siblings must feel. It is interesting though that the narrative feels mostly about Anne in the early part, but later shifts focus to Frédérique. If the film is ‘semi-autobiographical’, Anne represents Diane Kurys as the younger sister and she seems to have turned out fine. I do wonder if MFB critics lavished the same amount of energy reviewing ‘first films’ as they did for established auteurs. I enjoyed the film very much and kudos to the BFI for re-releasing the DVD with some interesting ‘extras’. It’s well worth digging out.

Here’s the original ‘bande annonce‘ (no subtitles, but the feel of the film is easy to grasp).

Varda: Le bonheur (Happiness, France 1965)

François (Jean-Claude Drouot) and Thérèse (Claire Drouot) enjoying the pastoral

Agnès Varda has just had her 90th birthday and a season of her films is touring UK cinemas. If you’ve never seen an Agnès Varda film, you should seek out your nearest screening forthwith. Varda is a cinematic genius and Le bonheur is marvellous. On the DVD I watched, Varda introduces her film as part of a tribute to her by the TV arts channel ‘arte’. She chooses a vacant lot in her neighbourhood and, because arte is bilingual, she invites a young German boy to translate for her. The wasteland is decorated with posters for her films and she carefully positions herself for the camera so that the backdrop changes to the leaves of a group of saplings waving in the sunshine. She explains that she loves nature and she especially likes picnics, so in Le bonheur there are three. This intro is reminiscent of her autobiographical film The Beaches of Agnès (France 2008) in which she creates a beach on the street where she lives in Paris.

Thérèse dresses the local brides

The setting and the approach to filming Le bonheur is in line with Varda’s ideas throughout her career. The location is Fontenay-aux-Roses, a small community in the South-Western outer suburbs of Paris. In 1964 it must have still been almost like a rural village. François (Jean-Claude Drouot) works for his uncle’s small carpentry company. Drouot is tall and handsome and at this time he was the star of a French TV historical adventure series set during the Hundred Years War – perhaps that is why Varda names him François Chevalier (i.e. a ‘knight’). Drouot’s own wife Claire plays Thérèse Chevalier and the couple’s own small children play Pierrot and Gisou Chevalier (none of them are professional actors). Unsurprisingly, family life chez Chevalier often feels like it is being ‘captured’ by a documentary camera – and this extends to scenes featuring other members of the extended family and some of the scenes where friends and neighbours visit the small house or meet the Chevaliers in social situations. (Thérèse is a dressmaker and young women come to her for a wedding dress.) The family are seemingly blissfully happy during these summer months. But Varda has ideas about what ‘happiness’ might actually mean. I guess I should warn you if you haven’t seen the film or heard about its reputation. Many audiences have found the film ‘shocking’ for a number of reasons. The UK film certification board gave it an ‘X’ in 1965 (no one under 16). The DVD I watched carries an ’18’ certificate but the BBFC website lists a ’15’ (confusion like this is not unusual as tastes and moral codes change over time). The ‘advice’ from the board is that the film contains ‘sexualised nudity’. But this isn’t what shocks.

Gisou visits her latest cousin – while the extended family are outside

François meets Émilie (Marie-France Boyer) at the post of office in Vincennes

I should place a SPOILER warning here.

I can’t really discuss the film if I don’t reveal the main plot points, so if you want to watch the film without any foreknowledge don’t read on until you’ve seen it. The plot is very simple. François is so happy in his marriage to Thérèse that when he meets an attractive Post Office counter clerk, Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), he feels that he can add to his own happiness by falling for Émilie and loving her as much as he loves his wife. For a time François makes love to both women, sometimes on the same day. Émilie has moved to Fontenay from Vincennes on the other side of Paris and she joins in the local social celebrations, on one occasion attending the same event as Thérèse. The situation can’t last. During an idyllic summer picnic in the woods, Thérèse tells François she’s never seen him look so happy. Unable to contain himself, François tells her about Émilie, assuring Thérèse he loves her just as much as before. He explains this with a reference to an orchard of apple trees. He’s very happy in the orchard with his family, but he sees a beautiful apple tree on the other side of the wall and decides to investigate. Now he is happy inside and outside the orchard. With their children asleep under a bush, François and Thérèse make love. When François awakes, Thérèse is gone. She has drowned in the nearby river, whether by design or accident isn’t very clear. A few months later François and Émilie are re-united with the two small children.

Francois and Émilie

The film was a big success in France and around the world. The DVD carries a short discussion about the film involving four people, two journalists, a producer and a woman running a women’s charity. Two of these people saw the film on release, the others have seen the film more recently (the discussion is in 2005, I think). I suspect that the discussion points will probably be repeated by groups of people who see the film in 2018. The key issue seems to be what did the writer-director, an avowed feminist, want to say in 1964 when she shot the film? To expose the naïveté and arrogance of the man or to satirise ideas about family life and bourgeois ‘happiness’? But before making pronouncements it is a good idea to consider the formal aesthetics of the film. It is very beautiful to watch with images carefully composed and framed. Colour is used in dramatic ways. In her intro Varda explains how after 40 years the colours had faded but how, by painstaking work with original negatives, the restoration has reproduced the colours of the original.

The intense colours of some of the pastoral scenes are highlighted in the costume choices in this scene

The colours in the film are bold primary colours emphasised in two ways in contrast to the pastel shades of summer picnics. At one point, Varda’s camera (under the control of Charles Beausoleil and Jean Rabier, long-term collaborators with Varda and her husband Jacques Demy) discovers a series of shopfronts, each painted a single primary colour – red, blue or green. Did Varda repaint these buildings? A sunflower set against a field of corn is a study in yellow. Varda also challenges conventions by using fades and dissolves which are suffused by a single colour rather than the traditional black. She uses different techniques to show an instant rapport when two characters meet – cutting rapidly between close-ups. Similar camera techniques are used in other scenes. At one point the camera tracks left and right along a street party scene with locals dancing. As the camera passes a large tree in the foreground, the focus shifts and when sharp focus is regained, the dancers have changed partners. Thérèse is wearing a red dress, Émilie is in green. François dances with both women (there is no suggestion that the women know each other) among several other partners. This scene is a good example of how Varda’s documentary camera is allied to an expressionist sensibility – as it is in Cléo de 5 à 7.

Renoir on TV – a colour broadcast in 1964?

Le bonheur is not a realist film with a sociological underpinning, despite the documentary feel. It’s a film of playful devices and moments of intertextualities. The colours and aspects of the plot link it to Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg – François met Thérèse during his military service and brought her back to Fontenay to marry. One of the strongest links is the tradition of al fresco eating that recurs in French art. At one point a film is playing on the TV set in the uncle’s home. The film is Jean Renoir’s 1959 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass). Both Manet and later Monet produced paintings with the same title during the Impressionist phases. Renoir himself had earlier used the ‘picnic’ as a vehicle to set up a multi-narrative, including seduction, in Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936). In Renoir’s 1959 film an older character pontificates about happiness. The odd thing about this scene is that the film is in colour, but as far as I’m aware, French TV did not begin regular colour transmissions until 1967. This anachronism is repeated with a reference to Viva Maria!, Louis Malle’s film starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau together for the first time. It was not released until the end of 1965 in France but Thérèse tells François she wants to see it. She also asks him (while stroking his back) “Which one do you prefer, as a woman?” “As a woman, you”, he replies. There is then an immediate cut to the carpentry workshop where we see that the door to the food cupboard is festooned with pin-up images of Bardot – and one of Moreau. At first, I thought we see François opening the cupboard door, but it’s one of his workmates. Even so, the cut reminded me of that moment in Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist (1960) when a character swears on his mother’s life and a swift insert sees the old lady keeling over. Just before the Bardot/Moreau moment in Le bonheur, the  image of François shaving is juxtaposed with a soap advert that fills the screen with ‘Un savon d’homme!’ (a soap for men!). The sequence immediately before this is a smiling Émilie behind the post office counter, clearly smitten with François. Varda tells a story completely through montage editing. The use of an advert is picked up in Amy Taubin’s essay for the Criterion DVD label which re-released the film in the US. She compares the film to Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). That film takes ‘her’ to be both a wife and part-time prostitute as well as signifying Paris. The film is a commentary on consumerism and politics in the new, ‘modern’ Paris of 1966. In Varda’s film, made only two years earlier, the new high-rise flats of Paris are only glimpsed a couple of times in the distance. Otherwise her film is both ‘traditional’ in depicting small-town France and ‘timeless’ in its exploration of the mores of love and life and community. In the discussion of the film on the DVD, one participant sees it as a story set in a ‘Garden of Eden’.

I love this film. I’ve written nearly 2000 words and barely scraped the surface of what Varda achieved in 80 minutes. I will have to watch scenes again to see just how the editing works before thinking more about the carpenter and his lovely wife and beautiful children. And I haven’t even started on the stamps that Émilie sells and the posters in the Post Office.

In the original trailer below, you’ll see an iconic pop image of Sylvie Vartan but the music on the trailer is Mozart – two pieces which form the main music soundtrack of the film. I’m something of a philistine re classical music and on this occasion I found the Mozart too loud and too distracting but many others have commented on the music as an excellent choice, suggesting that it perfectly matches the tone of the comedy/drama.

HOME in Manchester starts its Varda screenings this week with a 1 hour intro by Isabelle Vanderschelden on Thurs 26th followed by Varda’s first feature La Pointe Courte (1954) and on Friday her latest film Faces/Places (2017) – Le bonheur screens Saturday 4th August. In London, the BFI Varda seasons continues this week and FACT Liverpool has several Varda screenings (Le bonheur on 8th August) as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018. Le bonheur shows three times at Watershed, Bristol in early August and Curzon has a ‘Gleaning Truth’ season of Varda films at various of its cinemas during August. There are other venues with similar programmes so don’t miss the opportunity this summer – check out your local specialised cinema!

La femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, France 1981)

Anne (Marie Rivière) and François (Philippe Marlaud)

This is the first offering in Éric Rohmer’s ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series of six films in the 1980s. There is a second title for the film, ‘On ne saurait penser à rien’. I find French quite difficult to translate and presumably this refers to the proverb. Wikipedia suggests, ‘It is impossible to think about nothing’ and this is certainly expressed in one of the film’s long dialogue exchanges. Rohmer’s films often revolve around triangles of relationships in which one character chooses between two possible lovers. Here ‘the aviator’ Christian is part of a triangle seemingly pivoting on Anne, a young office worker in her her mid-twenties living in a tiny apartment in Central Paris. Her current boyfriend is François, a 20 year-old student who works occasional night shifts in a mail sorting office to finance his studies. Early one morning, attempting to deliver a note to Anne before she wakes, he is surprised to see her leaving her apartment block with Christian. Later that day, having met Anne at lunchtime, François sees Christian with another woman and decides to follow the couple. His amateur sleuthing leads him into an encounter with Lucie, a bubbly 15 year-old student attempting to do her German language revision outdoors. After a while we realise that there is a second triangle which pivots on François who spends most of the film in dialogue with Anne, Lucie and then Anne again. Christian is in effect a MacGuffin – a character whose importance is in what he prompts as action in other characters. This is the case with François but less so with Anne.

François (on the right of the screen, behind a car) watches Christian and the mystery woman as they leave the station)

In these later films Rohmer often uses less well-known or non-professional actors. That’s certainly true for the lead here. Philippe Marlaud as François had only appeared in one film before, but that was for Maurice Pialat, one of the major directors of the 1980s, in a leading role. Tragically Marlaud died from burns received in a campsite fire shortly after the film was released. Some of the reviewers describe him as ‘plain’ but I think he looks fine and is very good in the part. Marie Rivière (Anne) and Mathieu Carrière (Christian) are still working as actors with long careers. Rivière worked again with Rohmer and Carrière, born in Germany has worked extensively in both German and French industries. Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) is the real mystery. She was active in TV and cinema from 1975 to 1989 after which time IMDb has no more entries. She too worked again for Rohmer. The two inexperienced actors stole the show for me. Anne-Laure Meury is so lively and mischievous. I’ve rarely seen an actor make such an impression. Marie Rivière has the most difficult role as Anne. She is terribly thin and Rohmer emphasises this by having her dressed in only a camisole and bikini style knickers (she has been resting in bed) when François arrives at her apartment the second time (see image below). She then has a long conversation with him, constantly covering and exposing herself in a very animated way. If it seems unfair to comment on costume and body movements, bear in mind that Rohmer’s camera style (Bernard Lutic is the cinematographer) tends to frame long dialogues as two shots or if shooting shot/reverse shot, still avoids close-ups to show a character almost in long-shot (i.e. with the whole body in shot). Rivière became one of Rohmer’s ‘stock company’ actors, so she was presumably happy with the scenes (though given all the #MeToo comments recently we can’t be sure).

Anne opens the door to François and invites him in.

Rohmer’s style is unique, though some critics have tried to link it to the later style of Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films about the meeting of characters played by Julie Delpy ad Ethan Hawke. I can see that, but I think Linklater imbues his narratives with more dramatic tension and also plays with his stars’ screen presence. From the several reviews of The Aviator’s Wife that I’ve seen I would agree with one who makes a reference to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Baisers volés (1968) and Domicile conjugal (1970). I find myself identifying with François who is treated very badly by Anne and teased in a friendly way by Lucie. As with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel the women are dominant characters and François is unsure and sometimes bungling in his attempt to engage with them. Anne seems like a rather cruel creation by Rohmer, though if we consider her situation and her view on life, it isn’t all that unreasonable. In many ways she is the most modern character. By contrast, Lucie is a young man’s dream – bright, bubbly and fun. She’s very attractive and seemingly full of energy and initiative. On the other hand, her general demeanour and maturity seem unusual for a 15 year-old, so she is plausibly a ‘romantic’ creation.

Anne is annoyed when François finds her at lunch-time and tries to brush him off.

Lucie is bright, bubbly and fun

Rohmer, in retrospect, seems ‘out of time’ in the French cinema of the 1980s. I wonder what contemporary young audiences would make of his stories of love and romance set in the context of ‘Comedies and Proverbs’. Would they find them unbearably slow? Would they be baffled by a world which revolves around postcards and public telephones and notes pushed under a door? I suspect that rather than ‘out of time’, Rohmer’s tales are timeless. This one is currently on MUBI. I have a couple more on disc/tape somewhere, perhaps I’ll go back to them. If nothing else, his films offer an almost documentary take on Parisian streets, buses and the Metro. The trailer below (no subs) gives an idea of how the two stills above were worked into scenes.

La Bataille du rail (The Battle of the Rails, France 1946)

I read about this film many years ago but could never find it. I think it has now been restored in France, but the print I watched was OK (I don’t know its provenance). On its release in 1946, René Clément’s film was compared to the earliest works of Italian neo-realism, especially Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. Like that film it offers a narrative about the final years of occupation, this time in France. The neo-realist tag refers to both the number of non-professional actors, the location shooting and the use of long shot to encompass the contribution of many characters to the overall story. Once the euphoria of liberation and the promotion of the ‘myth’ of résistance had subsided, the film was then subject to a revisionist view and Clément found himself in the late 1950s/early 1960s subject to attacks from Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, despite his high reputation for films such as Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952). See, in particular, the discussion by critics in Cahiers 71, May 1957, included in Jim Hillier’s edited collection of Cahiers excerpts Vol 1: 1950s (BFI/Harvard UP 1985). They accuse Clément of taking a turn away from neo-realism and indulging in ‘academicism’ – going for expensive international films. Jacques Rivette is especially rude claiming that Clément (along with Henri Clouzot and Claude Autant-Lara) is a “coward . . . corrupted by money”.

When I first saw Plein de soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) I realised just how misguided Truffaut and co. were. The general revisionist view of French résistance and collaboration is a more complex issue. As we’ve noted several times on this blog, especially in our discussion of Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, France 1996), the common myth circulated within French culture in the 1950s and up to the 1980s/90s was that most French people were actively engaged as résistance fighters or Nazi collaborators. Historians think now that most French people just tried to live their lives during the Occupation (or the closed world of collaborationist Vichy). Only a minority were actively resisting or collaborating. How individuals fared after 1940 was much more nuanced than the myth allowed.

Setting charges to cause derailments

Clément was unlucky in that one of the ‘godfathers’ of La nouvelle vague was Jean-Pierre Melville who had been active in the resistance and who went on to make important films set during the occupation including Le Silence de la mer (1949) and L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Clément himself had previously made short films, including short documentaries from the mid 1930s onwards (he was born in 1913). One of these shorts, Ceux de rail (1942) depicted a rail journey from Nice to Marseille and appears to have prompted the ‘National Résistance’ organisation to encourage Clément to make La Bataille du rail.

Wheeltappers could cause disruption by requiring wagons to be withdrawn

The ‘Battle’ depicts the efforts by French railway workers to sabotage train movements and to hinder by any means possible the contribution of the railway system to the German war effort. In the early part of the film, Clément offers a montage of incidents showing how resistance fighters could be smuggled past German checkpoints inside a locomotive tender or in compartments used to transport animals, how bombs could be planted on locomotives and brakes cut or fuel drained away. In these scenes it is difficult to identify any significant characters or a specific narrative. Instead, this part of the film functions almost as a documentary – a manual on how to subvert the railway system. It’s worth noting that Clément begins the film with a warning posted by the Germans forbidding Jews to cross the ‘demarcation line’ between Vichy and the Occupied Zone. We see a woman and child be led away from a train at the border checkpoint.

Cheminots lined up to be executed

In the second part of the film there is a strong narrative and some individualised characters. The narrative is a form of the classic ‘locomotive chase’ (i.e. like the Buster Keaton film The General). It is June 1944 and the Allies have landed in Normandy. The Germans need to re-inforce their Atlantic defences. Various troop trains and trains carrying tanks and field artillery are marshalled to be sent to Normandy. The résistance charges the railway workers to stop the trains at all costs. Some are derailed or bridges are blown-up. Eventually the narrative focuses on one branch line and one small town and Clément revels in the details of the workers’ methods and then an attack on an armoured train by the maquis. This  is a very accomplished technical achievement by Clément and his cinematographer Henri Alekan. The production had the full support of SNCF and I’ve rarely seen shots of freight yards and engine sheds/turntables etc. as extensive as these in a fiction film. Clément doesn’t get lost in technicalities. There are key scenes involving railway workers (cheminots) taken by the Germans as hostages and executed in an attempt to deter sabotage. The German armoured train was preceded by a flat car carrying forced labour. When sabotaged track was spotted, the forced labour would be required to re-lay the track under German guns. The presence of the forced labour was also a problem for the maquis, who needed to avoid killing the innocent. We do in this second narrative recognise the regional track controller who organises the sabotage and any other methods to thwart the Germans. We also see his ‘fixer’ who is sent out by motor bike to relay instructions.

A Germa tank leaves an armoured train to attack the maquis

Although there are these individuated characters, La Bataille du rail does differ from the films of Rossellini (i.e. Rome, Open City and Paisa) in the way that it avoids ‘personal, emotional stories’ and therefore melodrama. Instead, it appears that everyone is allied in the attempt to defeat the Germans – not something that was necessarily the case but certainly something that would be supported by the film’s producers and sponsors, the National Résistance Council and SNCF.

I hope to find more examples of René Clément’s work in the 1940s and 1950s in order to see if the Cahiers criticism is valid. Susan Hayward in French National Cinema (Routledge 1993) calls La Bataille du rail, the French résistance film, though she also makes the point that it can be misread as creating the myth of résistance. Clément went on to make several other films set during the war. The late 1940s was a key period for films like this.

There is a useful essay on the film by Adrian Danks on Senses of Cinema.

A production still on the set for crane sabotage (see clip below)

Here’s an extract from the film in which, having already derailed a train, a railway worker sets out to sabotage the crane which is being used to clear wagons from the track (the sequence is largely dialogue free):

Jeune femme (France-Belgium 2017)

Paula (Laetitia Dosch) with Muchacha in a cheap hotel room

This is quite a difficult film for an aged male writer. Paula, the protagonist of Jeune femme (also known as Montparnasse Bienvenüe) is not introduced to us with any background. She’s more or less literally thrown at us, headbutting the door of a Paris apartment, whose resident doesn’t want to let her in. Taken to A&E to have her forehead stitched, she angrily dismisses the doctor on duty, steals a coat and discharges herself. Taking a cat, ‘Muchacha’, which we later discover belongs to the owner of the apartment, she begins a tour of Paris looking for a place to kip and a means of earning money. At this point I was seriously worrying whether I could cope with another 90 minutes of this. I was reminded of a British film from last year, Daphne, also about a 30-something woman, but this time in London. After writing about that film, I decided not to post a review since I didn’t really like the film. In the case of Jeune femme, however, I stuck with Paula and eventually began to warm to her character and by the last third I began to really enjoy the film.

Paula with Yuki (Léonie Simaga) who she meets on the Metro

Jeune femme is a first feature for Léonor Serraille who co-wrote the film with Clémence Carré and Bastien Daret, both similarly inexperienced writers for features. Paula is played by Laetitia Dosch who has significantly more experience as a leading actor. I think some of the positives (and perhaps some of the negatives) come from the script and direction. The performance by Dosch is very good but sometimes the plotting becomes quite weak. The basis for the narrative is the idea that Paula, now having broken up with a former partner, is partly looking for the basics – some money, a job, somewhere to live – but also looking to ‘find herself’. The narrative therefore becomes that of the ‘picaresque’ or almost like a road movie set in Paris as she moves from one situation to another. sometimes it feels like a series of sitcom sketches. Eventually we realise that Paula has got to 31 without having gone through many of the experiences of her contemporaries. She’s spent ten years with an older man who was her teacher at first but then used her as his ‘muse’, photographing her and exhibiting his work. This comes home to Paula when she realises that unlike the other young women she meets working at a ‘knicker bar’ in a shopping centre, she has no postgraduate degree to complete and no ambitions for the future.

Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) and Paula (Laetitia Dosch) on a meal break

Female film critics and fans of the film have made connections with the UK TV series Fleabag and the US series Girls as well as films such as the Greta Gerwig starrer Frances Ha. Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound (June 2018) focuses on the central issue when she asks if the emphasis in these types of female narratives on the ‘messiness’ of the central characters’ lives is “feminist or quite the reverse”. Paula is needy but is this to be read as something for others to respond to and to understand as a product of a patriarchal society – or does she instead need a lesson in developing some ‘adult life skills’ and a plan about what to do next? In McGill’s terms, “this is the line along which Jeune femme wobbles in terms of Paula’s neediness”. Part of the problem is that the women Paula meets are either very critical or very forgiving. Only the women workers at the knicker bar talk to her sensibly about practical things. She meets few men and most are abominable. The exception is the security guard at the knicker bar, Ousmane (played by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye – the lead in La pirogue (France-Senegal 2012)). When I reflected on the film it struck me that Paula (and therefore the whole narrative) changes when she meets Ousmane. Ousmane reminded me of similar characters in A Season in France (2017) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (still sadly unreleased in the UK). I hope that African migrants will eventually be treated as just another character with good or bad points. I don’t want to see them typed as ‘noble’ or ‘savage’. I don’t think that Jeune femme falls into that trap but we need more diversity in casting generally. The cat seems to think Ousmane is OK as well and I was relieved to see it being looked after by him. Paula’s initial treatment of the cat certainly didn’t make me warm to her.

Lila (Lila-Rose Gilberti), Paula’s young charge as a nanny, comes to see Paula as a friend

Ousmane’s humanity seems to infect everyone, but particularly Paula and as the film moves towards its climactic sequence with the ex-boyfriend it does seem like the narrative will have a conventional resolution. But in the end it doesn’t, seeing the now ‘sorted’ Paula ready to face whatever is coming next. The film has plenty of music, mostly by Julie Roué, but the Gil Evans jazz number ‘Las Vegas Tango’ is particularly significant according to writer-director Léonor Serraille. In the Press Notes she offers some interesting background to the production and the decisions she made along the way. She tells us that initially the script was 140 pages and was then cut down to make the 97 minute film (which might explain the gaps in the plotting). She comments on her use of a clip from Sirk’s Imitation of Life (US 1959) – her relationship with her own mother is important as it is in Sirk’s melodrama – and also comments on the various films and actors’ performances which have inspired her. She makes this interesting statement:

Jeune Femme, which is Montparnasse Bienvenüe’s French title, could have been called ‘Young Women‘ as the entire crew is made up of women: cinematographer, sound engineer, editor, sound editor, production designer, music composer, producer . . .

I’m glad that I did eventually get on board with Paula and her struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it and I hope it is a big success in the UK.