FRENCH '22: A Tale of Two Weekends
SINGLE TICKETS GO ON SALE LATER THIS WEEK...
THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT is the perfect embodiment of “life is a double-edged sword.” It’s truly a “film festival maudit” in that it celebrates works that have been dismissed and pushed out of view for more than a half-century.
This has been accompanied by the rise of a series of attitudes about cinema that evolved in the 1960s and continue to impose a strange, vise-like grip over a great “unwashed” group of film noirs made in France from 1932 to 1966—with exceptions granted only by certain folk with a iron grip on taste-making.
And there is the issue of “American exceptionalism” as well. To say that film noir was invented in France is to create consternation sufficient to cause otherwise left-of-center folks to want to rename those potatoes they’re having with that all-American ($20) hamburger “Freedom fries.” But the facts have emerged that such is the case, that the term “film noir” was invented—not in 1946 by Nino Frank as so often cited, but in the 1930s by French critics who loathed the (justifiable) pessimism on display in films like PEPE LE MOKO, HOTEL DU NORD and LE JOUR SE LEVE—films somewhat capriciously called “poetic realism” as a way to keep it cordoned off from what now can clearly be seen as a fully-fledged film noir movement that began in France in the early 1930s.
THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT began with a hope that it might change at least some of that, and while its success has been more limited than what we would have preferred, we have both thrived and survived into a ninth festival, which occurs over two weekends next month (Sunday 11/6 and Monday 11/7, followed by Saturday 11/12 and Sunday 11/13) with fifteen films in all, eleven of which have not screened before in any previous festival. All of that brings us to a nine-year total of 129 films (not counting re-screenings), 95% of which have not been seen in the USA for decades, and more than third of which were actually American premieres when we screened them.
OUR two weekends have a parallel design: they begin with those films new to the festival, and conclude with past festival favorites. We introduce our more comprehensive look at the unique “Occupation era” of French noir with our first film, GOUPI MAINS ROUGES aka IT HAPPENED AT THE INN (1943), part of the suite of “provincial gothic” films that added a distinct, compelling and unique sub-genre to film noir that continued to have a noticeable influence on French noir all the way into the 1960s. The subtitle for our double feature is “Madness Runs in the Family,” and when you see “the Goupis,” you’ll know exactly what we mean! GOUPI is the first seminal work from Jacques Becker, who escaped the wrath of the Cahiers du Cinema despite (or perhaps because of) a certain waywardness in his approach to filmmaking, which is definitely on display here.
Its companion film, LA TETE CONTRE LES MURS aka HEAD AGAINST THE WALL (1959), features a young Jean-Pierre Mocky, whose last name was an oddly accurate predictor for a unique, nose-thumbing type of career that defiantly continued on the margins of French cinema for more than a half-century. A brooding but pungent psychological noir, it also features Charles Aznavour in his first screen appearance, along with stalwart monstres sacrés Pierre Brasseur and Paul Meurisse as psychiatrists with totally opposed views of patient care (which results in a “big squeeze” for Mocky’s character).
The evening show is devoted to the career of the mostly unheralded director Pierre Granier-Deferre, who straddles the “end times” of classic French noir (mid-1960s, well after it’s moribund in the US) and what we’ve taken to call “neo-noir.” His first film, CLOPORTES (1965), where Lino Ventura emerges from jail with revenge on his mind, is the only one in the triple feature to still be in black & white. Top-name contemporary actors top-line the two films from the early 70s that conclude our tribute to Granier-Deferre: Simone Signoret and Alain Delon in THE WIDOW COUDERC (1971), a crisp updating of the “provincial gothic,” and, in LE TRAIN (1973), Romy Schneider and Jean-Louis Trintignant in a heart-stopping tale about the fall of France in 1940
.The weekend slides over to Monday (11/7) with an event I hope not to miss: a tribute to Mylène Demongeot (as was previewed in my previous Substack entry) that reprises her two indelible turns as noir vixen/noir heroine in KISS FOR A KILLER (1957) and THAT NIGHT… (1958), which transfixed audiences in what seems now to be so many years ago, at FRENCH 1 in 2014 and FRENCH 2 in 2015. In KISS, Demongeot’s Eve Dollan gives Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat a race to the end of time in terms of her beauty and her treachery…and I do not say this lightly!
WE will then regroup the following Saturday (11/12) for a serious look at the war years and their immediate aftermath, tracing how dark films took their cues from what was happening in real life and found ways to hone in on the terrible torment experienced in France during the Occupation era. Saturday afternoon immerses us in relevant films from Edmond T. Gréville, a favorite of the great French director/film historian Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021), who left us with an invaluable filmed document of a generous portion of overlooked films from the so-called “cinema de papa” period.
MENACES (1940) picks up on the pessimism and dread one experiences in LE JOUR SE LEVE, but places it squarely in the oncoming, encroaching shadow of the war. Erich von Stroheim gives us the first of what becomes a series of indelibly haunted characters: if allowed, I hope to bring more of these to the screen in the future.
LE DIABLE SOUFFLE (1947) is even more claustrophobic and perverse, a film that bowled Tavernier over with its sexual psychology and its audacious reversion to silent film principles to capture its transgressive, elemental character dynamics. It is an echo of the suppressed hysteria that enveloped France during the war, and is profoundly unsettling.
Being who I am (and how could I not be after nine years of this?), the evening shows are more macabre yet—the more familiar LE MAIN DU DIABLE (1943), another film that fascinated Tavernier so much that he made a film about its creation (LAISSEZ-PASSER, recommended). Pierre Fresnay comes to possess a gruesome talisman that put his soul in the hands of…well, you know who. Maurice Tourneur, father of Jacques, remains a compelling storyteller and visual stylist in the last decade of his career.
We complete Saturday with the last “provincial gothic” made during the war, Christian-Jaque’s SORTILEGES (1945, but completed the year before). We have another haunted character in the hands of Lucien Coedel, whom Jaque made into a dark analogue of the absent Jean Gabin for a few years before the rough-hewn actor died mysteriously (a fall from a moving train). This character lashes out against his haunted nature, commits murder, and creates terror and panic in a village where folks have only needed an initiating incident to turn themselves into a nest of vipers. Jaque is truly a great filmmaker for five years during and immediately after the war; some may come to see this as his finest achievement.
Sunday (11/13) brings us back into the realm of things more familiar, with appearances from actors who’ve become festival favorites over our nine years. We salute the beautiful and talented Françoise Arnoul, who was so attractive that many critics were unable to look past her breasts (even when writing her obituary!). We trust that you’ll find her facial expressions and her line delivery to be equally memorable in LA CHATTE (1958), a film in which venerable director Henri Decoin is the first to depict the French resistance (Arnoul’s character joins to avenge the death of her husband, and things get complicated).
And she is also memorable opposite Eddie Constantine in FRENCH 4’s surprise hit LUCKY JO (1964), another Tavernier favorite that shows how French noir encompassed the notion of “crime comedy” with more success than any other national cinema. French noir has a much greater affinity for the bittersweet than any other variant, and LUCKY JO is a superb exemplar of that.
Sunday evening bring us at last to THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT’s main men: Jean Gabin (naturellement…) and Robert Hossein (?!). I would judge their contributions to French noir to be of similar impact, though it will likely be decades before Hossein’s unique actor/director involvement with what I like to call “the last wave” of French noir (1956-66) is fully recognized.
Of course, the specter of Gabin overshadows everything, and his consummate artistry is still being rediscovered, even by those who claim to have seen forty or fifty of his films. The part of his career that is most intriguing to unearth is the “troubled phase” after WWII, when audiences were not happy with the roles he was choosing. As it turns out, the audiences were (mostly) wrong, and Gabin was (mostly) right. We are fortunate to have his unique, astringent update of “poetic realism” (whatever that really is…) overlain with Italian neo-realism and a generous dollop of the German “rubble film” in THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA (1949), a film that has suffered some backlash over the year since it was lauded with awards and accolades after its release. You are urged to come see it for yourself (in a good print, at last!) and make up your own mind.
Finally…and if it is “finally”, then salut! Robert Hossein (1927-2020) was the key discovery in a group of “young turk” directors who brought a unique energy to latter-day classic French film noir, permitting it to go out on a high note in 1966 when the key element that makes noir “noir” was abrogated: black & white cinematography. Hossein’s immersion in French noir during this period is immense, both as a director and as an actor-for-hire; in that latter capacity he was never better than in his role as the deadpan-but-desperate prison escapee who winds up in the vise-grip of a volatile vixen (Catherine Rouvel) who has killed her husband for (what else?) l’argent. CHAIR DE POULE (1963) is directed by the great Julien Duvivier, who helped to initiate French noir even before “poetic realism” with the delirious Simenon/Maigret adaptation LA TETE D’UN HOMME (1933).
And CHAIR DE POULE is the best French noir of the sixties: mordant, mocking, and melancholy, graced by a superb score from the great Georges Delerue, it takes a second-hand knockoff novel by the notorious James Hadley Chase and makes it into perverse, hard-boiled poetry. Hossein was never better, and every film festival should be so lucky to conclude on such a high (but lowdown) note.
I hope those of you “faithful” who are still on the fence will now be motivated to buy the discount pass for THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT ‘22 in the next two days before single tickets go on sale. $75 for 15 films—the individual double feature price is going to be $16 due to space limitations (and once those sales are underway, the ability to buy a pass will quickly disappear). FRENCH ‘22 is truly something special, and I hope that after coming to see it, you’ll agree with me. (Single tickets will go on sale later this week; look for an email blast announcement from the MCP subscription list that will guide you to the Roxie Theater site for purchasing selected shows.)