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The "non-blonde" and the very blonde...
VON STROHEIM & DEMONGEOT HIGHLIGHT FRENCH '23's FIRST SUNDAY
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THOSE who know me know that I am actually quite partial to brunettes, but when it comes time to buttering one’s bread in the ticket-selling business it would be absurd to avoid the stark truth that blondes do have more fun. Which was why the very first FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT festival in 2014 was packed with fair-haired lovelies (much to the consternation of several feminist critics—none of whom were blonde).
And so, in 2023, as we near the point of pause for this still-astonishing series, it’s time for another infusion of blondes (though be assured that I’m saving more of them for next year). Sunday, November 26th, our opening day/night kickoff for FRENCH ‘23, has blondes on display in all four films.
BUT our opening feature (THE DEVIL & THE ANGEL aka LA FOIRE AUX CHIMERES) also features someone I’ve taken to calling the “ultimate non-blonde”—if for no other reason that this person actually has no hair at all! Yes, that would be Erich von Stroheim to whom I refer, the great tragic figure of America’s silent cinema, symbol of the Hollywood that even the “post-studio age” still chews up and spits out its greatest talent.
What remains shockingly unknown about von Stroheim is his prolonged presence in France, consisting of two stints (1936-39 and 1946-57) in which he established himself as an actor of surprising range, even as he waited in vain for someone to let him direct again. It is perhaps no wonder that much of his filmography in this time frame features men who are haunted and scarred—and LA FOIRE AUX CHIMERES is possibly the greatest example of this character type.
I’VE presented von Stroheim sparingly in the FRENCH series: LA FOIRE AUX CHIMERES is only the fourth of twenty (!!) titles that clearly qualify to be featured in such a presentation. (I hold out the hope that a VON STROHEIM IN EXILE series might find itself showcased in a prestigious East Coast location sometime soon…)
For an appreciative synopsis of LA FOIRE AUX CHIMERES, you are directed to the entry at the late John Grant’s “Noirish” blog site, an extension of his magisterial doorstop of a reference book, A COMPREHENSIVE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM NOIR, which—as John cheerfully noted at “Noirish”—was not really comprehensive, but merely one of the most engaging books ever penned about this never-ending subject. John (R.I.P.) was clearly gob-smacked by this film, which was jeered into oblivion by the out-for-blood critics in the rancid atmosphere of 1946 France, where retribution was the order of the day. (Director Pierre Chenal, returning from a long wartime exile in South America, was not the only victim of this critical witch-hunt: what was done to Marcel Carné and LES PORTES DE LA NUIT was more harrowing still.)
And a five-star review of the film from the indefatigable French film historian Jamie Travers is also well worth your time.
SPEAKING of witch-hunts (no current politics referenced here, of course…), your attention is directed to our evening presentation on Sunday, November 26th of the long-unavailable French version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, made in 1957 under the title LES SORCIERES DE SALEM. In the giddy days of the first FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT festival (2014), when we were making postcards at a rate that threatened to send the world spinning off its orbit (and possibly its axis as well), we had a series of “Blonde” cards that succeeded in raising the audience’s collective temperature, finishing with Barbara Laage, the actress originally desired by Orson Welles to play Elsa Bannister in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.
If we’d had the ability to show LES SORCIERES DE SALEM then, the “Blonde” card for it would have been entitled “Blonde Fury” and it would have featured Mylene Demongeot, in the role that set up her all-too-brief run as the go-to femme fatale in French noir. (We did show her follow-up to SORCIERES, the James Hadley Chase barn-burner A KISS FOR A KILLER—in which Demongeot is electrifying.)
But as you’ll see if you join us, she is even more so in the role of Abigail Williams, the spurned mistress who turns the world of 1692 Salem, Massachusetts totally upside down with her accusations of witchcraft. An on-line reviewer provides a perfect description of Demongeot’s performance when he calls her “a disturbed force of nature.”
LES SORCIERES DE SALEM, which also features strong performances from the husband and wife team of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, languished in obscurity for more than sixty years; some say it was playwright Miller’s revenge on Montand for having had an affair with Miller’s wife—Marilyn Monroe. (You might have heard of her…)
Those who’ve attended FRENCH festivals over the past decade know by now that the noir impulse precedes American film noir; what is increasingly clear is that the destructive forces that well up within individuals and societies that we now routinely tag as “noir” were in existence long before cinema, manifesting themselves in theatre (think Othello) and in real life (think Salem, Massachusetts in 1692).
For the FRENCH series, this screening of SORCIERES completes a tribute to a very great, very underrated (and very blonde!) actress who was one of our very first astonishing rediscoveries. It is a great regret that circumstances did not permit us to bring Mylene Demongeot to America so that she would have seen with her own eyes just how much perverse pleasure her performance in A KISS FOR A KILLER provided to audiences. She was especially proud of her performance in LES SORCIERES, calling it “the role of a lifetime”—and I hope you’ll join us on November 26th to see it for yourself.