Pépé le Moko (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1937) – A masterpiece of setting and staging. It’s in Algiers, within the Casbah, and it treats its environs and those native to it as simply mise-en-scene, but this is to be expected from 1930s poetic realism. Everything about this is “classic,” exactly what defines the “golden age” of French cinema as “golden.” From a non-auteur, essentially flawless in terms of its direction, Jean Gain front-and-center, destined for doom in both its love story and its gangster drama, this film is a great case study for the difference between narrative desire and character identification. At the character level, we want Pépé to get away with it, but even midway through the story, if we stop and think about it, we know that he must be caught or killed and that we will be unhappy if he doesn’t. Algiers here is the foreign and colonized other, an ideal labyrinthine setting in which a French outlaw hides from the law in a land in which the law struggles to have dominion.
Contempt (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) – Despite Contempt being considered Godard’s most mainstream effort, JLG problematizes and complicates even that notion. The film is all over the place, as much as any of Godard’s films, at least from the standpoint of what is “standard narrative cinema.” He plays with Bardot as a star (that is, he plays with Bardot and he plays with the idea of the “star”) and with Fritz Lang as a director (“). The film is so dominated with overhead shots of the Italian coast – fitting, considering we enter into the film by means of the camera at the end of a long trucking shot, when the “other” camera pans and tilts down toward us. In so doing, the camera dominates the landscape as well as, famously, Bardot’s figure. Leo Bersani’s admirable Forms of Being deals productively with Contempt, particularly in terms of its debt to the Greek tragedy being staged within its diegesis. Essentially, Contempt deconstructs being. Just as Bardot, in the early and infamous shots, fractures her and she fractures herself (asking, in turn, what he thinks of each of her body parts), the character of Odysseus has no voice in the film within the film. The most (and best) shots we get of the tragic characters are statues smattered with Godardian paint, paint that fundamentally alters their character by means of the Technicolor in which Godard is shooting. That old adage about drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa – Godard does so here, and as irreverently as ever. As Bersani mentions, Godard flaunts how well read he is as well as how little he reveres what he has read. Every proverb is turned into a platitude, every wisdom into a cheap commonplace. The film’s own production (in terms of the politics between Godard and the producers and actors) further attests to the constructedness of the film that Godard blatantly deconstructs before our eyes. The final shot, as Bersani notes, is of a liquid landscape, a sea of nothingness without even the trace of human activity. The camera pans away from the diegetic camera whose action it had followed, in a rather Antonioni fashion, away from the staging and into a void.
Le Corbeau (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943) – For being another non-auteur, another director not-so-championed by his French brothers and sisters once the nouvelle vague hit, Clouzot was a master of creating tight, cohesive films based on a central narrative. But alas, this is the very definition of the metteur-en-scene, precisely what the new, self-proclaimed auteurs despised. If there is an “author” prior to (or constructed by) this film, he sacrifices his status as such for the sake of the film. Rather than stain the film with his signature, he omits it and in so doing subjugates himself to his creation. But Le Corbeau is a great counter-example of such a pre-nouvelle vague stereotype, since, as others have observed, its subtext subverts its text in a time when texts were censored. During the Nazi occupation, French film production had restrictions imposed upon it, and so Le Courbeau‘s narrative revolving around informants in a small French town offended nearly everyone upon its release. As you recognize this while watching the film, the thought crosses your mind, maybe Clouzot had it right and the nouvelle vague had it wrong. He drew attention to the film’s subtext and produced something highly political that got him temporarily kicked out of the industry. The nouvelle vague folks, on the other hand, (with the exception of the Left Bank) ended up either selling out to the mainstream in a highly apolitical way (Truffaut) or ditching the mainstream entirely when he realized it wasn’t doing any social or political good (Godard).
Diabolique (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) – Maybe the most famous from Clouzot, probably by virtue of its connection with Hitchcock, whom Clouzot supposedly outbid for the film rights to the novel. Even without this knowledge, it would be hard not to think of Hitchcock when watching Diabolique. Complete with water circling the drain of a bathtub with a dead body in it (Psycho) and two characters trying desperately to hide their murder (Rope), the film at times is about its suspenseful, what-will-happen-next story. At other times, it draws out a problematic identification between the viewer and the murderous central characters. Viewers may somewhat safely identify with the murderers on account of the unlikable nature of the man they murdered. This may be a subjective point to make, but the film seems to exercise these two modes very distinctly, not in the unified manner of, say, Hitchcock or even Clouzot himself, two years earlier in…
The Wages of Fear (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953) – It’s the case with most of these older French films that women aren’t exactly central, and certainly not in any sense of giving narrative agency. The Wages of Fear, for all it’s admired to contain, begins with one of the most misogynistic and yet minor scenes you can find in the golden age of French film. A woman crawls on all fours, smiling and panting like a dog, bosom bursting forth, up to a man, who in turn pets her on the head. Perhaps worse still, the actress at the receiving end of this treatment was Clouzot’s own wife, the one who would appear again in Diabolique as one of the murderers. Now, it may become clear as the narrative progresses that we are actually learning more about the man who performs this degrading action than we are learning about the film’s own attitude toward women. But if this is the case, it is only incidentally so. It’s hard to see anything subtle or subversive about the way the camera tracks, watches the woman’s body and almost seems to pat her on the head along with the man, who turns out to be the mostly likable protagonist of the film. A later scene of a native woman showering nude further complicates any allegation that Clouzot camera isn’t functioning for male pleasure. Despite the reputation that French cinema has had for a long time, these scenes are unusual, even by 1953 standards (by 1960, Shoot the Piano Player flaunts far more). The film’s setting in a nameless South American country colonizes the skin it reveals and renders it “native,” therefore well under control of the reigning patriarchy. This is “patriarchy” in a broad sense, one with which the French were quite familiar as one of the leading colonizers of the world. Ironically, the village within the film is colonized by a U.S. company there to exploit its local oil. The representation of the U.S. is pretty spot-on in terms of the subtle-yet-scathing critique it lodges against the immense power of capitalism and how it weighs upon the powerless locals. The critique is present and can’t be missed, and yet remains subtle for the ease with which the film never focuses on it.
Bob le Flambeur (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956) – This early-ish one from Melville departs from the Cocteau-driven Les Enfants Terribles and moves into the gangster realm that would define most of his work. This is clearly the inspiration for Ocean’s 11 (and it’s remake, Ocean’s Eleven), containing so many of the now-tropes of the heist movie. This is much more art-house, though, if we can so call it. Whereas Hollywood heist movies have generally been produced for the sake of the spectator’s pleasure (see also The Sting), Bob le Flambeur contains a strong moral element and features a narrative that lands on an almost-tragic note. Bob gives what some might interpret as a wink at the film’s end, but this could be understood as the film’s own critical commentary on the inevitable result of having capital. Despite breaking his own rule, Bob’s winnings may save his hide. You can clearly see the seeds of Le Samouraï here, particularly in its early sequence of Bob alone in his home, akin to the lengthy opening scene of Deloin in his apartment. Melville seems interested in the solitary figure, how he rules his own private space but feels the invasion of the patriarchal law crowd in around him. In each case, though, we have characters more at war with their own demons, and the presence of the law infiltrating their worlds may have less to do with the literal law and more to do with a symbolic referent in those demons, having externalized themselves and waged war on the lone gunmen.
La Ronde (dir. Max Ophüls, 1950) – This is a beautiful film well worth its reputation, but on the other hand, note how stereotypically “French” it is in terms of what’s actually happening. It’s musical chairs, sex-style, but oh how musical and oh what chairs! The opening single-shot tracking sequence stands as extraordinary, something with which film theory can have (and has had) a heyday. This is a world unto itself with its own function, an almost Deleuzian crystallization between the diegesis and the film’s own production – which is which? We cannot clearly say, at least not upon first glance. Then there’s the stage, ripe with Brechtian implications as the gentlemanly narrator sashays across it and around it and below it. The way he then encounters the first (and last!) lady of the night (the unparalleled Simone Signoret) sets the swirling narrative in motion as she spins on the merry-go-round. Too bad I watched this to check it off a list and not to do close readings – there’s plenty to think about: identification, gender, phenomenology of the camera, depth of field, narrative desire, etc., etc.
La Bête Humaine (dir. Jean Renoir, 1938) – This one may be too famous for its own good. Or maybe I should hold off commenting on it until after reading that book on Renoir sitting on the shelf (those books, actually). When you’re watching classical French cinema in broad sweeps, unable to do the kind of close analysis they deserve, you tend to notice the big similarities and the big differences, and that’s it. So once again, we have Jean Gabin at the center, in this case as a tragic figure destined for doom on account of his blood relation to some rather beastly characters. He loses his cool at narratively important moments (but only a couple of them, really), and only at moments when he’s alone with a women. He doesn’t tend to attack men; in fact, when so prompted by the film’s femme fatale, he can’t get it (his weapon) up. In terms of poetic realism, there’s plenty of both here, although it comes up remarkably short of Renoir’s follow-up: The Rules of the Game. Even the earlier Boudu Saved from Drowning complicates classes and social structures more carefully and subtly. But the two have in common a fable-like nature, a moral tale with an ending as certain as its beginning. No threads left untied, all prophecies come true, optimism loses out to realism, and poetry wins over prose – albeit poetry bordering on the trite.
Going Places/ Les Valseuses (dir. Bertrand Blier, 1974) – Turned this one off midway through, and that was after stopping and taking a 24-hour break midway through that. Sorry, but couldn’t handle the flagrant misogyny. Jennifer Barker’s argument in The Tactile Eye is very persuasive, maintaining that our experience of cinema is informed and defined heavily by the sense of touch. In Going Places, when you see a woman get slapped in the face by a truly ugly man, you really feel that slap in the face, although the film really engages you as a spectator more with the abuser rather than the abused. The woman’s response to the abuse is desire for the abuser. There’s nothing critical here of such treatment, only the also flagrant desire that these awful men have for mother figures. So, take as an example the train scene after which I turned off the film. They two men rape a woman in such a way as to collapse the distinction between her as a prostitute (a woman flaunting her curves and “asking for it”) and as a mother (exposing those curves for the purpose of providing nourishment). The resulting scene, again, is presented uncritically and erotically charged. “Misogyny” is an easy card to play these days. You can call someone or something “sexist” and probably get away with it without needing to support your claim. It’s also worth pointing out that calling something “misogynistic” or “sexist” is incomplete. One must explain how it is so, to what end, what is problematic about it, and on what basis one determines something to accord with these categories. I point this out in order not to respond uncritically to something uncritical. Going Places encourages violent desire toward women and suggests that this is, in fact, what women want. It seems to carry this out for the purpose of erotic viewing pleasure geared toward males, excluding women from the viewing experience unless they, like the women within the film, submit themselves to the male gaze and its accompanying violence.