Le Jour se lève (dir. Marcel Carné, 1939) – A nice little essay by Maureen Turim grounds aspects of the film in a theoretical and critical framework, although she doesn’t delve into psychoanalysis as much as she claims she will at the outset. Or if she uses psychoanalytic categories such as repetition, determinism, and something like a death drive, she so couches them in terms of French poetic realism that the argument doesn’t reek of Freud. Her observations center around “double time and associative memory objects” (the narrative is given in three flashback sequences, told from the point of view of the focal crime having already been committed, and a few objets petit à are scattered throughout Francois’s claustrophobic apartment that continually remind him of his lost love), melodrama (“the hero, the villain, and the two women” are tangled up in a love quadrilateral with the action focusing on the man, a distinctive of French melodrama in the 30s, and a textbook villain who functions as his counterpoint and justifies the murder he commits, while the two women ultimately overlap with one another rather than function as distinct types), and “realism, poetry, and memory” (a short appeal to Bazin is made regarding realism and the way that some kind of distance is actually necessary, whether metonymic or metaphoric, to help the spectator connect what is on screen with reality, then observations related to the social documentary character in the film and what that reflects about poetic realism and the nostalgia characteristic of that genre).
La Pointe Courte (dir. Agnès Varda, 1955) – She has claimed that the only film she had seen before making this one was Citizen Kane, although we have trouble believing her. A couple undergoing a relational crisis visits a semi-coastal, lower-class village where he grew up. They are sophisticated outsiders on account of their style of acting (pronounced even if restrained – they were from a popular theatrical troupe) and speaking, not the provincial-style dialect that the locals convey. These locals were non-actors, and they are shot in a semi-documentary, cinema-verité style. Through this, the location shooting, and the overt social realism of the film, this has been called the first of the nouvelle vague. There seems little reason to reject this claim, which is often rejected because the film wasn’t popular upon its initial release and was buried in the avalanche of films made soon thereafter by Chabrol, Malle, Truffaut, and Godard. We will agree with Ginette Vincendeau, who observes that the opening credit sequence, laid out across a close-up image of a wooden plank, presages the film’s materialism. Social, material circumstances are not glossed over in this film, even as was often done in Italian neorealism (to “magical” effect) and France’s own poetic realism (to “poetic” effect). That being said, watching the film feels like a precursor to a Bergman film. The acting style is somewhere between what Robert Bresson demanded of his actor/models and what you see in most of Bergman’s 1960s films. Plus, you get in La Pointe Courte this fantastic shot, nearly neo-cubist, that combines a profile and head-on shot of the faces of the conflicted couple evocative of Bergman’s Persona. Bottom line: this film from Varda stands as an extremely important, undervalued example of the shift beginning to take place in the mid-late 50s in European cinema. PS: LOVE the opening shot, a pedestrian view at eye level, apparently someone taking a walk into the town of La Pointe Courte. We are immediately collapsed into one of the visitors, since we are the visitors/intruders. Note the difference of this kind of anonymous, spectatorial shot with Anna Karina’s walk toward the beginning of Une femme est une femme. Despite that being a legitimately nouvelle vague-film by Godard, it is shot in a far more standard pedestrian mode. There we are clearly and initially identified with Karina, with shot-reverse-shots situating us and her as she traverses that familiar Parisian street.
Lola Montès (dir. Max Ophüls, 1955) – From the same year as La Pointe Courte, this is the last completed film of Ophüls, one that was so recut upon its initial release so as to warrant a posthumous restoration (in part digital) back to the director’s specifications. First, though, let’s note how utterly different this film is from Varda’s. Really, they couldn’t be more different for having been produced in the same year in what is called “the French cinema.” Lola was shot in heavy Technicolor, a mode that seems to distance the viewer from the filmic world far more than mere black-and-white could ever do. If black-and-white offer a reflection of reality, or a cinematic version of it (that’s intentionally vague), then Technicolor reimagines reality almost to the degree that animation does. The film’s central setting is a circus, where the titular character is paraded not as a sideshow freak but the main attraction. The ringleader directs a circuitous, merry-go-round-style biography of her seedy life sleeping around with various high-profile men as she toured the continent performing the newest and sauciest dances. Considering this setting, and the ringmaster’s own admission that his retelling of Lola’s life necessarily embellishes on what “really” happened, the Technicolor mode is not inappropriate. The darker, heavier colors in the circus tent itself lend a gravity to the spectator’s identification with Lola’s whose flashbacks into the different episodes of her life correspond to the tales that the master of ceremonies narrates. The film bears many fascinating similarities to Ophüls’s earlier La Ronde, particularly in terms of its reference to circular imagery, its non-chronological narrative presentation, and the fascination with free love. But whereas in that film the love was generally celebrated, in Lola the main character is punished for it. But she is punished so overtly (and this punishment seems fairly restricted to the diegesis, not to the film’s larger “statement,” if there is a singular statement), that this film importantly pivots away from the relatively simple concerns of La Ronde.
A Woman is a Woman/Une femme est une femme (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1961) – What he called his first “real” film, but only two films after Breathless, this one stands as striking for how relatively conventional it is compared to everything else JLG was doing at this period. (See the earlier note in the La Pointe Courte paragraph about Karina’s walking in this film.) As is so often the case in JLG’s first 15 or so films, the woman is either the mother or the whore, oftentimes both. His awareness of this is supposed to be forgivable, but we’ll see. She wants to have a baby, but she’s a stripper somewhat caught between two guys. Godard knows about literature (even if he doesn’t “know” literature), so the characters can insult one another using only book titles. Quite hard to situate this one other than an amalgamation of Godard’s later stuff. So many themes and scenes here are elaborated upon and elucidated in films like Contempt, Vivre sa vie, and Pierrot le fou. It’s obviously not a musical in the strict sense, but it’s an homage or parody or something of the musical form. Karina’s musical numbers are given instrumental accompaniment at any time when she’s not singing, at which point the soundtrack cuts out. This will happen again during the dance sequence in Band à part and elsewhere in JLG’s oeuvre. The fairly carefree vibe the film creates, along with its color scheme (primary-heavy) and brightly-lit shots, certainly corresponds to that genre. Finally: casting. You’ve gotta love it – Belmonda, Brialy, and Karina.
Made in U.S.A. (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1966) – Without much at all of a narrative on which to hang its form, this film has been notoriously impenetrable to criticism. This really is the beginning of the end of Godard’s early phase, with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, La Chinoise, and then Weekend following. Godard claimed he based this on Hawks’s The Big Sleep with Karina in the Bogart role, but the difficulty even of that narrative, along with Godard attempting to break free from every conventional restraint he can recognize while also referencing as many Hollywood movies as possible, render Made in U.S.A. something like insane. But this has to be part of Godard’s point. He knows the conventions and is dying to break free from them. The irony here isn’t just that these films ended up being embraced by the bourgeoisie, forcing Godard out of the establishment and into socialist/underground video. It’s also that this kind of film is so self-reflexive that it gives arguably less agency to the audience than the domineering Hollywood style. If the latter made the audience think there was no author and the narrative inevitable, this film castrates the spectator who isn’t part of the intellectual bourgeoisie. Made in U.S.A. is not a proletarian film. This isn’t to say that it isn’t fun and sparkly and colorful and playful; these are all Godard clichés at this point. But let’s call it what it is: inaccessible.