Cinephilia Française: The Lower Depths (1936)

Early on in his filmmaking career, Jean Renoir struggled to find critical success and financial stability. Whether forced to sell the paintings passed down to him from his father, Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir, to cover his debts or subjected to mixed audience reactions and considerable cuts made to his films, he had to face many uncertain years before reaching the success and respect he would enjoy later in his life. His 1936 adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths gave him a helpful boost in that direction, earning him the very first Louis Delluc Prize and positive results from both critics and the box office. Additionally, it was his first collaboration with French star Jean Gabin, who would work with Renoir again in such notable films as La bête humaine, Grand Illusion, and French Cancan.
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Cinephilia Française: Children of Paradise (1945)

Within the immense gallery of great French films, Children of Paradise stands out like a grand mural painted with many colors, bold brush strokes, and precise attention to detail. Directed by the great Marcel Carné and written by his regular collaborator Jacques Prévert, it is an ambitious feat of cinema; a period piece set in Paris in the 1820s and ‘30s that seemed to have all the odds against its creation. Its production slowly progressed throughout the German occupation of France during World War II, which made film stock and construction material for the sets in short supply. The project served as a fortuitous hiding place for Resistance fighters who worked throughout the shoot as extras while two more central figures, production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, had to made their contributions covertly due to their Jewish roots (in the cut presented on the Criterion Collection DVD, they share a special title card at the end of the opening credits). Following France’s liberation, the film was finally released in 1945, its three-hour running time split into two parts entitled The Boulevard of Crime and The Man in White due to a restriction on film duration at the time.
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TIFF 2012 / Cinephilia Française: Something in the Air (2012)

“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.” – from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962)

By 1971, the year in which Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (titled Après Mai in French) kicks off, the film containing this wise bit of narration was already nine years old, and the French New Wave, to which it is loosely connected through timing and Marker’s affiliation with such figures as Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais (who are linked to that key period of film history, but often considered as a separate contingent of it under the term “Left Bank”), was a thing of the past. So too was May 1968, along with the feelings of solidarity and turbulence given off by the student and worker uprisings that gripped France in that short period of time, born from the striking parties’ broiling anger and determination to fight against the inadequacies of President de Gaulle’s government. Assayas grew up in a post-May ’68 France (as he describes in his autobiographical book A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, which has been recently published in English for the first time by the Austrian Film Museum to coincide with Something in the Air’s expanding festival run) and established himself as both a film critic for the hallowed Cahiers du Cinéma and a filmmaker in a post-New Wave French film industry. Thus, in both politics and cinema, he was forced to come of age and find his true place without the comforting, unifying pull of a focused cause shaped by the hopes and fervor of like-minded comrades. He was truly of a lost generation left in the shadows of momentous changes and dramatic events that had long since passed, leaving behind a strange climate of ambiguity and aimlessness. Fortunately, Assayas (as well as other filmmakers of his time, including Claire Denis and Arnaud Desplechin) realized that the best way to challenge the New Wave’s legacy was to simply not challenge it, opting instead to better understand his personal relationship with story, character, theme, and form in cinematic terms, a focus that has successfully resulted in one of contemporary cinema’s most inspiring and exciting bodies of work.
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Cinephilia Française: Zero for Conduct (1933)

Arriving after the avant-garde city tour À propos de Nice (1930) and short profile piece Taris (1931) featuring French swimming champion Jean Taris, Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct marked the filmmaker’s first proper foray into fiction, though it is anything but a conventional storytelling exercise. Sadly, this forty-four minute-long film and the remarkable 1934 feature L’Atalante would be all that the world would see of Vigo’s highly original experimentations with narrative due to his death at the age of twenty-nine from tuberculosis. But the film world continues to cherish the precious gifts he left behind, with Zero for Conduct easily one of the most adored among them.
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Introducing Cinephilia Française

Recently, while considering films I wanted to write about to get me back into the review game, I realized that a great many of them either hailed from France or were international productions from French filmmakers. That, plus my long-standing fondness for certain French filmmakers like Truffaut, Tati, Varda, Melville, and many others, got me thinking about an idea for a new column that I’m happy to unveil here on Row Three: Cinephilia Française. Basically, about once a week I will provide a fresh review of a film that, whether through setting, subject, or filmmaker origins, can be considered part of France’s rich cinematic legacy. There won’t be any strict chronological order to the films selected (though little thematic arcs may pop up occasionally); therefore, you could get a classic of 1930s poetic realism one week, a lesser-known film from the 2000s the next, a New Wave or Left Bank gem after that. In this free and winding manner, I’m hoping this column provides a fun and informative look at the diversity of fascinating works that have emerged from France since the days of the Lumières and Méliès.

You can click on the new “Cinephilia Française” category tab on the side of this and other postings to check out French film reviews that will be filed in this series and that I’ve contributed to Row Three in the past, including the unofficial debut review for the column which explores Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. Stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead, and thanks for reading!

Review: 35 Shots of Rum (2008)

35 Shots of Rum is one of the more recent efforts from the remarkable Claire Denis, made just one year before 2009’s White Material and nine after 1999’s haunting, poetic Beau Travail. It features many of her regular collaborators, including actor Grégoire Colin, cinematographer Agnès Godard, co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau and the band Tindersticks. Set in a working class Paris neighborhood, it could be considered a tamer exercise than some of her more intense and abstract works – but by no means is it any less impactful.

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Review: The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

[Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox program The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson is currently underway, and will be continuing through Sunday, March 18th. Film blogger Corey Atad has provided a summary of the program over at Dork Shelf.]

For many cinephiles, the absolute pinnacle of cinematic interpretations of the Joan of Arc story is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece from 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc. When one first watches Robert Bresson’s 1962 film The Trial of Joan of Arc, it is all too easy to mentally compare it to the Dreyer film – especially since both works specifically limit themselves to the peasant-born leader’s trial and execution. Yet, as with Lancelot du Lac, Bresson’s specific vision quite clearly distinguishes his take on the much-retold tale from other artists’. Closely adapting the actual records of the trial, his film clocks in at a lean 65 minutes and, fittingly, quite ably exemplifies his rigorously crafted aesthetic.

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Review: Lancelot du Lac (1974)

[Throughout February and March, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be presenting a retrospective of French master Robert Bresson’s films entitled The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson. Film blogger Corey Atad has provided a summary of the program over at Dork Shelf. Lancelot du Lac will be screening once more on Tuesday, March 6th.]

Lancelot du Lac was a major passion project for Robert Bresson that took him several years to eventually make. However, it isn’t the sort of grand, large-scale epic that one might imagine given both the great importance placed on it by its creator and, especially, the mythic nature of the story material. After all, the tales of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot du Lac and the other Knights of the Round Table make up some of the most oft-told tales in history, usually illustrated with magnificent portrayals of castles, battles and adventures. Yet Bresson offers a very different take; one very much exemplifying his strict ideas regarding control, minimalism and muted expression in the cinematic medium.

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Review: A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth (1956)


[Throughout February and March, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be presenting a retrospective of French master Robert Bresson’s films entitled The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson. Film blogger Corey Atad has provided a summary of the program over at Dork Shelf.]

With his 1956 film A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson may very well have made the definitive prison escape film. Based on real-life prisoner of war André Devigny’s experiences and set in the Nazi-run Fort Montluc in Lyon, 1943, it depicts the experiences of a captive named Fontaine (François Leterrier) as he carefully tries to form a plan to liberate himself. He relies on the precious few resources available to him: the meager furnishings of his cell, crucial windfalls of information and extra materials provided by his fellow prisoners, the inner strength he gathers and clings to as he carries out his dangerous actions. Often, pure, blind luck fortuitously intervenes, carrying Fontaine along a little bit further. He is eventually informed that he has been sentenced to death; very soon thereafter, he gains a cellmate in a young man named Jost (Charles Le Clainche). This causes Fontaine to consider whether to place his trust in his newfound acquaintance or take proper measures to ensure his own safety.

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Review: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

[Starting Thursday, February 9th, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be presenting a retrospective of French master Robert Bresson’s films entitled The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson. To celebrate the event, here is a review of Bresson’s second film, which will be playing at the Lightbox on February 23rd and March 5th.]

Here, in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, is a story that might have been given an unsatisfactory treatment, like so much melodramatic drivel, and instead is carefully invested with some actual weight. Each of the central characters and their concerns are represented with an admirable amount of depth and conviction, elevating the narrative to nearly grand proportions. This shows how, even at just his second feature film, Robert Bresson had a firm grasp on his craft. That craft would eventually grow into a singular, pure style far more severe than what he uses here, yet Les Dames still certainly deserves recognition as a notable (and entertaining) entry in the great filmmaker’s body of work.

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Review: Film Socialism

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Ruth Waldburger
Starring: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Patti Smith, Alain Badiou
Year: 2010
Running time: 102 min.

Quite fittingly, Jean-Luc Godard’s already-notorious Film Socialism was the last film I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Having read reports of its difficult qualities (on top of being fully aware of his work’s striking transformations over the course of his career), I knew I was in for a rough ride when I walked into the theatre, and even had in mind the famous credits that accompany his 1967 film Weekend: “End of Film,” “End of Cinema.” Those words quite definitively marked the end of a remarkable run of films that at once reflected and defined the decade in which they were made. But anyone willing to follow Godard beyond then would have to turn away from Jean Seberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and all other traces of romanticism from that phase of his work as he delved deeper into political theory, philosophy, video technology and an increasingly experimental style that tossed conventional narrative techniques out the window.

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