Monday, May 14, 2012

Vive la France

By David Skolnick

As of late, my movie viewing (or as my wife calls it, “your obsession”) has become almost exclusively French.

I don’t know why. There are hundreds, and probably thousands of great American films that I haven’t seen that interest me.

A few things attract me to French films. First is the quality. Now, I’m not watching Poverty-Row-type French movies. I’m watching true New Wave masters at work like Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard.

French New Wave was a film style during the late 1950s to the early 1970s that showed the dark side of society as seen primarily through the eyes of disenchanted young intellectuals with a healthy dash of politics, sex and religion. (Sounds pretentious, right?)

New Wave films were also known for unusual storylines, dialogue and unique cinematography. The New Wave directors were heavily influenced by Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles, and amazingly, Monogram Studios, the Poverty Row studio that gave us dozens of terrible Bowery Boys movies.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson on the French New Wave movement as I’m ill-equipped to teach one. I’m simply sharing what I’ve been watching lately.

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched 12 Truffaut films. In addition to what I had previously seen, that leaves me two short of seeing his entire 21 feature-length film career. Truffaut was a natural choice for me as I was already a huge fan of The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451 (his only English-language film), The Last Metro, Stolen Kisses and Love on the Run.

Thanks to HuluPlus, my trusty Roku LT and the Truffaut400Blows channel on YouTube, I was fortunate to see several more of the legendary French director’s films.

Truffaut excels at crime dramas and the more “traditional” New Wave style.

In the crime-drama category, I highly recommend Shoot the Piano Player and The Bride Wore Black, the latter starring the great Jeanne Moreau as a woman who’s husband is murdered as they leave the church after being married. The plot is far-fetched, but the acting and action are so good, you can forgive the holes.

As for what people would consider a New Wave film, there are few better than Two English Girls, similar in plot to Jules and Jim, except the former has a man in love with two women and the latter is the opposite. Two English Girls stars Jean-Pierre Leaud, who played Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel (a character based on the director) in four feature-length films and one short.

There’s rarely a happy ending in any of Truffaut films, and without giving away too much, three others are must-sees: Day for Night, The Man Who Loved Women (an exceptionally funny film), and The Story of Adele H. I’d also recommend The Soft Skin and The Woman Next Door.

Not everything Truffaut directed is excellent. I’m not a fan of Wild Child or Small Change.

This led to me to Robert Bresson, who some consider the godfather of French New Wave or the inspiration for the movement even though he made films around the same time – and well after – the peak of the movement.

Apparently, Bresson moved at his own speed. He made only 13 feature-length films over a 40-year time-period between 1943 and 1983.

I’ve watched six of them recently, and the overriding theme of his films is “life ain’t happy, bad stuff is going to happen to you and eventually it’s going to leave you miserable or dead.” There isn’t a happy ending in any of the six films I saw.

The main character dies in two of them, including a suicide. In two others, the main character ends up in jail, including one who turns into a serial killer. A donkey is one of the main characters in another film, Au Hasard Balthazar (he lives a parallel life with a woman who is abused, ignored and victimized throughout the film). The donkey dies but is considered saintly for his dignity in the face of how he was treated. Yeah, don’t go running out to see that one.

L’Argent and Pickpocket, in which the main character ends up in jail, are excellent.

An unusual film, A Man Escaped, about a French soldier being held captive by the Nazis during World War II, is also a must-see. The ending is unresolved, which isn’t a bad thing.

In between, I also saw two Godard films: Masculin Feminin and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, both released in 1966.

Both are weird and while I liked Masculin Feminin, I don’t have much praise about 2 or 3 Things. Both films are filled with strange dialogue with some of it obviously ad-libbed. The gist is Godard is disillusioned with 1960s society and the lack of communication among people and the influence of America on Europe. He’s still alive and I can only imagine what he thinks of today’s society.

One interesting sidenote is Godard also made Made in U.S.A. in 1966, an excellent crime drama heavily influenced by The Big Sleep. It’s completely different than the other two movies.

In addition to Made in U.S.A., other Godard movies I’d highly recommend include Breathless and Band of Outsiders, two of the greatest films ever made. The iconic dance scene in Pulp Fiction is a direct rip-off of or tribute to the “Madison Scene” dance in Band of Outsiders.

As for a final French film, I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent movie directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. For years it was considered a lost film until an original version was found in the 1980s in a Norwegian mental asylum, according to the book, 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Ed Garea is always telling me to consider a film in the context of the time it was released. He’s correct. But this film is rather boring.

The movie is a silent film, and that’s what it is. There is no music soundtrack that goes with the film because it was expected that live music was to accompany it at a theater. There’s nothing that shows Dreyer had a definitive soundtrack for the movie.

There is some groundbreaking and interesting camera work with many close-ups of people’s faces and quick back-and-forth camera shots of Joan and her accusers.

There is a ton of talking, but Dreyer doesn’t include a large majority of it on the dialogue cards. We see the English leaders of the church yelling a lot at Joan, but we can only guess what they’re saying – and it’s not because it’s a French movie.

It left me disappointed, but it was only 81 minutes long so I survived.

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