Category: French Cinema

LFF 2021 #1: Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021)

Three generations of women, Téta, Maia and Alex (all photos © Haut-et Court, Abbout and Microscope)

It was a nice surprise to discover that my first online film in this year’s LFF was introduced by Sarah Perks my erstwhile teaching partner from Cornerhouse/HOME in Manchester. Sarah moved into artist’s film a few years ago and is now a Professor at Teesside University. She clearly knows the couple who made Memory Box, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who are artists as well as filmmakers. I think I’ve only seen Je veux voir (I Want to See, Lebanon 2008) of their previous films. It starred Catherine Deneuve as herself, a celebrity seeing the damage from the 2006 war in Lebanon. There is an immediate link between that film and Memory Box.

In Beirut the young Maia (Manal Issa) with her cassette player . . .

It’s Christmas in Montreal and teenager Alex (she might be 18?) is making stuffed vine leaves with her grandmother Téta. Her mother Maia is not home yet. A box like a tea chest is delivered by the postie and at first Téta says they won’t accept it even though it is addressed to Maia, but Alex insists that they do want it. When Maia gets home she is shocked and forbids Alex to look at the box’s contents. But Alex is desperate to know more about her mother and circumstances make it easy to discover a treasure trove of notebooks, photographs and cassette tapes. Through Alex we will get to discover the young Maia between the ages of 13 and 18 back in Beirut. Alex has never been told the story and she becomes engrossed. What happened during the Civil War in Lebanon and why won’t her mother talk about it? To find out we must pursue flashbacks to teenage Maia in Beirut played with great vitality by Manal Issa. As well as offering us a youth picture narrative set against the bombing and general disruption of Beirut, this is also the opportunity for the filmmakers to explore a whole range of techniques in presenting what are now ‘memories’.

. . . in Montreal, thirty years later, Alex copies images to her mobile

The notebooks and photos are inspired by the archives of the filmmakers themselves, Joana as the writer and Khalil as the photographer, when they were similarly young people in Beirut in the 1980s. There is also a third writer, Gaëlle Macé. Joana and Khalil didn’t want to make a film about their own memories as such and they felt “freer with more distance” by focusing on the ideas rather than their own histories. But on the other hand, using their own archives keeps them attached to the ‘feel’ of the 1980s. This is a complex set of relationships with the past. They cast the actors for the flashbacks and then found ways to animate photographs and to ‘distress’ film/video footage and add explosions etc. so that we experience how Alex sees her mother in Beirut. All this is accompanied by an enjoyable 1980s soundtrack. Dancing to Blondie is a standout. Is there romance for young Maia? What do you think? Beirut was a war zone and there is tragedy as well as joy and hope, but eventually Maia and her mother had to leave, first for France and then to Canada. A key term in this presentation of Beirut and this particular Christian family in the city is ‘texture’ and ideas about mediation. How different are the visual and aural images Alex encounters from the actual experiences of Maia? Memories are produced in different ways and then worked on over time, remembered and re-worked, stories are told and re-told – or in this case, deliberately not told.

Fake old photos have added explosions.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film but I’m not giving too much away to reveal that the three women, representing three generations, do return to contemporary Beirut, a city that has been almost completely reconstructed after the wars that finally ended in 2006 – though the massive explosion in 2020 has since caused more devastation. The film was virtually complete in 2019 before worked stopped on it during lockdown. Joana spoke in the Q+A about the idea of ‘rupture’ in the emotional attachment of characters to Beirut’s people and its history and she emphasised the importance of the ‘re-construction’ of the city and of the history? The film is also about the ‘transmission’ of the personal history of the family.

This is a fascinating family drama about three central female characters played by Rim Turki as the older Maia, Clémence Sabbagh as Téta and Paloma Vauthier as Alex. I thought all the performances were very strong. The only oddity is the absence of of Alex’s father, who is mentioned as having amicably parted from Maia. But since he would have been either French or French-Canadian with no background in Beirut, this is understandable.

Images of the Beirut days are animated

I’m not sure if it matters if an audience isn’t that familiar with the long war in 1980s Lebanon which had many levels and involved not only a civil war between different Christian and Muslim factions, but also the actions of the Syrian and Israeli armed forces and the presence of large numbers of Palestinian refugees. The focus is on the family story and I was reminded of a film like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France-US 2007) in which another teenager attempts to balance family, education and discover boys in the midst of a war and a local society with different codes of morality and behaviour. Maia has left Beirut and her family story to make a new life in Montreal and this, in different ways, might make a link to Stories We Tell (Canada 2012), the hybrid documentary by Sarah Polley. Studying these three films together would be an interesting project.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

It appears that Memory Box has been acquired by Modern Films for distribution in the UK and Ireland. I enjoyed the film immensely and I think it is very successful in what it sets out to do. In fact, I could write a great deal more on the film but I’ve got to press on, the next festival film is coming up! Do try to see Memory Box in a cinema if it comes to your area. The film should look very good with Josée Deshaies’ cinematography presented in ‘Scope on a big screen. I feel it is bound to get you thinking about families and memories. Memory Box is in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Here is a clip from the film showing Alex listening to a cassette and looking at photos of Maia in Beirut. You can also see some of the animation.

Lullaby (Chanson douce, France 2019)

Louise (Karin Viard, left) with Myriam (Leïla Bekhti)

This title popped up on my DVD rental list and at first I couldn’t remember why I had put it there originally. I clearly missed the UK and US releases back in early 2020 but I quickly realised that it was a film by Lucie Borleteau (whose film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (2014) I really liked) and that it was adapted from a novel by Leïla Slimani, whose first book I had read in 2019. Chanson douce as a novel won the Prix Goncourt and was a bestseller in France. In the UK it was translated as Lullaby and tellingly in the US it became The Perfect Nanny. These titles carried over to the films. I think the American title is misleading, but having said that, there are many films with the title Lullaby and I think that the ironic French title is arguably the best. But it seems that many UK and US reviewers had problems with the film, possibly because of their expectations.

Louise with Mila and baby Adam

Part of the problem may be that Slimani’s novel was inspired by a murder in New York carried out by a nanny and that in turn may have led some reviewers to think that the French film would be a form of horror genre picture. I haven’t seen any of the American films that have been identified with the genre, but I’m familiar with the titles and some of the plot outlines. For many reviewers it seems to be the case that a genre film fails if it doesn’t deliver the expected narrative closure or the various conventional narrative elements along the way. Lucie Borleteau presents a film narrative that is in parts almost ‘procedural’ about the daily duties of a nanny presented with a familiar social realist aesthetic, but then she shifts focus to the psychological breakdown of a character and interweaves this with ideas about fairytales, myths and folklore – and although she doesn’t deliver the expected shocks of a genre horror film, there are still shocking and surprising moments as well as challenges to some of the complacency we may feel faced with a familiar genre. Much of the discussion about the film centres on the ending. Borleteau doesn’t leave the ending ‘open’. She ‘delivers’ but not in the way we might expect.

Louise becomes the mother in many different ways

Myriam (Leïla Bhekti) is a mother of two small children, not yet at school (French children start school at 6, I think) and after being a full time mother for five years she decides that she needs to return to work as a lawyer. Her husband Paul (Antoine Reinartz) works as a music producer and argues that it will cost all of Myriam’s salary to pay for childcare, but she is adamant and they advertise for a nanny. The interview process that we see is perhaps a too familiar montage and it’s obvious that the best candidate is Louise (Karin Viard), although the staging of her interview does drop hints that things might not be what they seem. Perhaps the real purpose of the montage is not to simply create a gentle comedy but to emphasise the significance of the choice of an older white woman who is ‘French’. Louise is eager to please and to work longer hours and become more involved in the family’s affairs. If Miriam wasn’t so busy and focused on her return to work, she would probably have become suspicious of Louise much earlier. There are some subtle pointers to the nuances of bourgeois French life in the narrative. We learn more about Paul’s background, partly through the appearance of his mother Sylvie. Paul’s family seems more middle-class and he adopts a more professional pose in dealing with Louise. Even so he demurs to Myriam, about whom we learn little and who has a more friendly relationship with Louise.

Leïla and Paul take Louise with them on holiday. Is this wise?

The Press Notes for the film are available from UniFrance and I found them to be an interesting read. I think I’d already guessed something about Lucie Borleteau’s approach. She mentions Hitchcock and Polanski and their films Vertigo (for Kim Novak’s performance) and Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. I was reminded of an earlier film by a young director, À la folie . . . pas du tout (France 2002) directed by Laetitia Colombani who also mentioned Hitchcock and Polanski. That film too was criticised because it cast Audrey Tautou in a role that hinted at her rom-com persona being important but then switched to a much more disturbing narrative. I have a vague idea how French film schools work and I think they produce directors who are much more interesting than US/UK reviewers expect. Leïla Slimani is also interviewed in the Notes and she adds another range of references that Borleteau must have navigated. Slimani mentions Chabrol and also Jo Losey’s The Servant with Dirk Bogarde. Chabrol does seem quite important with his bourgeois satires such as La cérémonie (France 1995) with Isabelle Huppert as the disruptive interloper who ‘turns’ Sandrine Bonnaire’s maid against her employers.

The ‘family’ in the park

Lullaby as a film ‘belongs’ to Karin Viard, a vastly experienced actor, who seems able to tackle any kind of role. I last saw her in La famille Bélier (2014) in mainly a comic role. Louise is a very difficult role, I think, but Viard takes it in her stride. She might well have been initially cast by one of her previous directors, Maïwenn whose name still appears on Lullaby’s credits as a writer. For some reason Maïwenn left the production and Lucie Borleteau stepped in. She and Leïla Slimani seem to in agreement on the approach to the story. I wonder if the film would have been very different directed by Maïwenn? Either way this is a film primarily about women. There are five female roles of importance with Louise, Myriam and Sylvie plus 5 year-old Mila and Wafa, the mother who Louise meets each day in the square. There are moments in the film when racism directed against Maghrebi migrants seems about to become important though I don’t remember anything directed at Myriam (Leïla Bhekti was born in Paris to Algerian parents and she is a high profile star in France and married to Tahar Rahim). It’s more important that Myriam is a bourgeois parent who doesn’t mix with the other parents in the park and isn’t aware of Louise’s home district, an area of social housing an RER train ride away.

I found Lullaby an intriguing film and much of the time I could almost not bear to watch, fearful of what was going to happen next. Melodrama and horror are close together as expressionist modes of cinema and Lullaby is a form of family melodrama mixed with a psychological thriller that gets out of control. I recommend the film. Here’s the US trailer.

Alice et le maire (Alice and the Mayor, France 2019)

Alice (Anaïs Demoustier) gives the Mayor Fabrice Luchini) books to read

Alice and the Mayor is an intriguing little film that I found both interesting and enjoyable. It doesn’t appear to have been released in cinemas in the UK or US but is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. Again, as with the Indian films on MUBI, there is little in the way of extras, just one review. I wonder if it is a problem with cinephiles who don’t seem to have much interest in ‘everyday politics’? Not that this is a realist film about politics in any way but it does raise a number of questions and one or two moments did ring true for me.

The writer-director Nicolas Pariser is here making only his second feature after working as a film critic and earlier spending a fair amount of time as a postgraduate student. He reveals that the film is actually the result of melding three different story ideas and producing a final narrative that he tackles with reference to an approach associated with Éric Rohmer, Pariser’s only film tutor at the Sorbonne. Rohmer himself made a film about a Socialist mayor, L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque in 1993.

The story is set roughly around 2014-15 during the François Hollande Presidency of France and ends with a coda set during the Macron Presidency (i.e. post 2017). The national picture is not directly relevant except that the central character of the Mayor of Lyon is a senior Socialist Party figure and therefore a potential presidential candidate. Lyon is the second or third major French city depending on how boundaries are drawn and it is interesting for me to compare it with Greater Manchester in the UK, in a similar position in terms of size and importance. Manchester too now has a mayor, Andy Burnham, a Labour Party politician. Mayors as executive (i.e. not simply ceremonial) leaders constitute a relatively new phenomenon in the UK and Burnham is now arguably the second most powerful directly elected political figure after the London mayor. ‘Paul Théraneau’ (Fabrice Luchini) probably has more direct local power in Lyon than his UK counterparts. The ‘inciting incident’ of the film’s narrative is the arrival of Alice Heimann (Anaïs Demoustier) in a new post in the mayor’s office. Slightly bewildered/bemused by what her new job might entail, Alice is informed that the mayor, a seasoned veteran of 30 years in politics, has suddenly lost the ability to think up new ideas. She is charged with stimulating his thinking as an ‘ideas woman’.

Léonie Simaga as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff is suspicious about Alice’s role . . .

This central plot point could lead to different kinds of narratives. The casting of the talented comic actor Fabrice Luchini suggests a comedy with Alice creating mayhem with naïve, revolutionary or simply daft ideas. We are used to British and American parodies or satires of government. But though there are comic moments in Alice and the Mayor, there are also interesting references to literature, philosophy and politics which form the basis for genuine discussion. Alice is not a ‘whizz-kid’ or a ‘policy wonk’. She’s a thoughtful young woman who graduated in Lyon and has recently been studying and teaching in Oxford as a literature scholar. She isn’t pushy and is possibly a little embarrassed by her sudden elevation when the mayor begins to believe that she can really help him. Despite her embarrassment she behaves in a professional manner at all times.

. . . Nora Hamzawi is more supportive as the Press Officer for the Mayor’s office

Reflecting on the film after screening it, I think I can see the separate stories that Pariser has put together, or rather I can see three different stories that don’t quite match the three that Pariser mentions in the Press Notes, but I think I’m close enough. One story is about the Mayor and his relationship/friendship with Alice, one is about Alice herself as an intelligent and charming young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life and one is about politics as a contemporary professional practice. Pariser reveals his affection for The West Wing in his presentation of the political machinations in City Hall.

Why did I enjoy the film so much? Partly because I’ve previously enjoyed several Fabrice Luchini films and appreciated his acting skills and partly because I’m an admirer of Ms Demoustier. I knew I’d seen her before and I later realised that she has been in several films by Robert Guédiguian, the Marseilles-based director whose left politics inform his narratives, as well as playing the eponymous character in The New Girlfriend (France 2014). It’s rare these days to come across a film in which genuine political questions are raised. Alice is required to provide the Mayor with ‘notes’ each day. Concise questions, quotations and ideas to get him thinking. At one point she mentions a George Orwell quote about ‘common decency’. This is Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in which he tries to explain what he thinks ordinary working people expect from socialism and contrasts it with the outlook of left intellectuals. Alice intends it to remind the mayor that it is very easy to become too distant from his constituents. Later on Alice talks to an old friend who remarks that some renegades in the Socialist Party have started taking ideas from Orwell and Pier Paulo Pasolini as if this is an apostasy. Alice seems to float above all of this, able to deal efficiently with most of the tasks that the Mayor sets her without becoming involved in any kind of sectarian struggle.

Perhaps the melding of three different narratives and a final coda means that it is difficult to summarise what the film is trying to say and possibly frustrating in terms of its narrative resolution. On the other hand, perhaps the film accurately conveys politics as practice as viewed by someone who approaches it from literature and philosophy? Alice gives the Mayor Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1778) and Bartleby by Melville (1853) with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. But she’s also very aware of ecological issues and able to see through the vanity projects that the Mayor’s search for new ideas is in danger of encouraging. It’s a film for politicos and philosophes but also for those of us who worry about whether Alice will find her own future happiness. Socialism might be struggling in France but surely there is hope for Alice? One last point. I can’t find any stills which deal with Alice’s life outside the Mayor’s office – I think the film’s Press Office have failed on this score.

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (France 2013)

Jim/Jimmy (Benicio Del Toro, left) with Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric)

Since my personal lockdown began back in March 2020, MUBI has proved to be my most reliable source of films to watch. I’m still not prepared to go back into cinemas, though I miss the big screen very much. It’s not the cinemas I mistrust but the crowds emboldened by the UK government’s chaotic policy decisions. So I’m staying online for now. I’ve tried many MUBI offerings and decided quite quickly that some aren’t for me, but many are and I’ve experienced many welcome surprises, none more so than Jimmy P., a title that I’d never noticed before and which doesn’t seem to have been released in UK cinemas, though a DVD and VOD version was made available in 2014.

This title is part of a MUBI strand titled ‘Cannes Takeover’, celebrating films from 70 years of Cannes Film Festival screenings. It was shown in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2013. Jimmy P. belongs to that often intriguing group of French films made in English in North America and presenting American stories. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin and based on the book Reality and Dream (1951) by Georges Devereux, it is an intriguing mixture of biopic, ‘buddy movie’, almost procedural study of a form of psychotherapy, and a drama about post-war late 1940s settlement for Native Americans – the ‘present’ is 1948 in Montana. Georges Devereux (1908-85) was an extraordinary figure. Born György Dobó as a Hungarian Jew, he moved to France after the First World War, changing his name and eventually losing any religious affiliation and gaining an education in first sciences and then languages. He could speak four languages as a child and went on to learn both Asian and Native American languages, spending time as an ethnographer and then as a psychiatrist.

Jimmy talks and Georges records what he says . . .

Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot who returns from the war in France to his sister’s farm in Montana but he can’t settle and she eventually gets him admitted to Winter Hospital for Veterans in Topeka, Kansas. The staff, who seem generally concerned to do their best for their patients, struggle to find what is wrong with Jimmy. Apart from some ailments that can be treated he doesn’t seem to be suffering physically and he doesn’t seem to be mentally ill, but he is uncommunicative and clearly not happy. Eventually they send for Devereux who arrives from the East on what seems a tenuous contract but he quickly succeeds in gaining Jimmy’s confidence and together they begin to explore his background and his dreams.

This film received some good reviews – in the US as well as Europe, but general audiences were not drawn to it. As is often the case for European films it failed to fulfil American expectations of an entertainment film. It did OK in France but must have lost money for its producers. There is a lot of ‘talk’ in the film and the narrative refuses to follow the familiar triumphant arc of ‘therapy dramas’. None of this worried me. I was engaged from the start, particularly by the performances. Jimmy is played by Benicio Del Toro. In one sense it is a shame that a Native American actor was not cast in the role but Del Toro is remarkably good in the role. He speaks slowly and sometimes haltingly but with real conviction and intelligence. This is definitely not a typical Hollywood version of a Native American character. Devereux is played by Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric. At first I thought he might be pushing his performance too far into the eccentric presentation of an unconventional scientist. But Amalric holds the line and displays Devereux’s humanity as well as his behavioural quirks. Devereux displays his knowledge of Native American peoples and their languages and customs and Jimmy P responds, impressed that Devereux treats him as an equal but still challenges him with quite difficult questions.

A dream image

Much of the dialogue between the two men is about Jimmy’s dreams and Desplechin and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontane, with designers Dina Goldman and Justin N. Lang, create dream scenarios or ‘dreamscapes’. Jimmy’s memories also require the presentation of flashbacks to his childhood and his earlier relationships and to his time in France with the US Army. There were occasions when I wasn’t quite sure if a scene was a dream or a flashback, but I don’t think that matters too much. Jimmy P’s life had not been easy and the challenge for the filmmaker is to represent the confusion in Jimmy’s head.

I found this film endlessly surprising and this includes the introduction of Devereux’s lover, an elegant married French woman who manages to find a way to visit him for a few weeks and is welcomed as a guest by the hospital. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped down from the train but I was bowled over to recognise Gina McKee, one of my favourite British actors looking trés chic and sounding authentically French. The girl from Co. Durham has done well and her character certainly energises Amalric’s Devereux, makes him even more amenable and gave me as the audience a real fillip.

Georges with Madeleine (Gina McKee)

What really matters though is what this film tells us about Devereux and his ideas and what it says about Jimmy and Native American cultures and the interaction between the institutions of the American state and the Blackfeet of Montana. Jimmy’s home is the Blackfeet Nation, administered from Browning, Montana and comprising one of the largest ‘reservations’ in the US – one-and-a-half million acres in North West Montana running up to the Canadian border. That border is a colonial boundary since the confederation of Blackfoot tribes extends into Canada. Apart from Jimmy himself, most of the other Native American characters in the film are played by Blackfoot actors or other Native Americans or First Nation peoples – several of the actors are Canadian. The script is subtle in the way it explores institutional racism and ‘casual racism’ encountered by Jimmy. This makes it more telling when, towards the end of his treatment, Jimmy corrects one of the senior staff at the hospital, correcting the doctor who has called him ‘Chief’ and saying: “Sir. My name is Jim. You call me Jim, not Chief”. The representation of what is in practice an Army Psychiatric Hospital is certainly nuanced. The Head of the Hospital, Dr. Manninger (Larry Pine) is the one who brings in Devereux and supports him throughout and clearly is concerned to do the best for Jim. The military doctor who calls Jim ‘Chief’ is the perhaps the only really officious doctor and his nurse is similar. But these are not bad people, they are perhaps just too fond of following procedures and not responding to patients carefully enough. As I’ve indicated, the script doesn’t need to paint the hospital in particularly lurid terms (cf the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) when it can hint elsewhere in the narrative that the health of the Native American population in the US has always been threatened by the policies of the US government.

Jimmy with Jane (Misty Upham), the mother of his daughter

I was very impressed by this film and I’d like to show it to people for discussion. The only fault I can find with it is the lack of any geographical considerations. Topeka is a long way from Browning, Montana, nearly 1,000 miles, I think. I wasn’t always sure when characters had physically travelled that distance (by train in 1948), but it would have been a major commitment. But put that aside and everything else worked for me. There is no ‘happy ending’ as such, though the narrative resolves in a way that suggests Jim Pickard is now better equipped to approach his problems and that the hospital has learned something. The ‘real’ Georges Devereux worked at Winter Hospital until 1953 treating other Native Americans and then moved to posts in first Philadelphia and then New York where in 1959 his work was finally formally recognised by The American Psychoanalytic Association. In 1963 Devereux was invited back to France to teach through an initiative by Claude Levi-Strauss. He continued his work until 1981. He must have been a remarkable man.

Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands off the Loot, France-Italy 1954)

The three poster names, Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin and Jeanne Moreau

Jean Gabin stars in this classic polar. It’s unusual because there are no police involved in what is purely a gangland tale. Gabin plays Max, a well-respected but ageing gangster who dresses elegantly and is well organised. He has performed what he hopes is his last job and has the haul stashed away. But someone has talked and the new guy on the block, played by Lino Ventura in his first role at the advanced age of 34 (he was a professional wrestler at the time) is alert to the possibilities. Jacque Becker’s film is still a cracking crime film today but it looks odd in the era of #MeToo since it features a club that is a front for a crime boss and which features dancers and a miniature version of the Folies Bergère with the women wearing ‘pasties’ but otherwise bare-breasted. The dancers include Jeanne Moreau (not bare-breasted!) in a relatively early role. She was a well-known stage actor at the time but her film roles were not that substantial. Her film breakthrough would come with Lift to the Scaffold (1958) when, ironically, Lino Ventura would have a secondary role.

Max and Riton with the dancers Lola (Dora Doll) and Josy (Jeanne Moreau). The restaurant owner Mme Bouche stands behind Max.

As well as the young female dancers, the gangsters are also accompanied/assisted at various points by older women, in particular by Madame Bouche (Denise Clair), whose restaurant is the regular haunt of Max and his friends. The film is adapted from a novel by Albert Simonin and the screenplay is by Becker and Simonin. Simonin went on to write several more films and the character of Max was used in two further narratives, both from Simonin novels but co-scripted by Michel Audiard. Jean Gabin appeared in the second film but not the third, which became two one hour TV episodes, I think. These two later appearances of Max seemed to have been more aligned to crime comedies. Comedy is touched on lightly in Grisbi which is primarily a violent gangster feature. However, one central sequence has become fondly remembered and may have been influential on later filmmakers such as François Truffaut.

An impromptu supper of paté and crispbreads . . .

. . . and natty pyjamas and toothbrushes

Max’s friend and the one person he appears to trust, at least in terms of loyalty, is ‘Riton’ whose real name is Henri Ducros (and played is by René Dary). Riton is loyal but not very bright. When Max wants to disappear for a night he takes Riton to a hideout apartment that he has secretly rented. Everything necessary for a comfortable night is already in the apartment and the two ageing gangsters sit down to a meal of paté and crispbreads washed down by by regional white wine sent by a friend. Max provides bedding and pressed pyjamas as well as a toothbrush for Riton. It could be a sit-com about two old men and when I re-watched the film it was the section of the film that I remembered most clearly – and thoroughly enjoyed.

Max and his occasional ‘squeeze’, Hughette (Delia Scala)

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. All I’ll note is that at the end of the film, the narrative returns to Madame Bouche’s restaurant and the final exchanges are in some ways poignant rather than triumphant or defiant. In fact they are almost comic. The narrative treads a fine line between these moments and the violence of treachery and double-crossing. I’ve noted the sexism in terms of the relative lack of agency that the women in the film have. It is striking though that there are several very beautiful young women in the film, all presented in quite provocative costumes. They include the American Marilyn Buferd, the German Dora Doll and the Italian Delia Scala, all active in French cinema around this time. It’s worth mentioning that the presence of young women like these three was a feature of French cinema which helped the films get a release in the UK and US where domestic films were hampered by censorship. It’s odd now to watch the film and see Gabin ogling these young women but resisting the charms of Jeanne Moreau.

The polar combines elements of the Série Noir and the American film noir as suggested by the lighting in this shot.

In his magisterial ‘Journey Through French Cinema’, the late Bertrand Tavernier argues that Grisbi was twenty years ahead of its time with its depiction of Gabin as Max, an ‘anti-hero’. I think he’s right. He also suggests that Jean Becker had ‘assimilated’ American cinema in his approach but didn’t simply reproduce an American style. I’ve been musing on the American stars who could dominate genre films such as the gangster or more general crime film in the same way as Gabin. Who could be elegant, brutal, strong but capable of lightness etc.? Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart are possibles perhaps? The star most often mentioned is James Cagney and I can understand why, but I still find Gabin to be in a class of his own. The comparison with American cinema is important because the polar has been seen as a vehicle for developing a dialogue with American culture, with ‘modernity’ and big American cars. The trophy young women for the gangsters are also to some extent imported. In terms of French cinema, Becker’s film would become an inspiration for both Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob, le flambeur, 1956) and François Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). Tavernier pointed out another aspect of Grisbi, that showed Becker was ‘ahead’ of Hollywood – the use of a harmonica theme for Max. (Tavernier thought French productions made more interesting choices of music.)

Jacques Becker was in a sense the link between the early crime melodramas of Jean Renoir some of which he worked on in the 1930s in various capacities and the harsher post-war crime films. His last film, Le trou (1960), a prison-based drama, appeared around the same time as the early New Wave films. Because of his Renoir connections and the quality of his 1950s films, when Becker died comparatively young in 1960, aged 53, his reputation didn’t suffer the dismissal by the younger directors that was meted out to some of his contemporaries. He directed a range of films, not just crime films and I aim to eventually cover the others that are still available.

Blood Relatives (Les liens du sang, Canada-France 1978)

Talking Pictures TV came up trumps again on Saturday night with a screening of an intriguing Claude Chabrol film. As it turned out, there were quite a few problems with the print, but if you can get past these there are several interesting aspects to the film. As a production this is an early example of a Canadian tax deferral scheme which was aimed to attract co-productions and France is perhaps the most likely co-production partner (after Hollywood – though I’m not sure Hollywood does co-productions as such). There have been several Montreal-shot films over the years. In this case the ‘property’ is an Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novel from 1975.

Sutherland with Aude Landry as Patricia

‘Ed McBain’ is perhaps the best-known pseudonym of Salvatore Albert Lombino who officially changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Hunter was not only a hugely prolific writer of genre fiction but also of standalone novels. His books were often adapted for film and TV and he also worked as a scriptwriter, most famously for Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. He was very popular in Japan with adaptations by Kurosawa (High and Low 1963) and many others. I’ve seen one comment that Chabrol was happy to re-locate the story of Blood Relatives in Montreal from New York and not have to worry about the trappings of the New York police procedural. One aspect of this is the creation of a police detective who I think is quite different to the familiar US type. The investigator Steve Carella is played by Donald Sutherland and overall the police in the film seem relatively laid-back but quite efficient in their operations. But although the narrative begins in the police station, this is not really a procedural. Instead it sends Carella into a deep investigation of a family and plays more like a crime melodrama. I can see why Chabrol would be interested.

Patricia’s brother Andrew (Laurent Malet) is interrogated

A teenage girl smeared with blood and with cuts to her arms and face bursts through a door collapses into a police station. The police then find the girl’s 17 year-old cousin dead from multiple knife wounds in a derelict building. The two girls had been at a party and were sheltering from the rain on their way home when they were attacked. The survivor Patricia (Aude Landry) describes the killer and the usual police work ensues. But the girl’s testimony will unravel and Carella finds himself more concerned with the Landry family – this is familiar Chabrol territory. The film’s title more or less tells you where the narrative is heading, so I won’t spoil any other aspects of the plot. I’ll simply state that several flashbacks are necessary to discover what happened to the unfortunate cousin Muriel (Lisa Langlois).

Chabrol on set with Sutherland in his tracksuit – not a standard detective type. (This is one of several images grabbed from IMDb.com)

In a career lasting over 50 years Chabrol made over 70 films. A small number of which were made for TV but even so this is a formidable total and inevitably his career has been divided into periods when he made critically accepted films and other periods when he made cheap escapist films. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two and since I’ve only seen a modest proportion of the 70+ titles (perhaps 18 or 19) I’m in no position to judge. However, I’ve run through the list looking to see if he had made any other films in North America before this one. It would appear not, but what I was surprised to discover is the number of his French films that include American actors – Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow, Rod Steiger, Anthony Perkins etc. It’s perhaps not a surprise then to find that Blood Relatives features Donald Pleasence and David Hemmings alongside Sutherland. There is a real flavour of a ‘European International film’ about the casting. Sutherland had previously been in films for Bertolucci and Fellini and Hemmings was in Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso as well as Antonioni’s Blow Up. The other roles are mainly played by Canadian actors apart from Stéphane Audran, whose role is the only real disappointment for me. She plays the drunken mother of Patricia and is almost unrecognisable. I did wonder if she was dubbed but I’m sure I’ve seen her with an acceptable English accent in other films. The other French actor is Laurent Malet who plays Patricia’s brother as a rather beautiful young man who exposes his muscles in tiny shorts. Chabrol had his regular cinematographer Jean Rabier with him but most of the other HoDs and crew appear to be Canadian.

Sutherland with an almost unrecognisable Stéphane Audran as Patricia’s mother

With Chabrol working in English and these interesting casting decisions, the film feels different from either French cinema or Hollywood, though there is still a recognisable Chabrol sensibility I think. I did feel at times that this was an example of a different kind of crime film, possibly derived from a novel by Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith – and Chabrol would later adapt both authors. I also somewhere got a whiff of Hitchcock’s Marnie. Partly this is because Sutherland’s cop treats a psychologically-scarred female character quite gently but firmly, much like Sean Connery treats Tippi Hedren in Marnie. I also remembered that Evan Hunter was asked by Hitchcock to adapt Marnie but he didn’t want to write the rape scene that Hitchcock required. You might the sense that if I was thinking about all these connections, I couldn’t have been following the narrative very closely. You would be wrong but I do think this is an odd film in some ways although it does make me want to catch some more of the Chabrol films I’ve got somewhere in the archive.

Muriel (Lisa Laglois) and her office boss (David Hemmings)

There is also the question of the print. DVDBeaver.com gives an interesting account of all the problems. The film seems to exist at various lengths from 90 to 100 minutes. I certainly think the version on TPTV had some cuts. Supposedly the film was to be presented in standard widescreen 1.85:1 but the TV print was closer to a panned and scanned 4:3. Even that didn’t look right on my TV’s 4:3 setting. In the end I found myself using the Zoom settings to achieve a 16:9 image that was slightly cropped top and bottom but was otherwise watchable because nobody was squashed or stretched. the BBFC (British Classification Board) tells me the Rank Organisation submitted the film for UK showings but in Canada and France the distributors were small independents.  The print is murky at times and may well have been copied from a VHS master. Still, I think it is an interesting addition to my Chabrol collection and kudos to TPTV for finding it.