Category: French Cinema

Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, France 1949)

The German officer (Howard Vernon) and his orderly

The German officer (Howard Vernon) and his orderly

I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.

The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.

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The German officer speaks to the couple every evening but they ignore him. The uncle smokes his pipe, the niece carries on knitting or sewing.

The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.

Our first view of the Leutnant – a hint of Boris Karloff?

Our first view of the Leutnant – a hint of Boris Karloff?

I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.

The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.

In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.

Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.

Glasgow FF15 #2: Clouds of Sils Maria (France/Switz/Ger 2014)

Maria (Juliette Binoche) and Val (Kristen Stewart) in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

Maria (Juliette Binoche) and Val (Kristen Stewart) in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

This is an odd film redeemed by strong performances and some stunning scenery. The title refers to a Swiss location featuring a mountain phenomenon, the Maloja Snake. This is low cloud that ‘snakes’ through the valley when the conditions are just so. It is also the title of a play by the fictitious author Wilhelm Melchior. Juliette Binoche plays an actor who won acclaim as the younger of two female characters who clash in the play’s narrative. The film’s narrative involves a mise en abime so that a plan to re-stage the play twenty years on sees Maria (Binoche) now playing the older character against a rising Hollywood starlet. This obvious reference to All About Eve is then doubled as Maria rehearses the role in the valley of the original setting with her press officer/companion played by Kristen Stewart and then on stage with Chloe Grace Moretz.

The writer/director of this clever, multi-layered film is Olivier Assayas. He’s been here before to some extent with Irma Vep in which Maggie Cheung appears as herself taking on the role of Irma Vep in a re-working of the Louis Feuillade films of 1915. Assayas was playing then with ideas about Truffaut’s La nuite américaine with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the director in both films (Assayas was briefly married to Cheung a few years later.) I’m impressed by Assayas as an intelligent director with strong ideas and a detailed knowledge of cinema. But I also find him rather ‘tricksy’ and his films a little cold. There are plenty of things going on in this film and again it has echoes of Truffaut and in its setting also hints at links to the German genre of the ‘mountain film’ – which could suggest a thriller or a melodrama from the 1920s. What is ‘new’ here is the play around the snobbery and hypocrisy that exists in this new age of social media, paparazzi and celebrity and the movement between Hollywood, European ‘serious cinema’ and the stage. It’s significant that Binoche is a French actress and the fictitious author is (I presume) German but when the play is to be re-staged it will be in London (with a German director). All this means that most of the dialogue is in English. Did I also mention that the film begins on a train the day that Maria is heading to Zurich to receive a prize/tribute on behalf of the author only to receive the news that he has died? As I said, complicated.

The film seems to have split audiences. It is over two hours and the plot layers don’t produce an easily-digested coherent narrative. The best part of the film for me was the sequence in the mountains as Maria and Val (Kristen Stewart) rehearse the play. I thought Stewart was excellent. Binoche too is very good as they ‘read’ the play, each very differently and there is a real tension between them. I don’t know much about Moretz but she seems well cast. I’m not surprised that Stewart won a César for her role. I was less engaged by other parts of the film but I watched all of it with interest. This will be released in the UK through Curzon and it will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office.

Spiral (Engrenages, France/UK 2014)

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From left: Gilou, Tintin, Laure Berthaud, Pierre, Joséphine, Roban

Phew! I’m a new convert to Engrenages and I’m not sure how those veterans of the previous four seasons have stood the pace. I did watch the first couple of episodes of Season 1 back in 2006 but somehow it didn’t stick then. I’m not sure why – perhaps I’ve slowly acquired the serial habit after The Killing and The Bridge? Or perhaps I first had to get used to European TV crime drama via Wallander on BBC4 in 2009? Since I’ve been reading the literature for a long time this seems unlikely. I think the real answer is that the BBC i-Player and the PVR have allowed me to develop the serial habit. This is important since the BBC4 screenings on a Saturday night have generally been two hours. Engrenages matches The Killing with double episodes (2×52 mins over 6 weeks). I usually watch one hour and save the other until later in the week. I find that there is far too much going on to take the whole two hours at once – and this is arguably the big plus compared to similar UK shows which often seem padded out.

The first thing that struck me about the serial was that unlike the Scandinavian shows, Engrenages exists in a film and TV culture with a long history of popular crime films – the polar. I wondered how much familiarity I would have with the TV serial given my earlier viewings of polars. The obvious point is that I would have had much more difficulty understanding both the French judicial system and the organisation of French police forces. The film 36 (France 2004) is particularly useful in explaining this background. The interesting institutional point is that because the French industry is so much bigger (i.e. than the Scandinavian), like the UK it can produce quality TV actors who don’t necessarily appear in films and vice versa. Engrenages doesn’t offer the same pleasures of ‘spot the actor’ as the Swedish/Danish serials do but it does mean that we don’t ‘read’ the characters through a lens of familiarity. The themes and representations of Parisian streetlife are familiar from the films. The only direct reference to the polar, that I spotted, however, was the appearance of a poster for Un flic, the 1972 film with Alain Delon, the last film by the most celebrated director of polars Jean-Pierre Melville. This is in one of the squad offices and I think that the central character Laure has the image on her phone. This reference alone marks out Engrenages as ‘knowing’.

The central structure of Engrenages features the interconnections between a Parisian crime squad led by Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants ‘Gilou’ and ‘Tintin’ and a trio of independently-minded lawyers – an ‘investigating judge’ Roban and two high-flying (and glamorous) avocats Joséphine Karlsson and Pierre Clément. Berthaud and Roban trust each other – and sometimes bend the rules for the sake of justice. In Serial 5 Berthaud is investigating the murder of a young mother and her small daughter. This in turn will lead to a second investigation into a gang plotting robberies. As the programme’s title suggests (it means something like ‘Gears’), different stories become enmeshed, affecting each other in complicated ways. So Joséphine finds herself defending a wealthy Libyan diplomat accused of assaulting one of his ‘domestic’ workers and Gilou is arrested for using unauthorised equipment – while at the same time becoming personally involved in the private life of an informer. Both of these stories will tie in back to the central investigations. Throughout everything, Berthaud – still recovering from a personal tragedy in Serial 4 – is pregnant and still undecided about keeping the baby.

Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) in court

Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) in court

Thinking about structure, Engrenages covers almost the same ground as The Killing 1: a central crime story involving a form of family melodrama, a ‘personal story’ about the problems of the lead female investigator and a third ‘political’ story which ties into the central crime story in some way. The political angles of Engrenages are more complex and nuanced, involving machinations in the judiciary as well as the French establishment. I’m not claiming that one has copied the other (and I don’t know how Serials 1-4 of Engrenages worked out – perhaps this structure began in France?). It could be argued that most, all, TV crime series have these three elements in different mixes and different proportions – but I don’t think that they are so clearly spelt out or that they are so carefully written into a tripartite structure in those other shows. It is the richness and complexity of the narrative that I enjoyed in Engrenages – and the characters and performances. Copenhagen and Paris do share a metropolitan location which means that police investigations are closer to political centres and international stories. But having said that, Laure Berthaud’s team are simply ‘local cops’ and one of their problems is that they run up against specialist units with questions of who has the authority for investigations. This is also the case with The Killing but the difference is that Laure Berthaud does not have the status of the Sara Lund character (i.e. as the single focus for the narrative) or the freedom to investigate with just one partner. Instead Laure leads a team (and they cock up together!)

Engrenages offers a range of pleasures of story-telling and characterisation as well as heart-pumping emotions and some very brutal scenes. The chase scenes are excellent and it is noticeable that the female roles are crucially important in every aspect of the narrative. I think also that there is some evidence here as well as in one or two recent French films that the range of characters is becoming more diverse and representative of contemporary Parisian society. My only frustration is that the BBC (which is credited with an ‘association‘ with the production) is not very helpful with details of the show’s background. See the limited material here. What we do know is that there were major cliff-hangers/and ‘loose ends’ when Serial 5 closed. The next should appear in France later in 2015. It will be keenly anticipated when it comes to the BBC.

Jules et Jim (France 1962)

Catherine, Jim and Jules

Catherine, Jim and Jules

This classic screened at the Hyde Park Picture House in a good quality 35mm print was viewed by about a 100 people. Given the box office figures for art films reported in Charles Gant very informative ‘Numbers’  column in Sight & Sound the attendance was reassuring. Roy has also raised concerns about this issue on this blog. It is true to say that French films, and especially by François Truffaut, have usually performed well at the UK box office.

I first saw the film a few years after its initial release at a Film Society in a 16mm print. I and my friends were impressed by the striking visual and aural style of the film; shot in black and white Franscope. The three protagonists, Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henry Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) were fascinating characters beautifully played by the leading actors. And the supporting cast was excellent, including several attractive and skilled actresses: frequently the case in French films.

The film is adapted from a relatively short novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. The story commences in la belle époque, the period before World War I. This period is beautifully reproduced with fine inputs from the Costume Designer Fred Capel. The part, set in Paris, is brought to an end by World I. Here Truffaut provides a series of archive sequences of the conflict, but it is emphasised by changes to the aspect ratio – twice the footage is stretched in to anamorphic frame. After the war there are sequences in Austria and then again in France. Footage at one point of Nazi book burning shows us to have reached 1933. The film closes in a crematorium.

The film is beautifully shot in black and white widescreen by Raul Cotard. The camera is constantly on the move – with pans, tracks, circulating camera, even zooms (which on this occasion work) and a wipe. And there are frequent lap dissolves and jump cuts. In that sense it fits into the unconventionality (for the period) of the nouvelle vague. The editor Claudine Bouché has mastered an exceedingly demanding plot and set of shots. The soundtrack by Témoin contributes important aspects to the film’s impact. The music score by George Delerue is varied and inventive. Apparently the Production Design was also by Fred Capel, but he is uncredited. It is likely that some responsibility, given the use of locations, fell on the ‘continuity girl’, Suzanne Schiffman,

Props, plot references and film inserts are also noticeable. There are statues, photographs and paintings which seem significant. Apart from cinema there are references to theatre and literature. This provides a complex web of signifiers surrounding the characters. And there are visual and aural motifs – notably an hourglass which set limits on the time.

The focus of the story is the two friends of the title. Catherine is much less developed and she remains enigmatic. In a conversation between Jules and Jim she is referred t as ‘flighty’. A critic (Dudley Andrews) describes her as ‘pure woman (spontaneous, tender, cruel).’ The film, in the voice of the narrator (Michel Subor), supports this viewpoint. So the lead woman is really a male construct. This is probably the most serious flaw in the film.

This is a film that can seen and re-seen, offering discoveries at every viewing. And the quality of the style remains fresh after any number of viewings.

Seeing a film in its original format nowadays is a special pleasure. So it is worth noting for readers for whom Leeds is accessible that the Hyde Park is screening Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966 – on Feb. 22nd)  in  a 35mm prints, [but not Alphaville which is a DCP, my mistake].