Looking for the early starring roles for Simone Signoret I found this 1948 film which was not released in the UK. It has an English language title , ‘Dilemma for Two Angels’ which doesn’t make that much sense to me. ‘Impasse’ means much the same in French and English – a ‘dead end’. It’s difficult to categorise the film but we are clearly in noir territory, both in visual style and theme. This is the last film directed by Maurice Tourneur, a prolific filmmaker from 1913 onwards in France and in the US during the silent era. He returned to France in the 1930s and made over 80 feature films in all. He was the father of Jacques Tourneur. This film was written by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, photographed by Claude Renoir and with a music score by Yves Baudrier (also composer on La bataille du rail (1946).
The story is slight. Anne-Marie, a girl from a poor background, has become ‘Marianne’, the star of theatre and variety in Paris (Simone Signoret). She has decided to marry into wealth and accepted the proposal of Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He has brought her a family heirloom, a valuable necklace, to wear for the wedding, and placed it in the safe in her house. She holds a pre-wedding party after her last stage performance at which she meets Antoine’s family and aristocratic friends. The necklace has attracted the interest of a criminal gang who hire a ‘specialist’ to steal it. This turns out to be Jean (Paul Meurisse) who was Anne-Marie’s lover seven years earlier when he suddenly disappeared from her life. He crashes the party, suitably dressed in evening wear. Recognising him, Anne-Marie slips out to join him and they go to a café. Will she leave her fiancé on the night before the wedding and stay with Jean? What about the criminal gang who are watching Jean? The answers to both questions make up most of the rest of the narrative. The film’s title refers to a dead-end street where there was once a small hotel, a rendezvous for Anne-Marie and Jean. It is now closed and the whole area is being re-developed.
Most of the action takes place at night using studio sets. An unusual element of these scenes for me was the use of double exposure so that when we see Marianne and Jean together in various locations, we also see the ghostly presence of their former selves, dressed as they would have been seven years earlier in the same location. I thought this was quite effective. The overall lighting and camerawork produces a familiar noir image and at 85 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Meurisse was a leading man of equal status to Signoret at the time and they would appear together again in future features.
Having just acquired a copy of Susan Hayward’s book Simone Signoret: the star as cultural sign (Continuum 2004) it’s worth noting some of her analysis of Signoret’s developing star image. Hayward identifies different ways of dividing up Signoret’s life and in particular her film career. For convenience, here I’ll just refer to a couple of her observations. She notes that in the period 1946-51 Signoret appears three times as a prostitute, twice as a gold-digger and twice as a woman who has risen from a lower class (one of these films is Impasse des deux anges). This is seven roles out of ten films in which her role is leading or significant. Ironically in the film discussed here, her assumed name of ‘Marianne’ is linked to the national symbol of French womanhood (and is referenced as such in the dialogue). Hayward begins her chapter by comparing Signoret with Anna Magnani in Italy during the same period. She suggests that Magnani is symbolic of Italian recovery and “the moral and ethical strength of the people”. Hayward notes that although Signoret had all the same attributes of Magnani (intelligence, integrity and authenticity), French films didn’t attempt to showcase such a character and instead Signoret represented “France’s economic underbelly”. (p 64).
But Susan Hayward does recognise that Signoret presents a ‘strong and independent woman’, perhaps a woman of the 1970s rather than the 1940s. She suggests that this strength comes from three aspects of her performances. First is her sheer ‘corporeality’. She is aware of the strength of her body, the way she stands and how she walks and how she smokes – with “an insouciant vulgarity”. Second she has reduced her gestures to the minimum, aiming to convey more with less, the raising of an eyebrow, a momentary flash of the eyes etc. Finally, she stands out as part of the ‘real world’ not the artifice of cinema. We know she is going to be a great star. This film was released in 1948, the same year as Against the Wind, the British film in which Signoret stars as an SOE operative helping the Belgian resistance. It appears that French audiences just couldn’t accept the British script (which was based on real events) and the film flopped in France where the various ‘myths’ associated with the résistance in France were not dispelled for many years. I’ve also been reading Simone Signoret’s autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (1976). It’s very good.
La bête humaine was streamed recently on MUBI in the UK as part of a double bill with La grande illusion (1937). La grande illusion has been widely available in the UK for as long as I can remember but the later film has often been difficult to find. Why did I foolishly leave it so long to watch? Now I need to watch it again. I’ve discovered so many scholarly pieces on every aspect of the film and since I’ve now acquired a copy Human Desire (1954), Fritz Lang’s version of the same original Zola narrative, I want to compare the two. But that will have to wait. [It does seem that MUBI have opened their ‘Library’ and made past films available, so the Renoirs are there at the moment for subscribers, but I’m not sure for how long.]
If anyone is not aware of La bête humaine, I’ll just briefly introduce it here. There is a great deal written about the film and it is one of the best films by Jean Renoir, matching the achievements of both La grande illusion and La règle du jeu (1939). Renoir adapted Émile Zola’s novel of 1890, changing the setting from 1870 to the contemporary France of 1938 with the decline of the Popular Front and the coming of war. As many later commentators have pointed out, there is a parallel between Zola’s presentation of a story set at the point when France was rushing headlong into war with Germany and Renoir’s story set when another conflagration was looming (the film opened in December 1938). But this is a ‘personal’ story, centred on Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) an engine driver on the Paris-Le Havre expresses. Zola wrote a collection of 20 novels about an extended family, ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’, and Jacques Lantier is one of the family members whose mental illness leads him to commit violent acts. Zola believed such mental traits could be inherited. Renoir is making a single film so he keeps Lantier’s violence but limits the back story. He includes Zola’s statement about Jacques and Les Rougon-Macquart at the end of the opening credits sequence (which ends with an image and signature of Zola himself). Jacques’ violent urges are then discussed with his godmother who live in the Normandy countryside and then they become an issue when he meets a young woman he knows, Flore (Blanchette Brunoy), by the river in the same village.
The central action of the film involves the Le Havre station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and his young wife Séverine (Simone Simon) who are involved in a murder on board a Paris-Le Havre train. Lantier is on the same train as a passenger and he sees the couple. Having already apparently fallen for Séverine he protects her when the police question the passengers. What will be the result of Jacques’ passion if it is allowed to develop? Will he kill Roubaud to free Séverine from a marriage in which she fears for her life? Around this seeming psychological crime thriller, Renoir develops a complex presentation which translates Zola’s naturalism into a form of cinematic realism.
There are all kinds of analysis and argument that develop from readings of the film. Some of the important political and social class issues that dominated French society in the late 1930s are perhaps not picked up so much in modern discussions. Conversely, the possible links to later American films noirs which were made in the 1970s are now to the fore. Both the earlier and the later arguments are explored in Raymond Durgnat’s Jean Renoir (University of California Press, 1974). I’ve also been reading Michèle Lagny’s ‘The Fleeing Gaze’, an essay on the film collected in French film: text and contexts, eds Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, (Routledge, 2000), Renoir’s own biography My Life and Films (1974) and Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay on the Criterion Collection website.
At this point I want to make just a few observations and leave a fuller consideration until later. First, I want to emphasise that for anyone who loves railways, this is one of the most exciting and informative railway films you are ever likely to see. SNCF, the state railway company (which had only just come into being bas a nationalised company), gave Renoir the same kind of support that enabled both La bataile du rail (1946) and The Train (1964) to deal with the railway in wartime. I believe there are other French films which also use the railways well but La bête humaine will take some beating as a presentation of an express railway. Paris Saint-Lazare to Le Havre was one of the earliest French railways built in the late 1840s covering 228 kms and in the film the expresses are hauled by 231 class Pacifics (4-6-2) built in the 1920s.
Jean Gabin was keen to make a railway feature and when a possible production of a train film for director Jean Grémillion fell through he turned to Renoir. Gabin was a major star who presumably had enough clout to to persuade producers to finance films. Renoir was keen to work with Gabin again after La grande illusion and he quickly adapted Zola’s story despite having not read it for 25 years. He tells us that he began to include more dialogue from the book and continued to revise the script during shooting. The important issue for Gabin was to learn all the actions of the engine driver and to experience life on the footplate with his fireman Pecqueux played by Carette. Renoir knew that the impact of the film depended on shooting ‘real’ footage of Gabin and Carette in the cab under steam. SNCF closed a section of track so that Gabin could operate the locomotive for some scenes and both the cinematographer Curt Courant and operator Claude Renoir Jr. were on the engine at times. It was dangerous work. Claude Renoir attached a camera to the side of the engine, but it came off in a tunnel. The film begins and ends with exciting sequences of Gabin and Carette in the cab of the speeding loco. I presume that an SNCF driver and fireman were on the footplate throughout these scenes. It must have been very crowded on there! Renoir tells us that they were running on 10 kms of track with a ‘platform truck’ coupled directly behind the engine and tender, carrying a generator for the lighting and behind that a single coach acting as a make-up and rest room for the actors. The photography across the whole film is excellent. I knew about Claude Renoir helping on his uncle’s films (he shot Toni, 1935) but Curt Courant was somebody I’ve somehow missed up until now. How I missed him, I’m not sure but he had a long pedigree. He began in Germany in 1917 and photographed over 140 films, mainly during the 1910s, 20s and 30s. La bête humaine was among the last ten films he shot. As a German Jew he was forced to flee from the Nazis and ended up in the UK eventually, but only shot a couple of films after 1940. He died in the US in 1968. He worked with Fritz Lang on Frau im Mond (1929) and with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). What happened to him? There is a story there. His style is evident in the low angle MCU at the top of this post. The cinematography is also supported in by the music of Joseph Kosma especially in the opening train sequence.
The opening in particular is almost documentary-like in its coverage. We see all the aspects of the railway that are usually ignored in fiction narratives. As the train approaches Le Havre we see the big signs welcoming us to the station, the engine sheds and the turntable and later the engine, which Jacques has christened ‘Lison’, being checked over and returned to the yard for maintenance. Earlier we had seen a demonstration of dropping the scoop to pick up water from the troughs on the track. This is all fascinating stuff if you love railways but is it necessary for the story? Perhaps not, but it all builds up a picture of Jacques’ life. The engine is like a character in the film and when he’s on board, the loco and Jacques are one.
La bête humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of an oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance . . .
. . . The setting of locomotives, railway sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry, or rather supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount of direction. (Jean Renoir from My Life and My Films, p 139)
I’m going to try and return to Renoir and to compare his film with Lang’s at some point. I’ve loved Renoir’s films for decades so it’s an on-going project. Thanks to MUBI for the chance to see La bête humaine.
My French Film Festival is back for a special lockdown outing and this time the films are free, having been on offer in previous outings of MyFFF. This was a great start for me, an 85 minute ‘comedy-drama’ with plenty of fresh ideas mixed in with familiar conventions and a central character well worth following on her adventures. The film is the début feature of French-Canadian director Éric Gravel who has made several short films and contributions to other features.
The title refers in a literal and possibly metaphorical way to Aglaé (India Hair) a young woman who suffered a dislocated childhood with her striptease artiste mother and absent father. She has found a job as a meticulous technician in a car crash test laboratory where she obsessively prepares the dummies. But the company has decided to move the entire factory ‘offshore’ and she finds herself with the prospect of redundancy unless she agrees to transfer to India. Aglaé decides to accept the challenge to the amazement of the company and, for different reasons, her two colleagues at the plant, Liette (Julie Dépardieu) and Marcelle (Yolande Moreau), agree to go with her. The company won’t pay the airfare so they set off in Marcelle’s battered old car. What follows is a familiar ‘road movie’ on a strange travel route that will take Aglaé through Switzerland, Germany, Poland Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Marcelle and Liette don’t have Aglaé’s fortitude and they bail out when they discover better possible futures. Aglaé will continue almost to the point of oblivion. Will she make it to India and if she does, what will she find there?
The narrative draws on a variety of genre repertoires and the resulting hybrid is both interesting and entertaining.The road movie provides the structure and the opportunities for ‘adventures’ and vignettes of characters Aglaé meets on her journey. There is a background narrative that relates to questions about globalisation and ‘offshoring’ and draws upon the strong repertoire of ‘industrial action’ stories. The three women who start the journey together have all got personal reasons for leaving for India, though one of them does have a direct link to the action by the plant’s union in fighting the management. Is this a comedy as well? Yes it certainly has comic moments. These grow out of the situations the trio find themselves in and the fact that they are each interestingly eccentric. In the latter part of the narrative Aglaé does face genuine hardship and at this point I did fear what might happen. It’s not too much of a spoiler to report that she does make it to Kolkata, but not without some pain and scares. Comedies are supposed to have happy endings (i.e. to distinguish them from tragedies) but the ending for this film still has some surprises.
What made the film for me was the writer-director’s imagination and the performances of the three women and especially India Hair. I realised that I had seen all three actors before but all in smaller roles. India Hair was born in France to English and American parents. She speaks standard English as well as French and this is necessary when she is travelling and when she gets to India. At the start of the film she looks ‘plain’ and at the end of her journey despite the various things that happen to her she looks very attractive and it genuinely feels that she has ‘come out of herself’. Oh and I forgot to mention she’s a cricketer! That bat is handy and she’ll certainly enjoy India.
The film is free to view and it makes a good diversion for those under lockdown (lots of fast car driving if you like that sort of thing). Here’s the trailer – you can turn the subs on for English. The film opens with a short scene and a voiceover statement by Aglaé. I immediately forgot this and didn’t realise what it meant until the final scenes. Structurally this makes much of the film a narrated flashback. Éric Gravel is a director I’ll look out for in future.
This was writer-director Georges-Henri Clouzot’s last film (and the final of three being screened on MUBI) and it is an interesting expression of the ’60s Pop Art zeitgeist intermingled with ‘daring’ challenges to bourgeois sensibilities. The film’s sexual politics would take some unravelling as the ‘sexual liberation’ of the time was male friendly and any film that is about exploiting the female body needs careful consideration: is it merely titillating or is it representing misogyny critically?
Elizabeth Wiener plays Josée, a sort of hip ‘belle de jour’; Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film of that name had portrayed a bored bourgeois housewife moonlighting as a prostitute. Josée isn’t bored, she’s working as an editor on a film about domestic abuse, and her partner, Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), is a Pop Artist hustling for recognition. Laurent Terzieff plays Stan (short for Stanislas) who exhibits modern art and has a fetish for bondage photography featuring naked women. Josée finds herself strangely attracted, and appalled, to the idea of being photographed in submissive and sexual positions.
Another film lurking just behind the frame is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK 1960); truly one of the most disturbing films ever made. Fetishistic close-ups of Stan’s lens reminded me of Powell’s classic, though in La prisonnière the ‘perversion’ is benign. Wiener is quite brilliant at conveying how conflicted she feels about wanting to submit when she sees herself as a modern, emancipated woman. It is a key contradiction that any feminist can feel: knowing that equality is key to self-realisation but harbouring potentially reactionary ideas at the same time. Although the film investigates this to an extent it’s probably something that cannot be wholly reconciled so any failure to elaborate a resolution is understandable.
By the time we get to the end the script (in collaboration with Monique Lange and Marcel Moussy) the film seems to have given up trying to resolve the tensions but it does finish with an incredible nightmare sequence into which Clouzot seems to have dropped every avant garde film technique he could. It’s a strange climax to the film; usually the tension that such sequences engender require many more minutes of narrative to ground: it offers more questions that answers.Tthe film is worth seeing just for this phantasmagoric sequence alone though this is not to say, by any means, the rest of the film is worthless. Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (UK-Italy 1966) is another point of reference, particularly through the representation of popular culture. It’s admirable that Clouzot, in his 60th year, was trying to connect to the zeitgeist.
In the UK, at least, the film was released as Woman in Chains, possibly so that it wouldn’t be confused with the TV series The Prisoner (UK 1967-8) though more likely because it offered the promise of eroticism that certain ‘smutty’ cinemas traded upon at the time.
Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot is probably best known for Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953) and Lesdiaboliques (1957, both France); Le corbeau was his second feature made for the Nazi-controlled Continental Films; the first was The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’Assassin habite… au 21, 1942). For understandable reasons, now and at the time, that can be enough to write the film, and the director, off as morally culpable. Le corbeau was deemed to be ‘anti-French’ and he was banned for life from making films until it was rescinded in 1947. History has been kinder to the film, particularly as the Nazis hated it too.
The raven of the title is an anonymous ‘poison pen’ letter writer terrorising a small French town that could be anywhere at anytime; the titles at the start suggest such universality. Pierre Fresnay plays the unlikeable protagonist Doctor Germain who is the main focus of letter writer’s bile; the letters suggest that he is adulterous and an abortionist. In part, the film is a thriller (who is writing the letters?) but it also a melodrama of small-town hypocrisies not unlike some of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s Hollywood films. It is the latter that invoked the wrath of the Nazis.
Vichy France ‘thrived’ on ‘collaboration’, no matter what the myth of the Resistance says, and Clouzot nails the narrow-minded, vindictiveness of those who pass on malicious gossip and shows its damaging consequences. Of course, the occupying Nazis thrived on informing. In one brilliant scene, an accused nun runs through deserted streets with the howls of a baying mob on the soundtrack. She reaches her home to find it vandalised and the mob materialise outside her window.
The local government officials get it in the neck too. One council member insists that they must be seen to be doing something; reminding me of the UK government’s response to Covid-19: much hot air and nowhere near enough action. I haven’t seen enough of Clouzet’s films to judge whether he was a misanthropist but it is difficult to find a pleasant character in the film. The local peasants-workers are marginalised and so are spared his satirical swipes; the bourgeoisie are skewered, which is apparently typical of his films.
In one scene the Doctor discusses the moral issues of the events with the cynical, and funny, psychiatrist Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). As they discuss good and evil, light and dark, a light bulb swings next to a globe no doubt suggesting the universality of human vindictiveness. I’m not sure I buy into that, the current crisis has shown much empathy and kindness (and more than enough of the opposite including informing on neighbours), but it works very well in the context of the film.
Le corbeau is the first of a Clouzot triple bill on MUBI; I’m looking forward to the others.
MUBI UK has streamed some of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville over the last couple of months. They have tended to be the better-known titles but at least it has given the opportunity for new younger fans to see what all the fuss is about. Le cercle rouge still has 3 days left I think and, if you miss it, you will still have the chance to catch Un flic (1972) which as around 10 days to go.
Melville died in 1973 so these were his last two films. His later films suffered in UK distribution by being cut and sometimes dubbed for release in circuit cinemas and it wasn’t until a successful re-release of Le samouraï in 1993 that Melville began to get proper treatment in the UK. Like the other two titles mentioned here, Le cercle rouge is a polar and a film imbued with Melville’s unique combination of American gangster tropes, French policiers and East Asian philosophies, the latter contributing to a code of sorts among criminals and some police officers.
Le cercle rouge refers here to a Buddhist reading (possibly written by Melville himself) which appears at the beginning of the film in the credit sequence. This suggests that men who meet, albeit randomly, are destined, even if they take separate paths, to all end up within the red circle. The plot is relatively simple for a narrative that extends over 140 minutes. A prisoner handcuffed to a Police Commissaire is taken to a Marseilles station one night where they board a Paris-bound sleeper. Early the next morning the man makes his escape. That same morning a second prisoner is released from prison, having been told by a warder about how a jewel robbery could be successfully carried out in Paris. After a series of incidents this man, Corey (Alain Delon) hears about the escaped prisoner when he is stopped at a road-block in his newly acquired car. He parks at a diner near where he thinks the escapee, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) might be hiding. When he leaves the diner, Vogel is in the car. There are more incidents before the couple arrive in Paris. Meanwhile Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil) has come to the attention of Internal Affairs and is under severe pressure to re-capture Vogel. The robbery is accomplished with the help of a former police marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand). There is one other significant character, a nightclub owner and underworld fixer, Santi, played by François Perier.
There is no real mystery about what will happen – Melville revealed his hand in the opening credits. The focus is instead on the heist – completed in just under 30 minutes in a bravura dialogue-free sequence – and on the relationships between the characters who will all end up, one way or another in the ‘red circle’. Le cercle rouge follows the rules of previous polars from Melville. Corey drives an American car and has Japanese prints in his apartment, much like his character in Le samouraï . He wears a hat (a fedora) and a trench coat with the belt tied. When Corey meets Jansen for the first time in Santi’s club, he is already seated, in his trench coat, when Jansen descends the stairs from the street. We see his feet in shiny black leather shoes, dark trousers and then a coat – a long blue-grey tweed coat – and on his head a grey fedora. We perhaps remember then that in the preceding scene Mattei also wore a grey fedora – but all the other plain-clothes police were bare-headed. Jansen is immaculate with a neat dark tie and a button-down striped shirt. Corey is without his hat at this point. His trench coat is grey and crumpled, his tie is slightly awry and his shirt collar is crumpled. As he and Jansen talk, we see the arrival of two plain-clothes police, hatless but one has a light-coloured ‘shortie’ trench coat. They’ve come to escort Santi to the police HQ. When he is summoned from a back-room, Santi emerges with his long coat and, of course, his fedora. He glances very quickly at Corey and Jansen. Everything is communicated by costume and looks in this scene. The nightclub itself which features in three separate scenes with a different dance routine in each, is another convention lovingly explored by Melville. The club features a raised square dancing platform on which a group of immaculate dancers, all beautiful women, perform.
All of this creates an almost timeless ‘dance’ of crooks and cops. The characters seem ‘out of time’ to me with their hats and trench coats, more early 60s than 1970. I am aware though that in 1970 I was more influenced by hippies than middle-aged guys in suits. But I do think that Melville creates his own universe governed by codes of honour. I’m tempted to say that the codes resemble those that Peckinpah’s Western characters display in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The triumph of a Melville polar is usually based on pacing, attention to detail and performance. All are on display here. Alain Delon was one of Melville’s regulars with his good looks (slightly challenged here by his moustache?) and deadpan expressions. There is no Lino Ventura unfortunately but Gian Maria Volonte is a good replacement with his curly hair (so he does match the times tonsorially). What a year it was for him. In 1970 he was also the lead in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy) and Godard-Gorin’s Le vent d’est (Italy-France-W. Germany), the one as a fascistic Italian police chief (with the neat, oiled hair), the other as a Latin American bandit type in the Dziga-Vertov’s group’s best-known ‘political’ film. Yves Montand, fresh from his two successful leading roles in the Costa-Gavras political thrillers Z and L’aveu seems to me to have been perfect casting. The surprise for me this time round was Bourvil. I last watched the film about 15 years ago and I remembered thinking that the almost imperceptible comic air about the Commissaire was a brilliant touch – Melville nearly always seemed to ‘play’ on the relationship between cop and crook. I hadn’t at that point realised that ‘Bourvil’ as the star tended to be known was the same star of the 1950s comedy films that used to be imported and shown in the UK. That was clearly a time when there might have been less titles distributed in the UK but we saw a wider range of French films.
The jewel heist is a stunning piece of work, a masterwork in constructing suspense and using the details of the security system. But what do we make of the nearly complete absence of women in the narrative? There is a brief reference to Corey’s ex-girlfriend but she has no ‘agency’ whatsoever. The dancers in Santi’s club are there seemingly as icons for a certain sense of style in much the same way as the fedoras and trench coats. This is a film about masculine codes of honour. The characters could be samourai or Western gunfighters. It may just be about style but there is romance (in its ‘knightly’ medieval meaning) as well. And there is always Alain Delon for the female gaze.
The original French trailer: