Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, Les bonnes femmes, was released in Paris when he was approaching his 30th birthday. Not a success at the time, it now has a high reputation as one of his finest works and one of the very best of the early New Wave films. Outside France the critics were unkind and hampered by the conventions of the time. In some ways the film suffered like Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste in the same year. Both directors risked comedy mixed with tragedy and a combination of the street location photography with more stylised interiors. Chabrol was blessed with great performances by the four women playing the shopgirls at the centre of the narrative.
An indication of the problems the film faced came with the translations of the title. In some cases the English language title was ‘The Good Time Girls’ which gives the wrong impression. Sometimes it has been simply ‘The Girls’ which is OK, but perhaps a bit too open. I’m not sure the title translates, but if so, ‘The Good Girls’ is at least provocative without misleading.
The four young women work in an old-fashioned electrical goods shop in Central Paris, each standing at their own counter, watched over by an older Italian woman as the cashier and, in the back room, the proprietor, one of several peculiar men in the film who in this case seems to have strayed out of a German Expressionism film complete with pince-nez. His admonishment of Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) when she is 5 minutes late for work in her first week is very disturbing. There never seem to be any customers in the shop and the four shopgirls have to find ways of wasting time before they are allowed out for lunch. The narrative starts one night when the four women leave work and two of them are picked up by two older men who take them out on the town. This episode mainly features Jane (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont) and this sets the pattern in the film whereby each of the four has an episode in which they take the lead/become the focus of the action. Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Paul Gégauff have produced a highly structured film with alternating sequences inside and outside the shop. In the transitions from shop to cafe/zoo/music hall etc. inserts of almost documentary footage remind us of urban Paris. Jane is the comic character and Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) the sensible one already engaged to the most boring shopkeeper imaginable, Pierre. Ginette is the enigmatic one who shares a flat with Jane but disappears each evening and Jacqueline is the young woman with the most romantic notions of what a relationship might be. She’s the one who will suffer for her lack of awareness that she is a character in a Chabrol film – and one of his most Hitchcockian to boot.
The main criticism of the film at the time was that Chabrol was a cynical artist would lead the audience on and then produce the awful tragedy. Following the pattern of ‘oppositions’, the tragic scene follows on swiftly from a highly romantic sequence. I’ve seen criticisms that the film doesn’t have much plot but this is mainly a comment on the unconventional structure. We learn something about each of the young women and in one case what we learn becomes a completed narrative. The action is limited to around 30 hours from, one night to the next, followed by a daytime sequence which is presumably the next day. Finally, there is a coda which features a fifth young woman who we’ve never seen before, but who possibly appears to be repeating one of the stories of the other four. As several commentators have noted, the four young women do perhaps represent a composite of what faces young working-class women in France in 1960 – although it must be said that these are four uncommonly attractive women in different ways. The men they meet are all silly, repulsive or dangerous apart from the two ‘realist’ characters, the ‘delivery boy’ on a bicycle who regularly visits the shop and Jane’s boyfriend on leave from his army service. The film is a satire of sorts on the ambitions of young women and the dark urban world that is Paris. For me the delight in the film is in the performances. Bernadette Lafont is funny, sexy and so alive, but in a way the real star is Clotilde Joano whose career did not flourish like Lafont’s and Audran’s and who sadly died aged 42 in 1974. Lucille Saint-Simon stopped appearing in films a few years later after a number of low-budget horror films that took her to the UK, Spain and Italy. I’ve a feeling there is a research topic for a French film student in her career.
Stéphane Audran is relatively low-key in this film, but she would become Chabrol’s ‘muse’ and then his wife, appearing in significant films in Chabrol’s productive period in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like Saint-Simon and Joano, Audran was 28 in 1960, whereas Lafont was only 22 – but she had already appeared in Truffaut’s short Les mistons at 15 and in two of Chabrol’s earlier films as well as for Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, another Cahiers critic turned director.
The look of the film is terrific with marvellous compositions and framings by the great Henri Decaë who worked several times for Jean-Pierre Melville and Truffaut as well as Chabrol. I also enjoyed the music score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki which seems to match the shifting moods of the narrative very well. I was too young to catch Les bonnes femmes in cinemas and it now seems very difficult to find on DVD in the UK. I watched it again on an old videotape of A Channel 4 screening in the 1980s. I think it may now be available on Netflix and/or Amazon Prime. I did see several of Chabrol’s later 1960s and 1970s films in the cinema and perhaps the most evocative image in Les bonnes femmes is a long shot of a woodland scene with a priest leading a crocodile of small children through the trees. I knew immediately that something terrible would happen and I remembered a similar moment in Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970). Chabrol is an acquired taste perhaps, but I think I like his films best out of the Cahiers crowd. It also occurs to me now that, along with Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), Les bonnes femmes is a rare French New Wave film with four female leads – and shopgirls as central characters.
In the clip below, Rita is waiting to meet her future in-laws:
(This is the second film from the Summer of French Cinema – see the earlier posting on Vie sauvage. I’m hoping to get to one more before the screenings end in the first week of August.)
Albertine Sarrazin was born in Algeria in 1937 and almost immediately taken into care and then adopted by a French family who took her to Aix-en-Provence. Her new family treated her badly and she ended up in ‘reform school’. Escaping, she pursued an interest in literature, supporting herself through prostitution and petty crime. Put in prison she escaped, breaking her ankle in the process. ‘L’astragale’ is the French term for the ‘ankle bone’ and Albertine was forced to have the bone ‘fused’ so that she developed a limp. She would spend the next few years in and out of prison where she developed her writing skills, including an autobiographical novel L’astragale, published in 1965. This new French film is the second adaptation of that novel, the first having appeared in 1969.
The new film, part scripted and wholly directed by Brigitte Sy, is an interesting ‘crime romance drama’, a polar of sorts that, because of its setting and the aesthetic choices made by the director, recalls the early crime-based films of la nouvelle vague, especially those of Jean-Luc Godard. The story begins with the escape and the broken ankle and deals primarily with Albertine’s developing relationship with Julien, the minor criminal who finds her outside the prison and helps her to recover. There are several scenes which feature Albertine’s writings in her notebooks, but the narrative ends before her first work is published – otherwise this would make an interesting comparison with Violette (France 2013) as another film exploring new kinds of writing by French women in the 1950s/60s.
The important aesthetic choice was to present the film in B+W CinemaScope and to set the story in the mid 1950s (roughly correct with the autobiography). The disadvantage of course is that with the action mainly in Paris, it is difficult to shoot on the streets without spending a great deal on extras and ‘set dressing’/CGI. I presume this was a relatively low-budget film and the most obvious way of dealing with the problems is to shoot on specific streets at times when there are no members of the public around – which gives the film a rather abstract look. I confess that when the film began and I didn’t know the story behind it I wondered if I was watching the first film of a new film school graduate – although I could see that the performances were all very good (and the cinematography/mise en scène). I learned later that Brigitte Sy is a well-known French actress who has previously directed a feature and two shorts. She has a son and daughter, Louis and Esther Garrel. Esther has an important role in L’astragale (see the image above) and Louis has been very successful since his lead role in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2002). Louis and his mother both have small roles in L’astragale. Sy’s ex-partner Philippe Garrel is a well-known French director who began making features in the mid 1960s.
The references to Godard include the sequences which explore Albertine’s life as a ‘streetwalker’ and which might be compared to the scenes featuring Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962). Albertine’s first customer bears some resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud and several scenes in which Albertine is reading or writing while waiting in bars for Julien recall similar scenes in early Godard. When Albertine allows herself to be photographed (and therefore risking exposure to the police) I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. I enjoyed the film and especially the performances of the two leads. Leïla Bekhti as Albertine had an important role in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (France 2009). In 2010 she married that film’s young star Tahar Raheem. Reda Ketab, who plays Julien, also had a lead role in Un prophète. He and Leïla Bekhti are both from French-Algerian families and their casting gives the story authenticity. It also distinguishes the film from most of the early New Wave films in which the war in Algeria was rarely mentioned. Albertine’s disguise when trying to evade the police is based on a blonde short-haired wig, which for me seemed to emphasise her North African heritage because of its incongruity.
The various aesthetic choices are evident in this trailer (no subs, but there isn’t much dialogue):
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is the latest cinema re-release by the British Film Institute. The film has often been argued to be the first ‘French New Wave’ film or at least an important precursor to the New Wave proper which began with Chabrol’s Le beau Serge in the same year. I showed the film as part of an evening class considering ‘A new look at the French New Wave‘ in 2009 and I thought it might be useful to post those notes here.
Outline (no spoilers)
This film has a complex plot with narrative twists. These are concerned with two separate narratives that become intertwined. In the first narrative an adulterous couple set up a serious crime which goes wrong when the man is trapped in a lift. In the second a young couple go on a spree when the boy steals the car of the man in the lift. Once linked the two stories lead to a typical noir conclusion.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud became a commercially successful film offering action, suspense, crime and twisted romance. In some ways traditional in featuring a ‘locked room’ crime, the narrative also embraces the Hitchcockian romance thriller. Because of its inclusion of younger characters, innovative camerawork and direction and a stunning jazz score by Miles Davis, the film also feels much more modern than most 1950s films. However, given the relatively ‘straight’ treatment of its material, it is distinguished from the later New Wave films by Godard (À bout de souffle) and Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste) which utilise similar genre elements, but treat them in a more ‘playful’ way.
Like the young Cahiers critics, director Louis Malle was obsessed with cinema. But instead of writing about film like his contemporaries who attended the Cinémathèque and wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he plunged straight into learning about filmmaking. Originally enrolled to study science at the Sorbonne, Malle switched to the French film school IDHEC. He never completed the course because he took up an offer to become an assistant to Jacques Cousteau the underwater explorer. Malle soon proved to be a wonderful underwater photographer. He also learned direction and editing and at the age of 23 he shared a Palme d’Or with Cousteau as co-director at Cannes in 1956 for the documentary film The Silent World. Malle also had experience of observing/assisting director Robert Bresson and in 1957 he began work on his own first feature film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He thus became one of the youngest of all the ‘young directors’ of la nouvelle vague. After the success of his first film, Malle quickly followed up with the controversial Les Amants (The Lovers), again with Jeanne Moreau. This was a far less likely candidate for the New Wave, but Malle’s third film Zazie dans le métro (1960) placed him back alongside Truffaut with a zany comedy about a small girl whizzing about Paris with her uncle, complete with cinematic references and jokes. Malle went on to make a further twenty-seven features, including several documentaries and films made in the US in English. The American critic Pauline Kael noted that Malle’s refusal to work within a specific genre or any other form of categorisation of style or thematic meant that he was often dismissed as a dilettante. The high quality of many of his films suggests that this was a bad mistake by those critics.
No other French director of the 1960s, outside the Cahiers group, has had such wide international recognition. Is this particular film really New Wave? It seems sensible to classify Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as at least a significant precursor to the New Wave for the following reasons:
- Louis Malle was undeniably a ‘young first-time (fiction) feature filmmaker’ and the film narrative includes a young couple who represented the ‘problem youth’ of 1950s European and American culture;
- the film was shot on the streets of Paris by Henri Decaë who along with Raoul Coutard would introduce the innovative cinematography of the New Wave (like Coutard, Decaë was experienced as a documentary camera operator, having served with the French Army in WW2);
- the film was based on a ‘Serie Noire’ novel by Noël Calef and is in many ways an amalgam of the American B film noir with the French policier/polar;
- Malle was already involved with a production company, NEF which had already co-produced Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and would go on to produce all of Malle’s films.
These four features of the production would be echoed in subsequent New Wave films by other directors. It’s also important to note that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was a traditional genre film in terms of its structure and in Jeanne Moreau it had an actor with real presence who had been performing since the late 1940s both on the stage and in films, including Touchez pas au grisbi with the great Jean Gabin. Moreau fought to make the role of Florence bigger than it was in the novel. The male lead, Maurice Ronet was another theatre-trained actor who had started in films in 1949 and was established in French Cinema before Ascenseur pour l’échafaud made him an international star. Moreau and Ronet both appeared in films during the New Wave period and subsequently for New Wave directors. Moreau because of Jules et Jim, is now remembered as a ‘New Wave star’, whereas Ronet is remembered for his work in Malle’s films (especially Le feu follet, 1963) and his lead in René Clair’s Plein soleil (1960). These seem like arbitrary distinctions. A closer look at the credits of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows several future ‘players’ in the New Wave. Jean-Claude Brialy has a walk-on part, Jean Rabier, a future cinematographer, is an assistant here alongside Henri Decaë. The Bresson connection is apparent in the scenes in which Julien (Ronet) is trapped in the lift; Bresson was one of the more ‘personal’ directors who was valued by the Cahiers critics. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a polar (the French term for a crime picture is virtually untranslatable and refers to a broader genre than the policier or police procedural). In his 1997 book on French Cinema in the 1980s, Phil Powrie, looks back on the development of the polar and suggests three key features of the genre:
- it focuses on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society;
- it carries comments on contemporary society;
- it indicates the state of French-American cultural exchange.
We could fruitfully look for these three features in many of the films of the New Wave and not just those which are obviously polars based on American pulp fiction sources. The focus on young characters in a changing society is there in most New Wave films and the ‘play’ with American culture at this moment in French post-war history is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the pinball machines in the cafés, the incursion of American jazz onto the soundtrack, the ubiquity of American cars and the references to Hollywood. (Although in most of the films, and especially in Truffaut’s, it’s mixed with traditional aspects of French popular culture.) Again this wasn’t necessarily ‘new’ and is evident in earlier polars, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956). Also quoted as a precursor of the New Wave, this was the first of Melville’s attempts to use the conventions of American crime films to tell French stories. The importance of the extensive Miles Davis score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud also links up with the work of another, later, New Wave figure, Jacques Demy with his obsession over American musicals. In one sense though, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is different. This is in its political references. The marginalised hero of the film, Julien, is an ex-paratrooper who has returned to France after fighting in the colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa. He transfers his ‘action skills’ to crime, operating in the world of oil industry espionage. Along with the presence of the young couple on the run, this feels like a French parallel of the concerns of American B noirs. The appearance of the German couple as tourists also prompted comments. Louis Malle was often a controversial director and his later films dealt with taboo issues such as the Occupation in France (Lacombe Lucien, 1974 and Au revoir les enfants, 1987). More than most New Wave films (Godard’s Le petit soldat is the exception), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud seems to be aware of the issues of the moment.
Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP