Tagged: New Wave

The Girl (Eltávozott nap, Hungary 1968)

This début fiction feature by the documentarist Márta Mészáros is a stunning portrait of a young woman in Hungary searching with steely determination for a sense of her own identity in a society experiencing a dramatic contrast between tradition and developing modernity. It is both an example of the New Wave films of Eastern Europe in the late 1960s and one of the early films of feminist cinema in Europe (although Mészáros is reported as not recognising the ‘feminist’ label). The film is currently streaming on MUBI as part of a four film offering of restored prints. The film also goes by two other English titles, The Day Has Gone and The Sun Has Gone.

The head of the instution with her staff welcoming the ‘old girls’ to the monthly meal.

The central character is Erzsi, a young woman of 24 who has grown up in a state orphanage and now works in a textile factory, living in what appears to be a dormitory in a workers’ hostel. The narrative opens with  a monthly meal at the orphanage where the former residents are served by the older girls who are still living in the orphanage. The opening credits have shown us a group of young women in their twenties being given training in archery. The orphanage and its ‘alumni’ association appear to be single sex institutions, possibly linked directly to the factory as state institutions. Eventually Erzsi is picked out by the camera when she leaves the Sunday meal, complaining that she doesn’t feel well. In fact she is probably just bored. Later she tells her friend that she has made contact with a woman who is probably her mother and she has decided to visit the village where this woman lives. Erzsi is played by Kati Kovács who in 1968 had already been recognised in a TV talent contest and had sung a winning song in a televised dance-song festival. After 1970 her recording career took off and she has become one of Hungary’s most famous singers. Her confidence as a performer is already evident in her portrayal of Erzsi.

Kati Kovács as Erzsi on the train to visit the village

Erzsi takes a train and a bus to get to the village where she finds the family house of her mother. But the welcome is not warm – the woman says that she will introduce Erzsi as a niece who is visiting because she has a work appointment close by. The evening and the next day are difficult for Erzsi. The woman is married and has a grown up son, and a younger boy with her husband. His mother is also living with her. Erzsi becomes the focus of attention for the husband and eldest son. She gets little opportunity to speak to any of the family, even if she wanted to. In a key scene, the family watch a TV broadcast from London of a ‘beauty contest’ (see the image below). Note how the woman watches her husband but the others watch the screen. The woman is dressed traditionally and so is her mother (still in the kitchen). Television was still relatively new in the 1960s, especially in rural Hungary, and these formal groups (as in the UK in the 1950s) were common for audiences. The following day the family attend a dance in the village and the traditional/modern split becomes more apparent especially between the younger and older women. The band is a ‘beat group’ which resembles those seen in small towns in the UK in the 1960s. Erzsi leaves soon after the dance without saying goodbye. On the train back to Budapest she decides to go home with a man she meets.

The family tableau watching the beauty contest

When she gets up the next morning in her dormitory she returns to the factory and socialises with her small circle of friends. She has ‘admirers’, including a young man who appears to be stalking her. Her attitudes towards men are straightforward. She enjoys some of the attention and dismisses other attempts to engage with her. She appears to enjoy her sexual encounters but has no romantic notions. I was reminded to some extent of the Hungarian girl who loves the ratcatcher in Dusan Makavejev’s Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Erzsi is a ‘modern’ young woman but she is still interested in finding out about her history. The film is also similar in some ways to Pawel Pawlikowski’s later prize-winning Ida (Poland 2013) but in The Girl, Erzsi who would have been born in 1944, does not engage directly in discussions about the Second World War. She does eventually meet a man who claims to have known her parents and he tells her a story about them. They are both dead it seems. Erzsi doesn’t believe him but later says it was a ‘nice story’. Hungarians in the 1960s must have been conflicted about remembering the war period. They did not come out of it well, aligned to the Axis powers initially and then occupied by the Nazis. This history also affected the later relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary.

Erzsi in ‘cool’ mode

The oddest thing about Erzsi is that on three occasions she pays the bills for people she meets or her friends. She is paid a modest wage as a textile worker but seems unconcerned about money. Overall, she is a ‘cool’ character who might appear in any 1960s film from Europe or North America. Much of the impetus behind this character must come from Márta Mészáros herself. The director wrote the script herself and her own biography records a similar history of ‘displacement’. Born in 1931, Mészáros went with her artist parents to Moscow as a young child and was orphaned a few years later, being brought up by a foster mother. She returned to Hungary as a teenager in 1946 and later went back to Moscow for film school. She then worked as a documentary filmmaker in both Hungary and Romania. Her second marriage was to the director Miklós Jancsó. They divorced in 1973. The Girl created a strong impression with critics and audiences but divisions quickly developed and it has been suggested that Mészáros became more popular outside Hungary. The reason for this was her strong central aim of exploring the ‘modernising’ of Hungarian society and specifically gender and sexual relations. I suspect that she also disturbed audiences with her probing into personal and social history in a society in which personal identity post-1945 was a difficult issue for many. Here’s a more theorised observation from one writer on Mészáros:

There are not many reviews of The Girl in English and some of them seem off the mark to me. Erzsi is often seen by reviewers as ‘lonely’ and ‘oppressed’. One American review I read seemed to suggest that this was because Hungary was a cold and unhappy country in the Soviet bloc. I don’t think Erzsi is alone and oppressed but clear-eyed and focused. The narrative is recognisable as an East European New Wave film but the standout performance of Kati Kovács is riveting. It is worth watching the film just to see this powerful performance. Her hair and dress sense is modern and sophisticated but it is her ‘gaze’ that is most striking. The presentation of pop music in Hungary in the film is remarkable for most Western viewers (although I am reminded of the earlier Czech New Wave film Audition (Czechoslovakia 1963, by Milos Forman) and the images below refer to a dance at the end of the film in which the band seem to be riffing, in both a musical and fashion sense, on Californian psychedelic and rock music of 1966/7.

Erzsi turns away her friend at a dance and takes up with a man who has been watching her

The band at the dance – channeling The Byrds or Lovin’ Spoonful?

The Girl is a relatively short film, more like 84 minutes in this restoration than the 90 suggested by IMDb. The restoration looks very good and the black and white photography by Tamás Somló presented in Academy (1.37:1) does justice to Márta Mészáros’ selection of locations and framings. Both director and cinematographer had come out of documentary work and with Kati Kovács’ performance as a focus the presentation of life in Budapest and the contrast with the outlying village is compelling. This is one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. I note the next film in the quartet has just popped up on MUBI. There is too much to watch all of a sudden. In fact we have already reviewed one of the four restorations, Adoption ( Hungary 1975). Other films by Márta Mészáros on this blog are Diary for My Children (Hungary 1982/4),  The Unburied Man (Hungary-Poland-Slovakia 2004) and The Last Report on Anna (Hungary 2009). Her latest film is Aurora Borealis: Északi fény (2017). Her body of work is in many ways comparable with that of Agnès Varda and it deserves to be much more widely celebrated.

A Kind of Loving (UK 1962)

a_kind_of_loving_600

Love in a cold climate

In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist (which garnered much disagreement in the comments) and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.

This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:

. . . there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies – but she should know by now, without needing duendes [spirits in Ibero and Latin American culture] to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person – not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person – whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.

For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women as ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.

As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.

The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.

As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia 1964)

Dream world

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s début film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. Here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might-be flashbacks but also might-be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There are even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.

Audition (Kdyby ty muziky nebyly/Konkurs, Czechoslovakia 1963)

Vera Kresadlova as one of the young women auditioning

MUBI celebrated the achievements of Milos Forman, who died in April this year, by streaming two of his earliest films. The first, completed in 1963, comprises two short films put together ‘after the event’ since separately they would have less chance of being programmed. Kdyby ty muziky nebyly or If there were no music concerns an annual celebration (that started in 1961) in the town of Kolin honouring the memory of a famous 19th century composer František Kmoch who was born close to the town in Bohemia where he opened a music school. (Forman was himself from Bohemia.) Two local brass bands are scheduled to perform at the ceremony. The bands are mainly made up of older amateur musicians but also include some young men. The film’s main plot device is a motorcycle race that takes place on the local streets at the same time as the concert. One young man in each band daydreams about riding a motor bike and absents himself from the performance in order to watch the race. Both are dismissed by their bands but then sign up for the other band. IMDb categorises this film as a documentary but it isn’t. Although the majority of the band members are non-professionals, there are professionals from what would later be recognised as Forman’s ‘stock company’ in leading roles. Just 33 minutes long, the film was shot on 35mm equipment borrowed from the Barrandov Studio.

Jan Vostrcil as the band conductor in If there were no music

Konkurs (Audition) (47 minutes) was the first of the two films to be completed and was a more ‘personal’ project for Forman which was expanded from an initial idea for a 15 minute film shot on 16mm using Forman’s own camera (operated by the great Miroslav Ondricek). The link with the brass band film is the attempt to prepare musicians but this time it’s a talent show for girl singers (and their accompanists) auditioning at the Semafor Theatre in Prague. Again, as in the first film, the near-documentary coverage of the audition is provided with a fictional second narrative in which two young women are picked out from the group and given their own (separate) back stories. One of these two, Vera Kresadlova (just 18 at the time), later became Forman’s second wife. She’s shown singing successfully in a group with a rock ‘n roll band, but then finds it impossible to perform on her own for the audition. The other young woman lies to her boss at a beauty salon to get time off to sing with her guitar with accompaniment from a young man also on an acoustic guitar.

There are several online sources for detailed reviews/analyses of Auditions. One is by Darragh O’Donoghue on ‘Senses of Cinema’. Another is on Second Run’s site for its DVD release. There is no point in me repeating what is laid out on these sites. Instead I’ll make my own personal response. I like these two short films very much. Watching them makes me very nostalgic for a variety of reasons. I was a young teenager around this time and I recognised all these young people – and the older ones too. Some of the reviews are quite snotty about the music and the question of the ‘generation gap’. It is all very familiar from the UK in the 1960s, especially the pop music. When the Beatles first appeared in the UK at the end of 1962/early in 1963 we had much the same mix of musical styles – rock ‘n roll, the R & B bands, folk music, trad jazz and even the hangover of skiffle. The local bands were a long way from the polished, orchestrated soft pop we saw on TV. I recognised many of the tunes – though the Czech language songs had very different lyrics. Brass bands were a major part of the lives of workers and their families across much of industrial Northern England and the culture clash of the brass band v. TV features in A Kind of Loving (UK 1962). I can see why Forman wants to poke fun at the bandleader in If there were no music played by Jan Vostrcil but I think he still has some feeling for the traditions of the band. The audition montage in Konkurs is repeated in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (US 1971), a film I really enjoyed on its circuit release in 1971.

It’s good to see films from the Czech New Wave – so influential on later British cinema – and it’s worth remembering the 50th anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’ that ended with Russian tanks taking control of the city and leading to Forman’s decision to move permanently to America. I haven’t seen all his American films, partly I think because I was slightly disappointed by his embrace of American culture. He tended to see Taking Off as a failure, blaming himself for making a European art film in America. I saw it the other way round with him showing American filmmakers how to make more interesting films. A Blonde in Love (1965) was the other MUBI screening and a review will be posted soon.

Güeros (Mexico 2014)

Ana (Ilse Salas) is in some ways like the Anna Karina characters in Godard's films

Ana (Ilse Salas) is in some ways like the Anna Karina characters in Godard’s films

Güeros is an unusual and exciting film. It’s particularly remarkable as a début film – but its director Alonso Ruizpalacios was already an experienced theatre and TV director who had previously won prizes for his short films. (He also trained as an actor at RADA in London.)

The film’s vitality is built on three noticeable elements. First, it offers a quartet of characters portrayed by young actors with both skill and charisma. Second, it utilises a ‘New Wave’ approach derived from directors as diverse as Fellini and Jim Jarmusch – both name-checked by the director. The introduction of Ana (Ilse Salas) reminds us of Anna Karina in a film like Godard’s Bande à part (France 1964). Third, the film uses Mexico City almost as a fifth character with the ‘road movie’ structure taking us through very different districts and allowing a social commentary, sometimes directly through interactions between the characters and people they meet, but sometimes simply through documentary-style observation.

Mexican cinema

Mexico has the most cinema screens in Latin America and the highest number of admissions – but most are for Hollywood films and Mexican films have less than 10% of their own market. However, there are smaller films supported by public funds that travel to international festivals. Güeros is one of these – and there are jokes about this kind of film included in the film’s dialogue.

Mexican society

Mexico does not have an ethnic classification in its official census but the majority of the population is of ‘mixed’ heritage – European, African or Asian with indigenous peoples. The ‘European’ community is perhaps 10% of the population and the Indigenous peoples (several different peoples) slightly more than 10%. ‘Güeros’ means light-skinned or ‘blonde-haired’ and is used sometimes as a term of abuse in the film.

Despite its geographical size, Mexico is an urbanised society. Mexico City has a population of over 8 million but the metropolitan area of ‘Greater Mexico City’ has over 20 million and vies with São Paulo as the biggest urban area in Latin America. Income inequalities are large in the country.

Filmic New Waves

References to ‘New Waves’ in film culture often assume the French New Wave of 1958-63 (not a precise period), but there were similar movements across global cinema in the 1960s and again in the decades to follow. There is no standard definition of a New Wave and no necessary standardisation of approaches within a New Wave. As the term implies, New Wave films do something differently compared to earlier films and often, but not always, they are ‘youthful’ in some way, as well as ‘modern’. Having said that, some New Wave films are also backward-looking in celebrating the work of earlier filmmakers through an hommage.

Güeros as a New Wave film

The most visible ‘difference’ here is that Ruizpalacios chooses to shoot in black & white and to use the much squarer Academy aspect ratio (1:1.37). This perhaps references 1960s New Wave films with small budgets. The images are also a product of a dynamic camera style, relatively static at first and then rapidly mobile during the road trip. While the nostalgic feel (Güeros is set during a year-long student strike in 1999) might refer to Truffaut and Godard, it also conjures up the early work of Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s – which included road trip structures. The rather surprising mention of Japanese director Ozu Yasijuro (by the director in his press notes) might be a reference to Ozu’s early 1930s comedy films about schoolboys and college students.

Cultural referents

The figure of the fictitious singer the quartet are looking for was inspired by the story Bob Dylan told about going to visit Woody Guthrie in hospital. (Tomás wears a t-shirt with the legend ‘Don’t Look Back’, the title of  D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary about Dylan’s fateful tour of the UK in 1966.) During the student meeting in the university, the inevitable poster of Che Guevera is seen but there are also references to the Cuban national hero José Marti (1853-1895). Cuba was the centre of the ‘New Latin American Cinema’ in the 1960s.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, France 1958)

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

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 pre-cursor’ 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.

Commentary

ScoreLift

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 its 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.

Louis Malle early in his career

Louis Malle early in his career

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 B policiers 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.

Reference

Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP