On the occasion of its 700th issue, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma has partnered with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, to present a special two-part CinéSalon film series. The series features a selection of rarely shown treasures from French film history and continues in June with a showcase of top picks that have been championed in the pages of the magazine. Indiewire pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.
On Tuesday, May 27, FIAF screens Jacques Rozier’s “Maine-Océan,” with the 7:30 p.m. screening to be introduced by director Alex Ross Perry.
“Tidal Bore” — a description of a tidal phenomenon, not a value judgment on this densely entertaining film — is the original review of “Maine-Océan” published in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1986. It was written by Hervé Le Roux, a contributing editor who would go on to direct several features, including the acclaimed documentary “Reprise.” His piece reflects a time when Cahiers critics were wrestling with television and the artistic and political ramifications of standardization — and when Silvio Berlusconi was only a media tycoon.
In speaking about his “Every Man for Himself,” Godard said, “A film’s title is its homeland.” The title of the latest Rozier film is beautiful and says a lot about the film’s nature and identity. To begin with, “Maine-Océan” is a movement, a perspective line, the irresistible drifting of a train conductor (played by Bernard Menez). Then the places that materialize and mark out this movement: the film begins at Gare Montparnasse, on avenue du Maine, and ends by the ocean. The title “Maine-Océan” also indicates the type of humor Jacques Rozier uses here, a humor based on language, more specifically on misunderstanding. What could be more amusing than two names of bodies of water being joined to refer to the most terrestrial mode of locomotion, the 5:28 p.m. train from Paris to Saint Nazaire?
By pushing this little game of itemization to its natural conclusion, the film’s title alone gives away the position of “Maine-Océan” in today’s cinema. “Maine-Océan” is the confluence of freshwater and saltwater. At high tide, the wave travels up the river, which is known as a “tidal bore.” “Maine-Océan” is like a tidal bore: it’s like a submerging wave, a cosmological phenomenon, running against the tide of bland spillage on our screens every day.
We are living in the era of calibration, in which cinema and television spend most of their time shaving off everything that sticks out. One day we’ll wind up missing our prime time French game shows because at least they allowed accents and bodies to slip in between two stupid questions, whereas on Berlusconi’s channels, for instance, the candidates are clearly chosen based on their looks and voices, so that they don’t seem out of place.
Little by little, the image (I’m speaking both of cinema and television) has become the exclusive domain of the “valedictorians” (as comedian Coluche describes TV anchors) with their perfect delivery, flat accents and redundant physiques. Interchangeable bodies (clones). Synthetic voices (Jean Roucas, the anchor of the political satire Bébête-show says that Prime Minister Laurent Fabius’s voice is too flat to imitate; you get the same feeling when you hear a radio spot for “Highlander” that begins with, “Hello, this is Christophe Lambert speaking to you.” It’s impossible to identify him by his voice, but you could never imagine Fernandel having to say, “Hello, this is Fernandel speaking to you.”)
The first thing that strikes you about “Maine-Océan” are the bodies and accents encountered, which make the film feel like a Tower of Babel. A luscious Brazilian dancer, a Latin American impresario, a sailor from the Île-d’Yeu, and SNCF train conductors whose bodies continue to grow beneath their uniforms (they have long hair — in fact, it’s worth noting that the long hair sticking out from under their caps was the inspiration for the film). And everyone has his or her own accent. Better yet: his or her own language. The Brazilian speaks Brazilian Portuguese, the impresario — like all impresarios — speaks a little of everything, the sailor speaks Poitou dialect, the lawyer defending him speaks legalistic, and the conductor speaks the waffling language of “service-service.”
Accent, dignity, and time are added to the language. They allow us to hear it without knowing it, for example to understand the diatribes of sailor Petitgas, a character surprising for his earthy local aspect — he’s like a cousin to the farmers in Georges Rouquier’s “Biquefarre” — and his childish side—reminiscent of Ernesto in Marguerite Duras’s “Les Enfants.” A situation, one or two words (which practically serve as phonemes: they keep recurring in the characters’ speeches and are soon identifiable), add in the accent and delivery, a few gestures, and you understand everything.
In the courtroom, everything falls into place around a “tire-iron” with which the accuser allegedly threatened Petitgras: we can feel Petitgras is innocent. In the manor, another diatribe, this time about “the whole clan”: a desire to show the enemy, the sailor’s revenge.
Little by little, the film’s characters also understand each other, until they reach a degree of harmony confirmed by a long tracking shot which finds them at the harbor, and especially the King of Samba scene. The scene in “Grand Illusion” in which the prisoners rehearsing for their review suddenly stand at attention and sing the Marseillaise is one of the most moving in cinema. They were already acting, in costume (the dresses), and then something catches, crystallizes. The film becomes symphonic. You get the same kind of feeling in the King of Samba scene; that of witnessing the birth of a consonance (the entire film greatly relies on musicality). Except that here, the consonance takes much longer to be realized.
The samba scene is so beautiful, so touching due to its duration. To a certain extent, it single-handedly condenses “Maine-Océan,” because it is the film’s tempo. The speed with which it has to be set up: find a place (the community center), musicians, a piano and rehearse. The film gains something from this duration: these bodies and accents have to be given the time to settle in and take over the image, because they have been excluded from it for too long to immediately “win the day” like in the Renoir era (the only contemporary films that can carry the day right off the bat are basically those that heavily lean on certain conventions, such as a particular American cinema like Arthur Penn’s “Georgia”). And also that other prolonged duration of the song, the set that follows the joy of consonance (the film changes dramatically after this scene and the conductor embarks on a real ordeal, which is no less than his return to terra firma).
Today cinema can only choose between two languages. One is Esperanto, with its limited vocabulary (reduced to the lowest common denominator: a few radicals) and its flat syntax (and which keeps getting flatter now that films are built around advertisements for which they will serve as a prop when they are broadcast on television). The other language is the lingua franca Marguerite Duras championed in her latest interview with Cahiers du Cinéma (issue 374).
I hope she will see “Maine-Océan.” Because the film has its very own lingua franca, its language, accents, a tempo (the duration of the scenes, even the shots), and a syntax (right down to the reprise of the song “The King of Samba” over the film’s last shots). And also because a little miracle takes place in the scene in which the impresario arrives. Here, Pedro Armandariz speaks a mixture of Spanish and Italian. A mixture of Spanish and Italian (and Arabic) made up the Mediterranean Lingua Franca (literally), a sailor’s language (what do you know?), now lost. For one scene, we are in a film that speaks lingua franca.
“Maine-Océan” is like an island on which people speak lingua franca, maybe an ectoplasm born under the cap of a train conductor working for the French railroad company (what a terrible moment when Menez comes back to reality: he is in the oyster farmer’s little boat, trying to make the same gesture as him, estimating the water’s depth with a pole, yet he only succeeds in awkwardly imitating him — the magic has disappeared; it’s “Cinderella” after the twelfth stroke of midnight). After two hours, you come out with the feeling you’re touching down. The multiple transshipments leading to the film’s ending reinforce this image by introducing the idea of stages to pass through to get back to solid land.
Perhaps because he has made films in which the sea always plays a determining role, certainly because his films only reach us about every five years, Rozier has gotten a reputation as a seabird — an albatross, to be specific, with giant wings that prevent him from shooting. Please be reassured: in “Maine-Océan,” he soars. And the film is one hell of a UFO in today’s cinematic landscape.
—Hervé Le Roux
Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 382, April 1986.