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Exclusive Cahiers du Cinema Reviews in English: What Makes French Comedies So Great?

Exclusive Cahiers du Cinema Reviews in English: What Makes French Comedies So Great?

Following their first collaboration with last spring’s French Cinema’s Secret Trove, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, have partnered again to present the CinéSalon film series Eccentrics of French Cinema. Beginning this week, the series features a selection of rarely screened French comedies selected by FIAF’s Delphine Selles-Alvarez and Cahiers du Cinéma’s Jean-Philippe Tessé and Nicholas Elliott.

Indiewire is 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.

Indiewire launches its second collection of posts from Cahiers and introduces the series with an original text by the magazine’s deputy editor Jean-Philippe Tessé.

Only Eccentrics

A series of French comedies: a seductive idea, but composing the series and choosing the films reveals how truly arduous the task is. It isn’t so much that the films are lacking, but rather that it is difficult to identify groups and trace lines, or even to arrange films side by side through resemblance or affinity.

There are French comedies, as there are comedies everywhere: comedy is the reigning genre of the movie business — inexpensive films that can pay off big. But like everywhere else in the world, French commercial cinema knows a few tricks to make people laugh and buy tickets, but does not play to the audience’s better side: standardized laughs, colored by their era, with a few happy exceptions often difficult to export. Just like everywhere else, except for Italy during a certain period and — especially — for the United States.

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The French critical tradition placed comedy very high in its evaluation of Hollywood cinema (it’s worth remembering that when Jacques Rivette declared “Hawks’s genius” in Cahiers du Cinéma, he wasn’t talking about “Rio Bravo” or “Scarface,” but “Monkey Business”) and has always been tremendously kind to American comedy, even today and probably too much. This kindness can partially be explained by the fact that American comedy reveals a genius unique to American cinema and always lacking in France: filmmakers’ agility at passing from one genre to another, as well as the perfectly blurry border between art and commerce.

Neither lines nor groups, but films that have to be found one by one. No center, only eccentrics. The films we chose with FIAF do not resemble each other — that’s the least you can say. All are singular experiences. Some are beautiful, great films, but may the spectator discovering this series not hold it against us if she doesn’t roar with laughter at every screening. Comedy is not necessarily synonymous with hilarity. And hilarious French films are scarce. This should not be seen as a cultural peculiarity or a sign of French serious-mindedness. For one part because there is a lot of fun to be had in (good) French cinema, even of the most demanding sort (one finds comedy in nearly all of Godard’s films and even the redoubtable Robert Bresson dabbled in comedy in his first film, the exceedingly hard to find “Les Affaires publiques,” in 1934). For another, because cinephilia “à la française” greatly prizes comedy…but rather American comedy.

Naturally, French commercial cinema has occasionally, rarely reached a wide audience without making low compromises (a recent example would be Michel Hazanavicius’s great OSS 117 diptych) and there are certainly French directors currently forging a personal style through comedy (Bruno Podalydès or Emmanuel Mouret, for instance). However, we went looking for the match between comedy and singularity and laughter and beauty in the work of more complicated, more ambivalent auteurs.

The nine films we selected span the fifties to the present day. We intentionally excluded the great comic French filmmaker, Jacques Tati, well known to film lovers the world over, in order to favor films whose directors are not necessarily categorized as comedic, with the exception of Pierre Etaix — whose masterpiece “Yoyo” (1965) is a comedy of stunning aesthetic beauty. Aside from his occasional collaborator Tati, Etaix is the only French director to follow in the footsteps of the great American burlesque filmmakers (rather than the French burlesque tradition found in the primitive comedies of the powerhouse early 20th-century French studios, whose most likable product was the remarkable Max Linder). The other directors in the series are not known for having contributed to the comic genre, though one could say that all or nearly all their films are comedies.

But they are relative comedies, never absolute comedies. This is the case with Jacques Rozier, whose rare and precious films do not lean on comedic narrative schemes, but rather on a principle of wandering, nonchalance, and the unraveling of time, which gives them the particular, gently melancholic tone found in the unclassifiable “Du Côté d’Orouët” (1973). This is also the case with Eric Rohmer and Sacha Guitry, of course. While Rohmer certainly touched on other genres, most of his films, including “The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” (“L’arbre, le maire, et la médiathèque,” 1992), are moral meditations which, unlike Rozier’s films, truly use the form and structures of comedy.

As for Guitry, a master of the witticism and heir to theatrical convention, his “La Poison” (1951) is a very relative, very dark comedy featuring a ferocious, nearly mean humor, chiseled out of funny dialogues and comedic acting, but also carrying a mass of buried thoughts about France and Guitry’s personal history (as well as that of his actress, Pauline Carton). Beneath “La Poison”‘s apparent buffoonery, one finds violent satire.

On the other hand, one cannot say that all of Jacques Becker’s films were comedies, for he was one of the few French directors to have successfully undertaken a wide variety of genres, like the good American director he could have been. “Antoine et Antoinette” (1947) represents his lightest vein, along with his “Edouard et Caroline” and “Rue de l’Estrapade.” Luc Moullet’s unusual “The Land of Madness” (“La Terre de la folie,” 2009) is also a relative comedy, made by a filmmaker who has always been attracted to laughter and fantasy, both in his films and the vision of cinema he expressed in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. Here, he takes on the high-wire, rarely attempted genre of documentary comedy.

Otar Iosseliani’s “Favorites of the Moon” (“Les favoris de la lune,” 1984) must also be seen in the context of its director’s body of work, in this case that of a Georgian director exiled in France and inventing a highly personal style that owes as much to the forms of comedy (and silent film) as to a particular tone which can be perceived as the legacy of a desperate humor from Eastern Europe.

Finally, Jean-Daniel Pollet’s “L’amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste” (1968) displays one of the two faces of this rare and discreet filmmaker’s work (the other being that of his experimental and poetic films): an attraction for very light, melancholic burlesque, driven by his muse, the Buster Keaton lookalike Claude Melki.

In closing, a word about the youngest film in the series, “The French Kissers” (Les Beaux Gosses, 2009), the first feature by Riad Sattouf, a talented comics artist of French-Syrian background. It is a pure coming of age comedy, or rather the realist and hyper-raw reverse angle of this typically American genre. It’s our way of bridging the gap between the untraceable tradition of French comedy and the perfectly autonomous one of Hollywood cinema.

Eccentrics of French Comedy series co-curator Jean-Philippe Tessé has been on the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinéma since 2002, and became its deputy editor in 2009. Until 2009, he was also head of the film section of Chronic’art and a programmer at the Festival des 3 Continents in Nantes. He is the author of “Le Burlesque” (Les Petits Cahiers, 2007). He acted in two of Catherine Breillat’s films, “The Last Mistress” and “La Belle Endormie.”

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