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Exclusive Cahiers du Cinéma Reviews In English: Agnes Varda and 'Les Misérables'

By Nicholas Elliott | Indiewire May 12, 2014 at 12:04PM

Indiewire is pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of classic French films currently screening in New York.
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Agnes Varda's "Le Bonheur."
Agnes Varda's "Le Bonheur."

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 13, FIAF screens Raymond Bernard's "Les misérables" (part 1) (4 PM) and Agnès Varda's "Le bonheur" (7:30 PM), the latter with an introduction by sex therapist Esther Perel.

Legendary French director Paul Vecchiali ("Femmes femmes") wrote the following essay, "Raymond Bernard, the Hermit," for the December 2013 issue of Cahiers. "Gold and Mauve" is the original review of "Le bonheur" published on the film’s release in 1965. It was written by Claude Ollier, a well-known novelist then associated with the nouveau roman, and a prolific film critic whose literary style and philosophical and psychological terminology is representative of Cahiers du Cinéma's embrace of the full spectrum of the sixties' intellectual and artistic ferment.   

Raymond Bernard, the Hermit

Raymond Bernard's "Les misérables."
Raymond Bernard's "Les misérables."

Raymond Bernard, the hermit: do not mistake this facile description. This film auteur (yes, I did write "auteur") was a solitary man for his art, a seeker too, like few directors of his era (a blessed one, it goes without saying, but better to repeat it). Ignored when not scorned by his contemporaries, and even more so by "official" cinephiles, he shyly attempted to impose a style to each of his films.

That he collaborated with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry should have opened the most skeptical of  eyes, or at the very least alerted cinema lovers. This was for Anne-Marie (1936), a comedy set against the backdrop of aerial record-breaking, which features stellar performances by Annabella and Pierre Richard-Willm, among others. Perverse and virtuosic, the film uses taut editing and effective images to impose a style in sequences.

But that is only one example. There are others: "Wooden Crosses" (1931), based on Roland Dorgelès, the most powerful film on the "Great War," or "Faubourg Montmartre" (1931), a restrained melodrama reminiscent of Bresson, with a final shot that is an authentic discovery: Gaby Morlay misses Paris so she asks her aunt to let her listen to Paris. The aunt slips the telephone out of her boutique, into rue Montmartre. It seems like nothing and yet…

Bernard's "The Mayor’s Dilemma" (1939), featuring dialogue by Jean Anouilh, is also inspired by the First World War, and tells the well-known story of people sideswiped by the Germans to achieve their aims. By beautifully and subtly directing his actors, Bernard discreetly reveals each character for who he really is, helped by giants of the screen like Marguerite Pierry and Saturnin Fabre, to mention only them. Without preaching. As an honest craftsman. As a kind-hearted man.

Yet he did not only devote himself to dramas. With "I Was an Adventuress" (1938), he reinvented French comedy with the dexterity of a Hawks or McCarey, but without giving in to copy-pasting the Americans.

Beautifully schooled in silent film, he was eclectic in his choice of subjects when cinema started to speak.

He may have run out of steam a little after the war, but that was because times had changed. The influence of American cinema was especially strong among producers. The freedom so evident in French cinema of the thirties had contracted. Bernard got by with "Goodbye Darling" (1945), an elegant melodrama carried by Danielle Darrieux, Louis Salou, Larquey and the imperial Gabrielle Dorziat. In "A Friend Will Come Tonight" (1945), he managed to play with the fantastic in the context of World War II: in the insane asylum where a few resistance fighters have taken refuge, he made every character dialectic.

In short, wherever he got involved, his elegance and know-how (constantly imperiled by his audacity) set him apart from the hacks. Beautifully schooled in silent film, he was eclectic in his choice of subjects when cinema started to speak and nearly always outdid his “playmates,” notably with the superb, unrivalled epic "Les misérables" (1933).

Three films—three periods as one used to say—three different styles, but the same confident gaze, the same expertise, the same passion for taking the system apart, the better to serve his subject.

"Tempest in a Skull"

Raymond Bernard knows how to adapt his lighting and frame to each situation.

The skull belongs to Harry Baur, who lives rather than acts Jean Valjean: anger, sadness, rebellion, suggestive silences, despair—he gives everything with intelligence and generosity. The ever-present soundstage only serves to reinforce the suffocating feeling tracking the characters through surprisingly contrasting lights, which owe nothing to German Expressionism, despite the fact that they are "sculpted" by Jules Krüger. Abstract lines of light "fall on their face"—not out of aesthetic preciousness but purely out of filmic style. The only way to raise melodrama to the scale of tragedy.

"The Thénardiers"

No less than Marguerite Moreno and Charles Dullin to embody them. I have the impression this episode is a "pause." It keeps up the suspense but gives too much importance to the bad guys, though it completely avoids caricature. And Raymond Bernard knows how to adapt his lighting and frame to each situation: here we have wide shots and gentle tracking shots (intimacy), then exacerbated editing and sporadic off-center framing (the Thénardiers). Another dialectic is created with the character played by Max Dearly, far from his usual extravagances in the role of an apparently unjust old man whose heart bleeds with every word while his mouth spouts horrors.

"Liberty, Sweet Liberty"

Right or wrong, this is my favorite episode. Certainly thanks to Harry Baur (repressed tenderness, discreet generosity, buried wounds, obstinacy in the quest not for redemption but dignity regained). But also to Charles Vanel, who insists on understanding nothing, his arms up to the heavens. People’s complexity is beyond him, it is like an attack on him. He goes to his death like he would go to salvation. Magical. Here, control is absolute: emotion is never adulterated. Virtuosity is not vulgar. And yet! So many elaborate sequences, mastered through flawless technique kept discreet in order not to handicap the characters.

A single thing to prove that the film is indispensable: all the remakes that followed confirmed this immense masterpiece’s grandeur and subtleness. Which goes to show that it is time to give this craftsman (I repeat) his due, a director whose humility and commitment are reminiscent of the greatest filmmaker of the thirties: Jean Grémillon.

—Paul Vecchiali

Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma issue 695, December 2013.

This article is related to: Reviews, Cahiers du Cinema, French, French Institute Alliance Française, Agnès Varda, Le Bonheur, Les Miserables