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 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.
On Tuesday, May 20, FIAF screens Jacques Becker’s “Rue de l’Estrapade” and Adolfo Arrieta’s “Flammes,” the latter with an introduction by author Bruce Benderson.
Michel Dorsday’s 1953 review of Becker’s “Rue de l’Estrapade” was written at a time when the auteur theory was still taking shape in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. Dorsday was one of the magazine’s first young, virulent critics, predating François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette by several months. For a time, he led the attack on “quality French cinema,” opening the way for Truffaut to write his legendary article, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema.”
The appreciation of Arrieta’s “Flammes” is by contemporary French director Serge Bozon (“Mods,” “La France,” “Tip Top”). Here, the occasional critic compares the B-movies of Jacques Tourneur and others with a certain kind of free-spirited seventies French cinema epitomized by “Flammes.” The piece was published in 2012 in Cahiers’ “Eleven Stations for a Poetic History of French Cinema,” an alternative history of French cinema inspired by the release of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”
Comedy-Ballet in the French Taste
After the evening’s film, we open our bedside reading (André de Richaud’s “La Confession publique” [“The Public Confession”]) and find the definition of a style that is not a style of life but a style of soul.
Richaud writes, “I read in Zadig: ‘A few leagues from the Château d’Abogard, he found himself on the edge of a small river, still lamenting his destiny and seeing himself as the very model of misfortune.’ Suddenly, a marvelous Chinese painting appears in my mind. Can you see the little man walking along a river interminably unwound from those rolls of silk? Mountains on the horizon seen from far above? Yet no sentence could be less picturesque than the one quoted. Neither Voltaire nor I have anything to do with the creation of this tableau. I know now that when I read this sentence, perhaps in twenty years, the little man will be strolling in my mind.”
I have transcribed the sentence at random; it is the most precise introduction to Jacques Becker’s beautiful film “Rue de l’Estrapade.”
Silk rolls conceal our daily reality, our worries and misfortunes, and finally our loves. If the little man imagined by the poet (for me, a man of cinema) unrolls them carelessly, he will also be saddened by their lack of picturesque; didn’t he himself come out of the most insignificant sentence? But if on the contrary he unrolls them maliciously, he will become aware of his power: the least picturesque sentence will become the most interesting image. We won’t have a clear sense of who is creator and who is created, the man or the poet. Through these images we might have supposed the most banal, through this confusion of pure creation and the quotidian, the poet will have achieved possibly the most mechanical but in any case the most perfect form of expression.
Already thinking about Becker, I mentioned the style of soul. Seeing this, some might have been surprised at the title of this article. Indeed, the most common mistake is to follow an academic hierarchy and put Racine above Molière and Molière above Marivaux, thereby recognizing as superior the exposure of expressly eternal feelings and dramas and as inferior the exposure of everyday laughs and messes, though we know they are constantly true. The latter manner refuses the apparent and practically inexact drama which facilitates spectacle, to try and surprise this drama in the word that seems the most simple but could also be the most ambiguous. Man is almost never in a definitive situation. While he almost never needs to make a choice about everything at once, he constantly has to make a choice about details. Traditionally, tragedy and comedy have refused detail.
If you think as I do that “Bérénice” is the most perfect French tragedy and “The Misanthrope” the most cruel, you will certainly notice the genius of their arbitrary nature, but also that it is very unreal. I fully understand that they were necessary (and thus simplified) foundations of what was to be a tradition, that in the strict period to which they belong, the artist’s choice was to definitively put down the bases of an eternal ethic — or one which he wanted to be eternal. I understand this, but the greatest error was to give this arbitrary nature an unlimited temporal value and to subordinate everything to it, to such a point that it is not unusual to see (which is only a partial but obvious manifestation) comedy or even cheerfulness scorned because they are close to what we know: we laugh and smile more than we cry and we cannot imagine great things without tears.
Yet poison is better hidden under a smile. Even if one doesn’t smile, one can hide the deepest tragedy on earth in a barely perceptible gesture, in an interrupted sentence: finding the incantatory power in this smile, gesture, or sentence is exactly what one thousand years of theater has failed to do.
In the last 50 years, cinema at its best has tried to find this power. But as a logical child, it felt obligated to take on an entire evolution and its greatest directors began by affirming the permanence of tragic grandeur in the form which I have defined. A recognized tool for the people, cinema allows itself what serious folk either consider tomfoolery or do not understand: first sad, then happy, three seconds apart without the slightest Shakespearian precaution. This is where cinema discovers its purest genius. But this cannot happen without refusing the facility calling out at each step under the pretext of showing the real in its entirety.
This is exactly what Jean Renoir understands. There is a reason he drew his inspiration from “Marivaux” for what is probably the grandest (here the word takes on a new meaning) film in the world, “The Rules of the Game.” To express this succinctly, let us allow ourselves to say — to remain in an order that excludes any mediocrity, a comparison of intelligence with intelligence — that it is more difficult to make “The Rules of the Game” than “Les dames du Bois de Boulogne.”
In fact, only cinema — and it is no small feat to have discovered this — can give us such fullness (yet is there any other spectacle where less is said?), for only cinema can reveal to us every appearance. André Bazin explained as much about Renoir by saying: “The most visual and sensual of filmmakers is also the one who brings us closest to his characters, because he is first a faithful lover of their appearance and through it of their soul. Knowledge in Renoir comes through love and love through the world’s epidermis. The suppleness, the mobility, the formation of his direction is his concern for draping the seamless dress of reality, to his pleasure and our joy.”
Being the messenger of reality — always the same and always new through the kaleidoscope of figures and reflections of men and things — logically leads Renoir to “The Golden Coach,” which then brings us the abundance of its tremendous riches. “The Golden Coach”‘s aesthetic (this word wouldn’t please Renoir) is to go as far in the expression of the everyday, the spontaneous (Commedia dell’ arte!), and the ungraspable as classical tragedy did in the expression of mankind’s eternal misfortunes. But it is time to move from this comedy in the Italian taste to our comedy in the French taste.
We have tried to recognize the significance of these renewed values, particularly in Renoir, because Jacques Becker was trained by Renoir. This is one of the very rare cases where a director’s disciple has taken the master’s lessons, sought his own definition within them, and after many mistakes, found it. Indeed, “Rue de l’Estrapade” delivers us the definitive truth about Jacques Becker. Let’s explain about the errors: we have intentionally left out Renoir’s naturalism (which predates “Rules of the Game”), but we know very well that the legend has petered out, that Renoir is not a naturalist, just like Stroheim is not a Freudian. Becker, it appears, took the term literally, adding in the confusion of what his style would be.
Without eliciting any fervor, “It Happened at the Inn” was honorable and pleasant. “Antoine et Antoinette” and “Rendezvous in July” were more precise and had to tackle problems, but while one remained obscure and alive, the other sank into the execrable and it would be useless to try and find a fresh way of seeing in it.
But in 1944, Becker had shot “Paris Frills,” a film that will surely win on appeal. If we recall what we were trying to get at, we can say that “Paris Frills,” an everyday tragedy, still borrows a kind of workmanship from traditional tragedy but that the sense of ballet and the regular and disrupted rhythms of life are taking shape, certainly adopted from “Rules of the Game,” but contributing conscious and more analyzed facts, such as those in the now famous ping pong game. It was not radically new. Edward and Caroline would be far more unsettling. People obsessed by memory initially only wanted to see the irremediable nostalgia of “Rules of the Game” in it, yet for the first time Becker was separating from Renoir to bring us his own lesson (though not yet free of ambivalence, as Bazin noted). “Edward and Caroline” was the first more or less definitive adjustment of a mechanism. The term may seem pejorative, but the genius in this mechanism is that it revealed a style that would dazzlingly come to fruition in “Rue de l’Estrapade.”
We have seen that Renoir’s cinema brings us into (after “Marivaux,” and on another level) the world of appearances, in particular physical appearances. But these are perpetually changing and thus elusive. The rule of the game is therefore to tirelessly follow them in search of their ephemeral truth.
Though Commedia dell’ arte can give them a framework, pursuing them has no end. This endless race did not suit Becker, who is too logical, too organized. One could say that his style is a mechanism of appearances. He codifies. (To get rid of construction, he starts by returning to the strict unities. “Edward and Caroline” is the story of a single evening, “Rue de l’Estrapade” of a weekend). But not, certainly not, in a definitive codification. This is no vaudeville! Françoise may well be the affronted-woman-who-loves-her-husband-despite-it-all, Henri the handsome-young-man-who-loves-his-wife-but-cheats-on-her, and Robert the poet-who-lacks-love, they may be classified, the outcome may be as certain as that of an American comedy or The Black Swan, but each of them remains free: while they are equipped with a mechanism that puts them not out of our time but out of theirs, it is an autonomous mechanism.
At every minute, their faces and bodies carry the previous minute’s accessories. The characters act according to these accessories, of which they themselves have decided the function. We know their souls through their gestures, not through their faces, unlike Bresson’s protagonists. At first, the director gives them an invisible mechanism. At the second stage, the mechanism would be noticeable if it weren’t yet full of humanity, thus true. Henri is holding a bouquet, he passes in front of his mistress’s building but goes to his wife’s friend’s place. He holds out the flowers, he seduces the friends with the flowers, the entire seduction is through the flowers, Henri’s character is the flowers.
But the example can be more ambiguous: in the middle of the night, Françoise goes to the home of Christian, the famous gay couturier. The fashion house is the reflection of Christian. Françoise puts on the dress. She no longer exists. She is the dress. Christian doesn’t desire Françoise, but the dress (ultimately, he doesn’t like Françoise). In the palace of velvet and crystal, the sound of a gate: Christian’s young lover has come to make a scene. We never know who Jacques Christian or the friend are, not for a second: the mechanism played against them. During this scene, we don’t even know what Françoise was. But we knew that the dress was the illusion, escape (it is not a symbol. Two days later, with the same dress, the game would have been with the clips or the lace).
In Renoir, there are no associates as important as Christian. Those in tragedy and vaudeville are only confidantes. While there are no symbols (we are dealing with appearances), we can imagine there will soon be a Becker mythology like there is a Stroheim mythology. Lack of space forces me to close these notes on a new style served by actors performing like skillfully crafted toys, meaning perfectly. It is not vain to add — what is essential — that Anne Vernon is delightfully beautiful.
Where there is definition of a style, there is definition of a taste, a very assured taste in which dresses have long glimmers. Becker is the only one to succeed — and very delicately so — at what all French films that want to be playful, removed from any deliberate message, attempt to do. Only he knows, as if he couldn’t help it, how to make an acerbic, intelligent, and witty critique of human behavior within the intentionally confined structure built for him by Annette Wademant. We must applaud the emergence of a woman screenwriter (a rarity) who has been able to use the American and Italian lessons to achieve a perfect level of intention and success, and give us dialogue that is flawless and rigorous in its smiles, and not without preciousness. In the conformist abundance of current films, “Rue de l’Estrapade” contributes an intelligent moral, in line with the moral of Mlle. de Scudery’s novels.
On a bed, Françoise says that love is serious: yet we’re amused by it, without ever degrading it. While Becker has affirmed himself as one of the very best of French filmmakers, he and Annette Wademant — like Mlle. de Scudery — have sought to please, in the full and germane sense of the French 17th century. They have marvelously succeeded. For two hours, before our delighted eyes, their magic has guided us over their map of Tenderness.
Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 23, May 1953.
“One day the police will raid our dreams.”
There’s a storm. Barbara, a little girl frightened by the lightning, traces a shadow on the wall with her hand, the shadow of a helmeted figure. Since the storm, the figure never leaves her thoughts. Time passes. Now grown, the little girl no longer fears fire and only loves firemen. She even hides one in her room. One night, Barbara’s building burns. No one comes to help. Is that a friend, a thief, an apparition…waiting at each burning floor? No, just a kidnapped fireman. They cannot help because they are already there, inside, held captive. The order of things seems fantastical, which only makes it more inviolable, for each space opens on a hidden perspective that quashes any possibility of help: the space of the burning building opens the perspective of all the cloistered firemen.
Cocteau was right, he just got the wrong uniform. If the fireman is, like all of Arrieta’s heroes, an “imitation of the angel,” it is because there is no love without disguises, no seduction without uniforms, no fires without trapped saviors: “All my films tell the story of a perversion” (Arrieta). The fire is not in the film, but I see it as the film’s hidden perspective, let’s say its “truth.” At the end of the film, Barbara flies off in an airplane with her beaming fireman. They go to heaven. The spectator has the feeling he has witnessed not simply a romantic adventure, but the only romantic adventure, in the strict sense of the term, as defined by Novalis: “My love was transformed into a flame and this flame gradually consumed all that was terrestrial in me.”
So, romantic adventure or story of a perversion? Both.
To the fifties, the B-movies (Tourneur, Ulmer, Dwan). To my generation, the films of Arrieta (of Biette, of Zucca). It’s the same thing, the same question being asked of the novice filmmaker: how do you achieve that nocturnal resonance that haunts films like a secret? Answer: through mise en scène, or rather mise en rumeur — putting into rumor — that ability to obtain maximum attention from the spectator, like Hitchcock, but without setting up any suspense, unlike Hitchcock, privileging instead an imprecise expectation, a narrative of mist. Filmmakers of this kind do not attempt to overwhelm the spectator but to provide him with a particular calm, a calm that spreads like silence after the off-screen fall of a body into water. We have heard something, now we look everywhere, but nothing comes back up to the surface. We may have to wait. Not a sound.
I repeat, the same thing: a strange skill at directing actors, in which limping becomes grace (Caroline Loeb versus Joan Bennett); pathetic sets in which someone has disappeared but could always come back (someone like Howard Vernon or John Carradine); a precarious alliance of English Gothic and Spanishness (to stick to Tourneur, see Gene Tierney’s appearance in the Andalusian shade of “Way of a Gaucho” or the murderer’s confession during a procession in New Mexico in “Leopard Man”); characters in search not of love, victory or power, but simply of a kindred soul; a concision that transforms the narrative’s improbability into fable; finally an obsession with whispering. Tourneur’s actors whispered because he had them rehearse in the dark. Does a flame dispel the dark? No.
Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 682, October 2012.