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

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

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, 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.

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”

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.

Gold and Mauve

Some films leave the viewer the white margin useful for his judgment, or footholds, overhangs on which to fasten his commentary, points of reference to relate to each other and reread. “Le bonheur” is not that kind of film: despite brief distancing effects that are more like vanity than an invitation to debate, the film—like its hero—imposes itself from the first to the last image as raw fact, a ligneous agglomerate bonded around the man-silhouette, and any effort to stick a wedge into this mass, to detach and separate its vertical fibers or cut a cross-section through its core quickly wears out and crumbles: either you like it or you don’t, either you concede and admire or reject the whole thing.

The film grows and is fortified by the very momentum that brought it to light; impossible to dissociate the creative force from the matter it immediately fashions: a film conceived in one stroke, directed without compromises, carried through to its completion without a hint of hesitation or repetition. It is an aesthetic self-affirmation, the justification of all conviction. The critic attracted by the “thing” flattens against it, slips on its smooth surface and drifts. Far from assimilating it, he lets himself be blunted and dissolved by it. If it does not leave you in the cold, “Le bonheur” totally absorbs you. Let us note the phenomenon and speak of absorption, basing our approach on that of the spectator disconcerted, then deceived by the simplicity of the evolution of a protagonist whose deep motivations, constantly pushed further away, finally escape him, buried under the gold of autumnal foliage: neither psychological, individual, nor social matter is ever the privileged subject of depiction or explication here.

It is one element among many—the forest, the color, the seasonal rhythm, the suburban setting, the sun, the water, the music—in constituting an object that appears both as its own mold and as its first and only molding.

The spectator’s path diverges twice, commanded by each of the film’s three movements, which are of equal length but in very different keys—movements which might be best qualified as impulses, affected by marked decelerations as they come to an end, like those rockets with several motors alternating to rekindle their progress. Rectilinear impulses, but at each relaunch the orientation deviates notably and before you know it the trajectory has been modified: the angle of vision must now be rectified in accordance. When the current trajectory finally lends itself to an accurate reading, we realize we’ve already been “taken,”  having been convinced for some time already of a reality other than the one to which we believed we adhered.

The first stage beats the illusory measure of a spring chronicle: a measure in two time signatures: suburb-forest, ideal couple for Father’s Day, François odious with his vegetating purrs, Thérèse too delicious, model kiddos, somnolence close to the pond, calligraphic “Chinoiseries” on blurred stems, leaves, and flowers, dream Citroën 2 CV, doting uncle, paternalist workshop, blissfully dumb background sound of the yé-yés, home seamstress and exotic, angelic mailwoman—all concise tableaux, smoothly attuned, nearly innocent (a close-up of a fixed grin and a later intonation ring the alarm, but are later forgotten, swept into a formidable current of optimism and “natural” joy with guarantors Mozart, then Renoir in soft colors on a small screen). A tonal inflection launches the second stage, our heretofore truant attention settles closer to its moving medium: the romance with Emilie, the first dramatic fixation, retrospectively cancels the chronicle.

The tempo picks up. We witness the rapid integration of the various components of François’ daily world around the character; what had previously been a mere setting organizes itself as a stage for his future development. The result is a very noticeable “enlargement” of the character, with each new appearance adding to the previous ones rather than following on from them; profile, stature and volume, the person broadens, expands and concurrently becomes more opaque, appropriating events, adding them, capitalizing their resources, counting on their fruits. The coherence of the direction, its galloping logic, and the growing functionalism of the signs are closely tied to the theory which the young man gently exposes to his wife about the additional quantity of his happiness.

We are now launched on the second itinerary at full throttle: the accentuating of a human being, his contours and silhouette emerging, being reinforced with each episode, a little more clearly sketched in, but also a little less justifiable, dragging beings and things in their wake, sucking them up. On this subject, one should also note Agnès Varda’s assurance in playing with the various articulations of her “language,” without hemming and hawing, using the way her previous six films have tested them out and “personalized” them, and also the ease with which she attracts and integrates certain stylistic touches drawn from kindred sources: a colorful rhythm from “Muriel,” a camera back-and-forth from “My Life to Live,” a white background from “Contempt,” the enveloping refocus in “Lola”…

Then comes the accident: Thérèse disappears. The third stage and the last switch of perspective. Of course, the family’s harmony and unity are quickly reconstituted after being briefly rattled. In appearance, nothing essential has been modified: Emilie takes Thérèse’s place, François endorses it, and the kids are completely taken in.

In fact, the new situation is very different from the old one; the center of gravity has shifted: Harmony now forms around Emilie, not the man. A few minutes from an ending that stuns with its logic and frightens us—there is no debating it, it goes without saying, this abbreviated, triumphant conclusion is brought about with the same incontestable clarity as the answer to an equation. What makes us so ill at ease is that we allowed its terms to be so insidiously imposed upon us—we suddenly understand that these new, peripheral elements which we thought the hero had integrated, actually absorbed him and drew him to them. The magnetization’s direction is reversed: now an adult, François gets lost in the pale young woman and Nature in its decline. It is the object-hero’s turn to bury himself in beings and things, to include his opacity in that of creation.

The theory of the addition of happiness was a trap: a decisive subtraction has taken place, imposing a change of signs upon all the values, marginal or not, in the hero’s omnipresent world. The film opens onto an abruptly revealed other world, a world where shadow (mauve) has only now found its supporting form (the gold of dying vegetation). The man, who has been introduced without overly precise coordinates, but whom we thought we should clarify for ourselves, actually became increasingly unexplainable, arbitrary. That is his monstrosity: not some kind of fundamental callousness (he is truly overwhelmed by his wife’s totally unexpected death) nor a blissful lack of consciousness (on the contrary, much of what he says reveals a remarkable lucidity, an acute degree of reflection) nor the absence of a feeling of responsibility, whether Thérèse’s death was voluntary or accidental (curiously, no one really questions the likelihood of the second hypothesis though nothing formally proves it; François certainly feels responsible but doesn’t go so far as remorse), but rather the confirmation, powerfully amplified by the final images, of the pre-eminence of an irrefutable, inalterable “objecthood.”

In this sense, the film is the contrary of an elucidation. The film’s dazzling final acceleration, comparable to certain stretti in classical fugues, doubled here by the most rigorous Mozart accents, entirely swallows it up in mystery. The apprehension and dread communicated by this acceleration relate to the engulfing of a human being and his tribe, “naturally” saved (saved from sinking) in an unknown universe, a “double” of the one we imagined we were in, but where certain scattered signs had already surreptitiously introduced the difference. Thus, in his final moves, this living being very quickly comes to resemble a survivor.

Beginning from this final revelation and piecing together what was afoot would come down to going over the spectator’s itinerary for a second time, but now in a different perspective, that of color and its avatars: permutations, substitutions, confusions, conflicts, and predominance. We would thus be brought to follow the trajectory of the color mauve from one end of the film to the other—a shadow in search of its form. There are multiple clues, associating pale whiteness (Emilie’s face, the linen, sheets shook out like shrouds) and this delicate hue, the reflection of a bereavement or of a nefarious premonition: a blurry close-up of mauve flowers follows the last living representation of Thérèse’s face; a loose item of mauve clothing draws François after his wife’s death, welcomes and absorbs him.

In the exact middle of the narrative, one of those “plain and simple” scenes that Agnès Varda masters, we find the young wife in pink and red on the municipal square, unknowingly crossing paths with the mauve woman who is now her stand-in—and at that same moment, the women also cross paths with the young married couple, as well as other previously identified people, in a curious unanimist ballet where one can uncover the disturbing idea of interchangeability connected to that of equivalence.

If we can allow ourselves to speak of alienation in regards to the protagonist, it is obviously not in the sense of a materialist morass: François is a wise man who knows the exact value of material goods, their immediate usefulness—the increase of comfort and property leaves him indifferent. It would be more accurate to speak of alienation through color: integration of complementary colors and the simultaneous opposite: absorption through shadow. François and Emilie are probably the only ones to participate in both processes at once; Thérèse only falls under the first. In this sense, Emilie proves to be infinitely more well-matched to François than Thérèse, and the suddenly aged young man finally places himself in a correct, more homogenous and coherent environment: the frail wife and blossoming Nature are “past.” But the film derives the hero’s double nature from the easy, convincing, and satisfying substitution of one wife for another: the constructive, positive side and the suddenly unmasked, nihilating negative side.

This sudden thunderbolt is probably what bizarrely turns him into a stranger to us, as he walks away into the forest, his back to the camera, like the hero of Psycho dispossessed of his self. The comparison is not random: one often thinks of Hitchcock in the last part of “Le bonheur” and particularly in those “synthetic” shots (the grave, the funeral meal, the photo encapsulating the summer vacation, the first visit to Emilie after their return) in which the signs, while adding up knowledge like machines’ “memories,” denounce another reference shot, on which the signs will immediately settle, throwing off their interpretation.

This mysterious, unexpected film (no matter what Agnès Varda decides, we have come a long way from Cleo) does not develop an idea of happiness, but proclaims a remarkable series of variations on an auteur’s conviction: happiness is to affirm yourself through everything and to affirm—to create—ceaselessly, despite the reversals and the traps: one day or another, the known world bends and closes in on itself, and another cracks open.

If we were tempted to add a question mark to the title after the first half hour and an exclamation point after the second, we want to punctuate the final images with the somewhat precarious dots of an ellipsis. Do they not contradict the tranquility from which we started? Such a masterful film implicitly goes beyond itself: the fugal form of a suite of films, the stretto of the last serving as subject to the next. The meaning of “Le bonheur” can only come from this perilous and formal future elucidation.

—Claude Ollier

Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 165, April 1965.

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