I have always admired French cinema. There is a certain style, a sense of purpose and a playful spontaneity that the majority of Hollywood productions clearly lack. It is no coincidence that a country which holds as much claim as any to the birth of motion picture, with early pioneers such as the Lumière brothers with their short documentaries and the illusionist Georges Méliès, should have such a rich cinematic history. Neither is is surprising, as a result, that the fusion of the real and the dreamlike should be prevalent in so many classic films. There is of course an irony that the Hollywood studio system, which would have stifled the freedom of the critics turned filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague, also financed the productions of many films involving directors they greatly admired. At the same system it also converted Jean Renoir and German born Max Ophüls, two great directors of classical French cinema, into mere cogs in the wheel. That’s not to say that the auteurs from the 1960s onward should be considered great artists, nor that their scripts are even the equal of scriptwriters from other nations, but at least their visual artistry is unique and original, following in the tradition of Jean Cocteau and Jacques Tati, for which we should be thankful.
A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956, Gaumont)
I must confess, I tire of Bresson’s use of models, or should that be automatons, instead of actors, to strip away all outward emotion in order to penetrate the inner suffering of his characters in their ever so bleak situations. However, the minimalist approach seems to suit this film more than others, given how much of the time the main character is by himself in his cell. We know beforehand from the title that he escapes, the mystery is whether it is his courage and planning, combined with a series of fortunate events, that enables him to do so, or whether there is the invisible hand of God helping him along the way. The use of footsteps on the soundtrack, both of the prisoners on the gravel or the wardens walking past the cells, leaves the impression of one’s freedom being stamped upon; the use of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, however, evokes how much, through God or otherwise, the main character has the spirit to break free from the chains, not just of the physical prison upon his body but also of his soul.
Le Trou (Becker, 1960, Titanus)
Another prison film, but of an altogether different nature. For those accustomed to prison escape films being all about adventure and escapism, full of heroes and villains, celebrating the brotherhood of man to overcome all odds, then Le Trou will come as something of a shock to the senses. This is gritty, minimalist and unadorned. Four cellmates are about to embark on a prison escape, meticulously planned with mathematical precision, when a new cellmate, Claude Gaspard, is transferred from another block. After much deliberation, they let him in on their plan, unsure whether to trust him – they each face long sentences whereas Gaspard’s time behind bars is uncertain. What makes Le Trou a superior film is the absolute attention to detail – when they drill a hole you don’t just see the end result but the expressive determination, second after second, to make it through the floor. Beyond the talking and the action we feel close to the characters, along with their foibles and prejudices: these are hardened criminals, portrayed by non-professional actors, shorn of any romantic notions of hope and redemption.
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939, Nouvelle Édition Française)
The ideal film. There are almost no stars, with a cast drawn mainly from character actors, stage, burlesque and music hall entertainers. They all played their part with irrepressible freedom and confidence in their designated character. Even the drunken ball scenes are played as if everyone is worse for wear. For all that it masquerades as a comedy, a farce of the haute bourgeoisie, with a pointed wit and ever escalating love triangles that even Oscar Wilde would have been proud of, there is a deadly serious side. If this is an exact representation of the haute bourgeoisie on the eve of war, then it cuts to the bone. During the hunt, rabbits are shot with the cold-bloodedness of snoopers. The famed aviator André Jurieux, who contributed more than anyone to destroy the fabric of this closed society by openly parading his love for Christine, wife of the host, and undermine the rules of the game, is tragically shot by mistake, or a new definition of the word ‘accident’. The two culprits of the shooting, also outsiders, are ‘released’, having broken the rules, so that the high society is able to continue as before.
© 2017 AGP