Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.
In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it’s such a rarity—there’s a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason.
“If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of [Julien] Duvivier above the entrance….This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.” – Jean Renoir
Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (Eclipse, DVD) collects four films by the French filmmaker, once a giant of French cinema with a string of popular and critical hits in the thirties and a successful foray into Hollywood in the forties. He’s been largely forgotten as filmmaker even with though one of his biggest hits, Pépé le Moko (1937), remains a revered (and oft-revived) classic of gangster romanticism and a precursor to film noir. He was an innovator in the silent and early sound eras and helped create the poetic realist style that defined the great French cinema of the late 1930s and influenced American film noir. He was championed by the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, but in the 1950s, as the young film critics who would drive the nouvelle vague in France developed their auteur approach to cinema, Duvivier was branded as part of the old “tradition of quality,” “le cinema de papa” that the aspiring filmmakers fought against. This set of four films, all starring actor Harry Baur, may not lift his reputation back up to heights of his success, but they do show that he was a versatile, creative filmmaker who, at his best, found innovative and expressive ways to tell moving and entertaining stories.
It’s the innovations that jump out in the opening moments David Golder (1930), his first collaboration with Baur and his first sound film. Duviver meets the challenge of the talkies with a dynamic use of sound in the rapid-fire montage of the opening scene. It emphasizes the energy and speed of the modern age as a succession of commentators build up his reputation in snippets of gossip about the man and his fortune. Duvivier edits sound in the same spirit of his images, with strong, jolting cuts from silence to startling noise and back.
Golder (Baur) is a ruthless banker who climbed to the top by destroying his enemies—his backstabbing partner is the latest victim of his vindictive dealings—but has no life outside of business, and certainly no joy. He dotes on his daughter, a spoiled heiress who simply loves his money, and ignores his wife, who spends his fortune as quickly as he makes it and would prefer he not actually show up to the country manor he purchased for her. This culture that Golder would rather avoid is the French version of an American pre-code movie of life among the rich and decadent, a wretched, spoiled world of human parasites whose contempt for those who actually work for money is matched only by their greed. Golder is pitiless and cruel, a self-made man who arrived penniless and built his fortune from nothing, but next to his wife and daughter and their shallow society, he’s the closest the film has to a hero. When his health turns bad, he decides it’s time to retire and let his family fend themselves but his daughter isn’t having any of it so once more he wades into the cutthroat world of international dealmaking.
David Golder is based on the debut novel of Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-born Jewish writer who was killed in the internment camps during the Holocaust (her unfinished final novel, “Suite Française,” written while she was in hiding during the occupation, was discovered and published a decade ago). And it announces Duvivier as a sophisticated filmmaker who not only refuses to let the challenges of the new dimension of sound deter his cinematic approach—his elaborate camerawork is as impressive as it is expressive—but uses sound inventively and evocatively. It’s a fairly simple story with little dimension to the characters—I don’t know if that’s a weakness of the novel or simply a limitation of the adaptation—but the culture of corruption and decadence and predatory greed seeps through every scene.
Poil de Carotte (1932), which translates to “Carrot Top,” is a remake of his 1925 silent success (which is not home video), a mix of comedy and near-tragedy in the story of a sweet, spirited kid (Robert Lynen, superb) bullied by his mother, who favors the boy’s teenage brother and sister, and ignored by his disconnected father, who has checked out of the family completely. It inspires the defining line in his school essay: “A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who can’t stand each other.” His teachers, who appreciate his spirit and intelligence, are convinced he’s overreacting but as he goes home from boarding school for the summer we find he’s absolutely correct.
Baur plays the father, a jovial man in public who so disgusted by the behavior of his wife and elder children that he no longer engages with any of them, leaving the youngest to roll with the punches with his imaginative spirit, witty sense of humor, and upbeat demeanor. Even all that pluck isn’t enough to cushion his heart from neglect. In fact, for an often lively family movie with idyllic scenes of play in the countryside and small town camaraderie in the village (where father is running for mayor), Poil de Carotte has a sadness that cuts to the soul. Yet it is also the gentlest and sweetest of this Duvivier quartet, filled with the spirit of the red-headed child beloved by all in the countryside but his own family. It makes the boy’s own slide into fatalism all the more powerful.
I don’t want to spoil anything but if you are worried about heartbreaking tragedy, fear not. There are devastating moments but Duvivier is ultimately protective of our boy and sends a few guardian angels his way, and he provides a space for the father to redeem himself. And though he favors painterly scenes in the bucolic atmosphere of the countryside over cinematic flash, he beautifully transforms the boy’s nighttime trip to the chicken coop into a fantastic journey through the underworld and uses optical effects to create an imaginary doppelganger with whom he debates his sorry state.
Poil de Carotte
La Tête d’un Homme (1933) stars Baur as Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret in a murder mystery that plays in part like an early police procedural, with Maigret’s crack team interviewing witnesses and tracking down clues as Maigret zeroes in on his suspect. Is it the hapless petty thief who is found with the victim’s blood on his clothes, the nephew who turns out to be her sole beneficiary, or the suspicious, tubercular Czech medical student Radek (Valéry Inkijinoff), an arrogant mastermind who calls to mind Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”?
Duvivier uses the project to become an exercise in style, technique, and tension. His camera prowls crime scenes and creeps up on suspects and he uses rear projection to turn an interview montage into an ingenious single take where the policeman remaining stationary in the foreground and the location dissolves into the next scene, the performer acting against a pre-filmed segment. The police station is a buzz of activity and Duvivier sketches out the camaraderie of the squad in quick, simple strokes. But by the end it becomes a battle of wits between Maigret and Radek, an angry psychotic who relishes the mind games with the cops, and Inkijinoff burns simmers in his scenes.
Un Carnet de Bal (1937), the story of Christine (Marie Bell), a recently widowed heiress who tracks down the young men who courted her 20 years ago at her first society ball, is one of the director’s most beloved films, a melancholy meditation on memory and loss and disappointment. The title translates to “Dance Card,” the object that launches her from her lavish but remote country manor on an odyssey around France, and she gets glimpses of what her life might have been had she married another.
Bell is reminiscent of Norma Shearer in Hollywood in the thirties, the elegant, confident worldly woman meeting the world without apology, though she hasn’t quite the command or the presence of Shearer, and a cast of French greats play her former beaus as grown men, including Harry Baur (the aspiring composer who became a monk and is now an avuncular choirmaster), Fernandel (a happy hairdresser with a love of card tricks and brood of kids), Louis Jouvet (a disgraced lawyer turned underworld criminal mastermind), and Raimu (a jovial small town mayor who, after years as a widower, is about to remarry). As you might guess, it’s an episodic picture built around a series of encounters that gives each man a moment to shine as their character takes stock of their lives with the appearance of Christine.
It’s an elegant romantic drama where the deft stylistic touches—the rear-projection trick of La Tête d’un Homme enhanced by a slight slow-motion effect that turns a flashback into a dreamy reverie, theatrical shadows that suggest the ghosts of memory with a melancholy edge—are so gracefully incorporated that they (unlike some of his devices) arise organically from his storytelling. Duvivier’s technical prowess meshes with his worldly romanticism in a cynical world more evocatively than any other film of his apart from Pepe le Moko as he elevates moments of tender reconnection and touching scenes of regret and redemption with an express effect or a simple camera movement.
These are not restored films and they show signs of wear and damage, but they have been well mastered from archival sources and look and sound fine. Sadly, Un Carnet de Bal shows greater damage than the other films: scratches, speckling, chemical fading, with missing and torn frames. But the image is steady and fairly sharp behind the damage.
All films in black and white and in French with English subtitles. No supplements apart from (very informative) essays on each film by Michael Koresky.
Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas (Eclipse 42) (Criterion, DVD) is an apt companion piece to Criterion’s previous set of silent Yasujiro Ozu films on their Eclipse line. The artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, famous for the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his sound films, was a voracious film buff more interested in Hollywood movies than his own national cinema early in his career and he thrived in a great variety of genres. The previous Eclipse set collected a trio of family comedies. This one offers three gangster films: Ozu noir, so to speak, inspired by the late silent crime pictures by Josef von Sternberg and American pictures. These films are more intimate character pieces than the gangster romantic tragedies of their American cousins, but they are lively productions directed with a dynamic style he stripped away through the 1930s.
Walk Cheerfully (1930) mixes the gangster drama with character comedy in the story of a hood named Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada) who vows to go straight when he falls in love with a “good” girl. His old girlfriend, who sports a Louise Brooks bob, isn’t happy about being dumped and decides to get revenge on them both. In fact, there’s a lot of American influence in the film, from the storytelling to the camerawork (from tracking shots to oblique, dramatic camera angles) to fashions; these hoods are as sporty as their Hollywood counterparts with their flashy suits and fedoras and swaggering attitudes. This is a bright picture, as the title suggests. The mob isn’t happy that Ken and his partner (Hisao Yoshitani) have left the gang but for all the obstacles, this is on the more lighthearted side of the gangster genre.
More somber is That Night’s Wife (1930), which opens on the robbery of an office building by a lone gunman (Tokihiko Okada), a marvelous scene that is a model of crime movie direction, before revealing that the thief is no career criminal but a desperate father whose daughter is on the verge of death. The money is for the medicine that may save her life. Most of the film takes place in the one-room family home as the father and mother stand vigil over their young daughter, holding a cop hostage as they wait for her recovery. It’s a standoff with a poignant twist and Ozu orchestrates the situation beautifully with expressive camerawork and tight editing. This was shot and set in the depths of Japan’s depression. Ozu explored the plight of middle and working class families slipping into poverty and desperation in other films as well (see Tokyo Chorus in Silent Ozu: Three Comedies) but this is his most moving portrait.
Dragnet Girl (1933) is the most flamboyant of the three, a redemption tale not of the gangster (Joji Oka) but his moll Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who has a civilian job by day and plays in the criminal underworld by night. When her boyfriend is smitten by the good girl sister of a young boxer, she ends up befriending the girl and deciding to go straight herself. Except that he wants her to pull one last job. This was made after the explosion of Hollywood gangster movies in the early sound era and Ozu livens the story with fluid tracking shots, snappy editing, and striking compositions and editing. And he makes Tokiko a real tough cookie and a tough-love idealist, with a novel way of convincing her boyfriend to go straight.
Japanese intertitles with English subtitles. These are preserved rather than restored films, mastered from prints that are scuffed and damaged in places, but they are stable and well mastered from the existing element and feature fine piano scores by Neil Brand. As with all Eclipse releases, there are no supplements. Each film is in its own slimline case with an essay by house writer Michael Koresky.
Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita made 50 films in a 50-year career, including Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and the original The Ballad of Narayama (1958), both of which Criterion has released on disc. Kinoshita and World War II (Eclipse, DVD) presents his first five films and offers a rare glimpse into the propaganda films made in Japan during World War II.
After a long apprenticeship at Shochiku (and a brief stint in the army), Kinoshita made his directorial debut in 1943, well into World War II, when the filmmaking industry was enlisted in the war effort to produce patriotic movies. Where directors like Ozu and Kurosawa managed to skirt the excesses of nationalistic propaganda (the respected veteran Ozu through films about family values and responsibility, the newcomer Kurosawa through period pieces), Kinoshita applied with humanistic sensibility to rousing calls for patriotic action.
In any other era the deft little Port of Flowers (1943), a light-fingered comedy about two con-men who try to bilk money from the inhabitants of a small island with shares of a phony shipyard, could have come off as a Capra-esque comedy of a guileless small town community winning over the corrupt big city crooks with their idealism and generosity (and a little help from a twist of fate). Here, that twist is the declaration of war, which ignites the patriotic responsibility of the shysters and shames them into supporting the war effort. Apart from the propaganda, it is a light, amiable little film with a warm sense of community and purpose, but the message becomes more insistent in The Living Magoroku (1943), which takes on the need for agricultural production, and Jubilation Street (1944), which follows the inhabitants of a Tokyo street forced to relocate for the war effort.
Army (1944), Kinosuke’s fourth and final film of the war years, pushes the patriotic drumbeat to extremes and sneaks in a sly portrait of the nationalistic fervor that drove Japan to war. Spanning three generations and almost 80 years, it begins with lessons of duty to the Emperor and outrage over the international intervention that pressured Japan to return captured territory to China: “Someday we will avenge this indignation.” Generations of men pass on the ideals of hysterical nationalism to their children (without actually serving in combat themselves) until it comes down to the sickly son of Tomosuke Takagi (Chishu Ryu). “He’s always been a coward,” says both mother and father of the grown Shintaro (Kazumasa Hoshino), but when war is declared on China (to at last avenge the indignation from decades ago), Shintaro enlists to make his father proud.
Kinosuke presents patriotic zeal with such blind fervor that it borders on political cartoon. “A true Japanese would never admit that Japan could lose,” sputters an apoplectic Tomosuke to Sakuragi (Eijirô Tôno), a civilian industrialist who has volunteered his services in every conflict since he’s come of age. In hindsight it appears to be Kinoshita satirizing fervent nationalism and militarism as jingoism and hubris (especially from a man who has never faced battle) but at the time it was apparently accepted as a lesson in patriotism. That wasn’t what upset military censors, however. All four of Kinoshita’s wartime films are sensitive to the lives and emotions of his characters but Army ends with a potent show of emotional ambivalence to the proud sight of young men marching off to war. As Shintaro parades through town with his fellow soldiers, Kinoshita stays with his mother as she shuffles through alleys, stumbles and falls, and finally reaches the crowds with a sorrowful, almost panicked look on her face as she seeks out Shintaro. They looks they share before he marches out of town and out of frame are poignant but Kinosuke lingers on the mother, left behind and alone, already mourning for her lost son. He was not permitted to make another film until after the war. He returned with a vengeance.
Morning for the Osone Family (1946) offers a scathing indictment of the culture that drove Japan into war through the intimate story of a family shattered by it. From its opening scenes of a family at Christmas singing “Silent Night,” it presents a family with an international education and an intellectual life that brands them as suspect in the heat of war. The eldest is jailed for daring to challenge the culture of military power and rampant nationalism, the next son is an artist drafted to fight, the daughter’s engagement to the son of an important industrialist is called off (her family is considered too subversive for such a respected clan), and the youngest falls under the spell of their hyper-patriot uncle, a military officer who preaches the gospel of Japanese superiority and the inevitability of Japanese triumph (never mind that the war in the Pacific has already turned against them). Through it all, the liberal mother (Haruko Sugimura) tries to respect the leadership of her brother-in-law (her husband died years ago) and keep the peace, but her silence only allows his arrogance to go unchecked until the war is over, the family is shattered, and the uncle’s base hypocrisy is revealed. When the family challenges what his philosophy has done for the country, he actually says (as translated in the English subtitles) “I was only following orders,” refusing to take responsibility for everything he advocated through the entire war.
While no longer under the supervision of the Japanese military, the post-war years had a different set of constraints imposed by the occupying American forces, which might explain why the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never mentioned in the discussion of surrender and the destruction of Japan (seen only in the glimpses of the street outside the Osone home). The message of this film is clearly aligned with their interests and, like Kinosuke’s earlier films, has moments pure didactic speechifying. But also like those earlier films, Kinosuke’s interest is in the characters and their ordeals. Apart from the uncle, who is clearly the stand-in for national military arrogance. Whether you buy the hopeful coda (the “morning” of the title) or simply chalk it up to post-war propaganda, Kinosuke invests it with the passion of his liberal characters who dare to dream of pursuing their ideals once again.
Japanese with English subtitles. This collection comes from Criterion’s Eclipse line of bare-bones releases of movie collections. These are preserved films, not restored, and some sequences are heavily damaged with wear, scratches, and missing frames, but it is a small miracle that they survived at all. Each film is in its own slimline case with an essay by house writer Michael Koresky.