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 French celebration of Jerry Lewis as an American artist is a lazy punchline and a gross oversimplification of a genuine appreciation, but there is a telling truth to the cliché. Historically, French critics favored the visual over the verbal, and stylistic sensibility over plot and performance, in American movies; in the sixties and seventies, when Lewis was seen as little more than a crudely juvenile comic and a show-biz caricature, the French saw a particular cinematic ingenuity and innocence that was lacking in other American comedies. Plus, he seemed culturally kindred with a classic comic figure: the clown. Not the circus brand, but the kind that flourished in the cabarets and music halls of Europe.
That’s a rather longwinded introduction to a tradition that gave birth to a pair of great French filmmakers: Jacques Tati and Pierre Étaix, comic actors turned directors whose films draw from silent movies, mime, and cabaret performance, and carry on the traditions of Chaplin and Keaton. They were silent movie clowns in the contemporary world, and their movies presented a unique and elaborate comic universe that operated on its own skewed logic.
Sylvain Chomet (of the delirious The Triplets of Belleville) transforms an unproduced script by French auteur Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle) into a tender tale of a French magician and a Scottish girl in the theater-folk society of London as the old world of stage performance gives way to the new theater of rock and roll. They don’t even speak the same language, not that words are the currency of communication in this film, a delicate and delightful piece of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation where character is in body language and personality in the “performance.”
Chomet doesn’t just adapt Tati’s script, he models his lanky magician Tatischeff on Tati’s own distinctive screen character and performance style. And while he has his own approach to staging screen comedy, Chomet shares Tati’s preference to playing scenes out in full shots and long takes where his characters can fill the world with their presence. His screen Tati evokes the original beautifully while creating a unique animated character in its right. As the title suggests, the magic here is all illusion, a matter of sleight of hand and stagecraft, but Chomet reminds us that theater and art creates its own brand of magic. Chomet’s brand of animated magic earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.
Blu-ray of the week, the month and perhaps the year is Jacques Tati’s Playtime. A film comedy directed with the grace of a ballet, the painstaking detail of an action painting and the affection of a love song, Playtime is one of the most sublime celebrations of individualism in the alienated landscape of modern urban life and consumer culture. This is a different kind of symphony of a city, conducted with rising and falling rhythms that segue from one movement to another over the course of a single day into the night and finally emerging into the dawn.
There’s no real “story” to the film, yet hundreds of tiny little stories can be found playing out in Tati’s widescreen images. Tourists arrive in an airport terminal with all the personality of an office building. In the swirl of organized chaos arrives Tati’s signature character, the gangly Mr. Hulot, decked out in his trademark overcoat and hat and clutching his familiar umbrella, on his way to a business meeting in the city. The tourists are efficiently shuttled off to busses for their whirlwind Paris visit, but this isn’t the Paris of ancient brick buildings and romantic bridges and historical monuments that, but of skyscrapers of steel and walls of glass looking out onto paved streets packed with commuters and busses and pedestrians in a hurry. As the tourists gawk at the marvels of new inventions and contemporary creature comforts, one young woman (Barbara Dennek) with a dreamy look in her eyes longs for the romantic Paris that is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections of car windows and glass doors. Meanwhile, Hulot gets lost in the maze of office cubicles and glassed-in waiting rooms while trying to track down a business associate, dwarfed by the size and scale of the coldly impersonal surroundings as he meet indifferent efficiency with comic individualism.
Playtimeis one of my desert island movies. Jacques Tati’s comedy of modern times in urban Paris is both hysterical and sublime, a comic symphony of a city that never fails to carry me away in its warmth and ingenuity.The film plays on Turner Classic Movies as part of the Jacques Tati centenary on Thursday, October 9. My feature article on the film is now running on the website.
A film comedy directed with the grace of a ballet, the painstaking detail of an action painting and the affection of a love song, Playtime is one of the most sublime celebrations of individualism in the alienated landscape of modern urban life and consumer culture. This is a different kind of symphony of a city, conducted with rising and falling rhythms that segue from one movement to another over the course of a single day into the night and finally emerging into the dawn. Has a satire of the human behavior in the mechanistic urban world ever been so affectionate? The difference between Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Tati’s Playtime is right there in the title: for Tati, there is a joy and wonder and fun in it all.
There’s no real “story” to the film, yet hundreds of tiny little stories can be found playing out in Tati’s widescreen images. Tourists arrive in an airport terminal with all the personality of an office building. In the swirl of organized chaos arrives Tati’s signature character, the gangly Mr. Hulot, decked out in his trademark overcoat and hat and clutching his familiar umbrella, on his way to a business meeting in the city. The tourists are efficiently shuttled off to busses for their whirlwind Paris visit, but this isn’t the Paris of ancient brick buildings and romantic bridges and historical monuments, but of skyscrapers of steel and walls of glass looking out onto paved streets packed with commuters and busses and pedestrians in a hurry. As the tourists gawk at the marvels of new inventions and contemporary creature comforts, one young woman (Barbara Dennek) with a dreamy look in her eyes longs for the romantic Paris that is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections of car windows and glass doors. Meanwhile, Hulot finds himself lost in the maze of office cubicles and glassed-in waiting rooms while trying to track down a business associate, dwarfed by the size and scale of the coldly impersonal surroundings as he meets indifferent efficiency with comic individualism. The last half of the film takes place at the grand opening of a brand new nightclub, a mini-movie of its own that opens with workmen and waiters rushing the final details as the first night crowds arrive. It’s a model of modernity where every design flaw becomes glaringly apparent over the disastrous evening, but out of the slow collapse of the club’s dignified façade comes a human revolution, a magical idiosyncratic order created out of fun and laughter and social egalitarianism rising from the chaos.
Where so many comedy directors create humor from the outrageous exaggeration of images and situations, Tati creates his from an accumulation of minor touches, little dissonances, imaginative observations and pieces of creative business: hundreds of details that erupt with lives of their own but fit together like a clockwork mechanism with a human heartbeat.
Jacques Tati’s Trafic was the director’s last appearance as M. Hulot and, coincidentally or not, his final great movie. Arriving soon after Playtime, a commercial failure but a artistic masterpiece, Trafic has too long been treated as an afterthought. Criterion’s DVD release should put such critical neglect to rest: it’s a superb, funny, clever, delightful film, playful and creative and as much fun as any comedy ever made.
In past films, amiable oddball Monsieur Hulot was a bemused outsider navigating the craziness of the modern world. Tati’s universe is not a hostile place, just alien to the old-fashioned Hulot, a gentle soul just slightly out of step with the pace of life and the march of technology, fascinated and often flummoxed but always game. In Trafic he’s less an outsider that a professional dreamer in a business world. He’s an automobile designer for the (fictional) Altra company and his latest creation, a compact car camper, comes equipped with more visual gags and hidden accessories than a Tex Avery cartoon, from a front grill that doubles as a cooking grill to a horn that pulls out of the steering column to become an electric razor. The camper is the centerpiece of Altra’s offerings at the Amsterdam Car Show, or would be if can ever get there. This cutting edge contraption is packed into a ramshackle, broken-down truck that hits every road movie mishap imaginable on the road from Paris to Amsterdam: flat tire, empty gas tank, urban gridlock, highway fender-bender turned bumper-car snarl. The car is even impounded at the border, thanks to the distracted drive of Maria (Maria Kimberly), the American public relations professional hired to pull the event together. She zips around in her sporty convertible as if she doesn’t notice (or at least acknowledge) the other drivers on the road, and the Altra truck gets caught in the chaos of her wake.
The film bounces between their progress (or, more accurately, lack of progress) and the sights and sounds of the auto show, where the Altra rep parks his desk in a stall empty but for a backdrop of cardboard trees: a campsite waiting for its camper. The running tape of pre-recorded bird chirps only adds to the surreal spectacle of this manufactured slice of the natural world in the crawl of convention center crowds. All the while Tati carries us along his lazy river of comedy, playing with sight gags shot in long takes and letting the audience see the bits of business erupt all over the frame in long shot. Tati is the great observer of human behavior, at rest and motion. In Trafic, there is plenty of both.
One of the great frustrations of being a silent movie fan is the deplorable loss of so much of the silent film legacy. One of the great joys is the constant discovery of lost or unknown (or at least unknown to me) classics.
A Throw of Dice, a lavish 1929 melodrama about a royal struggle between rival kingdoms in India, based on a story from the epic Hindu poem “The Mahabarata,” is one of those discoveries that appears to come from nowhere. Shot in location in colonial India with an Indian cast and spectacular sets and locations, directed by a German veteran of UFA studios and produced with a consortium of German, British and Indian money, it’s a lively mix of cultures and sensibilities that merge rather than collide.
A handsome king falls for the beautiful daughter of a hermit on a hunting trip while his cousin and rival plots to kill him. The hermit, once a respected teacher in the royal court, fledthe corruption of the social world to protect his daughter from the influence of these “Men from the world,” but he too falls victim to the plots and schemes and his daughter (Seeta Devi) is caught in the middle of these two kings: the kindly and trusting Sohan (Himansu Rai), whose naiveté is matched only by his gambling addiction, and the sinister Ranjit (Charu Roy) who lusts for his cousin’s kingdom and his cousin’s bride and preys upon Sohan’s weakness for the dice to get both. But the real joy of this film is the magnificent production, which opens on spectacular jungle imagery of animals fleeing the oncoming hunting party (except for the tigers, which take their time as if they could barely be bothered by the intruding humans) and movies on to spectacular palace sets. Director Franz Osten, a veteran of Germany’s UFA studios, is a dynamic director with an eye for spectacular imagery and romantic visions and a gift for visual storytelling and energetic pacing. The story never feels rushed even as the film seems to drive forward at a breathless pace.
Kino’s DVD features a beautiful transfer (taken from a British restoration, apparently direct from the PAL video master, resulting in some minor visual warbling) and a gorgeous new score that only enhances the experience.