Critically lambasted and shunned by postwar French audiences upon its
release in 1947, Julien Duvivier’s Panique has since come to be recognized as
a long overlooked treasure of French film noir. The film was the first of several
adaptations of Mr. Hire’s Engagement, one of the finest novels by legendary
Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon, a coal-black tale of the scapegoating
of the eccentric bachelor Mr. Hire following the murder of a woman in his Paris
neighborhood: Mr. Hire has the double misfortune of knowing too much for his
own good and falling for the real murderer’s girlfriend… Yet as played by the
towering, stony-faced Michel Simon, the prim and proper oddball is anything
but meek and pathetic: Simon’s Mr. Hire is an enigma, but also the film’s moral
center. Viviane Romance, one of France’s brightest stars of the period, gives
a chilling performance as Alice, the hard-luck woman whose blind love for
an unscrupulous crook leads her to become a ruthless femme fatale and
frame Mr. Hire. While Panique is first and foremost a thrilling movie, both for
its iconic performances and Duvivier’s confident use of set pieces (several
scenes in a fair, a desperate rooftop escape), it also provides deep insight into
the mentality of the lynch mob and the pessimistic world view that existed in
the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Julien Duvivier & Charles Spaak
Based on the novel Mr. Hire’s
Engagement by Georges Simenon
The first film by Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène and the first feature
produced in sub-Saharan Africa, Black Girl is the story of Diouana, an illiterate
nursemaid from Dakar who follows her French employers to the Côte d’Azur
with dreams of discovering France. But once in Antibes, she finds herself
enslaved, trapped in the couple’s well-appointed holiday apartment and
on the receiving end of their domestic frustrations. Her ensuing rebellion is
both a desperate act and one of the great cries of cinematic outrage. Despite
its short running time, Black Girl is an extraordinarily dense film, packed
with unexpected narrative turns and human and political insight. The rage
at its heart is concealed by the clean lines of Sembène’s black and white
photography of the south of France and Dakar, his seductive montage, and the
hum of Senegalese pop music on the soundtrack. But make no mistake: this is
a work of subversion, a human-scaled tragedy for the age of anti-colonialism.
As an on-the-ground analysis of the cause and effects of domination, it
has few rivals. As a powerful example of cinema’s ability to give voice to the
disenfranchised, it stands alone as a painfully timely, masterful work of art.
M’Bissine Thérèse Diop
Momar Nar Sene
Black Girl (1966) – 59 min.
Borom Sarret (1963) – 30 min.
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Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy is one of the towering achievements of
French cinema, and one of the best-loved: though deeply anchored in regional
particularities, it is a love story of universal reach that achieves lyrical heights
with local vernacular and never deviates from the wry humanism that made
Pagnol one of the leading playwrights of the pre-war period. The trilogy opens
with Marius, in which the titular character and son of César, the owner of a
café on Marseille’s harbor, must decide between marrying his childhood
sweetheart Fanny and fulfilling his dream of being a sailor. Fanny, the second
film in the trilogy, relates Fanny’s wedding to the shopkeeper Panisse and
the birth of her son with Marius. Life follows its quiet course until Marius
returns from the high seas. The final film, César, picks up twenty years later,
when Marius and Fanny are finally reunited. A triumph of closely observed,
lovingly mocking characterization that is epic in its scope but rarely strays
from Marseille’s waterfront, this romance also features one of the great film
performances: as the old-fashioned but warmhearted patriarch César, Raimu
started the line of burly but vulnerable French leading men that includes
Michel Simon and Gérard Depardieu.
MARIUS (Alexander Korda)
FANNY (Marc Allégret)
CESAR (Marcel Pagnol)
MARIUS (1931) – 127 min.
FANNY (1932) – 127 min.
CESAR (1936) – 142 min.
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When the beautiful Belle volunteers to take her ruined father’s place as the
prisoner of a mysterious Beast who lives in a castle on the other side of the
forest, an unexpected romance blossoms between the reclusive monster and
the innocent maiden. Soon the question arises whether the real monster is
the Beast or Belle’s avaricious siblings…especially since the Beast is actually
a cursed Prince (played by the uncannily handsome Jean Marais). A defining
influence on filmmakers as different as Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut,
this adaptation of the classic fairy tale by iconoclastic novelist, playwright,
artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau is that rare film that truly deserves to be
called “magical,” a deeply ambiguous yet supremely romantic work that turns
cinema into a spectacular conjurer’s trick, full of magic mirrors and golden
keys, misty woods and ominous palaces. Shot in atmospheric black and white
by the great cinematographer Henri Alekan, Beauty and the Beast is rightly
considered one of the absolute masterpieces of French cinema, a film fantasy
that Cocteau said was “for grown-ups who haven’t lost their childhood” …or for
children ready to marvel at the best that cinema can offer.
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Band of Outsiders serves as the perfect introduction to the work of the seminal
artist credited here as “Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard.” The film puts the leading
New Wave director’s love of B-movies and detective novels front and center,
with the story of a heist carried off by the unlikely trio of two shiftless Paris
guys and the moony au pair they both love, but is at its most exhilarating with its
famous “digressions”: the legendary line dance in a Paris café or the whirlwind
trip to the Louvre, in which the trio break the record for the fastest museum
visit. Along with this constant playfulness, the film’s mix of youthful ebullience
and romantic tragedy, its interplay between the gritty black and white images
of Paris and Godard’s poetic voiceover, and the thrilling moments in which the
camera seems to break with the narrative to capture the young actors’ very
essence create a particularly enjoyable primer in the art of the New Wave, as
well as Godard’s most accessible film. Made as a gift to his wife and muse
Anna Karina to help her out of a period of depression, Band of Outsiders has
a buoyancy that would soon be replaced by the sharper critique and harder
edges of Godard’s political films of the late sixties. Also starring the boisterous
Claude Brasseur and intense Sami Frey, Band of Outsiders is an unforgettable
ode to youth, Paris, and cinema.
Crime, Romance, Drama
Voted one of the twenty greatest films of all time in the latest Sight & Sound
poll of 846 international film critics and scholars, Au Hasard Balthazar is
not only a masterpiece, but a film that stands apart for its way of inviting
interpretation while resisting it and for recording material reality with a hard,
unflinching eye that nonetheless constantly evokes the sublime. It is also
that rare film that places an animal at its center—the donkey Balthazar—
without endowing it with human traits: by remaining an animal, the character
of Balthazar magnifies the humanity of the people he encounters—for better
and, most often, for worse. Balthazar’s story begins when he is taken from his
mother to be a plaything for some children in the French countryside. Over the
course of his life, he will be the companion to Marie, a haunted, passive young
woman, the victim of a small-time thug who desires her, a beast of burden for
a homeless drunk, a circus animal, and the property of a heartless miser. As
Balthazar passes from one owner to the next, from one vice to another, always
a humble witness, director Robert Bresson paints a picture of cruelty and
innocence that many have seen as a Christian allegory. Is Balthazar’s life the
life of a saint? Bresson leaves the viewer to answer, speaking first to the heart
and forever after to the restless mind.
SYNOPSIS Pierrot le Fou (1965) is arguably the masterpiece of Jean-Luc Godard’s
glorious first period, that extraordinary burst of creativity that extends from his landmark debut Breathless to the political films of the late sixties. In recounting the whirlwind romance between wealthy Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his babysitter Marianne (Anna Karina), followed by their escape to the south of France with gangsters on their trail, Godard walks the thin line between sixties liberation and nihilism. Indeed, Pierrot le Fou is full of Godardian dialectic: it is his sunniest film, but possibly his darkest, his most romantic, yet also his most disillusioned, a discombobulating combination of pop sensibility, boy’s own adventure, and trenchant critique of decadent European society and American intervention in Southeast Asia. This is a film of legendary moments—tough-guy director Samuel Fuller telling Ferdinand that, “film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death. In one word, emotions”; Marianne turning her seaside indolence into musical comedy by coming up with the charming song “Ma Ligne de Chance”; and Ferdinand painting his face blue—but what is most striking is its constant freshness, its ability to surprise and seduce no matter how many times you’ve watched it. A feast of primary colors, Pierrot le Fou is simply one of the greatest films ever made, the quintessence of cinema’s pleasures and challenges.
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In 1975, Eric Rohmer caught the world by surprise by following the series of low-budget, contemporary “Moral Tales” that had established him as a lateblooming master of the French New Wave with The Marquise of O, a German language period piece faithfully adapted from the novella by early nineteenth century author Heinrich von Kleist. Yet upon close inspection, Kleist’s story of forced seduction presents exactly the kind of moral conundrum Rohmer’s present-day Parisians chewed over late into the night. The story deals with the quandary faced by the Marquise of O, a chaste young widow, when she finds herself inexplicably pregnant. Rejected by her aristocratic family, the Marquise places an ad inviting the father to come forward, never suspecting that the gallant Russian count who once saved her from a gang of miscreants might have a hand in her condition. The Marquise of O stands both as one of cinema’s greatest literary adaptations and one of its most pleasingly convincing period pieces, in no small part thanks to the magnificent naturalistic lighting of cinematographer Nestor Almendros and the superbly detailed performances of an ensemble of Germany’s best theater actors led by the radiant Edith Clever. While the film is faithful to the cool detachment of Kleist’s prose, keeping the viewer hovering between mirth and outrage, its moral ambiguity is certain to spark heated debate.
Eric Rohmer, from the eponym short story by Heinrich von Kleist
France, Germany, 1976
In her deeply felt, lovely 1988 film Kung Fu Master, New Wave maverick Agnès Varda flips the traditional Lolita scenario to tell the story of a divorced woman’s affair with her teenage daughter’s fourteen year-old classmate Julien. Rather than a tale of forbidden love, this is a tremendously sensitive look at two people in transition, shifting into maturity or hoping to escape it. At once a tender fantasy—the lovers spend one happy season on a deserted island in the English Channel—and a clear-sighted portrayal of the loneliness of a middle-aged woman, Kung Fu Master takes an innocent approach to its provocative subject matter, but does not blunder into naiveté: Varda does not condone the relationship so much as recognize the sweetness that comes before gender roles calcify. While Varda’s photographer’s eye and inventive editing are at their best here, this lighthearted evocation of love and loss is also one of her most immediate, simple films. Based on a story by lead actress Jane Birkin, whose wispy voice and watery eyes have rarely been so poignant as in this portrait of a woman adrift, Kung Fu Master also features Varda’s son Mathieu Demy as Julien and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her first film roles, giving the film a homebrewed charm.
Along with Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic Rififi is one of the uncontested peaks of hardboiled French noir. It begins when Tony, an aging gangster fresh out of jail, agrees to pull a final big heist with his protégé Jo and the Italian specialists Mario and Cesare. The heist goes off without a hitch, but sets off an ugly gang war with Tony’s rival Pierre Grutter. Like the best noir films, Rififi transcends the coded world of the professional gangster to become an existential tragedy about love, loyalty, and the inexorable passage of time. Shot in black and white on the grimy streets of fifties Paris, the film oozes character and slangy authenticity and is full of unforgettable set pieces like a song and dance show in a louche nightclub, a practically wordless jewelry heist, and Tony’s quasi-expressionistic last drive through Paris with a bullet in his gut and a restless child in the passenger seat of his convertible. Rififi is also notable for its subtle reflection on gender roles: while the women initially appear to be accessories at best and betrayers at worst, they are eventually revealed to be the film’s moral core and the antidote to the deceptive masculine allure of the underworld.
Jules Dassin, René Wheeler, Auguste le Breton