Saturday, December 10, 2011

French Films I Love

From the classic A Man And A Woman

It's amazing I still have this reaction after all the great French films I've seen, but every time I hear the phrase "French film" I still cringe as I equate that notion as being like French food: too runny, snobby and effete for my tastes.

But people often forget the darker, Jacobin side of France and her at times wholly ruthless nature. French prisons have long been a deep stain on the French character with the sort of sanctioned psychotic barbarity too repulsive to repeat here. And I'm not talking the distant past either. So don't go around thinking the French are all wine and fluffy soufflés. They can be some nasty characters!

It may surprise some people then that the French can be masters at the hard boiled crime drama, a genre to which I am partial. 2004's District B13 is a prime example of French cinema flying off the screen, with its electric use of free running Parkour to a cynical look at both policeman and politicians. The police are usually portrayed as methodical and plodding but effective in this genre. Sometimes we see the romantic ending, sometimes we don't.

Jean-Pierre Melville was the master of French crime drama. He explored the underworld with a keen eye and let the chips fall where they may. If you're like me and you love Paris in the 50's and 60's with her seemingly always wet streets, smoky bars and ever-present trench coats then Melville is right up your alley. The sheer atmosphere of his films is enough to draw me in.

Un Flic (Dirty Money, 1972) has one of the most unforgettable openings to a film ever conceived. The coastal bank robbery staged during ultra-high winds that surely must be emanating from hell itself lends an eerie, edgy tone of madness to the event that causes the viewer to squirm and wonder just what one has gotten himself into.

The film also stars two great French mainstays of crime and action: the handsome, dashing Alain Delon and the suave and savvy Yves Montad. If you see one of those guy in a film, be sure to look it over. If they are both in it, just go watch!

Ladies man, action star, cop or criminal - Alain could do it all

Yves Montand always played
a man to be reckoned with

In Le Samouraï (1967), Alain plays a cop who slowly tightens the net on a professional assassin in a long, slow spiral downward for the hit man. As we explore the life of the hunter and hunted, we're conflicted on who to root for as we get to know each man. That's what I love about Melville, things are rarely black and white.

Le Doulos (The Finger Man, 1962) involves a film with a recently released convict, his illegal plans, and a police informer in their midst. It is as Melville describes a film where "all characters are two-faced, all characters are false". Yet another film where as the plot unfolds so do the characters' true natures.

Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) tells the tale of an escaped criminal as he tries to reach final freedom by returning to a normal life but his true struggle to be free is from within more than from without.

But Bob le Flambeur (Bob the gambler, 1956) is easily my favorite among all of Melville's films. Bob is a man married to Lady Luck and the fortunes and famines that brings to his life is to him simply the price of doing business. But we all know the odds are against him in the end as he uses his criminal endeavors to support his cherished hobby. Watch the film for an ending only Lady Luck could engineer!

But Melville wasn't the only one to master the art of crime film and seedy underworlds. Rififi (1955) is a hoot and a half! The great 20 minute heist scene is done without speaking a word - but I bet you don't realize that until you think about it later! Again, the atmosphere of the night clubs and the ingenuity of the thieves is just marvelous to behold. I dare you not to root for them!

Le Trou (1960) - a film Melville called one of the greatest French films ever made - involves a complex prison break detailed after a real life event. Three of the members of the break were used as consultants on the film to provide meticulous realism. The tension is palpable all the way through.

Pépé le Moko (1937) is a rollicking film about a gangster hiding in Algiers' casbah. Starring the great Jean Gabin - who could play a gangster as well as anyone - it's an early film-noir before the genre became formalized. He's a clever fugitive on the run eluding police, but he finds love and for that he needs true freedom. Will his past prevent that?

Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) finds Gabin drifting through a seaside town as a lost and lonely soul. As atmospheric as it sounds, there's not much romance in this smoke as we watch him scrap his way along.

Gabin also starred in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Don't Touch the Loot, 1954). He's a criminal trying to retire after a massively successful robbery but like a gunfighter whose reputation everyone wants to steal, so does a crime boss want to squeeze the money Gabin lifted. A delightful battle of wits ensues.

For more in the gritty, smoky world of French crime, I also loved:

Melodie en Sous-Sol (Any Number Can Win, 1963) Gabin as the veteran and Delon as the young turk, as Gabin's character looks to pull one last job to set up his retirement.

Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) In French writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville's crime noir classic, a brooding thief named Corey (Alain Delon) and a fearless career criminal named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) team up with cop-turned-goon Jansen (Yves Montand) for a hot heist while a straight cop (André Bourvil) stalks them.

Pickpocket (1959) Acclaimed French director Robert Bresson helms this stylized black-and-white drama following the trials of a Paris pickpocket named Michel (Martin LaSalle), a thief who grows so successful at his craft that he worries his luck will run out.

I also recommend Bressons's films Mouchette (1967), the tragic life of a teenage girl. Diary of a Country Priest of a young priest in over his head trying to lead his flock. And A Man Escaped (1951), of a WWII prisoner determined to escape the Nazis.

WWII also inspired Melville's L'Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969), a story of the French Resistance during Nazi occupied France. Would you rat on your fellow conspirators if your daughter's life hung in the balance if you did not? Those were the sort of situations faced by the French Underground. It's nerve wracking to the end.

What many people don't know is that the son of Auguste Renoir, Jean, became a filmmaker in his own right and Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937) is one for the ages. Two men (Gabin as one) who outside of war would be close and respected friends find themselves forced to do their "duty" inside of war to destroy the other. Why? Because there is no reason why. It's all a grand illusion. In war, the true enemy is the war. No one dares explore these themes anymore.

Remade by Akira Kurosawa, Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1938), another Renior film, explores life in French slums with a various cast of characters struggling in their daily lives to survive. Compare both films to see the difference in attitude between the two filmmakers' takes on the Gorky play.

No mention of French films can be done without mentioning Gérard Depardieu. Yes, I've called him Gérard Diaper-doo before with his lack of American success but don't let that take away from the powerhouse performances he is able to command. One viewing of Jean de Florette (1986) should be enough to convince anyone of Depardieu's greatness. The plot reads as a simple one but is deceptive as to how much the films draws you in to feel its pain. Its sequel, Manon of the Spring, is also a must-see event.

Although remade by Richard Gere, The Return of Martin Guerre is made far better with Depardieu's engaging personality. The fact that it's based on a true story only adds to the haunting nature of the mystery of just who is Martin Guerre.

As Danton, Depardieu brought the historical character to life in a way no book ever could, a living breathing man making a stand during turbulent times only to be washed away by the wave of insanity of the first French Revolution. From comedy to history, Depardieu's legacy in French film is hard to match.

Blue (1993). White (1994). Red (1994). "Three Colors: Blue is the first part of Kieslowski's trilogy on France's national motto: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity". When I stumbled across the Three Colors trilogy I had no idea what I was in for. It's personal, it's French, it's modern, it's universal. Immerse yourself in this deep, fine wine of films and come out feeling both exhausted and refreshed.

My affection for the 400 Blows knows no bounds and is easily one of the best films - of any country - ever made as a soaring Truffaut instilled every ounce of his heart and soul into his first feature film, highlighting the spiritual struggles of his life to find his place in a world most unkind and distrusting of artistic beings such as he. Volumes have been said of this and rightly so. But Truffaut also wrote a female version of this film, not made until after his death.

The Little Thief (1988) is the story of a lively teenage girl in constant trouble and is seemingly on a path towards self-destruction as her yearning for life does not mesh with the rules and order of the world around her. The ending is uplifting and magical and restores faith in the universe, the perfect bookend to the 400 Blows.


OK, so my list was pretty gangster heavy but there's nothing else like the black and white Paris of yesteryear and I'd give anything to roam those streets and immerse myself in a romantic time that could not last. France is very proud and protective of its film industry, reluctant to let Hollywood overrun her with its big budgets and copious output. In 1989 a directive was implemented to institute quotas to limit the number of America films shown in French theaters and TV. I think that's silly. The films of France can stand on their own!

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