My Gleanings

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Cahiers "young turks" and French Quality directors -- May '57

In the May 1957 "Situation of French Cinema" special issue of Cahiers du Cinema, an article featured sixty French directors with a capsule chronology, a filmography and a thumbnail critique for each one. What follows is my translation of the critiques of twelve directors who are the “usual suspects” of “French Quality” cinema. These thumbnails were written by Charles Bitsch, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Donoil-Valcroze, Claude de Givray, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Lachenay, Louis Marcorelles and Luc Moullet. They were not, however, individually credited. The presence of “Robert Lachenay” in this group, probably signals the participation of François Truffaut.

Once again, these thumbnail critiques were originally published in the May 1957 special "Situation of French Cinema" issue of "Cahiers du Cinema" and translated by me.

Yves Allegret

“Dédée d'Anvers“, “Une si jolie petite plage“, “Manèges” and “Les Orgueilleux” form a coherent whole with a progression towards a mastery of a style and a world-vision, questionable though it be. This “noir” suite lays bear injustice and social hypocrisy, greed, the corruptive power of money, the loneliness of those who do not play the game and the impossibility of love. Praiseworthy concerns, but mingled in with an indulgence for the villainy shown. No matter, the undertaking was viable, strewn with robust scenes, taken from uncompromising ethnological documents on man who is referred to as civilized but who is in the twentieth century savage. Then came three failures. Even should this remain the state of things, Yves Allégret deserves a paragraph in the history of cinema, but no more than that.

Claude Autant-Lara

For many producers, he is the surest of the prominent directors. This blessing constrains him to subjects less demanding and less personal than he might want (but he pressed “Marguerite de la nuit”, one of his poorer films), Censorship has also played him some dirty tricks. For these two reasons, the ensemble of his work, careful, intelligent, and skilful does not avoid a certain classicism which poorly fits this auteur - passionate, mettlesome, explosive, quarrelsome and “committed”, but also esthetic and sentimental. For this reason, one must wonder if, with the march of time, “Diable au corps” and “Le Blé en herbe” will still scandalize the right-thinking. Our wager: these films will pass for romantic - which perhaps they are - and which certainly “Le Rouge et le Noir” is, despite that the accent is placed there on social rather than psychological drama. By contrast, “La Traversée de Paris“, represents in his body of work, the ideal convergence of the ambitions of the auteur and public success. If the fashion of judging the world that is encountered there is more out of the 1930s - an epoque in which the judgment of an Autant-Lara or an Aurenche is fixed - than of 1957, if thus this fashion of judgment was then more revealing than today, it is less that Autant-Lara has preserved the spirit of his youth for which he should be reproached than to the time-lags and contradictions of production. He is attracted to stories of adolescent love but his “children who love” remain, in general, rather theoretic. And that is why the bitter and always revolting style of Lara is better accommodated by a pitiless analysis of disagreeable characters such as those of “La Traversée de Paris”.


As “Carlo” does rhyme with “bravo”, let us regret not being able to applaud his work. “L’ Armoire volante”, in taking us to cloud nine, was not a “signed Levitan”. The sketch film “La Gourmandise” left us dreaming of enchanting tomorrows: one must feel disenchanted. If René Clair’s fault is not allowing himself to be guided by his instinct, Carlo Rim, by contrast, would gain by more self-analysis and better self-control: the crudities would be prevented from becoming vulgarities, the bawdiness from becoming obscenity, and the jokes from becoming oafish. His comic style makes him a cabaret artist-filmmaker who came too late to mise-en-scene. As with Franju and Roquier, the pre-war climate would have been more propitious to the fostering of his talent. The young cinephiles prefer “Admiral” Carbonnaux to this Montmartrois, Carlo Rim.

Marcel Carné

Gamboling not without some awkwardness in a private world of the most formal poetry (“Les Visiteurs du soir“, ”Juliette ou La clef des
songes“) but asserting a consistent taste for recreating the atmosphere of an epoque ( “Drôle de drame“, and “Les Enfants du paradis” which so enchanted the anglo-saxon spectators). Carné is quite himself only as a populist. He has frequented all the little bistros of the Republic, of the Faubourg Saint-Martin or of Boulogne-Billancourt, the dance halls and the furnished townhouses. His Parisien films have the “back-to-work” sourness of the day after a holiday when it is necessary to return to one’s labors. He remains quite strictly tied to a social period -- the Popular Front. Carné lived his golden age as the nucleus of one of the most perfect teams of French cinema -- Prevert, Trauner, Jaubert and Gabin. Friends quarrel intensely and do good work together. Today Carné must defend by himself a prestigious reputation, but he is still the capable artisan whom we knew before 1939. Mad lover of impeccable work, tending towards a formalism a little too dried out that he perhaps inherited from his master, Jacques Feyder.

André Cayatte

After nine average films where only the skillfulness of “Le Chanteur inconnu” stands the test of time, he made the last of the great Jacques Prevert films “Les Amants de Vérone”, a work confused and often irritating but more often moving in its tragic and poetic expression of Fate. Would he be the new Carné? No, his reputation and celebrity since, and (including “Justice est faite”) rests on four “thesis” (whatever that means) films: distinguished, demanding, skillful and often courageous but which, legal pleas rather than works of art, defy esthetic judgment and the “crtitique of beautés”. He defends his ideas as one defends one’s clients, speaking to the gallery. Here, a series of techniques and gestures which might have a polemic value but which are not relevant to the art of film. “Oeil pour Oeil”, shot entirely on location and without any thesis will be awfully revealing. Will we finally know who Cayatte is when, as all authentic creators, he speaks, first off, for himself.

René Clair

A complete film auteur who, from the silent era has brought to French cinema intelligence, finesse, humor, and an intellectualism a bit dry but smiling and in good taste. He was very nearly hobbled by the “talkie” but he quickly understood that his style, inherited from the French “primitives” could easily adapt to this additional frill. “Quatorze Juillet” marks a high point. What follows appears more labored, but “quality” remains. His four post-war films demonstrate an evolution but betray a certain difficulty in finding subjects and end with “Les Grandes manoeuvres“, a finely chiseled and melancholy work. “Porte des Lilas” is announced as a more unusual film with finer turns. In whatever manner that his career continues, he has created a cinematographic universe which is his own, a universe rigorous and not shorn of fantasy, thanks to which he remains one of the greatest film-makers.

René Clément

To call him the greatest French director would be a gratuitous compliment, if one did not imply that Renoir or Bresson are greater because they are more “film auteurs”. In as much as he as proven in “Monsieur Ripois” that his talent could flourish without the help of Aurenche and Bost and as he is now, with Irvin Shaw, the author of the adaptation of “Un barrage Contre la Pacifique” whose mastery and quality we can reasonably presume. More than everything else and beyond their scenarists, all Clément’s films - including his only failure “Le Château de Verre” - manifest a continuous philosophy which is well the doing of their realisateur. His characters are all prisoners of historical or geographical conditions or, more simply, of themselves and it is their desperate battle to break through the bars and vanquish their solitude, battles, doomed to failure or derision, which he paints for us with a meticulous and lucid realism which broaches at once both cruelty and lyricism. He is more than the obstinate architect of proud buildings constructed in tailored stone, more than a majestic director of actors, more than the master of a rigorous style, he is also -- in the proportion that one can measure living artists -- the “film genius”.

Henri-Georges Clouzot

At the age of seven, he wrote a play whose protagonist rid himself of his wife by putting nails in her soup. The story of his life reveals him to be stubborn, clear-sighted, concerned to express the “hard face” of existence. This is a “film auteur”. “I do not believe,” he says, “in a director who is not his own writer.“ He loves his metier. “I am most of all physical, but my greatest pleasure in directing a film, is the shooting, the editing.” He depicts situations with no concern for the judgments of society, but he puts himself in danger of taking the bite from his films by targeting too great a number of spectators. “I work for the Gaumont-Palace,” he proclaims. But we know so well that his concerns, his obsessions -- perversion, true cruelty -- are not compatible with the wants of the great public. Thus, how Clouzot is careful of self-censorship. Furthermore, he knows where he is going and why, in his gallery of monsters, he puts great emphasis on the revolting, the sadistic, the subversive, the executioner. By subtraction, he, little-by-little, reveals, with the sharpness of a photgraphic negative, the dazzling image of pure innocence and of selfless friendship.

Henri Decoin

A little out-of-fashion with his silk scarf in his open-collar shirt. But what of it! Directors who are indulged by history shoot what they want, when they want, where they want. And since long ago, Henri Decoin is one among them. He shoots anything, anywhere, with anyone, but not anyway, however. Decoin spurs integrity all way to reflection on the subjects offered to him. He never hesitates to take risks and goes back to square one, even, after a successful film. Light-hearted, some twenty years ago, when his heart beat for Danielle Darrieux, his name now weighs heavily in the arguments of producers. For Henri knows how, without panache, to adapt himself to all genres, all styles. Why reproach him for this facility? It permits him to be the darling child of the distributors. What says it better?

Jean Delannoy

More than festival awards, his films have most often known success with the public, and, as much evidence confirms it, have “touched” the spectators. A paradoxical situation, since, what critics in general have mostly reproached him -- who has given us this definition “cinema is a movement of the heart” -- for the coldness of his narration and the dryness of his direction, despite a sureness of technique and a copious sense of craft. Academicism, a superficial exploitation of great literary works or social problems, say the most severe. Is this only bias? Well, a critic as perceptive and little inclined to vehemence as Pierre Lephoron came to this conclusion which we will make our own: “One would have to believe that the director of 'Marie-Antoinette Reine de France' tends toward an art that he is incapable of attaining, that his ambitions, as noble as they are, lead him and his finished work astray.”

Julien Duvivier

Some will tell you that today’s Duvivier is not worthy of yesterday’s Duvivier and judge “L’ Affaire Maurizius“ by wailing for “Pépé le Moko”. One might respond by burning “Un Carnet de Bal” in the name of “Sous le Ciel de Paris”. In fact, Duvivier’s career is like a temperature chart with spiked highs and vertiginous slumps that, when led back to a happy medium witnesses an enviable warmth. If it it is rare that his films make rapt, it is rarer that his films make bored. His taste for a certain style of the baroque, culminating with “La Fête à Henriette” make him the often guileful, sometimes aggravating champion of the unexpected. Constructed in stucco rather than cut in marble, his structures are not those that last, but perishables are not the least of foodstuffs.

Jean Grémillon

Since 1953, Jean Grémillon has not directed a feature film. However, “Remorques”, “Lumière d'été” and “Le 6 juin à l'aube” suffice to assure him renown. But, from one who, after the Liberation was considered the most complete French director we had hoped for better and, above all that he would give to our screen the kind of social conscience that it has always lacked. His culture and his moderation would undoubtedly permit him to fill this delicate role. But the imperatives of production decided otherwise and Grémillon’s character did the rest. These half-solutions didn’t suit him which his last three films illustrate, although “L’ Amour d'une Femme” deserved a better reception.

Once again, these thumbnail critiques were originally published in the May 1957 special "Situation of French Cinema" issue of "Cahiers du Cinema" and translated by me.

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