Eric Rohmer on Jacques Prévert
This is a translation of a review of Jean Quéval's Jacques Prévert written Eric Rohmer that was published in Cahiers du Cinema for December 1956.
Only half of this book concerns us. We'll leave aside the poet of Paroles and consider the filmmaker only. Fimmaker, indeed, Jean Quéval thinks so and, as him, we think that that term is not at all far-fetched. "Prévert possesses more reality than other directors and scriptwriters. A single detail, which Roger Leenhardt points out to us, would say it. 'No one other than he himself ever wrote the dialogue for his scenarios. . .Just try to draw up a list of the films of a screenwriter, its incoherence will make you laugh.' As for Prévert, he stands up to the producers, sets the terms for himself, he is for real." He was the most stellar personality of the 30s and 40s. Les Amants de Vérone and Lumière d'été have more resemblance to each other than either of these films have with the respective work of [André] Cayatte or [Jean] Grémillon. "This is no mise-en-scene," adds Jean Quéval, "except if there is a metteur-en-scene". Metteurs-en-scene, that which we had the greatest lack of during the reign of Prévert, if we make an exception for [René] Clair -- already rather winded -- and Jean Renoir. "The case of Jean Renoir is enlightening. The only film he directed from a Prévert script, "Le Crime de Monsieur Lange", is commonly regarded (but Nana, Boudu sauvé des eaux, La Chienne, and La Règle de jeu etc. have reputations as secure) with all its weaknesses and its admirable moments as one of his best. Taking off from this, Jacques Brunius wrote 'The combination Renoir-Prévert -- presuming that the impact of both these tumultuous personalities would permit combination -- should have been able to furnish French cinema some beneficial salvos.' " But Quéval reminds us that it transpires there is an adaptation of Partie de campagne written by Prévert. "This is admirable", Renoir would say "But I haven't anything left to do." Yes, such was this the most suitable metteur-en-scene to put Prévert on film; not [Jean] Grémillon, as is affirmed here. Grémillon "the unfortunate genius of French cinema" (but, it has to be said,that he owes his misfortune to himself), nor his brother Pierre either. The author sketches out a defense of L’Affaire est dans le sac, Adieu Léonard and Voyage surprise which does not easily convince us. Let's pass over the first film whose schoolboy awkwardness merits sympathy. The latter two would have yielded something taken in hand by a [Vicente] Minnelli, but we did not have, we do not have, in France, any Minnelli. And neither gentility nor the best intentions in the world (but were they so good?) have ever taken the place of talent. Let's pass over Marc Allegret's L’Hôtel du libre échange, Pierre Billon's Le Soleil a toujours raison and other poverty-row Prévert, let's pass over Les Amants de Vérone possibly the most grandiose of all his films, but not the best. There remains [Marcel] Carné and I ask myself if this "superb painter" was not the best collaborator which our scenarist could have dreamed of. Poet, poet of cinema, indeed, but "man of the word" as Roger Leenhardt says, he needed only, all accounting done, a good illustrator. One can be claimed, as Barthélemy Amengual does, that Prévert is "in the images" of his films, quite, as much, as in the dialogue. But it still it is necessary to prove it - which can scarcely be done here - if only be done by citing the script of Les Amants de Vérone in which a silent scene is described. Of course, Pierre is a "visual", but three-quarters of novelists and playwrights are that, also. We think on the contrary that it accommodates itself to any kind of cinematic style. As long as it does not make up the better part of the "mise-en-scene", such, for example, as the silent masters, as Renoir or as the Americans of today conceive it. And Carné, in this instance, has possibly a style of framing and of imagery rather than of direction of "performance", this word being taken in its greatest sense. A quip of Prévert's is not without confirming this opinion for us, "The auteur of a film? It is the performer." The text of is dialogue takes on much more weight when spoken by prominent interpreters: he is one of those who have understood best that it is necessary to write for them while thinking of them. Gabin is never better as Gabin than in Le Quai des brumes or Le Jour se lève. While Renoir, whether one likes it or not, makes him depart from his myth.
Prévert had enough substance to need only which were not always easy to find. When he has them in hand (actors or directors) there remains the inconvenience of assimilating the shooting of the film to a simple performance comparable to that of a musical score. This becomes, we think today, a sorry idea of cinema. Not having had the opportunity to put his hands in the clay, he overloads his script with ideas which a "complete" filmmaker would prefer to express by mise-en-scene alone. Man of letters, by necessity and by metier, one of the rare scenarists who had the right to speak his word. He spoke it, but in his language - in words. These words. in order to claim all of their spice need to surge from behind the screen. but they weigh so heavily on the contours of the film that the people behind the camera use them as an excuse for the greatest laziness. "Alone among metteurs-en-scene of some importance, Clair and Cocteau, and four relative new-comers, Becker, Bresson, Clément and Tati. have escaped this imperious influence." Of course, for they, themselves, have something to say. All this, perhaps, returns to Prévert's credit, as to his reproach. That celebrated Prevertian "tone", we never cease detecting it in Aurenche, Bost, Spaak, Sigurd and a lot of others, and this spuriousness makes finally something foul out of the original. Prévert who is making a comeback with Jean Delannoy's Notre-Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] is still not at the point when the patina of time dulls the ridicule for the outmoded things of yesterday or of the day before yesterday. The celebrated Dejeuner du matin (you must excuse me for trespassing onto literary terrain) leaves us for the moment as cold as the ornamented slip worn by Michèle Morgan in Le Quai des brumes. The novel and the American cinema have taught us another style of cinematic dialogue, more concise and closer to the natural than his. And also surrealism which he extends and adapts to the taste of a great number is burning out in its final flames, if it has not already been reduced to ashes. Thus, Jean Quéval's book arrives at a critical moment, I mean the most problematic for an appeal, most of all in eyes of our generation who smile of Prévert all the more in order to crush his forgers. Its reading has at the least had the happy after-effect of sending me back to an article by Roger Leenhardt published long ago (May 1945) in the review Fontaine "The Esthetics of Jacques Prévert".This study whose pertinence time has not altered, exhausts in a few pages the crux of the question. It is certain, as Leenhardt says, that film dialogue must be close to spoken language but at the same time possess the "luster" of written language. Prévert combines both these conditions thoroughly since 'the luster of his film dialogue is made up of a thousand "pearls" of human nattering. The words of the author are of the common places. Yes, on this point, Prévert's contribution is incontestable, although he can still be reproached for being a little to set in his system, a literary system which he also practices in his poems. Another point, his penchant for "typing" his characters. From whence, it arises that stylization in Prévert's work seems like a dangerous paradox, if not a shortcoming. It is that is expressed by film, and his success on the screen should not mask from us how much his aesthetic is in opposition to the normal aesthetic of film, Art of persistence, we have said, Persistence permits expressing the progressive modification of a character, its volume, so different from the flat tints of Prévert's characters, fixed, once and for all, like poetic symbols. . . . Poet more than psychologist, creator of atmosphere and characters rather than inventor of subjects, he was completely in his area of expertise in adaptation. The framework was for him only a utility: It was exactly useful for him. Freed of commanded subjects, he seems vexed by the liberty. His characters no longer strut about under solid wire but twist as they please while often losing their consistency and their equilibrium. As proof, the intolerable psychological and social implausibility of 'Lumière d'été'. Filmed the following year, Les Portes de la nuit, confirmed in an enlightening fashion this opinion.