French cinema …in brief

In addition to some more classic Jean Gabin and the Blier/Depardieu work premiered last month, August on Cinémoi saw some gritty crime drama from the working classes in the provinces, and, in complete contrast, a colourful musical about AIDS. (Noel Megahey).

Le jour se lève - Marcel Carné, 1939

There’s a fabulously brooding, fatalistic noir tone to Carné’s pre-war classic, established immediately in the opening shots of the film that show an isolated tenement block in a poor working class district, where a man stumbles out of an apartment on the top floor having just been shot, falling down the stairs where he is discovered by a blind man. The man’s killer is François (Jean Gabin), a sandblaster by profession, who locks himself in the room and considers the events that have led to this moment as he holds out against the police who lay siege to the building. What has led to the killing is – what else? – a woman, Françoise, and a complicated web of relationships that has developed between the two of them and another couple – stage magician, Valentín, and his assistant Clara. The film relentlessly tracks the decline of the relationships, ground down like a sandblasted surface through bitterness and jealousy, that lead to the murder, Francois observing that “Everyone kills, but some do it by degrees”.

Buffet Froid - Bertrand Blier, 1979
Opening in the deserted landscapes and the high rise buildings of La Défense business district of Paris, where Alphonse Tram and his wife are the only occupants of an apartment building until the arrival of a police detective above them, and where a man is killed in the subway station by a knife belonging to Alphonse (Depardieu), is Buffet Froid a study of alienation and detachment from human emotions in a soulless modern world, or is it just the usual silliness of a Blier sequence of absurd events? Who cares? There are undoubtedly deeper elements and motivations that can be drawn out of the film, but even if it were just an exercise in filmmaking, Buffet Froid is a characteristically dark and entertaining piece of absurdity, wonderfully assembled and played out, with intriguing characters and great acting performances, the director convincingly and consistently sustaining a compelling mood and situation through a series of events. At the very least, it’s a perfect example of how to introduce characters, develop them and ultimately dispose of them, which essentially, is what drama is all about, isn’t it?

Le Petit Criminel - Jacques Doillon, 1990

Jacques Doillon finds a perfect balance between form and content in this terrific little film, one that captures the sense of desperation of a young boy caught up in a dangerous spiral of events that could end up destroying his life. As if to suggest that it’s not much of a life anyway, the film has no conventional scene setting to show Marc’s unstable family background in Sète in the south of France. Still a kid, fending for himself and knowing no other way of handling things, he picks up the pistol that has been left around by his stepfather and just sets out to find the sister he has just learned about. There is a superb sense of pacing as Marc and a policeman he has hijacked head to Montpellier, building characterisation along with the development of the situation, the film showing how society views and labels kids from this kind of background by their actions without fully understanding what lies beneath. There’s a great performance by Gérald Thomassin as Marc of a troubled youth that’s up there with Jean-Pierre Léaud in the 400 Blows, demonstrating a jittery nervous guiltiness that underlies his false bravado.

Fred - Pierre Jolivet, 1997
Outside of the films of Robert Guédiguian, Laurent Cantet and to some extent, Abdellatif Kechiche, the setting and the circumstances of the lives of the characters in Fred is not one commonly seen in French cinema, dealing with how ordinary people in small provincial towns struggle to cope with the loss of traditional manufacturing industries and how it affects their lives. There’s a thriller element too of course – this isn’t just social realism – when an unemployed crane operator, Fred (Vincent Lindon), gets caught-up in an organised crime operation after helping a friend move a heavy goods vehicle. Perhaps reflecting reality, it’s hard to tell who lives where, who is married to whom and whose kids are whose, but it’s also somewhat confusing and makes it difficult to establish the nature of the characters from their relationships. Ultimately however, this is of lesser importance, the film focusing on Fred and his attempts to clear his name and see the killers of his friend brought to justice, the film handling this with no small amount of tension and danger.

Jeanne et le garçon formidable - Olivier Ducastel, 1998

Although it might seem inappropriate, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau deal with the subject of the spread of AIDS and its impact on one young couple through the medium of a colourful musical. It’s not the musical genre approach which lets the film down however – it actually works quite well with the heightened subject matter – but rather the problem is that there just aren’t any particularly memorable tunes here, the lyrics are direct rather than …well, lyrical, and unfortunately neither Virginie Ledoyen nor Mathieu Demy can sing well enough to make it work. The presence of Demy evidently also evokes the work of his father, but really, Jeanne et le garçon formidable isn’t really in the same league. The film also has a way, whether intentionally or not and to what purpose I’m not sure, of differentiating between the gay community and those outside in its treatment of the risks and the experience of living with HIV. Much as the Jeanne is in love with Olivier, the perfect guy she meets casually on a metro train, she seems to remains an outsider right through to the end. Still, a brave way to take on a difficult subject.

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