As France celebrates Bastille Day today, the Northwest Film Center is prepping a French celebration of its own—tomorrow kicks off their seven-week series of classic French cinema, which they have dubbed, uh, Classic French Cinema. (None of the movies themselves will be dubbed, thankfully.) The selection contains a number of established classics ranging from the WWII period to the late ’60s, with work from expectedly well-known directors like Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson. But the French film movement that’s perhaps best known to US moviegoers—the French New Wave—is not represented much at all, in favor of work from perhaps less familiar but no less important directors like Marcel Carné, Jacques Becker, and Jean-Pierre Melville.
The program echoes the films that are surveyed in the series’ centerpiece, a new documentary from director Bertrand Tavernier called My Journey Through French Cinema. This is an intently autobiographical history from Tavernier, as filtered through the cinema screen; his own personal and professional connections to directors like Melville and Claude Sautet makes up part of the fabric of his survey. Tavernier’s film is long—more than three hours—and episodic, with isolated chunks on directors, actors, cinematographers, and (in one of the more interesting segments) composers. While the documentary is roughly chronological, it does not build to a grand sweeping statement or end on a particularly dramatic note. I couldn’t help but think it might play better broken up into discrete episodes, or maybe something like Netflix’s Five Came Back. But even if you watch it all at once, Tavernier is an effective and effusive guide with love to spare for his subject. As all documentaries about film should, it makes you want to watch more movies.
And some of those movies, fortunately, are part of the series. The selection is quite strong, even if it’s tough to pull a through-line out of their choices. If I had to wring a central thesis about French cinema based solely on what’s playing, I guess I’d say that the French tend to embrace tragic ends, almost to the point of fetishizing fatalism. God is a bastard, love is an illusion, laughter is but a temporary spasm in an otherwise cold and unfeeling world, and none of us can ever truly escape the icy blade of destiny’s guillotine. Might as well light another cigarette.
And yet there’s unabashed joy in the way these stories are told. (Tavernier seems particularly merry, even as he embraces the ironic.) Perhaps this is most easily evidenced in Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), which screens in 35mm on Sunday, July 23. It’s a spare, paranoid thriller of rainy-day grays and footsteps echoing down corridors, about an assassin and a job that (surprise) gets him into hot water. We follow a tight-lipped, trenchcoated Alain Delon from his depressing apartment out into the Parisian underworld, where Melville juxtaposes minute, realistic details with wholly fanciful broad strokes, such as the police force that tries to track his movements with a Big Brother-esque surveillance effort. There’s not much in the way of character—Delon’s hitman is serenely unknowable—but the movie is more about survival and forward momentum.
Le Samouraï’s tautness could almost have come out of a cold-war espionage thriller, and Melville surely had the background for it—he was a member of the French Resistance, a time that he examines in Army of Shadows (Sun Aug 13). The 1969 film is oddly contemporary for its day, with Melville evidencing no nostalgia for his younger years. It’s the furthest thing from a period picture. Led by Lino Ventura, the Resistance team are samurais of their own sort—cold, driven, and with a strict code of honor that cannot be violated. The movie gives little context for their struggles against the Nazis other than the pure idea of survival: of their code of resistance, if not their corporeal bodies. There’s no grandstanding about moral superiority, or of the importance of eradicating Nazi evil from the globe, or really of national pride. It’s pure us-vs.-them, and damn the consequences. It was a grim time, and the Resistance's struggle must have often felt hopeless—Melville puts all this in the movie.
Ventura also stars in Sautet’s Classe tous risques (Sat Aug 12), a noir-dipped crime thriller from 1960 that pointed the way to the French New Wave. Ventura plays a criminal on the run, attempting to make it over the border from Italy to France. With his family in tow, there’s a peculiar urgency to their flight that you don’t often see in movies like this—small children are involved—and it also makes the villainy of Ventura’s character all the more striking for its aimlessness. The opening escape sequence is a cinematic wonder, and the rest of the film is not quite as gripping, but the movie's a stunner, and the nonchalance of the ending drives home the futility of his rat-like efforts.
These are the more hard-boiled—and to American audiences, perhaps the more conventional—of the films screening, and they’re each incredible. But the bench on this series is deep, with quite a few other things really worth seeing, even if they’re more stereotypically, cheese-eatingly French. Perhaps Frenchiest of all is Carné’s 1945 epic Children of Paradise—one of its main characters is a mime, for Pierre’s sake—but it’s such a gorgeous, sad, lovely movie that its two 90-minute acts fly by. Set in the 1830s and '40s in the simultaneously seedy and glamorous subculture of Parisian theater, it stars Arletty as a prostitute (I think? the movie is not completely clear about this) who wins several suitors, but her sturdy sense of self prevents her from committing to any of them, and their own egos send them into tailspins.
Another quintessentially French tragic love story is Becker’s wonderful Casque d’or, set during the Belle Epoque. A gangster’s moll (and possibly also a prostitute? again, unclear) falls for a carpenter, and their affair wreaks havoc in their small ecosystem of crookdom. It’s sad, sexy, and sweet, the rare romance in which the principals’ affection burns right off the screen. Played by Serge Reggiani and Simone Signoret (both of whom also turn up in Army of Shadows), the two have little to say to each other, but it’s all right in their eyes. Carné’s 1939 film Le jour se lève, is another doomed romance starring the remarkable Jean Gabin (the prolific French actor takes up a big chunk in Tavernier’s documentary) and Arletty in a supporting role. The film dips into melodrama, but its highly stylized visual design drives home its theme of how our mind-palaces of wonder—e.g., the ivory towers of our romantic longings—can turn into prisons.
Other films include Renoir’s well-known Rules of the Game, a slight early work by Bresson about nuns called Angels of Sin, and two movies I haven’t seen, the Gabin-starring La traversée de Paris and prolific director Julien Duvivier’s Panique. The Classic French Cinema series starts tomorrow, Saturday, July 15, and continues through the end of August with films screening each weekend at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the basement of the Portland Art Museum). Check out nwfilm.org for more.