Rediscovering the French New Wave

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Published on December 5th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer

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“First Shorts: Pialat, Truffaut, Godard & Resnais,” A CinémaTuesdays Film Series, December 6-20, 2011, French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall; 55 East 59th Street, NYC.

Anyone curious to know what made The French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s such an exciting film movement, one that cinephiles have never stopped discussing, one whose intellectual yet unpretentious, spontaneous yet studied sensibilities remain as fresh and vital today as they were over fifty years ago, would do well to attend “First Shorts: Pialat, Truffaut, Godard & Resnais,” a film series being held the next three Tuesdays at the French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan.

"Love Exists" (Maurice Pialat, 1961)

“Four Films: Pialat & Truffaut,” Tuesday, December 6 at 12:30, 4 & 7:30 P.M.

The series begins tomorrow, Tuesday, December 6, with a program titled, “Four Films: Pialat & Truffaut.” The opener, Maurice Pialat’s “Love Exists,” deservedly the winner of both the Lumière Award and the San Marco Award at Venice in 1961, is arguably the finest film of the lot. Alternately magical and heartbreaking, it could be more thoroughly and precisely called, “Love Exists in Spite of the Terrible Quality of Life in the Paris Suburbs.” As it stands, its brief, ironic title suits the tone of what is essentially a satirical essay-film laying bare both the beauty and enormity of the 1950s Marshall-Plan-sponsored modernity-on-the-cheap version of international style architecture and soul-crushing suburban sprawl. Pialat juxtaposes occasionally idyllic–albeit rather bland and melancholic–scenes of bourgeois suburban life with scenes of poverty that look torn from the pages of a Life magazine photo-spread on the Great Depression, a sequence introduced with a sustained shot of a small child crying inside of a newsprint-wallpapered shack.

But the director wisely lures us into the film by opening with gorgeous gliding camera footage of buildings, trees, parks, and the like. In short, watching this film is like being beaten gently in one’s sleep with a bar of social realist soap wrapped expertly in a silk Hermès scarf of cinematic poetry. An oddly satisfying experience, it casts a dark but lovely pall over an otherwise rather light, joyous series of films. It’s followed by a five-minute interview conducted with the director in 1987.

Also showing is “A Story of Water,” directed by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. (Although the title “A Story of Water” is a direct translation of the French “Une histoire d’eau,” lost in this translation is the latter’s clever pun on “Histoire d’O” (“Story of O”), a sado-masochistic erotic novel penned by the French author Anne Desclos under the nom de plume Pauline Réage. No matter, though, as it’s an empty reference.) It’s a perfect glimpse at the French New Wave as a film movement inspired by the Italian Neorealism of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica, except that rather than shoot in the war-torn streets of Rome, Truffaut and Godard shot in the flooded villages outside of Paris, producing a film that’s more travelogue than fiction, although it’s the appealing photogénie of Caroline Dim and Jean-Claude Brialy as a pair of sweethearts giddily navigating the floodwaters in search of Paris that captures our attention in the midst of this familiar world rendered suddenly strange by the weather’s whims. Although far more cheerful in its tone, this film is well paired with Pialat’s, as both present us with expansive landscapes–the first devastated by humans, the second by nature–of Paris and the areas that surround it.

Rounding out the program is Anne Andreu’s 78-minute documentary “François Truffaut, une autobiographie,” featuring Woody Allen, Fanny Ardant, Nathalie Baye, Claude Berri, and Catherine Deneuve.

"All the Boys Are Called Patrick" (Jean-Luc Godard, 1957)

“Three Films: Godard,” Tuesday, December 13 at 12:30, 4 & 7:30 P.M.

The second program, “Three Films: Godard,” picks up where the whimsy of “A Story of Water” leaves off by presenting “Charlotte and Her Boyfriend” (“Charlotte et son Jules”) and “All the Boys Are Called Patrick” (“Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick”), a pair of delightful, crèpe-sized romantic comedies, French New Wave style, followed by the 70-minute documentary “Jean-Luc Godard par Claude Ventura.”

It would be easy to accuse Godard of misogyny if these sweet and sour little films weren’t equally misandric and at the same time not really misanthropic at all (just bluntly, refreshingly frank at a time when too many movie scenarios were smothered in cloying euphemism and politeness) and if the playful cynicism they direct at both young men and young women entrenched in the war of the sexes weren’t so evident.

“Charlotte and Her Boyfriend” feels in some ways like a well-executed study for “Breathless” (“À bout de souffle”), Godard’s 1959 feature debut, to the extent that its entire thirteen minutes are devoted to a bedroom conversation, almost a monologue actually, in which a loquacious young writer named Jules (Jean-Paul Belmondo) tries to wrap his brain around and talk his way through the tensions between himself and Charlotte (Anne Collette), his girlfriend of three years, his words to her turning on a dime from verbal abuse to verbal caress. The film begins with her unexpected appearance at his small apartment and ends with her departure. I won’t say anything more, though, as I’d hate to spoil it.

Collette returns as Charlotte in “All the Boys Are Called Patrick” (whose scenario was authored by fellow New Waver Eric Rohmer) which also stars Nicole Berger as Charlotte’s roommate, “Veronique,” and Jean-Claude Brialy as the wily cad called, of course, Patrick. Donning whatever guise–be it law school student or engineering student–necessary to land his prey, Patrick finds a way to be the dream guy of every pretty girl he chances upon. Charlotte and Veronique dream of meeting strong but sensitive types like James Dean and Elvis Presley who will see them as the complex, intelligent women they are, readers of Hegel one moment and pulp fiction the next. When they learn the truth about Patrick, their reaction is, in fittingly early Godardian fashion, not what we’d expect.

Anne Collette as Charlotte in "All the Boys Are Called Patrick"

As a side note, these films, short though they may be, are rich with great, often hilarious, cultural references, pop and otherwise, a great example being the dime-store paperback Charlotte is trying to read–Patrick Quentin’s “The Fate of the Immodest Blonde”–as Patrick first tries to woo her.

"Le chant du Styrène" (Alain Resnais, 1957)

“Short & Feature: Resnais,” Tuesday, December 20 at 12:30, 4 & 7:30 P.M.

The wild card of this series is “Le chant du Styrène” (the first in the final program’s two films, the other being Michel Leclerc’s hour-long documentary “Une approche d’Alain Resnais, révolutionnaire discret”), the most carefully constructed, least off-the-cuff of the five shorts, and yet the closest to a straight documentary. (It could be called “Last Year at Plasticbad” or “Polystyrene, Mon Amour” because it somewhat resembles in structure, as I’ll explain in a moment, Resnais’s first two feature-length narrative films.) It’s the only one of the five shorts in this series to have been shot in color, a fitting formal choice, as the film treats us immediately to a dizzying array of plastic household items in various vibrant, deeply saturated solid colors. From finished products, we proceed quickly back to the final stages of their manufacture as liquid plastic is poured into molds and then emerges as useful objects. Eventually, we trace the pipework on the factory’s exterior back to the raw materials, namely, coal and oil. The narrator then muses over the biotic decomposition that produced that coal and oil over millions of years.

In spite of what one might expect, the film presents the manufacture of plastics in a sunny light. It would feel like a kitschy Disney propaganda film if it weren’t such a formally brilliant work of art. Never would I have imagined that a documentary about the manufacture of plastics could be such a fantastic Willy Wonka-esque wonder to watch. In spite of the note of caution implied in its punning title (which suggests that our lust for plastics will inevitably dash our civilization against the rocks), “Le chant du Styrène” feels like the silver lining to the dark cloud of Pialat’s “Love Exists.” Regardless of Resnais’s intentions in making it, and I won’t speculate upon them, “Le chant du Styrène” is a kaleidoscopic bursting forth of colors and balletically moving machines that arrives as an optimistic, fireworks-like finale to this fun, fascinating series of shorts.

To view the complete schedule, please visit the official webpage for the series.

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