Paris Notebook, Entry Three

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Published on February 19th, 2012 | by Genevieve Amaral

You might find a cinema like Le Desperado (23 Rue des Écoles) in many U.S. cities. It is a tiny, somewhat dingy hole-in-the-wall that plays three different cult or genre movies all day, every day, from the rolls of American and French film history, as well as new auteur works. I admit that, with its assertively musty décor and deliberate-seeming nonchalance, I was initially tempted to imagine that Le Desperado was cynically courting the crowds of ironic students and authenticity-hungry tourists that populate the Latin Quarter, one of Europe’s oldest university areas. But, as with the seemingly innocuous musical comedy I watched while there, a closer look unexpectedly led down the rabbit-hole to the Surrealist roots of French cinema.

In March 2011, Le Desperado was purchased by Jean-Pierre Mocky, an eccentric French actor and director who is something of a refugee from the golden age of the French avant-garde. His pedigree boasts an appearance in Jean Cocteau’s Surrealist masterpiece “Orpheus,” and over a long career he has made a name for himself feverishly acting in, writing, directing, producing, staging, and now distributing wildly eclectic, provocative, and often politically irreverent works. These include shorts and full-length films for theaters, television, and the Internet at a rate of almost three per year; advertisements, documentaries, music videos, and a dark-humor suspense series for French television entitled “Myster Mocky presents…based on the stories of Alfred Hitchcock.” Famous for his on-set rants, he also recently ran an internet competition, offering as the prize a role in one of his films. Mocky’s antic personality has generated an entire zany mythology, including the legend of his seventeen children (“I have five officially, and, it’s true, some others, fruits of some liberated women who didn’t want husbands. I’m the father of twins in Sicily […] They send me olive oil, hams. I had a similar adventure with an Australian woman, and a Guinean”), and one hundred pizzerias.[1] Le Desperado is a direct outlet for his works, but the cinema also cycles through its list of constantly-changing classic films in what seems like a stubborn litany on the merits of an age gone by, a cantankerous, desperado rebel yell against commercialization and philistinism.

Jean-Pierre Mocky

The film I saw at Le Desperado proved equally disorienting. “Beauties of the Night” (“Les Belles de Nuit”) is, in many ways, a classic musical comedy in the MGM tradition. Released in 1952, it depicts the efforts of a young, disaffected music teacher to escape the noise and disharmony of modern city life. He increasingly escapes into his dreams, in which he returns to earlier, idealized moments in history where he carries on love affairs with various of the real “beauties” from his town, transposed into historical roles. We’re given a tour through French history via familiar cut-out stage settings and vocal refrains: in 1900 he’s a renowned composer; in the conquest  of Algeria he’s a dashing member of the French Foreign Legion; in the Eighteenth Century he’s a firebrand revolutionary; and in each period his love will wait for him “at the ends of the night, at the edges of shadow.” Conventions familiar from American equivalents such as “The Music Man” are everywhere: prat-falls and bumbling but well-intentioned friends, the pretty but overlooked love interest living next door, the running gag of the same old man appearing in every era, declaring the previous generation to have been the real “golden age.” Like its U.S. parallels, “Beauties of the Night” seems like another frivolous but harmless, charming product of post-war optimism.

However, the film, like Le Desperado, has an avant-garde genealogy. Twenty years before releasing “Beauties of the Night,” director René Clair was collaborating with artists like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Erik Satie to create Surrealist film experiments like “Entr’acte,” which was projected during the intermission of a performance by the Ballet Suèdois. His handling of the oneiric theme in “Beauties of the Night” is shot through with his Surrealist sensibilities. For instance, the use of point-of-view shots to communicate the confusion of the protagonist, Claude (Gérard Philipe), when faced with clashing historical periods, as well as the general frenzy evoked as Claude is chased across time, shows that Clair knew just how to evoke the dual fascination and panic that’s proper to a dreamworld. Clair also began his career in silent film, and always remained highly  aware of the creative possibilities of sound in films. In “Beauties of the Night,” the noise of the modern world (vacuum cleaners, jackhammers, car horns) not only interrupt Claude’s piano-playing, but they frequently drown out the dialogue, leaving his actors to pantomime their conversations. The technique is used so often that it becomes more than a simple gag–it becomes an insistent reference to an earlier era in film history, and we can’t help but wonder whether Clair is poking gentle fun at his own nostalgia for an impossible-to-recover, perhaps always illusory, golden age of cinema.

"Les Belles de Nuit" (René Clair, 1952)

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About the Author

is a Chicago-based PhD student in Comparative Literary Studies. She specializes in twentieth-century French literature and philosophy, so she couldn't avoid the world of French cinema if she tried (though why would she try?). This year she's living in Paris.

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