Friday Film Festival 004: Réalisme Poétique

(I swear one of these days I'm actually going to post this on a Friday.)

As far as French film movements go, Poetic Realism lags far behind the New Wave of the late 50s and early 60s in terms of popular recognition and critical interest, but the loose collection of films that have been grouped together under its heading constitute probably the first great film movement of the sound era. Without the inventiveness, patience, and lyricism of its great directors (Renoir, Carné, Duvivier), French film might well have been just another regional entertainment system producing dull costume dramas and lame popular comedies instead of the world's greatest repository of cinematic brilliance — outside of American film. (That's right, I've got my biases straight.)

At least that's what I've gleaned from a haphazard, lazy self-education in cinema history; before this week I hadn't watched any poetic-realist movies. But as someone much more interested in the historical roots of film than in most of its later flowering, I figured I'd want to do more than just read up on the thing. On the hundred-gig hard drive where I keep most of my movie collection, there's a folder marked "Poetic Realism" with six or seven movies inside. I chose three of them because I thought they were the most highly-praised of the genre, so why shouldn't I start with the best? And now I'm going to watch them and see what I think.

1. L'Atalante
(France) Jean Vigo · 1934

I like smallness. Like G. K. Chesterton in the quote that kicked off this blog, I admire work which operates in narrowly-defined boundaries and covers that terrain completely. There are lots of stock descriptions for this sort of thing: jewel-like, "an N in miniature," and that old standby which I've used a lot and will do doubt use again, "a minor masterpiece." So it's not very surprising that I would find a lot to love in a movie which spends most of its time on a single set: the titular canal barge that goes up and down the Seine between Paris and Le Havre.

There's a lot to chew over in this movie, from the symbolism (the wedding cortège which opens it looks more like a funeral procession, and the last shot of the long, narrow barge from above makes it look like a phallic coffin) to the psychosexual relations between the characters (Père Jules and the Kid are both a vaudeville comedy team and a hobo/punk archetype), and I'm not confident enough of my reaction to it to say more without further study; my first impression is simply that it fills in the gaps between G. W. Pabst's social realist dramas of the late 20s and the neorealism of the postwar Italy, though with an allusive, close-framed quality to much of the camera work that keeps it from ever appearing documentary: everything is an aesthetic choice.

Michel Simon as Père Jules is one of the great screen creations, like Chaplin's Little Tramp or W. C. Fields' standard character, inserted into a somewhat conventional melodrama (He's the jealous type, She wants to experience Life in the Big City), transforming both the melodrama into something deeper and stranger, and the comic caricature he seems at the beginning into something else. There are many superb sequences in this film, but the one that lingers with me is the beginning of his search through Paris for Juliete; he's filmed from so far away at first that we can't tell who it is — even though his walk and carriage have hitherto been distinctive enough to know him by silhouette — and it's only when we get up close that we recognize the long, droopy face. He's become a human being; "just another" human being if you interpret the film as ending on a downbeat note, or "at last a" human being if you see it as being triumphant.

I'm not surprised it's Jim Jarmusch's favorite movie. He's one of the rare modern directors I'd be interested in following closely.

2. Pépé le Moko
(France) Julien Duvivier · 1937

If I had to find things to love about L'Atalante, there's no such hunt to be had with Pépé le Moko. This is one of the great crime movies of the thirties, and Jean Gabin's central performance as the title character is one of the finest distillations of criminal suavity I've ever seen on screen. Sure, there are moments when it goes awry -- his attempt at "distraught" only serves to remind us how long ago 1937 was -- but think of the other cinematic gangsters on offer at the time. Preening Cagney? Sneering Robinson? Leering Raft? Compared to them Gabin exudes cool, control, and professionalism; his very quietness is menacing.

The movie looks great, too: where L'Atalante was clearly filmed cheap, on location, in a nearly experimental style, Pépé le Moko has the assurance and style of the great studio pictures of the era, its location shots in the actual Algerian Casbah only adding to the mystique and atmosphere of one of the finest mises-en-scène in crime film. In fact it's not hard to see Casablanca — especially the fantastic first twenty minutes — in Duvivier's Algiers. (Though now I'm all curious to see the Hollywood remake of Pépé, Algiers, starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr in 1938. I like both of them, but somehow I don't think it'll feel nearly as immediate.) Special note should also be made of the great character actors making up Pépé's gang: the idiot with the vacant smile and the sharp dresser obsessed with cup-and-ball should show up in every gangster movie, and Lucas Gridoux as the cringing, insinuating Inspector Slimane out-Lorres Lorre with a performance that would have made a superb Iago.

In fact for so much of the movie it was such a plain, if stylish, thriller that I wondered how it ever got mixed in with the Poetic Realism crowd. But the final scenes, beginning with the long walk down out of the Casbah towards the docks, answered my questions: Duvivier commits deeply psychological, even experimental filmmaking as Pépé goes to his death. (Um, spoilers, I guess.) The only outright murder in the film is filmed in a fantastic psychological nearly-noir style, too; I'm especially a fan of the horrible player piano that won't shut up, a grim counterpoint to a double death. But mostly it was just a great, sleek crime-cum-melodrama film, the kind of movie that proved that Hollywood had no monopoly on stylish, witty, and deeply felt entertainment.

3. La règle du jeu (The Rules Of The Game)
(France) Jean Renoir · 1939

One of the pitfalls of being an Anglophile for much of my adult life is that it's made it much harder to be a Francophile. It feels odd for an American to claim to be a bigger fan of repression than of passion, but I couldn't help comparing the way the aristocrats in La règle du jeu comported themselves with to the way similar aristocrats in the British books and movies I know behave. The outbursts of emotion, the resignation to human imperfection, the willingness to drink and dance and laugh — basically, I'm disoriented by a country-house party in which "making a scene" isn't understood as the worst of all possible outcomes.

All of which is beside the point of whether this is a good movie: the question is not whether I understand the emotions and actions of the characters as being appropriate for the culture I grew up in (or perhaps aspire to), but whether I believe them in the context of the movie. And of course I do; Jean Renoir's magnificent, subtle camera, constantly in motion, inserts me more fully into the world of the La Colinière, both upstairs and down, the bedrooms, the hallways, and the shooting grounds. Far more than Vigo's barge, even more so than Duvivier's Casbah, this is a world both complete within itself and wholly believable as a real space in which real people move and talk and commit adultery and murder.

Like L'Atalante, I'm going to have to watch this again — preferably the Criterion edition, as the transfer (and its subtitles) which I downloaded left a lot to be desired — but it's a superb movie, one which achieves the rare novelistic effect of being about many different people, telling many different stories, and covering many different themes: class, sex, violence, art, money, lust, failure, history, truth. Even, despite my instinctive aversion to the French style of romance (and the balancing French style of cynicism), one of the most deeply humanist movies I've seen.

(There — I told myself I could write about it without bringing up Gosford Park or Robert Altman.)

But I'm not at all sure how this is a poetic-realist film, unless the unusual immediacy of the camera work is what qualifies it; out of these three, it is the least interior, least psychological. Everything is on the surface, and that's what's great about it. In fact, after watching all three of these movies I'm far less certain of what Poetic Realism is than I was before. I suppose I'll need to spend more time watching other French films of the 1930s for comparison's sake. Well; based on how much I enjoyed myself here, that's not an unattractive prospect.

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