This month has been busier and, at times, more frustrating than I was expecting. Nevertheless, my French New Wave retrospective rolls on as planned. It’s been a great experience. The virtues of some films have eluded me, to be sure, but there are others that I’ve adored. This was a rich and exciting period in film history. In two weeks, I’ll put up a post for my top 10, but for now, here are five reviews I wrote over at Letterboxd of films that I didn’t love. You can go over to my profile there if you’d like to read all I’ve been writing this month. Or don’t, if you’d like to be surprised when I unveil my ten favorites.
Le Beau Serge (1958) – The first rumblings of a New Wave — but, contrary to my expectation, this isn’t a work of cocky exuberance, but quiet, resigned sadness. A young man returns to the village of his childhood to find his old friends lapsed into decadence, governed by destructive passions. His presence shines a flashlight on all of it, bringing long-simmering frustrations and anger to the surface. Convalescing after an illness, he’ll get everything but rest, as a harsh winter slowly sets in. The cemetery is, literally, a shortcut. Le Beau Serge is a respectable debut from Claude Chabrol, with a few grace notes to make the slow-rolling tragedy go down easier. It’s hardly exciting or bold enough to have sparked a whole movement, however. Its status as the first French New Wave film is clearly hindsight.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) – France and Japan were nominal enemies during World War II, but in the aftermath neither one could call itself a winner. Both suffered unprecedented devastation, and thus Alain Resnais, with his debut feature, brought them together to mourn.
Four movies in, this is the first French New Wave film to produce strongly conflicting emotions in me. Depending on your point of view, that might be one reason to call it a masterpiece. It alternates between a fantastically beautiful tone poem and a self-serious tract for world peace. I don’t think the movie ever lives up to its first ten minutes: an absolutely phenomenal montage, with the camera a floating spirit, the documentary footage unblinking, the narration lyrical. Then we see the lead characters’ faces for the first time, and the movie is tasked with making them people, not just Ideas. I felt the movie lost all of its spark in the attempt, and the characters are still little more than their nations incarnate. This is definitely a film I’ll revisit in the future, though.
Les Godelureaux (1961) – The star rating I give this movie comes with a major asterisk: the Region 2 DVD I purchased didn’t include English subtitles. This is one of Chabrol’s lesser known films anyway; it appears I will need to do some digging to find writing on it. Thus far, I’ve only found a few sentences of plot description. So I was often confused as to what was going on. And there’s some crazy-looking stuff going on in this movie. Now, I went into this with my eyes open. I wanted to watch as many French New Wave films as possible. This one presented a test — how much can a film communicate visually, and how perceptive am I at picking things up? What I gathered is that Jean-Claude Brialy is engaged in an escalating series of pranks on French society. According to AllMovie.com, the target is hypocrisy. There also seems to be a love triangle. That’s all well and good, but I again got the impression of a certain cold detachment from the characters. Maybe the dialogue remedies this issue. Nevertheless, the sneezing incident at the art exhibit and the orgy/pie fight managed to make me laugh without any need for an interpreter.
Jules et Jim (1962) – Catherine is indeed a fascinating character — I’ve watched this film three times now, and I still don’t quite have a handle on her. The ménage à trois in which she is the third wheel may be the downfall of Jules and Jim’s perfect friendship, the end of their happiness and the corruption of their Ideal Woman. On the other hand, she’s more exciting than they’ll ever be. They might talk their heads off about keeping women in their place, but as soon as Catherine jumps into the Seine, every word is forgotten. The men are left playing dominoes while Catherine dresses like a man, drives on the sidewalk, and sings a ditty. Truffaut’s camera restlessly darts among these characters as they pass through two of the most cataclysmic decades in world history. I just can’t help but view this film as somewhat unsatisfying when compared to something like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Le Signe du lion (1962) – It’s sheer happenstance that this movie, with three years between its completion and release, should make such an interesting contrapuntal companion piece to Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. But here we are: two peripatetic stories about people anticipating a drastic change in fortune. These people are both musicians who see their work get dismissed in cafes. Heck, both movies even have a shot of the lead character walking through a flock a pigeons, causing the birds to fly up dramatically. These shots, like the movies as a whole, are viewed from opposite angles.
Ultimately, I don’t think this comparison does The Sign of Leo any favors. After all, Cleo faces imminent death. Pierre is simply broke. Varda inserts all manner of New Wave spunk into her film. Rohmer, meanwhile, is engaging in neorealist miserabilism in the Bicycle Thieves vein. He sees a very different Paris from the one we’re used to out of the New Wave: a George Bailey hellscape in which Pierre walks, and walks, and walks some more, finding no one who’ll help him as his clothes slowly deteriorate. To some extent, this is presented as karmic retribution for Pierre’s loutish behavior when he thinks a fat inheritance is headed his way. There’s something in that. But the movie lacks conviction, pouring on coincidences with a heavy hand. It’s Sullivan’s Travels without the wit or the humility.