In the spirit of last month’s entry entitled simply “Japan,” this one gathers reviews of relatively recent notable releases on DVD and Blu-ray of films from France. And we begin with a collection of works by filmmakers who were not actually French.
“After its early dominance of international film production was shattered by World War I, France never quite managed to sustain a studio system on the Hollywood industrial model,” writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. “What the French achieved instead was an artisanal cinema built around independent producers, several of whom—like Adolphe Osso in the 1930s, André Paulvé in the ’50s and Anatole Dauman in the ’60s and ’70s—had tastes pronounced enough to establish identities for their firms…. A new box set of DVDs from Flicker Alley, French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928, is a five-film retrospective devoted to one of the earliest and most ambitious of these production companies, La Société des Films Albatros. Founded in 1922 by Alexandre Kamenka, the son of a banker from Odessa, the company began as home to a group of Russian actors and directors who had fled their studios in Yalta after Lenin nationalized film production in 1919 (Albatros was the name of the ship that carried them to France).”
Kristin Thompson reviews all five films, beginning with La brasier ardent (1923), directed by “the extraordinary Russian star Ivan Mosjoukine”; Alexandre Volkoff’s “big-budget biopic” Kean (1923); Marcel L’Herbier’s Feu Mathias Pascal (1925), which “would be a good choice for teaching French Impressionism”; and Jacques Feyder’s Gribiche (1925), “a charming film built around the talents of the boy actor Jean Forest,” and Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1928), which “displays Feyder’s eye for striking visuals” and “his talent for casting actors who can build sympathy for characters who would normally register as unpleasant.”
Trailer for the 2010 theatrical re-release of Boudu Saved from Drowning
Back in May, Peter Bogdanovich reminded us of his 2008 appreciation of Jean Renoir, his (and Welles‘s) favorite director, and then revisited five films. He once asked Renoir himself what he thought of Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932): “Well, it was made in the beginning of sound, and sometimes the sound recording is not so good. Also, we had no money, so we could not buy all the film stock at the same time, and for this reason the shots in a sequence sometimes do not match. Occasionally the cutting is a little too fast and sometimes it is a bit too slow, but I think maybe it is my best picture!” La bête humaine (1938) “is a landmark film,” writes Bogdanovich, “and remains one of the most disturbing, even shocking, of pictures.” Then there’s The Southerner (1945; “there is a poet’s eye at work here”) and Elena and Her Men (1956), Renoir’s “final buoyant look at his painter-father’s past as memorialized in those beautiful paintings…. But maybe my all-time favorite by Renoir is the one backstage musical he made, and it’s certainly the absolute finest in that genre, the 1955 color delight, French Cancan.”
James Marsh celebrates Eureka’s release of the first two features by Claude Chabrol in its Masters of Cinema series, Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959): “Together, these releases are pretty much essential for fans of the French New Wave or anyone interested in Chabrol’s work and how his career began. Owing to the generous bounty of unique extras included, these discs should not be regarded merely as Region B versions of Criterion’s earlier releases. There is plenty here to justify double-dipping, or even choosing these versions over Criterion’s, especially for the comedic shorts and Gibert’s excellent documentary.”
Richard Brody on Les Cousins: “Here, the director tackles his great theme—the puncturing of bourgeois moralism, albeit at a price—with a joyful, quasi-Nietzschean derision.” Also: The Man Who Loved Women (1977) is “one of Truffaut’s best films” and “both a personal, nearly confessional work and an exquisitely conceived and executed philosophical and even sociopolitical vision. It may not be as ‘spontaneous’ as some of his earlier films, but it’s far deeper and more intricate.”
Back in April, Criterion released Pierre Etaix, a box set collecting the features made between 1963 and 1971, plus three shorts. And it’s “splendid,” writes Joseph Jon Lanthier in Slant: “Much like Godard’s or Truffaut’s, Etaix’s movies appreciate traditions, albeit impishly. From Chaplin, for example, Etaix learned the importance of timing gags within the frame, rather than through the psychological ‘cheat’ of montage; from Keaton he learned that pathos and risibility are best balanced between the looming brow and the lissome legs. The shtick of both Chaplin and Keaton often feels weightless without seeming effortless though; it’s a crucial aspect of their art that we compartmentalize the performer from the performance, and that we root for the dexterity of the former first and foremost. (In the case of Tati this compartmentalization extends to our awareness of Tati, as director, world-building often on his own dime to give his body proper context.) Etaix by comparison projects an unabashed, if ultimately false, laziness.” Earlier roundups on Etaix: 1 and 2.
Joshua Clover for Criterion on Band of Outsiders (1964): “Like so many Godard films, it’s a love story with a bullet in it. And like the most fiercely involved romances, it’s a map of difficult frontiers: between big city and still rustic suburbs, prewar particularity and the masses of mass culture, natural light and the color of money.” Criterion’s also posted a clip from a 2002 interview in which Anna Karina “reminisced about her career beginnings and her working methods with Godard.”
“This is a film self-consciously constructed from archetypes, a romantic crime picture designed by a former film critic so steeped in the history of American cinema that genre seems only a template to be copied as a lark,” writes Calum Marsh of Band of Outsiders in Slant. “For Godard, clichés don’t intermingle or talk among themselves, as they did for Umberto Eco, so much as they reflect the traditions from which they’re borrowed, the citations themselves standing as signposts to a cinematic past. Godard often cobbles films together from disparate elements as a matter of remarking on their secret interconnectedness, as though the world of art and politics can be mapped out and understood as an obliquely coherent whole; it’s this gift for tracing lines from Rita Hayworth to Carl Dreyer, as he does in Histoire(s) du Cinéma, that makes his texts such rich historical resources as well as irrepressibly cinematic ones.”
Histoire(s) (1988-1998) was released in late 2011 by Olive Films, which has just followed up with Comment ça va? (1978) and Keep Your Right Up! (1987), “dense and complex works that are about as far removed from the concerns of commercial cinema as one can imagine,” as Peter Sobczynski puts it at RogerEbert.com.
At Hazlitt, Calum Marsh revisits Chris Marker‘s La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983): “On the surface, these two films have little in common—made more than twenty years apart, at wildly different running times and in different conceptual and formal registers, each seems better suited to a pairing from elsewhere in Marker’s filmography. But at their core they share an identical obsession: time. These films delve into memory and the past, questioning what it means to record and to remember.” The essay that follows these opening remarks “has been structured as an exercise in essayistic time travel, moving from one point to another to trace strange and important connections.”