Title: Au Hasard Balthazar Release Date: May 25, 1966 Director: Robert Bresson Production Company: Cinema Ventures Summary/Review:
It’s a movie about the life of donkey, this should be sweet and light! Or not. Au Hasard Balthazar needs content warnings not just for animal cruelty but for the repeated abuse and sexual assault of a woman. That woman is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), one of the children in a rural village in the Pyrenees who baptizes the young donkey Balthazar in the opening scene.
Years pass by and as Balthazar is passed from cruel owner to cruel owner, the teenaged Marie is the main human protagonist and one of the few people who are kind and affectionate to the donkey. Unfortunately for Marie, she’s only able to find escape from her constricted life in an abusive relationship with the film’s main antagonist, the smug and evil criminal Gérard (François Lafarge).
While I don’t believe that movies need a “Hollywood ending,” I also don’t understand why so many “great films” have to be unbearably bleak. There is no humor or humanity anywhere in this film. Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful review of this movie, and I totally agree that Balthazar’s story is designed to elicit empathy. I don’t agree with how Breeson handles the human actors who’s dialogue often sounds stilted and as if they’re reciting philosophical treatise. The way Breeson constructs Marie’s story is basically torture porn (not surprisingly 65-year-old Breeson was sexually pursuing the 18-year-old Wiazemsky behind-the-scenes) and borderline misogynistic.
Maybe this isn’t a “bad movie” by definition, but it makes me feel bad and I don’t like it.
Title: The Passion of Joan of Arc Release Date: April 21, 1928 Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer Production Company: Société Générale des Films Summary/Review:
This is a movie about faces. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, in her only film role, stars as the French heroine of the Hundred Years War who thinks she’s 19. This is a silent film, for her eyes express her fear, wonder, and faith. Meanwhile, her judges’ faces are often shot from below, appearing grotesque, deceitful, and cruel.
The movie begins in an archives showing the actual trial records of Joan of Arc that the movie is based upon. Joan is interrogated, tortured, deceived, and ultimately put to death by an ecclesiastical court of French clergy loyal to the English invaders. Joan of Arc is notably burned at the stake, and that is shockingly depicted on film, but outside that gratuitous detail this is a personal, intimate depiction of the great woman’s final hours.
By the way, I only just learned a fascinating historical tidbit: Joan of Arc was only canonized as a saint in 1920, just a few years before this movie was made.
Title: La Jetée Release Date: February 16, 1962 Director: Chris Marker Production Company: Argos Films Summary/Review:
Working my through lists of all-time greatest movies means watching lots of very long movies, so I was relieved that this one is only 28 minutes. The joke was on me though, because this is an intense 28 minutes of experimental film set in a post-nuclear war Paris. The movie is almost entirely made up of a montage of still images.
The plot involves scientists researching time travel and finding a man (Davos Hanich) who has a strong memory from his childhood of a young woman (Hélène Châtelain) standing on the observation platform (“la jetée”) at Orly Airport. The post-apocalyptic setting, time travel, and even the significance of an airport reminded me of the 1995 movie 12 Monkeys, so it was no surprise to find out that La Jetée was a credited inspiration for that movie.
La Jetée is a chilling but surprisingly beautiful film, with sound effects and music carrying a heavy load and Hanich and Châtelain expressing a lot of emotion and nuance in their acting (or perhaps more accurately, “posing”).
Title: Lola Release Date: March 3, 1961 Director: Jacques Demy Production Company: Rome Paris Films Summary/Review:
Lola is a well-crafted film that tells the intertwining stories of several people over a few days in the port city of Nantes. The titular Lola (Anouk Aimee) is a cabaret dancer with a young son hoping for the return of her one true love, the boy’s father. She has a casual relationship with an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott), but does not return his affections. She also becomes reacquainted with Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a childhood friend she hasn’t seen “since the War.” Roland also declares his love for Lola.
Roland is also a point-of-view character, and is a moody slacker who can’t hold a job. At the same time he meets up with Lola, he is offered a sketchy job by a barber who wants him to deliver a briefcase to Johannesburg. Add into the mix Cécile (Annie Dupéroux), an outgoing girl celebrating her 14th birthday, who makes the acquaintance of both Roland and Frankie.
The intertwining of the stories and characters is admirably done and the characters are all well-acted. The movie feels like a musical production without the music. On the downside, Roland is yet another example of the narcissistic and toxic men who seem to be the protagonists of every French New Wave film. There’s also a certain creepiness to a grown man and a teenage girl having a seemingly platonic outing to an amusement park but the way it’s filmed frames it as a romance.
Lola is a movie that was clearly something new when it was created, but nevertheless feels old fashioned. I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it.
Title: Pickpocket Release Date: 16 December 1959 Director: Robert Bresson Production Company: Compagnie Cinématographique de France Summary/Review:
In Paris, a young man named Michel (nonprofessional actor Martin LaSalle) decides to take up thievery. He is not in desperate need for money, but he has a theory that certain people are more elite than others and can benefit society by robbing the lesser people. Having the protagonist be a sociopath makes him extremely unsympathetic, and made the movie hard to watch for me (and not surprisingly it also inspired Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver).
The Chief Inspector of the police (Jean Pélégri) has his eye on Michel from the start and they have some cagey conversations, but it’s not exactly a thriller or interpersonal drama like Les Miserables. Michel also forms a relationship with the young woman who lives next to his mother, Jeanne (Marika Green), although I don’t know what’s in it for her since he literally pays no attention to her until the end of the film.
Pickpocket is expertly filmed, and the best parts of the movie are the scenes when Michel and his accomplices balletically remove wallets from their marks at train stations and aboard trains. But the rest of the movie doesn’t do much for me.
Title: Partie de campagne Release Date: 8 May 1946 Director: Jean Renoir Production Company: Panthéon Productions Summary/Review:
After watching several lengthy, epic films in the past few weeks, I was delighted that this movie is only a brisk 40 minutes. Part of the reason for its brevity is that the film was never finished. Director Jean Renoir abandoned filming in 1936 after some weather-related problems and the film was edited together by other parties a decade later, after Renoir had left for the United States.
The story is quite simple. Henriette Dufour (Sylvia Bataille) is a young woman from Paris who goes on a tour of the countryside with her mother (Jane Marken), her father the shopkeeper (André Gabriello), and the shopkeeper’s assistant/Henriette’s fiancé, Anatole (Paul Temps). When they stop for a picnic, two predatory young men – Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) – divvy up the Henriette and her mother with plans for “hanky panky.”
While Anatole and M. Dufour go fishing, Henri and Rodolphe take Henriette and her mother out in rowboats. Henri stops at an island and makes the moves on Henriette. In the 1930s expectations, Henriette demurs Henri’s advances out of societal roles for women until she final accepts his kisses. In 2021 terms, it is clearly a sexual assault. Either way, I don’t really feel a great romance between the two or any reason for the conclusion, set years ago, where they meet again and have a melancholy reflection on their one moment together.
The movie is incomplete and it feels incomplete because it doesn’t seem to fill in the details behind the characters’ emotions. Nevertheless it does work as a vignette, capturing fleeting feelings and moments in time. Stylistically it also impressive, especially with the camera work on scenes such as the one where Henriette rides a swing. I’m not convinced that this is one of the greatest movies of all-time but it’s not a huge investment of time if you want to judge for yourself.
Title: Napoléon Release Date: April 7, 1927 Director: Abel Gance Production Company: Gaumont Summary/Review:
Napoléon may have been more accurately titled Young Napoléon since it was intended to be the first of six movies about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is the evident in the sheer amount of time spent depicting Napoleon as a child at a military school leading his classmates in a snowball fight. The film also depicts Napoleon escaping from Corsica during an uprising there and his rising up the ranks of the French revolutionary army. I do not know a lot of detail about Napoleon’s life, but this movie feels more like hagiography than biography and can get very cheesy in its patriotic set pieces. There are certainly far too many scenes of Napoleon just sitting and brooding for a silent film to handle.
Stylistically, the movie lives up to its epic protagonist. Like Intolerance, filmmaker Abel Gance had the budget for a cast of thousands and made sure to use them whenever possible. The use of lighter cameras also allowed for fluid camera movement used to great effect much like in Sunrise, made the same year. It also reminds me of Man With A Movie Camera since Gance used a lot of experimental techniques such as fast cutting, multiple exposures, and split screen images. Parts of the movie were filmed on location and the title cards are proud to let us know they were filmed on the actual historic sights. Most famously, the movie employed an early widescreen approach by having the final reel projected from three projectors onto three side-by-side screen, an effect many cinemas couldn’t support on time and is pretty much lost on me viewing the movie on an iPad.
Unless you’re a film buff or particularly interested in French history, I don’t think many people are going to be up to watching this long, silent, epic. Nevertheless, it does deserve credit for its place in film history and innovations that would not become commonplace for decades after its release.
Title: The City of Lost Children Release Date: May 17, 1995 Director: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet Production Company: Canal+ | Centre National de la Cinématographie | Eurimages | France 3 Cinéma | Televisión Española Summary/Review:
The Brattle Theatre podcast stated that The City of Lost Children is a Christmas movie, so I’m going to run with it since I’ve been meaning to rewatch this classic for some time. The makers of another classic, Delicatessen, created this visually-stunning, creepy yet heartfelt story about chosen family and hope in dire times. The setting is a gritty port city (kind of a dystopian version of Sweet Haven from Robert Altman’s Popeye) populated by sideshow performers, a criminal gang of orphans run by malicious conjoined twins, and a religious cult of Cyclops who kidnap children.
Many of these children are delivered to an evil scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) on an oil rog who is stealing their dreams because he can’t dream himself. Working with Krank are a half-dozen clones (all played by Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), a dwarf named Marth (Mireille Mossé), and a brain in a fish tank named Uncle Irvin (Jean-Louis Trintignant). This all really begins to make sense over time as details are revealed. In retrospect, I wonder how much this movie influenced the tv adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Into this milieu enters the strongman One (a brilliant performance by Ron Perlman) whose world is turned upside down after his carnival manager is stabbed and his little brother, Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted. He aligns with a member of the orphan gang, Miette (Judith Vittet), to track down his little brother. The bond formed between One and Miette is what makes this film great, and I’m very impressed by the 10-year-old Vittet’s acting chops. I looked at her IMBD page expecting her to be in lots of great movies as an adult, but alas her acting career was very short (although she does work in costuming for French tv series).
This movie is absolutely brilliant but it has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and the Krank dream sequences contain imagery of many creepy Santa Clauses, so there is your Christmas content. The themes of hope and family, though, make it even more relevant to the holiday.
Title: A Man Escaped Release Date: 11 November 1956 Director: Robert Bresson Production Company: Gaumont Film Company Summary/Review:
This French drama focuses on a member of La Résistance held in a prison in Lyon by the occupying forces of Germany. The film is inspired by the true story of André Devigny who escaped Montluc prison in 1943. François Leterrier portrays Lieutenant Fontaine, a young prisoner who if fully intent on escaping. Fontaine’s contact with other prisoners is limited to washing times and tapping on the wall to a neighboring cell, so much of the film is Fontaine working within the claustrophobic confines of his cell. Leterrier does a great job, especially considering that he was not a professional actor at the time in accordance with the neorealist approach to filmmaking.
While this movie may be a bit slow for modern audiences, I still find the depiction of Fontaine’s deliberate work to come up with an escape plan and the tools he needs for escape to be mesmerizing. It’s also fascinating that several key moments, Fontaine hesitates, adding an extra layer of realism. If there’s one thing that bothers me about this movie it is an overreliance on narration, especially when Fontaine narrates the exact thing we see him doing. I also don’t know how he remains clean-shaven despite not having access to a razor, but that’s a minor quibble.
This is an excellent, compelling drama and I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch it.
Title: Visages, Villages Release Date: June 28, 2017 Director: Agnès Varda and JR Production Company: Cine Tamaris | JRSA | Rouge International | Arte France Cinema | Arches Films Summary/Review:
This movie is made by Agnès Varda, a movie director of the French New Wave of films such as Cleo, from 5 to 7 (1962), and a street artist named JR. Together they travel through France in a van which includes a photo booth that can print out large-scale photographs. They meet with local people, take their photographs, and then paste them on the walls of various buildings. Sites include mostly-abandoned miners’ houses (where they past up images of miners and the last remaining occupant), an organic goat farm, a chemical factory (where the workers from different shifts get to be featured side by side), a shipping port (where the wives of three dockworkers are depicted on a stack of shipping containers) and the ruins of a German bunker in Normandy (where they put up a photo Varda took in the 1960s of a colleague who is now deceased).
The movie has a populist feel as they meet ordinary French people, learn about their lives, and celebrate them. It is also a sweet depiction of their friendship, especially when they meet JR’s grandmother and when JR comforts Varda after they attempt to meet her old friend Jean-Luc Godard, but Godard plays a trick on them and doesn’t show. A recurring theme is the eyes, as Varda complains about how JR always hides his eyes behind sunglasses, while Varda is losing her vision.
This movie is quirky and sweet and sprawling, and its hard to describe what it’s really “about,” but I really enjoyed watching it.