Category Archives: French New Wave

Varda’s Le Bonheur Picture Perfect

In retrospect, Agnes Varda is one of the major figures of the New Wave, and created what is arguably the first New Wave film (1955’s La Pointe Courte), Varda was something of an outsider to the group of Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-filmmakers who dominate discussions of the New Wave to this day. A formally trained photographer and art historian, her associations were primarily with other Left Bank artists and filmmakers like Marguerite Duras, Chris Marker, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose narrative experiments informed many of the more adventurous films of the era.

Le Bonheur is Varda’s third feature film, and stars Jean-Claude and Claire Druout as Francois and Therese, a middle-class couple living happily in the Parisian countryside with their children, played by their real-life children Olivier and Sandrine. He works as a carpenter, and she as a seamstress. They dote on their children and seem utterly devoted to each other; yet after Francois meets a pretty young clerk at the local post office, he wastes no time in pursuing her.

Francois’ rationalization of his infidelity, which he insists increases his family’s happiness at no cost to his relationship with Therese, in a sort of perverse take on Mill’s utilitarian ethics, is at the root of Le Bonheur‘s atmosphere of unease and inevitable tragedy.

Stylistically, Le Bonheur is most famous for Varda’s masterful use of bright, oversaturated color (including fades to vivid primary colors instead of black in scene transitions) and for its minor-key Mozart score, but she uses subtler aesthetic strategies as well. Varda’s use of jump cuts, for example, might seem similar to Godard’s jump cuts. But, where he often used jump cuts to distance the viewer from his films by emphasizing their artificiality, Varda employs them more subtly, often to convey a character’s subjective view of a scene or emotional state. Also reminescent of Godard is the presence of advertising and pop culture, but again, this is deployed sparingly (a ye-ye pop song in the style of France Gall, ad posters featuring smiling women, a wall of pinups at Francois’ workplace).

Le Bonheur is a singular film both in the New Wave as a whole and Varda’s body of work, and remains controversial and much-discussed even today.

By Ryan Hupp

Le Bonheur screens this Wednesday
September 28, 7:30 p.m.
L’Etage / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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Le Bonheur Colors the Meaning of Happiness

The sight of sunflowers are normally a sign of happiness, of joy. And yet Le Bonheur (Happiness) is an Agnes Varda film, and she is not going to let the young family in the background of these ominous plants escape unscathed. By the end of the film, it is the autumn, and the leaves, the characters, and even the family have changed.

And yet the park lands are constantly a heaven for the family, with their bright colors complementing the richness of the outdoors. Contrast this with the family’s return home early on, to the beige, tan and blah world of their town and their in-laws.

Varda deliberately chooses the colors red and blue to signify the passion and domesticity of protagionist François (Jean-Claude Drouot). François appears to have a great relationship with his wife Therese (Claire Drouot) but it cools off slightly, but not enough to leave her. While mailing a letter François falls in love with postal clerk Emilie (Marie-France Boyer). He uses his job as a carpenter as a reason to visit her apartment and eventually go to bed with her.

For nine-tenths of the movie, you wonder how long François can hold onto his dream situation of a bigamous relationship. Varda is not the first director to explore bigamy, but Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist is indicative of the exploitative tone prior films would have used and had to have used in order to escape censors.

Most films would have focused on the spurned wife and her struggles, but François and his actions are the main focus, and the filter (through his mascuilinity) the viewer sees the events take place from a neglected point of view. Varda’s tale is not unsympathetic to François, and he gets a happy ending, but it is at a terrific cost, and drives the point of Theresa’s plight even more.

By Tom Keiser

Le Bonheur screens this Wednesday
September 28, 7:30 p.m.
L’Etage / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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Charbol’s Allegory Captures Cultural Frustrations of France in the Early Sixties

When American critics assess the French New Wave of the early sixties, it is more often than not in relation to their influence on Hollywood some ten years later. However, Claude Charbol’s 1960 effort, Les Bonnes Femmes, did not have that broad an American release. That makes such a comparison very difficult, so one is obliged to critic the film in a national context.



Les Bonnes Femmes was a financial disappointment for Claude Charbol, though he considers it his best work of the era. Unlike the Technicolor extravaganza of Godard’s Contempt, Charbol’s film is dark and gloomy. It has captured the seedy post war texture of Paris in a stark black and white reminiscent of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection or Martin Ritt’s Edge Of The City. Such authenticity lends a realistic credibility to the dramatic action, and perhaps even heightens the audiences’ investment. That said, Les Bonnes Femmes is a film of France as it was in the early sixties made for the French.

 

The narrative centers on four shop girls who believe themselves to be determined to find good men for husbands, despite the fact that as the film carries on their motives and aspirations evolve despite themselves. It is a film of desperation and romantic frustration, evidenced by one shop girl (played by Clothilde Joano) who allows her desperation to draw her close to disaster when she begins dating a sadistic motorcyclist.

 

The plot of Les Bonnes Femmes speaks as a splendid allegory for the cultural frustrations of France in the early sixties. The rise in political unrest, the new youth movements, an over arching sense of rebellion all seem to have similar effects on French society as do the romantic quests of the four shop girls become a frustrating and confusing journey for them. Charbol seems equally as concerned about the course of his nation as he does for the individual at the dawn of such turbulent times.

By Robert Curry
Les Bonnes Femmes screening this Saturday
September 24, 7:30 pm
AxD Gallery / 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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Godard’s Contextual Layering of Band Of Outsiders

Since his feature debut Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard has been deconstructing the genre film and likewise dissecting the conventions of the very medium in which he works. Band Of Outsiders was, at the time of its release in 1964, his boldest attempt at doing so and perhaps his most successful. Due to the complex and contextually layered nature of the film, the following analysis will break the film down into proportions by paragraph.

Firstly, the narration of the film, in third person respectively, represents literary convention. This seems especially true given the use of the device in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). Truffaut used an objective narration to preserve the literary aspects in his screen adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roche’s novel. Truffaut, accomplishing the latter objective, used the device simultaneously to illustrate the psychology of his characters. Godard’s use of the “narration” device is in direct response to this. Like Truffaut, Godard wishes to preserve the literary element in his adaptation (of a novel by Dolores Hitchens) as well as adding a psychological depth to his characters, which would otherwise be absent. Godard differs in his use of this device, however, in how the narrator is quite self-aware. This awareness is quite clear in a number of scenes in which the narrator does more than address the audience, but addresses it in regards to the medium in which it exists. For instance, as the three principal characters first arrive at the café, the narrator makes explicit reference to those members of the audience who have arrived late and have missed the first portion of the film. Such a tactic forces the audience to invest in the film beyond its characters and action, but in context of its technical ramifications. Godard highlights this again differently later in the film by removing the diegetic soundtrack, leaving only the narrator’s commentary during the famous dance sequence. Godard is less interested in narration as Truffaut used it, but rather in the Brechtian sensibilities it allows him to explore within the film itself.


Secondly, Godard presents his characters without the usual style attributed to the crime genre. Instead he favors a cinematic style akin to the films of Morris Engel (Little Fugitive), but with the narrative pacing of Italian neo-realism (of which Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria is a good example). Thus, the criminality of the three main characters becomes secondary to their romantic conflicts and the day-to-day living that comprises the first third of the film. Not till Arthur (as played by Claude Brasseur) retrieves his pistol from beneath the sink does the criminality move beyond pure circumstance to a driving narrative device. Godard is hence rejecting the motifs of the crime film as a director, but instead allows it to flourish in the games and pranks perpetrated by the two male leads. Internalizing such motifs that way again works, though more subtly, as the narration has. It is apparent that Godard is less interested in his narrative, as in the idea of the function of film.

Beyond the above-mentioned post-modern ideologies is the trappings signature to a film by Godard. The character Arthur is, like Godard, interested in Maoism; and both Arthur and Franz (Sami Frey) show a keen interest in how the media documents violence. Looking passed even the political, the film stars Godard’s muse and now ex-wife Anna Karina as Odile. Yet, it does seem unfair to neglect the film as a narrative entity, focusing just on the filmic aspects. It is without a doubt, one of Godard’s most humanist works in regard to his characters and how he allows them to be depicted both dramatically and cinematically. In comparison to the early films of Frank Perry (David & Lisa) or Cassavetes’ Shadows; Band Of Outsiders is their equal in its youthful exuberance and quirky nostalgia.
All this considered, Band Of Outsiders may not be the most popular film by this controversial director, but it is both heart-warmingly optimistic and essential to the director’s development. As a final anecdote; it was this film that interested Warren Beatty in hiring Godard to direct his own genre film Bonnie & Clyde, though the job of director would eventually fall to Arthur Penn.

By Robert Curry
September 14, 5 p.m.
Philadelphia City Institute Library / 1905 Locust Street / Philadelphia, PA
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The 400 Blows: Youth and Rebellion

If a major revolution in modern literature began in 1951 with The Catcher in the Rye, the decade was bookended with François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, featuring an adolescent protagonist every bit as indelible as Holden Caulfield. Leaud portrays Antoine Doinel, an alienated teenager who joylessly pulls pranks in his classroom, lies to his teachers and steals from his parents. Truffaut said he made the movie because “I had suffered because I was an only child and I felt I was still close to the world of children.”

The 400 Blows’ constant tone of paranoia is set during the opening credits, as the camera pans through the crushingly narrow streets of Paris where the Eiffel Tower remains a looming, unavoidable presence. Likewise, Antoine cannot escape the presence of his demonic schoolteachers or the sound of his mother and father arguing in their cramped, thin-walled one-bedroom walk-up apartment. Truffaut would later confess, “I think The 400 Blows is a very cruel film toward adults.” Critic Danny Peary wrote, “Adults make feeble attempts to find out the source of (Antoine’s) problems – probably because deep down they realize they are responsible. In Truffaut’s world there is a generation gap and it’s the children who are victimized by it.”

If the movie’s ostensible subject is youth delinquency, The 400 Blows never feels like a pat TV movie of the week. A session with a shrink (unseen, but voiced by Jeanne Moreau) at a youth observation center, in fact, has the feel of cinema-verite. “When Jean-Pierre Léaud talked to the police psychiatrist,” Truffaut said in 1967, “I let him tell his own anecdote.”

The 400 Blows‘ memorable final shot shows Antoine escaping into an environment 180 degrees removed from the claustrophobic opening — released at the end of the 1950s, Truffaut’s landmark film anticipates the awesome promise and scariness of the decade to come.

By Andrew Milner

The 400 Blows screening this Monday
September 5, 7:30 pm
AxD Gallery / 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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