Tag Archives: French

Pépé Le Moko: The French John Dillinger or Robin Hood?

Infamous gangster Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin) thrives in the shadowy underbelly of Casbah. Pépé is a master of his trade: thievery. His infectious personality has women wanting to be with him and men wanting to be him. The people of Casbah love and respect him. Surrounded and protected by beautiful women and his notorious gang, Pépé seems invincible. However, the police have one last card up the sleeve—a Parisian playgirl, Gaby, who seduces and lures Pépé to risk everything and leave the confines of Casbah forever.

It is in these confines where Director Julien Duvivier examines the concept of freedom through Pépé. For Duvivier, the backdrop of Casbah drives the story as much as the characters do. The film’s opening overhead shot of the city shows labyrinths and mazes to illustrate how elusive, dizzying, and caged the city looks. Through the use of dark lighting and tight shots, Duvivier meticulously employs each frame like a pressure cooker to suffocate the film’s protagonist. For instance, there are many recurring gritty shots of sweat beads dripping off faces. Duvivier’s strategic deployment of shadows literally resembles prison bars. As the story moves forward, Pépé feels the noose of Casbah tightening. In this pressure cooker of Casbah, his decision-making abilities become erratic. Pépé ultimately realizes that freedom comes at a high price.

Pépé Le Moko shares many of the same traits as Hollywood’s film noir genre. In fact, the film was later remade in Hollywood as the drama, Algiers. In fact, many critics credit this film for laying the groundwork for film noir. For instance, both Pépé Le Moko and film noir features depict characters whose cynical and sexual motives drive their actions. Additionally, these films frame struggles through stylized lens. However, what separates this 1937 classic from the Hollywood genre is Duvivier’s emphasis on realism, which comes out in criminal mastermind Pépé’s (Jean Gabin) disillusionment with freedom and in the protagonist’s less glamorous supporting cast.

Pépé’s disillusionment with freedom is physically, mentally, and spiritually symbolic and ultimately keeps this film grounded in French Poetic Realism. Duvivier’s realism relies heavily on the concept of disappointment. Ultimately, Pépé Le Moko champions French Poetic Realism’s tone of nostalgia and bitterness.

Additionally, French Poetic Realism often highlights the working class or downtrodden criminals. This ragtag group feels more like Robin Hood’s Merry Men or Billy the Kid’s gang than John Dillinger’s sophisticated mob of mercenaries. It is in this depiction of the common people that Duvivier truly defines “realism” and earned his ranking as one of the “Big Five” of classic French cinema with Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Jacques Feyder, and Marcel Carne.

By Peter Suanlarm

Pepe le Moko screens this Wednesday
August 10th, 5:00PM
Philadelphia City Institute Library / 1905 Locust Street / Philadelphia, PA
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Short Film Tuesday : The Mermaid (Georges Méliès, 1904)

Favorite of Méliès’s fantastic shorts! 1904

Short Film Tuesday: Mister Wister the Time Twister (Robert Carl Cohen, 1957)

Robert Carl Cohen wrote & designed this quirky cartoon for les Films Jean Image in Paris in 1956. It was awarded a French “Prix de la Qualite” in 1957.

Short Film Tuesday (Marcel Duchamp, 1926)

Marcel Duchamp, Anemic Cinema 1926

The Passion of Lovers is for Death

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus reimagines the Orphic legend, telling the immortal story of the poet’s love affair with Death.
It depicts the story of Orpheus, a poet beloved by the public – but a pariah among the art set who have turned their affection towards Cegeste, a new and younger voice. Cegeste is like Arthur Rimbaud, whose early death cements his accomplishments as insurmountable.

So the poet, Orpheus, pursues death at the risk of life. As a reward, he receives the sounds of his new poetry as transmissions through the car radio coming from another realm. “I’m on the trail of the unknown,” he says as he is possessed by the words of the dead.
The poet is torn between two loves: Life and Death. He is alive and there is the natural obligation of self-preservation. But he would do also anything to prove himself as a poet.

It is death that the poet longs for. He sees it in himself as he gets older, the reflection in the mirror, taunting him but not taking him. Death steals his vitality, his life, his wife, and he descends into hell to retrieve her. There is a cyclical pattern of death and rebirth, the pursuit of one at the stake of the other. This is consistent with Cocteau’s notion of the poet’s need for a series of deaths in order to prove himself.

Orpheus redeems his life/ wife but is not allowed to look at her. Salvation requires repentance – which literally means “to turn away.” To look back at the object of desire is to want more than what has been given. Death is not satisfied by only looking and not touching, as Orpheus needs to have and to hold.

In the end, Death relinquishes Orpheus because she loves him and through his trials and poetry, he has become immortal.
Death as a lover is a common theme in poetry. Shakespeare says, “The stroke of death is a lover’s pinch,” (Antony and Cleopatra IV, ii: 280). Baudelaire describes the Dance of Death in his “Flowers of Evil”.  Emily Dickinson writes that “Death is a suitor” while Stephenie Meyer transforms vampires and monsters into heartthrobs. It is not (always) just a morbid preoccupation. Death is the common terminus of all humans. And as such it holds a certain power over life.
It is a paradox and poetic that the only way to achieve immortality is to woo Death.

by Brian Warfield

Orpheus screening and discussion:
July 1st, 7:30pm
AxD Gallery, 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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