The pale child gives a faint wave of his hand. He is saying goodbye to his Jewish friend, about to be taken from school to die in Auschwitz, but there is also a whole history of helplessness in the gesture: not only the boy’s but that of his class and time and culture and place. The gesture occurs at the end of Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants, 1987 – the year of the story is 1944 – but it has echoes and relatives everywhere in French films since the war, and in French fiction of the same period. At the close of Malle’s (and Queneau’s) Zazie dans le métro (novel 1959, film 1960), the little girl who has breezed through all kinds of turbulence and yet missed her heart’s desire, a trip on the Metro, is asked by her mother what she has done during her brief stay in Paris. J’ ai vieilli, she says. Not: I have lived or learned or suffered or even necessarily, as Barbara Wright’s otherwise excellent translation has it, ‘I’ve aged’. Zazie may have aged but the idea is more sententious than anything else she says, and she is more likely to mean she has just grown older. Time has passed, as time does. There is nothing you can do about it, and nothing has been done. Of course the perky gaze of the actress Catherine Demongeot makes the remark seem cheerful enough in context, but the head-on framing of the face of a child, and Malle’s awkward cut to this face between the mother’s question and Zazie’s answer, give the moment a strongly emblematic feel, and bring us close to the shot in Au revoir les enfants. The line also appears in Malle’s Milou en Mai, 1989 – ‘a sort of quotation from myself’, as he says to Philip French in Malle on Malle.
The helplessness in post-war French films has many tones and registers: angry, baffled, melancholy, defeatist, displaced. And of course I am not suggesting it is the only image or story on offer; or that the films which picture it are themselves helpless. Only that it is a great recurring theme, and that very good films keep circling round it, as if they couldn’t revisit it too often, or give up trying to understand it or get it right. I think of Jeanne Moreau desperately pacing the Paris streets in Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’ échafaud, 1957, the elegant pain of Miles Davis’s music in the soundtrack; of Maurice Ronet, trapped in a lift for the duration of the same film; of the frozen, bewildered lovers in Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, 1959, and L’ Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961; of the boy staring at the ocean at the end of Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups, 1959; of the calm but trapped face of Marina Vlady in Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’ elle, 1967. It complicates the issue, but doesn’t scuttle it entirely, to think of the stark helplessness of the characters in Bresson’s films, even though they seem to convert it into some sort of austere and murky strength. Of course there is plenty of what looks like helplessness in Italian movies of the same time – in Visconti and Antonioni, particularly – but I think the mood there is closer to despair. These characters know there is nothing to be done. The French films are full of elusive regrets, of shifting, diffuse feelings about what might be done, or might have been done. Their characters are bereft of faith or certainty, but they feel the answer to their questions is out of reach rather than non-existent; just beyond the frame, or leaving the school courtyard as you give a faint wave of your hand.
What all this suggests is what we already know from many other sources: that the war and the Occupation, collaboration and Vichy, provided France with its most needy and demanding ghosts. But it’s useful to look at these ghosts again, to see how needy and demanding they can be. It’s not that the movies are always about them, although they often are; it’s that the ghosts keep getting into movies that seem to have nothing to do with them.
We can get a sense of what’s happened if we look at a ghostless movie like Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, 1937, where a brilliant scene articulates, but in a rather different arrangement, many of the haunting later preoccupations. Renoir’s film is often taken to be innocently internationalist, too genteel for its own historical world, a film of chivalry, as Truffaut called it, ignorant of torture and concentration camps. It’s true that Renoir makes old-fashioned courtesy (largely) prevail between the Germans and the French, even in war: but the great difference lies not in the film’s manners or its values but in its belief in the possibility of action – a belief that 1940 seems to have scarred and complicated beyond recall. During the First World War, three French officers are prisoners-of-war in a camp commanded by the courtly Erich von Stroheim. One of them, an aristocrat played by Pierre Fresnay, creates a diversion to cover the escape of the other two, played by Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio, working-class and Jewish respectively. It all sounds rather stark and allegorical in description, and Communist viewers in the Thirties were keen to see this arrangement as sounding the knell of the old order. Fresnay has earlier realised, as von Stroheim will not, that the day of his caste is over, but there is no easy message here. Later viewers have been keen to insist, as Célia Bertin does in her biography, on Renoir’s ‘horizontal’ view of the world, where class means more than nationality. It’s true that Renoir thought this, but again, the situation in the film is more delicate. Von Stroheim pleads with Fresnay, ‘man to man’, as he says in English, meaning gent to gent, begging him to give himself up. Fresnay refuses, von Stroheim reluctantly shoots him, and Fresnay dies glancing at his watch – assuring himself that the others have had time to get free.
The glance at the watch is what I want to compare to the wave in Malle’s film. It doesn’t suggest power or victory, or even freedom; only that there are actions, even for the near helpless, that make significant sense, and that such actions can be chosen, if necessary at the price of death. German officers report to von Stroheim that the other two prisoners have escaped, and he repeats their names quietly, in stark incredulity. How could a man like Fresnay, a man like himself, have died for them? History, understandably if regrettably, has with some noble exceptions echoed von Stroheim’s bewilderment rather than Fresnay’s sacrifice.
I’m not sure where to place the interesting synopsis which appears in Cocteau’s The Art of Cinema, a collection of notes and tributes and (largely) unpublished treatments. The volume as a whole is rather depressing because it’s so full of mannered and repetitive remarks, and because Cocteau works so hard at his self-admiration. ‘I am the model of an anti-intellectual,’ he says, but only a certain sort of intellectual would say any such thing. The sort who speaks grandly of ‘the accident we call life’ and ‘that dreadful state of childhood from which I shall never escape’. But Cocteau’s relation to the cinema is not depressing, however we feel about his archness or his films. His sense of the possibilities of ‘the ink of light’, of ‘writing with pictures’, is immense, as is his faith in young filmmakers and young audiences. Above all Cocteau loyally represents what the cinema might be. ‘What a lesson in freedom you give all of us,’ he quotes Alain Resnais as saying; and Truffaut repaid the lesson by putting the money he made from Les Quatre Cents Coups into Cocteau’s Le Testament d’ Orphée.
The synopsis is called Pas de chance, and was first published in Brussels in 1950. A young man comes out of gaol, quarrels with his girlfriend, and kills her by accident. The next day, he feels rather proud of his deed, and wishing to acknowledge it, tries to give himself up. No one believes him or will arrest him, whatever he does. Yet this recognition is all he wants:
He loves only his crime. He loves only that hour of his life.
The film will he made up of the thousand obstacles which prevent him from being caught and his rejection of happiness. It doesn’t matter to him. He only wants that.
There are strong resemblances here to Buñuel’s Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, 1955, where a would-be murderer keeps arriving too late at a scene where chance or suicide or someone else has done the job for him. He too tries to confess, but of course he is confessing only a desire or a programme. Cocteau’s hero is confessing an act. But then what do we make of the dreamlike impossibility of getting anyone to believe him? It is a version of helplessness, and seems to involve not guilt but a need for the recognition of guilt, a world where guilt could still exist.
Célia Bertin lingers over the last months of Renoir’s life, as if she couldn’t bear to let him go, and as if each dying day was different. This is an attractive aspect of her biography, and her last chapter is her strongest, because it creates the sense of a vanishing person, an individual’s irked resistance to illness and death. The rest of the book tends towards bland generalisation. The facts of Renoir’s life are there, but they are lived by some sort of cardboard cutout called the Artist. Renoir père, we learn, ‘was used to the loneliness that goes with genius’. ‘Having a genius for a father is no easier than being a genius oneself’; ‘artistic creation does not often also provide happiness.’ ‘Losing one’s nanny is always a traumatic experience for a child.’ ‘It was a safe bet that he would understand and adore India.’ There is some rather grand unintentional comedy in the translation too. After the Battle of the Marne, ‘the Germans began digging trenches and getting in them.’ Renoir thought he would take to aviation ‘since in the sky his bad leg would not get in the way’. ‘New friends appeared, like Basset, another writer who lived in Nice and introduced Jean to Dostoevsky.’ Bertin begins her book by saying she associates Jean Renoir more and more with his father Auguste: ‘I have thought “portrait of the artist’s son”.’ But to think this is to bundle into cliché one of the most complex relations of Jean Renoir’s emotional and artistic career. ‘I have spent my life,’ he himself wrote, ‘trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me.’
Ronald Bergan’s biography is very different. It is not all that high-powered or sharp-edged – Renoir seems to bring out the taste for soft focus in everyone – but it is lively and freshly written, full of the adventure of its own discoveries, and it pays sympathetic attention to the films. For Bergan, the most important word in the famous line from La Règle du jeu, 1939 – ‘The terrible thing about the world is that everybody has his reason’ – is ‘terrible’, which ‘takes away any possible complacency from [Renoir’s] humanism’. Renoir’s thought encompasses the difficulty which arises not only from our (frequently) failing to understand others but also from our (sometimes) understanding them better than we want to.
Bergan, like Bertin, tells the now familiar story of Renoir’s life: born 1894, painter father, beginnings in silent films, the masterly early sound work La Chienne, 1931; the great films of the Thirties; exile in Hollywood; travel to India, work in Europe again – although Renoir continued to live in California, and died there in 1979. There are those who think The Golden Coach, 1953 (made in English, shot in Rome) is one of the greatest films ever made – Truffaut named his film company after it and Berlin reports that Jacques Rivette watched every showing on the day of its opening, from 2 p.m. to midnight – but the films that appear on everyone’s lists are La Grande Illusion and La Règle du jeu. It’s not that Renoir didn’t continue to make interesting films or that he lost his way; it’s that he and the cinema no longer got on so well: there was a certain stiffness even in the undoubted charm of his later movies. He was a master, he became his admirers, as Auden said of Yeats; Renoir became the New Wave. But his remaining time as himself was curiously diffuse, and Bergan quotes a telling remark, made during Renoir’s early years at what he called Fifteenth-Century Fox: ‘I am afraid of having lost all enthusiasm for my profession, or rather, it’s that the métier of cinema has become too old, too organised, too immobile ...’ Darryl Zanuck, then head of Fox, reciprocated by saying: ‘Renoir has a lot of talent, but he’s not one of us.’ There is more here than a clash between art and commerce, or Europe and America. The cinema did become old, sometime in the Forties probably; the polite way of putting this is to speak of its coming of age, or of the classic Hollywood cinema and its international relatives. Of course, it can always be made young again, by the right director; and wonderful things can be done with its maturity. But Renoir, ever young himself, couldn’t find again the youthful relation to cinema which animates his best pre-war films.
La Règle du jeu is the first older film mentioned in the interviews collected in Malle on Malle, and it is later called ‘the absolute masterpiece’. Renoir is often paired with Bresson in Malle’s pantheon, but then these rather different French mâitres alternate with Hitchcock, who doesn’t resemble either of them.
‘The irony is,’ Malle says of his work on Ascenseur pour l’ échafaud, ‘I was really split between my tremendous admiration for Bresson and the temptation to make a Hitchcock-like film.’ In fact, Malle seems to have made a style out of rampant eclecticism, and then turned his eclecticism into a principle. He zig-zagged, in his early career, from this thriller to the sententious art work of Les Amants, 1958; and from the zany comedy of Zazie to Le Feu follet, 1963, a solemn meditation on suicide; and a little later from thoughtful and slow-moving documentaries on India (Calcutta, 1968, the seven-part TV series L’ Inde fantôme, 1969) to slick American films like Pretty Baby, 1978 and Atlantic City, 1980. He is very interesting on this topic: ‘I like to surprise people, to catch them on the wrong foot. It’s sometimes a little childish, but it’s part of what I’ve been trying to accomplish; to offer people always another view, or a different angle; to encourage them, force them sometimes, to re-examine, to look at things a little differently ... To say that behind what is routine, there’s something else.’
That sounds more organised and programmatic than the project can have been; but it catches the feel of it. Sometimes it’s a little childish, but it’s part of what he’s been trying to accomplish: a shift to another place, another point of vision. We might also focus this seemingly uncertain style by looking at Malle’s interest in what he calls the ‘opacity’ of political situations. Where the object is opaque you have to keep moving your camera and your mind.
Malle on Malle is a series of amiable interviews, a sort of birthday celebration – Malle was 60 this year. He can be agreeably diffident – he was ‘a de luxe immigrant’ in America, but he ‘had a sense of what it was to be a stranger’ there – and admirably self-critical: the first hour of Zazie works well, he thinks, but then the film gets confused. Perhaps the most delicate and memorable remark in the book is the one he makes about his return to his own early years in Le Souffle au coeur, 1969: ‘It’s not that I consciously went back to my childhood; my childhood came back to me.’
Alan Williams’s Republic of Images will become a standard work on the French cinema, and deservedly so. It is thorough, and intelligent, and its generalisations have clearly been hesitated over, thought about. It’s called a history of film-making, but as Williams himself says, it is largely a history of film-makers, i.e. directors. There are interesting accounts of the early work of production companies like Pathé and Gaumont, and some good pages on critics like Delluc and Bazin, but directors carry the story here. Little is said about actors, about audiences, about money. Williams rightly insists that his is only ‘one history, among many possible ones’; but his book is not as ‘oldfashioned’, or as narrow, as he seems to fear it is. It offers, for example, a good brief narrative history of France itself for the period since the late 19th century, not as mere bland background but as active context, thoroughly worked into a discussion of the films. We trace French film from early inventions to the age of video; France from Belle Epoque to Euro-Disney. Williams sees, as few have, that the New Wave, in its very iconoclasm, expressed the impatience and newly-found drive of the Fifth Republic, and was therefore, surprising as it may appear to be, ‘the cinema of Charles de Gaulle’. Williams notes the immobility of the camera and of the actors, the tendency towards the tableau, in French films made during the Occupation – the metaphor seems obvious enough once noticed, but it’s telling that it should operate at the level of style, and of course there are other, compensatory ways of expressing helplessness.
The writing is a little lumpy occasionally, and Williams is obsessively fond of the weasel word ‘arguably’ – meaning ‘Don’t ask me to defend this right now,’ or perhaps ‘I don’t believe this myself, but I’m not looking for trouble.’ On the other hand, a dry and lucid wit emerges quite often – ‘Following in the great French tradition, Clair’s election [to the French Academy] signalled the virtual end of his creative powers’; ‘Godard was the one enfant terrible of the New Wave who remained terrible even when the industry slouched back to commercial normalcy in the mid-Sixties’ – and there are moments of real eloquence. The pioneer director Léonce Perret is said to be able to make ‘people and things shimmer in his images, seem to float on the very light by which one sees them’. Renoir is described as treating even his most unsympathetic characters ‘with an almost palpable directorial politesse’ – a way of actually practising the understanding that everyone has his reason.
Williams wants us to take the political metaphor of his title ‘almost literally’. The French cinema of the Twenties developed into an ‘imperfect republic’, while ‘the American cinema of the same period was more like a one-party state’, and we could pursue the metaphor further. Even at its glossiest and most chauvinist, French cinema has found room for alternatives and outsiders, and it is striking that the late work of Luis Buñuel, whose career had started in France some forty years before, should be among the great commercial and critical successes of French film in the Sixties and Seventies. What of the future? ‘It is entirely possible that the story of French cinema will have effectively come to an end, dissolved into that of a larger entity whose nature is still difficult to conceive.’ Cautiously put: Williams is thinking of television and video. It may be of course that the larger entity is Gérard Depardieu.