Michael Wood

  • The Art of Cinema by Jean Cocteau, André Bernard and Claude Gauteur, translated by Robin Buss
    Marion Boyars, 224 pp, £19.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 7145 2947 8
  • Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures by Célia Bertin, translated by Mireille Muellner and Leonard Muellner
    Johns Hopkins, 403 pp, £20.50, August 1991, ISBN 0 8018 4184 4
  • Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise by Ronald Bergan
    Bloomsbury, 378 pp, £25.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 7475 0837 2
  • Malle on Malle edited by Philip French
    Faber, 236 pp, £14.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 571 16237 1
  • Republic of Images: A History of French Film-Making by Alan Williams
    Harvard, 458 pp, £39.95, April 1992, ISBN 0 674 76267 3

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.

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