Post-war French affairs
by Erin Blackwell
A bunch of vintage post-war French films have tumbled into the Roxie Theater. It's easier these days. They're on DVD. According to the guys organizing this sudden influx of charm and savoir vivre (life skills), these movies were secretly sourced from arcane websites. I didn't quite catch the provenance, and maybe I wasn't meant to. Suffice to say, the 12 films in this whirlwind four-day festival are bijoux maudits (scandalous jewels). So pack your baguette and a bottle of rouge (red) and meet me sur the trottoir (on the street) outside the Roxie on Fri., Nov. 14.
This soi-disant (so-called) French Noir mini-fest gets off to an exuberant start with a Bardot film. Bardot, like Brando, is a life force. She's still going, a right-wing (sigh) animal-rights advocate. Brando died long ago of his own excesses. Bardot had the good luck to live in a saner country, in which fame need not equal ruin. Bardot is improbably gorgeous, spirited, naive, awkward, elegant, irresistible, impossible. A precise cultural expression of France's most treasured possession, la joie de vivre (the joy of living).
Bardot is the center of attention in both La Verite (The Truth), Fri. at 7:45 p.m., and En Cas de Malheur (In Case of Trouble), Sun. at 3:15 p.m. In both films, she's blonde, sexy, a wild child on the streets of Paris exciting young men to use and abuse her. Incroyable mais vrai! (Unbelievable but true!) Men are salops (bastards), but you knew that. La Verite (1960) is framed by her trial for murder, which means we get a glimpse of the French justice system, so very different from our own. You'll see two hardened lawyers parse the integrity of a young woman's heart. This is why we love the French. Too bad we're not more like them.
The truth is rarely pleasant, though, even or especially for Bardot's characters, as we learn through flashbacks of her disastrous affair with a young classical conductor. Of course it's a menage a trois (love triangle) with her uptight brunette sister, who's clearly wife material. Bardot's effervescence threatens to explode the intricate clockwork mechanism of the plot, but she's a disciplined performer who attacks the emotional highs and lows with equal honesty. She doesn't cheat. She dies at the end because, well, she's simply impossible. Kinda like a unicorn.
En Cas de Malheur (1958) is a majestic film, based on a Simenon, who was France's answer to Agatha Christie. Again, Bardot's in trouble with the law, this time for a numbskull robbery attempt. Her case, in every sense of the word, is taken up by rich, respected, bourgeois lawyer Jean Gabin. Gabin is the face of French cinema of a previous generation. To see the two in the same frame is like owning a set of encyclopedias. Add to the mix – because of course it's a triangle – unbelievably subtle stage diva Edwige Feuilliere as his long-suffering sophisticate wife, and oolala, you've got a master class in marriage and infidelity as defined and designed by the French over centuries of hard work on the question. Actually, it's a quadrangle. That's how thorough it is. Again, Bardot dies. For the same reason.
Simone Signoret ultimately went blonde, but in Dede d'Anvers (Dede of Antwerp), she's a redhead. Mostly, though, what fascinates are the planes of her face. It's so big and boney. She's another kind of Brando. She looks like him, and like him, she knows how to speak without moving her lips. Something's going on inside that Cro-Magnon skull of hers, behind those sleepy eyes, sad secrets she'll never tell. This 1948 film by director Yves Allegret is like nothing I've ever seen. It drifts in at you like a harbor fog. Nothing is obvious, mechanical, cliche. It's that thing rarissime (rarer than rare): a masterpiece.
A word of warning: Don't believe everything you read on the screen. The subtitles are sometimes okay, sometimes so wildly inventive they could only have been written by a computerized voice transcriber. Don't be surprised if saucisse is translated as if it were sourcil. So sausage comes out as eyebrow . The genius of French cinema is hard enough for us poor, dumbed-down Yanks to grasp without having wildcat translators complicating our cultural exchange.
The French Have a Name for It, Roxie Cinema, Fri.-Mon., Nov. 14-17. $12 double bills.