Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

French film feast


Michele Morgan in Les scelerats, aka The Wretches, part of The French Had a Name For It, playing the Roxie.
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The words "French actress" excite a number of thunderous emotions in the Puritan breast, all of them earned. French actresses have a way of getting to the heart of the matter merely by raising their eyelids and staring down any manbeast in the vicinity. Quick on their feet, their dignity only enhanced by emotion, they are uniformly as trim as ballerinas, sturdy as farmgirls, and eloquent as judges. These exemplars of femininity have a dignity in distress unseen in their Anglo counterparts. We rarely get a chance to savor the vintage variety, but extraordinairement , the feisty Roxie is overflowing with French Noir for five days, during The French Had a Name For It series, starting tonight, Nov. 3.

Michele Morgan is a stunning representative of French actressness. Born in 1920, she left home at 15 to study in Paris, where a director soon cast her opposite French working-class screen hero Jean Gabin. She was 16 when they kissed for the cameras. Morgan, who renamed herself after a bank, lived up to the promise of this debut with a long and varied career. She really wanted to make it in Hollywood, and Hitler gave her her chance. She made a few U.S. films in which her exotic sang froid, or poise, seems like a holdover from a different planet. She is too reserved, and Hollywood is too macho. The five-foot-two blonde with the slanting eyes of a Gothic saint can be seen in Les scelerats (1960), aka The Wretched. (11/5, 7:45 p.m.)

Robert Hossein, the director and star of Scelerats, was a stage actor and director skilled at broad-stroke theatricalism, which he parlayed into a film career. With his haunted dark eyes, rugged cheekbones, and sensitive mouth, he makes a poetic, masculine leading man in a pinch. He lacks the inner life of a great cinema star, but this very lack of complexity recommends him to Anglo-Americans. He's a bit like Daniel Craig's James Bond. Watch him stand soberly as Morgan does all the acting in this ramshackle tale of a loving married pair destroyed by their child's accidental death. Morgan's emotions run quick and deep, glass in hand, as an alcoholic glamour girl. Did I mention they play Americans? Far too gracefully.

Simone Renant and Jean Marais in Voyage sans espoir, aka Journey Without Hope, part of The French Had a Name For It, playing the Roxie.

Le jour se leve (1939), or Daybreak, is  a must-see classic for Francophiles and other gourmandes of all things Gallic. Arletty is a performer who both embodies and undercuts French classical style, as her street smarts shine through her perfect equipoise. Her nasal twang is simply je ne sais quoi. Her leading man, Jean Gabin, is the standard against whom all other actors are judged. (11/3, 7:30 p.m.) Two films directed by Christian-Jaque fill Friday's double bill: Voyage sans espoir (1943), or Journey Without Hope (11/4, 7:30 p.m.), stars gay icon Jean Marais, who was famously Cocteau's lover and muse. Un revenant (1946), A Lover's Return (11/4, 9:20 p.m.), features fantastic classical theatre villain Louis Jouvet. Think Alan Rickman on Absinthe.

Saturday is given over to five films directed by Hossein between 1959-65. These are all closely plotted intrigues, reaching back to 19th-century melodrama and forward to post-colonial avant-garde soul-searching. Programmer Don Malcolm obviously likes Hossein's fidelity to certain creaky, stageworthy tropes, by which he distinguishes himself from the flamboyant liberties of the Nouvelle Vague. Le jeu de la verite (1961), The Truth Game (11/5, 9:30 p.m.), is a locked-room mystery in a gorgeous mansion filled with fancy furnishings, featuring spoiled bourgeois in complicated relationships and evening wear. Hossein makes a Columbo-like appearance, again without bothering to inhabit a character. Performing is left to a glittering cast including Nadia Gray and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Sunday is full of marvelous actors in ticklish situations, including the unique Michel Simon, the perpetual outsider to whom insiders are indifferent until somebody dies. And even then. Also Simone Signoret, Louis Jourdan, and Lili Palmer, better-known here for their English-language work. Monday features a fabulous double bill of Macao, l'enfer du jeu (1942), Gambling Hell (11/7, 7:15 p.m.), starring Eric von Stroheim doing his naughty but nasty Prussian officer shtick, of which I never weary, do you? With Sessue Hayakawa, doing his. Les jeux sont faits (1947), The Chips are Down (11/7, 9:30 p.m.), features the subtle machinations of Micheline Presle. All double bills are $12, festival pass is $50.


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