In the last couple days I’ve been having a great time watching all new-to-me French New Wave movies. I started with “just” Jules and Jim (1962), and then couldn’t stop until I ran through two more by François Truffaut, then two by Claude Chabrol, which gives you an idea about how impressed and entertained I was.
The 400 Blows (1959) is about an unwanted, unlucky, smart and spirited teen Antoine Doinel (played by amazingly natural and playful Jean-Pierre Leaud). He’s bored in school, gets in trouble that escalates from harmless pranks to a sentence in juvenile detention, and from his unhappy parents he gets more bribes and threats than loving communication. It may sound bitter and miserable, but in Antoine and his escapades there are such authentic, lovingly depicted and often joyful adventures, and his intentions are often motivated by curiosity and precociousness (not to mention his love of cinema). Everything feels heartfelt and charming: the cramped apartment Antoine and his parents must navigate like they’re playing twister; the rapt faces of the children at the puppet show; the parade of students taken around town for gym class that gets smaller as the kids escape around every car and corner, and the way that bit is shot from up high; the comically fruitless but meaningful English lesson involving pronunciation of “beach,” and “where is the father” (the man raising Antoine isn’t his real dad); and that final freeze-frame of the boy, having escaped from juvie, facing new sights and an unknown future.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is a very fast, unpredictable and enjoyable thriller based on a David Goodis novel, about concert pianist Edouard (Charles Aznavour), who’s retreated from failures and tragedies to hide out as the nightclub performer “Charlie.” He’s right to feel some vague dread on top of all his regret and depression, because between his dimwitted crook brothers and a jealous bartender, Charlie will again get sucked into trouble and tragedy. Aznavour’s deadpan, world-weary style fits his character’s noir/Hitchcock mess as well as Truffaut’s inventive story-telling. I loved the device of having Charlie give himself pep talks via internal monologue and then chicken out to do the exact opposite–it’s the paralysis of depression and the self-fulfilling disappointment. It’s hilarious when he finally works up the courage to express his true feelings to a woman only to turn and find she’s vanished; it’s heartbreaking when, in flashback, we discover a similar hesitation had fatal consequences for his wife. The two gangsters hounding Charlie, who also kidnap the little brother he raises, provide comedy with their frank conversations about women and their pride in accessories of outlandish origin. When one thug swears on his mothers life, we see her drop dead. Those great touches of comedy balance comfortably with romantic yearning, existential doubts and the final tragedy that plays out during an epic shootout in the snow.
Jules and Jim (1962) is the intense and delightful look at how two best pals, the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) deal with their friendship being tested by time, separation, WWI and most strenuously by the woman they both love, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Mercurial, demanding, inspirational, Catherine is the irresistible ideal for both the laid-back, devoted Jules and the sharp, independent Jim. She’s able to be all things to both men, and impossible to possess or please by either, because she lives voraciously and desires a freedom that’s bound to disappoint all three. Again the wry commentary and characters’ antics and throwaway statements bring plenty of comedy (I never expected I’d laugh out loud so much), their tangled affairs are magical, and the romantic impasse inevitable but still shocking. (Having just watched Cameron Diaz hysterically drive Tom Cruise off a bridge in Vanilla Sky, it doesn’t hold a candle to the eerily calm way a similar event happens in Jules and Jim.)
Two Chabrol films starring Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain, both examining the contrasting lifestyles and values of the men they play:
Le Beau Serge (1958). Francois (Brialy) returns to his rural hometown to recuperate from illness, and is dismayed to find his old friend Serge (Blain) drastically changed, now a bitter alcoholic and loser with no love for his pregnant wife. Though most assume Francois to be mocking them with his big-city ideas and urge him to leave, he senses Serge’s terror, regret and despair, takes to heart the Priest’s complaints about his dwindling flock, and resolves at great risk to his health to stay and be the saviour and guiding example for this incestuous, dead-end village. Engagingly told, with a vivid picture of a town strangled by its grudges and open secrets. I enjoyed the ironies of Francois returning to rest and restore himself in the place that’s nowhere near as peaceful and warm as he remembers, and the way the sickly one ends up helping cure their moral disease with the fresh air of loyalty and possibility.
Les Cousins (1959) flips that setting and situation, so that law student Charles (Blain) stays in the city with his vastly different, well-to-do partying cousin Paul (Brialy). By exam time, Charles has his bright innocence and idealism ruined by Paul’s shallow and mean-spirited circle of so-called sophisticates, and the pain of being the unrequited side in a love triangle. Chabrol creates an ominous tension with Paul’s ridiculously wild parties, and the living situation makes it impossible for Charles to focus on studies or deny his feelings for Florence (Juliette Mayniel). The bleak ending is nicely foreshadowed and the lead up brilliantly captures the sting when the undeserving so easily, almost unintentionally, get rewards others take more seriously and work harder for. Guy Decomble, the nasty teacher from The 400 Blows, here plays a wise bookshop owner who encourages Charles to keep at his studies and more importantly, hold on to his decency and lofty ideals. Enjoyed him in Bob le Flambeur too. Glad I watched these two Chabrol movies together, not just to appreciate the thematic reversals, but also to be introduced to what Brialy and Blain (who reminded me a lot of Monty Clift, maybe a little James Dean) were capable of in such different roles.