Classic French Film Festival lives up to its name
Four beautifully restored landmarks of world cinema will be featured at the fourth annual Classic French Film Festival. The festival, which will show a total of 13 films, runs on weekends from July 13 to July 29 at Moore Auditorium, 470 East Lockwood Ave., on the campus of Webster University.
The event is presented by Cinema St. Louis and the Webster University Film Series. It is sponsored by TV5MONDE, the French-language cable channel.
The four featured restorations will be:
Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise” (7 p.m. Friday, July 13); Rene Clair’s silent-era comedy “The Italian Straw Hat” (7 p.m. Saturday, July 14); Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (7 p.m. Friday, July 27), and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” (7 p.m. Sunday, July 29).
Children of Paradise (1945)
Marcel Carne’s exquisite backstage drama about star-crossed lovers involved with a threadbare mid-19th-century French theatrical troupe is a remarkable film made even more remarkable by its having been shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi Occupation. Appropriately, the poetic script was written by a prominent poet, Jacques Prevert.
“Les Enfants du Paradis” is considered to be one of the greatest of all French films, if not the greatest. It is surely the most beloved. It is said that the film is shown someplace in Paris every day.
Much of the action takes place in a decrepit Paris neighborhood known as “The Boulevard of Crime” – the locale of popular theaters known for their bloody melodramas as well as being the haunt of real thieves and murderers, not to mention slumming aristocrats scornful of the law.
At the center of the film is Garrance, a carnival showgirl played with a wise sensuality by the popular performer Arletty. In the film, four men are madly, even dangerously, in love with Garrance: an actor, a crook, an aristocrat and a mime. As the mime, Jean-Louis Barrault gives a memorable performance that might just change your mind about mimes. Images of melancholy Baptiste, haloed in smoky light, evoking his love with achingly slow gestures of body and face linger in the mind long after the movie has ended.
“Children of Paradise” is about three hours long, and will be shown with one 10-minute intermission. Ironically, that arrangement fits the way it was designed. The Nazis banned movies longer than an hour and a half, so Carne simply made two movies, one intended to be shown right after the other.
Post-Dispatch movie critic Joe Williams will introduce the film and lead a discussion after the screening.
The Italian Straw Hat (1927)
Seldom shown in this country, “The Italian Straw Hat” was made by Rene Clair at the end of the silent era. It seems to have gotten lost for a time as sound came in with a roar that, for a while, obscured the fully developed art of the silent-film masters.
This comedy of errors, set among the haute bourgeoisie just before the turn of the 20th century, is notable for the smooth flow of an intricate story and the precise way in which Clair sums up a character with a single gesture or bit of costume – a forgetful old man whose ear trumpet has been rendered inoperable, a cuckolded husband whose shoes mysteriously don’t fit, a cheating wife who responds to trouble by fainting.
In the film, the horse of a man about to be a groom chews on the fancy straw hat of a married women having an affair. The woman fears that, unless the hat is replaced, her husband will suspect something is amiss. Her lover, an impulsive military officer, threatens to destroy the groom’s house unless he finds a duplicate of the hat.
The story unwinds from there in a style that might be called light slapstick. There are relatively few intertitles to explain what is going on, so pay attention. The film is funny, with sly satire on the pomposity of the prosperous, and is cunningly assembled. The lengthy and intricate denouement, which proceeds on several fronts at once, works like a clock.
Rene Clair also made some of the classics of the early French sound era, films such as “Sous les toits de Paris,” “Le Million” and “A nous la liberte,” freeing the French cinema of the theatrical rigidity of the very early “film parlant.”
Musical accompaniment will be provided by the Poor People of Paris. Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, will introduce the film and lead a post-screening discussion.
Grand Illusion (1937)
Despite the fact that it has essentially no battle scenes, “Grand Illusion” is one of the greatest of all war movies. On the brink of the Second World War, the masterful director Jean Renoir reached back to the First to present a deeply human and humane story that is a powerful argument against war itself.
The main setting is a German prison camp. The four principal protagonists are the aristocratic German camp commandant, Von Rauffenstein (Eric Von Stroheim), and three French prisoners: De Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay), also an aristocrat; workingman Marechal (Jean Gabin), and wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).
Rosenthal is portrayed as a generous and thoughtful man. When he hears the cliché that World War I is the war to end war, he replies, “That’s all an illusion.” This positive treatment of a Jew was one of the reasons the Nazis confiscated the negative of movie when they invaded France in 1940. (The original negative, after many travels, was discovered decades later and is the basis for the restored print being shown at this festival.)
Van Rauffenstein, whose stiff German rectitude is emphasized by the neck brace he wears, treats his fellow aristocrat Boieldieu with the deference due to an equal. He discovers they have moved in some of the same social circles. When Boieldieu tells the commandant there are no plans to escape from the prison fortress, the German takes the Frenchman at his word.
To Van Rauffenstein, class kinship means at least as much as the bonds of nationality. “For a commoner,” says Von Stroheim to his French counterpart, “dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I – it’s a good way out.”
But times are changing, in part because the war that was triggered by the assassination of an archduke and fueled by a spat among royal cousins led ultimately to the slaughter of millions of ordinary men. On the immediate horizon were the decline of the power of the old European aristocracy and the rise of leaders who appealed to the masses. For better and for worse.
The major themes of the first third of the 20th century in Europe are the deeply felt underpinning of “Grand Illusion,” but director Jean Renoir was above all a humanist, a humanist with the eye of an artist (Auguste Renoir was his father), and “Grand Illusion” draws its real power from its fully realized characters, its flowing images and its wonderful performances, particularly by Von Stroheim and Jean Gabin, the French everyman.
Andrew Wyatt, film critic for St. Louis magazine’s Look/Listen blog, will introduce the film and lead a discussion.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
The appeal of “The Wages of Fear” is simple: it contains some of the most harrowing and suspenseful action scenes ever filmed, as men desperate for work and a way out of the South American tank town they’ve landed in drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin over 300 miles of rugged, perilous mountain road to a remote well-head.
They have been promised $2,000 apiece by a predatory American oil company – so predatory that several judicious cuts were made in the film before its initial opening in this country. They have been restored and the film being shown at the festival represents the director’s cut by Henri-Georges Clouzot (“Diabolique”).
The running time is two hours and 17 minutes, and the movie does have its slow stretches, in those periods when Yves Montand and his three ratty co-drivers are not muscling explosive-laden trucks along the spines of mountains. The most memorable scene comes when a truck finds its way blocked and must turn around on a wooden platform high above an abyss. Roger Ebert has rightly remarked, “The film’s extended suspense sequences deserve a place among the great stretches of cinema.”
Diane Carson, professor emeritus of film at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, will introduce “The Wages of Fear” and lead a discussion.
Also to be featured at the festival is a restored version of “A Trip to the Moon,” the pioneering 1902 Georges Melies fantasy that was featured in last year’s Martin Scorsese film “Hugo.” The Melies film will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday, July 20, with accompaniment by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra.
Other films are “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” “Weekend,” “The Green Ray,” “Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle,” “The Mother and the Whore,” “Sans Soleil,” “Zero for Conduct” and “L’Atalante.” For further information, see www.cinemastlouis.org .