The TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Summer in France retrospective begins today, and with screenings running all the way till September 2nd, TIFF offers the most affordable trip to France that any Torontonian may ever get. Covering seminal and pioneering films from the Poetic Realism and French New Wave movements, the films featured in this retrospective are sure to excite, seduce, and puzzle viewers with the same cinematic brilliance in which they’ve managed to retain for the more than half century in which they’ve endured.
Featuring films from revered and iconic directors like Jean Luc-Godard, Francious Truffaut, Chris Marker, and many more, TIFF’s Summer in France is a comprehensive survey of the films that began as little ripples in a far away pond, but over many years have matured into galloping waves that have inspired and influenced filmmakers and cinema goers around the world. With a special presentation of Weekend by TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling on August 16th at 6:30pm, a special presentation of Rules of the Game by NOW Magazine film critic Norm Wilner, and a rare 70mm print screening of Jacques Tati’s classic Playtime, TIFF’s summer long retrospective will leave you asking “left bank, or right today?”
Le quai des brumes
Only fifteen minutes into Le quai des brumes, would-be protagonist Jean (Jean Gabin) is already sitting in a dreary bar on the edge of town, drinking whisky and still wearing his army uniform. We meet Jean on a dark and lonely road, waving his hands before a lone truck driver in need of a ride into the port city of Le Havre. Even in the bar, Jean appears a mystery in this dreamy city of secrecy- we know nothing of who or what he runs from, why he’s come to Le Havre, and ultimately who he really is.
But this is Le quai des brumes greatest quality, as director Marcel Carné completely fixates the focus of the film on accentuating the details and small intricacies of its characters and it quickly becomes as if Carné, just like his tough guy protagonist Jean, truly leaves the idea of dialogue as a the formal mode of communication behind when he comes to Le Havre.
Jean soon meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a fragile young beauty of only 17 involved with many different men who each place suffocating claims on her glamor. Jean does all he can to get to know Nelly, but is often thwarted by Nelly’s creepy godfather Zable (Michel Simon) and a tough guy named Lucien (Pierre Brasseur); obstacles of Nelly’s questionable past. Inevitably Jean becomes entangled in all this mess, and eventually the time comes for Jean to decide if he will leave these problems behind in this seedy little port city where so many come to forget, or if there is in fact something worth staying for.
The finesse in Le quai des brumes really comes from Carné’s incredible command of atmosphere and superb eye for detail: the foggy and cobble stone lined streets of Le Havre serve as a perfect back drop for this place where our central characters dress in the costumes of their own confines. Jean continues to wear his uniform for quite some time and Nelly similarly remains wrapped in a translucent raincoat that, similarly to those who surround her, smothers and restricts her beauty. It is thought this that Carné shows us that even the simple matter of appearance can speak volumes about one’s past, no matter how guarded and shady it may me.
Most notably, it is Brasseur’s portrayal of Jean which endures as gleaming example of poetic realism’s quintessential tough guy, who is the first to tell you that “broads are all the same”. Released in 1938, Le quai des Brumes retains its authenticity as a classic and must see film of the genre.
Breathless (Thursday, August 9th, 6:30 PM)
Socio-political filmmaker, writer, and critic Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature film Breathless is often heralded as one of the pioneering films of the French New wave. If seeing the smooth talking, American slang using smart aleck Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) weave through traffic in fast cut scenes all recorded on a hand held camera, doesn’t echo ideas of ultra realism or Hollywood pastiche, hearing Michel’s first words that “I’m [he’s] a real son of a bitch” is sure to do the trick. With a fat cigarette constantly tucked into the corner of his thick, languid mouth and always sporting a crisp fedora, Breathless’ protagonist Michel immediately recalls the memory of a Hollywood icon like Humphry Bogart (which is who Michel precisely models himself after).
However, Godard’s personal homage to Bogart’s suave character becomes obvious all in the first few seconds of Breathless, and as we whip down the highway alongside the jumpy and easily excitable Michel only to soon witness Michel murder two cops who try to stop him for speeding (or driving in a stolen car), we see that although focused on portraying realism, Breathless still carries that certain sense of roughness and danger essential to the genre in which it pays its respects.
Even in these early stages of Breathless, Michel’s playfully blunt tough guy exterior comes off like a hard boiled hero on speed; a highly accelerated version of the slow and suave finesse that the typically laconic characters we’ve seen foiled by femme fatales exhibit. In this, one can only guess at Godard’s absolute praise for these films, but as Breathless unravels into an enjoyable, and typically Godardian expose of intimacy (both verbal and sexual) between Michel and his hard to get love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), it is obvious that Breathless gives so much more than its simple design lets on.
Breathless takes us on a wild ride alongside Michel as he runs from the police, convinces the seemingly inconvincible Patricia to make love to him, and make hilariously brash comments like “women drivers are cowardice personified”. Even more impressive, the characters’ subtle allusions to American tropes like smoking “luckies” and Michel’s constant use of American slang makes Breathless operate as an instructional in the semiotics that dictate the both languages of the movies as well as love.
Quite possibly the coolest thing about Godard’s French New Wave motives in Breathless would be that harboring such gives us an ultra realistic look at a (campy albeit) noir film’s characters. Michel and Patricia carry out their dialogue with each other only to demonstrate an impeccable chemistry that is well imitated, yet seldom duplicated, and both actors ability to all out own their characters’ traits makes Breathless a fun, free flowing experiment in the genre. Now, more than half a century after Breathless’ initial release, watching Godard’s blithe reimagining of the classical Hollywood film captured through a realistic lens continues to secure Breathless’ status as the crowning gem of the French New Wave.
Elevator to the Gallows (Sunday September 2, 3:30 PM)
With a trumpet laden soundtrack specially made by Jazz legend Miles Davis, Academy Award winning director Louis Malle’s 1958 production, Ascenseur pour L’echafaud comes to us wrapped in sleek layer of a certain sexiness which no viewer can deny. From the very first shot, Malle’s smooth style is foregrounded as we see the glassy eyes of a woman, briefly highlighted only by a thin strip of bright light in a sea of darkness. This smooth and quick shot brightens only to place our focus squarely upon the face of this unknown and clearly distressed woman with her ear firmly pressed to a phone receiver. On the other end? We know not who this other character is either, but only that when he and the woman spit “Je t’aimes” back and forth between each other, its obvious that their romance is of the passionate kind, the burning kind, just the kind that people would kill for.
This brilliant opening scene which I describe may take place quickly, but this is all that Malle needs to establish the level of sheer mastery in which Elevator to the Gallows continues to operate upon. Now living in a day and age when film noir is such a common, easily recognizable, and well imitated form of stylistic storytelling, watching even the opening scenes of Elevator to the Gallows is something like seeing the genre in its infancy.
The mystery man is the suave Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist whose penchant for danger is only rivaled by his will for survival. The single Tavernier and the canonical married dame with her ear and lips pressed to the phone, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), conspire to commit the perfect murder which will allow them to finally be together with Florence’s fat cat husband out of the way. When some unexpected setbacks put both Julien and Florence in danger, we find ourselves in the midst of an enthralling account Julien and Florence’s undying will to be together wonderfully paralleled with the goofy yet similarly torrid love affair of two angsty teenage lovers with a coincidental affinity for danger.
Visually, Elevator to the Gallows has it all: a spectacular employment of light and dark shadows, a riveting story, and an ultra sultry soundtrack which adds even more to this film’s ambience. As Julien feels darkness close around him in the aphotic elevator shaft he becomes accidently locked in, it truly is hard for us not to feel a similar sense of hopeless entrapment. Still the most fascinating quality of Elevator to the Gallows resides chiefly in Moreau’s performance, as Malle’s more realistic portrayal of the typically dolled up dame in this film is truly one of a kind.
Moreau, often shown without makeup cruising the dark streets of France in a desperate search for Julien, looks a mess near the end of her journey, and by doing this Malle adds a certain sense of authenticity to Elevator to the Gallows. It is this authenticity that allows for Elevator to the Gallows to retain its one of a kind quality more than half a century after its initial release.
Belle de Jour (Thursday, July 26th, 9:00 PM )
The opening sequence of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 saucy, surrealist drama Belle de Jour is prefaced by a very noticeable ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’ title. This title no doubt comes at the time of Belle de Jour’s rerelease, heralded by Hollywood heavyweight Scorsese’s efforts to reinvigorate and renew interest Buñuel’s French masterpiece of dream state drama, and all for very good reason.
In Belle de Jour Buñuel adapts French journalist/ novelist Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same title, portraying the tense and rigid story of the gracious, delicate, and all around aristocratic Severine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve). Severine is the well off trophy wife of a young yet sexually uninterested doctor who spends long days at the hospital and whose only ambition for Severine is for her to bear him a child. Whether it is through fait or chance, Severine learns of a brothel run by a call girl impresario, who doubles as a prostitution guru of sorts for both Severine and the two other women who work there and it is here that Belle de Jour truly begins to walk on the wildside
As if drawn by some insatiable, yet unexplainable urge, Severine slips further and further into the dark desires and kinky fantasies her customers require her to perform- both exciting her as well as awakening her long dormant sexual desires. Belle de Jour exists as a salient example of a truly timeless experience- as Kessel’s source material was delivered nearly forty years before Buñuel adapted Kessel’s ideas to the screen. Now, roughly a half century after its initial release, and a decade after Scorsese’s reissue, Belle de Jour continues to stand out amongst a cinema that has made its viewers very familiar with the fascinating, yet now routine, dalliances of a call girl (a cycle no doubt greatly popularized by Roy Schieder’s Academy award nominated prostitution- horror thriller Klute (1971) and still being carried out today with films like The Girlfriend Experience (2009)).
The sheer endurance of Belle de Jour can undoubtedly be accredited to Buñuel’s mastery of the surrealist drama, as his sly mixture of Severine’s dark masochistic dreams, rugged fantasies, and suppressed memories of sexual abuse blend and surprisingly sit flush with her everyday occurrences. Belle de Jour becomes a seductive puzzle enticing us to walk with Severine on her kinky journey, and while seeing Severine’s decadence degraded and dragged through the mud by her absolutely naughty behaviour is indeed exciting, Belle de Jour’s endures as more than just simple thrills.
When Severine becomes involved with a rough neck named Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), Severine appears as a moth uncontrollably drawn to a flame; and as walk along the thin line between fear and excitement Severine traverses, the sexual tension of the situation makes us unaware if we’ll make it out unscathed too.
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