April 23, 2009

Un Certain Disregard

[As the lineup for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival was just unveiled today, Vadim Rizov weighs in on the festival's history with local auteurs. He still doesn't endorse sexual abuse.]

Godard and Truffaut 50 years ago yesterday, Jean-Luc Godard unleashed one of his charming little cri de couers upon Cinema As We Know It. The occasion was Truffaut's The 400 Blows being selected as France's sole official submission to the Cannes Film Festival. "[F]or the first time a young film has been officially designated by the powers that be to reveal the true face of the French cinema to the entire world," Godard exulted, before launching into another seething blast against the cinema de papa the Cahiers gang loathed so much. "In attacking over the last five years in these columns the false technique of Gilles Grangier, Ralph Habib, Yves Allégret [ed: another 18 names follow] ... what we were getting at was simply this: your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is ... Today, victory is ours. It is our films that will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that."

Hiroshima, Mon Amour And so it was, sort of. As it happened, The 400 Blows was joined at the festival by Hiroshima Mon Amour, which was then pulled from competition in deference to the outraged American delegation. 50 years later, Alain Resnais is back once again with Les Herbes folles, his fifth appearance in competition; to an extent, the New Wave became the establishment, as they wished. Things, of course, didn't change overnight: Allégret was back in competition in 1962, and arguably not another significant New Wave film was in competition til The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964 (and that's a tenuous categorization). Godard, hilariously, didn't make it into competition 'til 1980, after he'd been safely absorbed into the canon. But the world had noticed. If the New Wave never wiped out the "tradition of quality" as much as they'd hope, they certainly made themselves felt internationally.

Swimming Pool In recent years, there's been a fair amount of bitching and paranoia about the lack of French films in competition, regardless of orientation. Leaving messy co-productions out of this and sticking to films in French by ethncially French directors, 2003 boasted five entries, none of which have really survived the test of time, even five years later. They included François Ozon's risible Swimming Pool, a minor entry from aging wunderkind Bertrand Blier, and equally minor works from André Téchiné and Claude Miller. (I'm reserving judgment on Tiresia, because of its Wikipedia summary: "it tells of a transsexual who is kidnapped by a man and left to die in the woods. She is then saved by a family and receives the gift of telling the future.") In contrast, 2004 only had two entries, and they were both weak: Olivier Assayas' token prestige pic Clean and Agnes Jaoui's Look At Me (Jaoui is precisely the kind of filmmaker Godard worked to eradicate, though frankly these days she does better with the kind of material Alain Resnais inexplicably chooses than Resnais himself). 2005 had two films, but they were Lemming and, uh, To Paint Or Make Love.

Un Carnet de Bal In truth, the great French Drought at Cannes has been greatly exaggerated: the past two years had seven French submissions, including major works like A Christmas Tale, The Class and Frontier of Dawn. Still, it's hard not to get psyched about a line-up so strong that informed speculation says Claire Denis' latest didn't make the cut because it was so crowded in there already. (I mean, they could've done away with Xavier Giannoli, but whatever.) The real point isn't whatever faux-panic we're having this year; the point is that Godard didn't win. We celebrate the New Wave, as always, just as we celebrate adventurous descendants like Desplechin. But things swing back and around; Allégret never left Cannes, and now we have Jaoui and her ilk, the traditionalists' heirs. They will never leave. One of the filmmakers on Godard's shitlist was Julien Duvivier; from May 1-25 (outlasting the Festival handily), MoMA will host a retrospective of his work. If you go look up the more obscure works on IMDb, battle scars still linger. Check out the bitter comments on e.g. Un Carnet De Bal: "While Godard and co were still in diapers, Duvivier, Renoir and Carné were inventing the best French cinema that had ever been. I would trade you all M. 'A bout de soufflé' filmography for 'un carnet de bal'." Copious [sic]s aside, it's telling and odd that way after the New Wave, some people are still angry, presumably still seeking out classicist cinema. The real question at Cannes (and in world film) isn't how many French films made it; it's what they represent. 50 years later, Cannes tilts highbrow, but still will never eradicate its middlebrow component. Not that that's a problem—I, for one, am pumped for this chance to re-evaluate Duvivier—but it's the status quo, just as it's been for 50 years. The New Wave's real achievement wasn't erasing the middlebrow, no matter how hard they tried: it was creating a separate space to co-exist in, if a more marginalized one commercially.

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Posted by ahillis at April 23, 2009 2:11 PM


Tiresia is wonderful actually, and I suspected that Claire Denis' new one would be a no-show (at least in competition) as it could cause a sort of conflict of interest with Isabelle Huppert as jury head and the star of the film.

Posted by: Joe Bowman at April 23, 2009 3:49 PM

Right you are, Joe. That totally slipped my mind.

Posted by: Vadim at April 23, 2009 4:53 PM

I SAW "To Paint Is To Make Love," and boy was it some special kind of awful. If you ever thought that the presence of Daniel Auteuil and Sabine Azéma was sufficient to redeem any film, this will disabuse you of the notion right quick.

Posted by: Glenn Kenny at April 23, 2009 6:32 PM

What does "ethnically French" mean?

Posted by: Ben Slater at April 23, 2009 7:33 PM

The critics at Cahiers du Cinema may have loath the directors in Godard's list, they may have simply disliked them, they may have mostly ignored them, but one thing they did not do was loath anything they termed the "cinema de papa".


Posted by: Joe Coppola at April 24, 2009 7:32 AM

Cris des coeurs

Posted by: ronald bergan at April 24, 2009 10:31 PM

I remember the days when no viewing of a Godard film was complete unless at least 10 people got up and walked out in outrage. It was film as it could be, in intense and intentional interaction with social phenomena, not just as iconic mirror. Since then most of the rules have been broken and life has become supersaturated with images. As the image comes at us from countless screens the quest to subvert the image goes on. We have grown numb. Still, there is the opportunity to be surprised.

Posted by: Ralph Melcher at April 26, 2009 2:35 PM

I'll say this: the moment Assayas debuted DEMONLOVER at Cannes, that spirit was still shown to be somewhat live and kicking.

Posted by: vadim at April 27, 2009 11:27 AM

I haven't seen any other Duvivier films but Au bonheur des dames was something of a revelation for me at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at April 29, 2009 1:08 PM

Pépé le Moko remains Duvivier's masterpiece, a classic of the genre of exotic intrigue. Gabin, as the rogueish quintessential loner, is at his best. Remade less well (no surprise) by Hollywood twice.

Posted by: ronald bergan at April 29, 2009 10:50 PM
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