Neglected gems of French Cinema - Part Two

Mar 13, 2013


Another fantastic post from our resident film buff Arjun Chauhan, following up his first selection of neglected gems of French Cinema.




 Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) (Second Breath) - Jean-Pierre Melville

 

A decade after 'Bob le Flambeur' Melville takes a 'Second Breath'. France is not the same and nor is its criminal underworld. This is about Gustave 'Gu' Minda (Lino Ventura) a former no. 1 convict now escaped and on the run. Look for fancy, suave gang bosses elsewhere. Ventura's hard, gritty face actually looks like he spent a while in the slammer. This character study shows a frustrated old hand who plans to perform one final big heist and then leave the country, and his profession, for good. But an equally experienced and tenacious copper is obsessed with recapturing him. Tense mood construction, full contact drama, amazing detail. A perfect set piece with Sautet's 'Classe Tous Risques', this is one of the greatest post-war cop and robber neo-Noirs.


Mélodie En Sous-sol (1963) (Any Number Can Win) - Henri Verneuil

 

'Mélodie En Sous-sol' is a household name in Gaul but nobody outside talks about it. Maybe because it doesn't have an English Wikipedia entry. Old Charles meets angry-young-man Francis in jail. After they're out Charles can't put up with the boredom of his wife's legitimate business and plans a big casino job on the French Riviera. He enlists Francis and it is off from there. This is where films like Ocean's Eleven learnt their trade. Based on Zekial Marko's novel 'The Big Grab', but only cinema can so superbly capture the Riviera in the 60s, jazz, babes, old-money and the swag of Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. Henri Verneuil did a lot of commercial fluffs during the time, but some of them where damn near perfect. This is one of them. 


La Bonne Année (1973) (Happy New year) - Claude Lelouch

 

Claude Lelouch has always got a lot of heat for being an unashamedly bourgeois filmmaker, but he shot some amazing pics in the 60s and 70s which were at the forefront of breaking apart and playing with narrative conventions in film. From the legendary motor short 'C'était Un Rendez-vous' to the fantastic and exalting 'Un Homme et Une Femme', the man was no slouch compared to the new wave. And his films were actually entertaining. Like this one, La Bonne Année, a love affair guised as a heist comedy. A Parisian robber takes his copain to Cannes to loot a jeweler. But next to the jeweler is a beautiful and sophisticated woman who runs an antique furniture shop, and the robber's getting distracted. Stars man's man Lino Ventura and the sublime Françoise Fabian from 'My Night at Maud's' fame. Films like these are so close to ideal life that they need to be felt and lived, and re-lived. 



La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966) (The Taking of Power of Louis XIV) - Roberto Rossellini

 

The essence of neo-realism brought within a historical context, that too in the court of the greatest French King that ever lived (Napoleon was Emperor) Louis XIV. This is not a film, but like a history textbook on celluloid. Maybe its even better, because it is more objective and  'documentary' in nature than most academic books on the subject today. We see Louis eating supper, changing clothes, overseeing court affairs. This is high art, and the magic emerges from the details. Few instances in history where an entire national culture is born from the being and person of one man. And Rossellini is somehow able to show us that. He made other pics on subjects such as Socrates, Pascal, Descartes and the great Leon Battista Alberti. But they're too talky. 'The Taking of Power of Louis XIV' is something else, so devoid of commentary or drama you can hardly call it cinema. More like a time machine. Robert Bresson would have loved this one.


L'Horloger De Saint-Paul (1974) (The Clockmaker of St. Paul) - Bertrand Tavernier

 

A single father, a son and the justice system of post May '68 France. A clockmaker in a small French town finds out his son has killed a man. He gets acquainted with an inspector handling the case. But they can't figure out why he committed the murder; the son won't tell. As he lives out his mundane affairs, we see the psychological turmoil of a father trying to make sense of what has happened, and his relationship with his son. The inspector, an annoyance at first, has now become a friend. He happens to understand the father more than anyone, but has a job to do. Everybody heads to court. The father may have not been able to make sense of anything, but he has reached a closure with his son, perhaps closer to him now than ever before. He sticks in the corner of his boy. This was Tavernier's first feature and based on a work by Georges Simenon. You can almost smell the small markets and alleyways of old Lyon here. Phillipe Noiret as the clockmaker and Jean Rochefort as the inspector completely make this masterpiece. Five star slice-of-life drama.


You may also like