François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980)

LAST METRO, THE (1980)

To view The Last Metro click here.

François Truffaut was a nostalgic sentimentalist, someone who enjoyed the idea of telling stories without too much cinematic edge or experimentation getting in the way. If you’ve ever read about his relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, or watched the documentary Two in the Wave (2010), you know that Truffaut and Godard veered off in different directions after their early successes breaking through the barriers of French cinema in the late 1950s. Godard experimented more and more, overturning cinematic norms while Truffaut increasingly embraced them. But just because one embraces norms and decides to work within them, while another attempts to revolutionize cinema with each new release, doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. In the end, Truffaut was far more successful with the public and commercial success is often equated with artistic compromise. But hiding within Truffaut’s movies are insights about art and politics that are perhaps more meaningful, and hit their mark more accurately, precisely because Truffaut worked within the system, so to speak. One such example, and his last critically and commercially successful film, is 1980′s The Last Metro, a film both rewarding in its story of love and art amidst horror, and utterly frustrating in its standard melodramatic banalities.

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Birdshead Revisited: Judex (1963)

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To view Judex click here.

The first time we see the magician, he is standing alone, legs spread slightly apart, a lifelike bird mask covering his head. Next to him, on a stone block, lies a lifeless white dove. He picks it up in one hand and holds it gently as he walks through the hallways of the mansion on his way to the ballroom where the gala is being held. Once there, among the other masked revelers, the dove comes to life and flies away. He has brought it back from the dead, or so it seems, and produces one after another to the delight of the guests. The  man in the mask, we suspect, is Judex, an avenger who has set out to get a rich banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), to pay back his victims or else. The actual magician portraying Judex is Channing Pollock and he didn’t speak a word of French. That didn’t matter to director Georges Franju, he just wanted a look. Besides, Judex wasn’t the lead anyway. [...MORE]

The Future is Now: Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)

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To view Remembrance of Things to Come click here.

“Gone and never to return
and being for myself alone
a remembrance of things to come
who fancied being a human”
– From a poem by Claude Roy, quoted in Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)

Remembrance of Things to Come aka Le Souvenir d’un avenir (2001) opens at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which has been described as “the culminating avant-garde celebration in Europe before the devastating events leading to World War II” (Ubu Gallery). The exhibit outraged critics at the time and featured works of art by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, René Magritte, Lenora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst among many others. We tour the dense galleries through the embracing and investigative eyes of Denise Bellon, a pioneering photojournalist who became one of the surrealists most ardent supporters and collaborators. Bellon is the subject of this fascinating documentary made by Chris Maker in association with Bellon’s daughter (filmmaker Yannick Bellon) and the film is now streaming on FilmStruck until July 28th. As is the case with many women who created work within the surrealist movement, Denise Bellon’s name is not as recognizable as her male counterparts but she was arguably one of the most innovative, daring and accomplished photographers of the period. Remembrance of Things to Come moves Bellon out of the shadows and into the spotlight where she belongs.

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Sister, Act: English Lit, French Style with The Brontë Sisters (1979)

BRONTE SISTERS, THE (1978)

To view The Brontë Sisters click here.

The love affair between European cinema and the literary works of the Brontë sisters has been a fascinating one for decades, though it’s often overlooked in favor of Hollywood’s more publicized adaptations like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Jane Eyre (1943). Over the years we’ve seen versions of their novels come from such disparate filmmakers as Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, Franco Zeffirelli, Andrea Arnold and Robert Fuest, all of whom offered their own unique takes on the windswept, tormented romanticism that fueled their classic novels. The fascination with the Brontës continues to this day, as seen by the buzz over the BBC One television film, To Walk Invisible, a biography of the Brontës that debuted this month in the United States on PBS’ Masterpiece.

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Personal Moral Codes

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

To view My Night at Maud’s click here.

Éric Rohmer, “the most durable film-maker of the French New Wave”, according to his obituary in The Daily Telegraph, established international prominence when My Night at Maud’s (1969) was nominated for two Academy Awards. My Night at Maud’s is being screened on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck as part of a Blue Christmas theme that invites viewers to “Have a holly, jolly, melancholy, festive season.” With this in mind a black-and-white feature mulling religious and moral questions set in the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand certainly fits the bill. Rohmer was a champion for authenticity. This means if he was going to film a church mass, it would be a real church mass being delivered to the faithful. If music is heard, it had a diegetic source onscreen and reason to exist. If locations were alluded to, those actual locations were used. And if the story takes place on Christmas Eve, then the film itself had to be shot on Christmas Eve too. This last point is the reason the film was delayed for a year, and may have also contributed to the reason My Night at Maud’s is known for being the third within his Six Moral Tales series, albeit the fourth in order of release.

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Going Out with a Bang: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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To view That Obscure Object of Desire click here.

Somehow it seems utterly appropriate that Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel released their cinematic swan songs only a year apart. That might sound strange on the surface, but these two men had earned reputations as the greatest of all cinematic manipulators who traded in subverting their audience’s expectations at every turn.

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Treasures Left Behind

THE GLEANERS AND I, (aka LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE), director Agnes Varda, 2000. ©Zeitgeist Films/

As of late a lot of my friends are purging themselves of records, books, movies and more. I’ve been the happy recipient of these spoils and, as best I can, I have been trying to give these items a good home. Something in this act reminds me of The Gleaners and I (2000) – a documentary by Agnès Varda about people who make their living sifting through that which has been discarded by others. Varda, who made her first film at the age of 26 (La Pointe Courte, 1955) and whose work was essential to the French New Wave, was the first woman to receive an honorary Palme d’or two years ago. Her work is infused with a deep intellect that is kind, ruminative and open to experimentation.

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Keep an Eye Out for The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1972)

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For reasons known only to the movie gods, Hollywood embarked on a decades-long love affair with the idea of grabbing the rights to successful French-language comedies and remaking them for American audiences, most often with all the quirkiness and local flavor completely sanded away in the process. There were enough hits peppered in this wave to make it profitable for a while; heck, Touchstone almost had a cottage industry with it thanks to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) and its sequel, based more or less on Coline Serreau’s Three Men and a Cradle (1985) but with a ridiculous crime subplot thrown in, and to a much lesser extent, My Father the Hero (1994), a retooling of Gérard Lauzier’s Mon père, ce héros (1991). Then we have the odd case of Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le grand blond avec une chaussure noir) (1972), a wildly successful star vehicle for French comic actor Pierre Richard that turned into The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), an early showcase for Tom Hanks just after his star-making turns in Splash and Bachelor Party in 1984. The American version actually isn’t too bad on its own terms, but it really can’t hold a shaky violin bow compared to the original.

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Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

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There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

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My Melancholy Valentine: Dans Paris (2006)

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Love is complicated. Some see it as a priceless gift or blessing while others describe it as an unshakeable disease. It can be comforting, enriching, elevating, thrilling and divine. It can also be messy, unruly, feral, ferocious and cruel, particularly if you are suffering from acute depression. In Dans Paris aka In Paris (2006), French filmmaker Christophe Honoré (Ma mère aka My Mother [2004], Les chansons d’amour aka Love Songs [2006], Les Bien-Aimés aka Beloved [2011]) introduces us to a family in the throes of a profound depression although this fact is kept hidden from viewers throughout most of the film’s 90-minute runtime. Instead of focusing on the hows, whys and what fors of the situation, Honoré shows us how each family member is trying to cope and for better or worse, their drug of choice is love. With Valentine’s Day looming on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Dans Paris, one of my favorite French films of the past 20 years, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Honoré’s delightful, difficult and bittersweet romantic drama is part of their holiday appropriate “City of Love” theme featuring films set in Paris, a city that’s mere name conjures up scenes of romance and passion.

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