Wrapped Around Her Finger: Elena and Her Men (1956)

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To view Elena and Her Men click here.

In its time Elena and Her Men (1956) was something of a disaster for Jean Renoir, a succession of problems (contested rights, fevers, bad accents) for which he struggled to find solutions. It was a box office and critical dud, and ended any hope of Renoir returning to Hollywood. To read its production history in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography is akin to attending a wake. And yet the film itself is an effervescent thing, an improbable farce about a coup d’etat that positively shimmers with invention. For years Renoir had tried to find a project for Ingrid Bergman, and attracted her with a chance to do light comedy, not something she’d had many opportunities to perform. But due to the stresses of filming both French and English versions of the film (in the U.S. it was titled Paris Does Strange Things), Renoir was miserable during its production and considered its box office failure the final word, dismissing it in interviews. But I would tend to agree with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the film’s only contemporaneous defenders (along with André Bazin), who wrote that Elena and Her Men is the “French film par excellence.”

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Yes He Can: Jean Gabin and the French Cancan (1955)

FRENCH CANCAN

To view French Cancan click here.

Jean Gabin, the great French actor and star, had worked with Jean Renoir three times before called upon to play the role of impresario Henri Danglard in Renoir’s salute to the Belle Epoque, the Moulin Rouge and the theater at large in French Cancan (1955), so he was ready for anything, and seasoned enough to deliver. It’s a movie I’ve seen multiple times and written articles about elsewhere, including for TCM. Yes, it’s a favorite, obviously. But more than that, it’s a fascination. A fascination with the way its simple story, one that could have easily been a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” movie, speaks to something much grander, and yet more intimate at the same time. Fascination with the way the film uses artifice and theatricality to tell a story, not so much about people or characters, but about art and history. And finally, a fascination with the way both Gabin and Renoir tell their own story in the process.

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Crime & Punishment: Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

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FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion.

To wrap up my month-long appreciation of Alain Delon I want to focus some attention on the films he made with director Jean-Pierre Melville (aka Jean-Pierre Grumbach). Melville, more than any filmmaker, was responsible for molding Delon’s onscreen persona as the “ice-cold angel” of French cinema. During a five-year period beginning in 1967 and ending in 1972, they made a series of exceptional neo-noirs together; Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972). All three titles are currently available on FilmStruck and they come with my highest recommendation, but today I’d like to focus my attention on Le Cercle Rouge (aka The Red Circle, 1970). Like Farewell, Friend (1968) which I spotlighted last week, Le Cercle Rouge is another caper in the tradition of Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Rififi (1955) but it is a more rewarding, somber and stylistic film thanks to Melville’s brilliant direction. It also contains one of the most accomplished performances in Delon’s impressive oeuvre.

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Honor Among Thieves: Farewell, Friend (1968)

FAREWELL FRIEND (aka ADIEU L'AMI), from left: Alain Delon, Charles Bronson, 1968

To view Farewell, Friend click here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion

In the tradition of classic French heist films such as Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Rififi (1955) and Bob le flambeur (1956), Farewell, Friend (aka Honor Among Thieves, 1968) takes viewers on a treacherous adventure where femme fatales lurk around every shadowy corner and crime rarely pays. But that doesn’t stop some fortune hunters from risking everything to make a quick buck or in this case, repay a debt to a dead man.

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Dueling Delons: Spirits of the Dead (1968)

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To view Spirits of the Deadclick here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion

In the 1960s anthology (also known as omnibus or portmanteau) films became extremely popular and were attractive to producers who wanted to appeal to a broad range of viewers. The segmented format also encouraged audiences to make multiple trips to the concession stand, which pleased theater owners. Sex comedies were particularly trendy but the most successful anthologies appealed to horror fans.

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Let’s Go Crazy with Betty Blue (1986)

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To view Betty Blue click here.

We might have a few NSFW films lurking around here at FilmStruck (1974′s Sweet Movie springs to mind right off the bat), but for my money, nothing you could watch here at this moment combines the beautiful and the shocking in quite the same way as Betty Blue (1986). An intense and visually striking saga of amour fou, this was the third film by the remarkably unprolific Jean-Jacques Beineix, still most famous on these shores for one of the biggest crossover art house French films ever, Diva (1981). Since then he’s been a cinematic mad scientist of sorts (with only six narrative features to his credit so far), and this would be the only film of his to get American distribution of any kind in theaters. [...MORE]

The French Revolution: La Marseillaise (1938)

LA MARSEILLAISE, left: Maurice Toussaint on French poster art, 1938.

To view La Marseillaise, click here.

“It took me some time to understand that, for him, ideas had little meaning in themselves, and that all that mattered in his eyes was the personality of the individual expressing them.” – Alain Renoir on his father

La Marseillaise (1938) was made under intense political pressure, both from the censorious right and the Popular Front left, who partially funded this depiction of the French Revolution. Jean Renoir ended up making a film that pleased neither, depicting not the broad strokes of history but the idiosyncrasies of its individual actors. As Andre Bazin put it, Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.” It obscures the larger political movements but pauses for details like how the soldiers pad their boots or what Louis XVI thinks of tomatoes (he’s pro). After the supernova success of Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir had big plans to capture a larger panorama of the revolution, but kept whittling it down to a few engaging personalities, until we are left with a couple of hotheaded revolutionary Marseilles comrades and the aloofly charming Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir), who seems oblivious to the power shift happening right outside his doors. And yes, this marks the triumphant (?) return of my Jean Renoir series, which will run through August.

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Whatever Lola (1961) Wants, She Has To Wait For

Lola (1961 France) Directed by Jacques Demy Shown: Anouk Aimée

To view Lola click here.

Jacques Demy came up right along with the rest of the French New Wave but his reputation didn’t have the same edge. While Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais acquired a rep for groundbreaking work, Demy was too in love with both the Hollywood musical form and the sweeping camera of Max Ophüls to gain the same overseas cachet as the rest of the gang. Even being as close as he was to one of the most pioneering and acclaimed members of that group, the great Agnès Varda (his wife), Demy preferred the romantic and sentimental breeziness of the 1950s musical. His first feature film, Lola(1961), achieves a beautiful balance between the musical and the new wave with the sweeping camera of Ophüls thrown in for good measure. And all of it done without being a musical at all. Almost.

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Message or Muddle? Story of Women (1988)

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To view Story of Women click here.

The first thing we see is Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert) playing with her children. She’s an attentive mother and, we soon find out, is surviving during wartime as best she can. There is not a lot of money for food and clothes, much less bills and upkeep. One morning, after waking up her children, she heads downstairs to retrieve her coffee mill from a neighbor only to find her sitting in a tub of mustard water. When Marie asks why, her neighbor tells her it’s because she is pregnant and with her husband soon shipping off, they don’t want the baby. Marie tells her mustard water won’t work and takes it upon herself to perform the abortion. Has Marie done this before? When asked, she indicates she hasn’t and simply wonders how hard can it be. That is how Story of Women, the movie based on the real life exploits of Marie-Louise Giraud, begins and by its end we are left without a clear statement from the film as to where her life stands. Were we given a message, or simply left in a muddle? The short answer for me is neither. The long answer to come is a bit more involved.

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All Hail Queen Margot (1994)

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To view Queen Margot click here.

Anyone who read my appraisal of The Brontë Sisters (1979) a little while ago shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorite actresses of all time is Isabelle Adjani, who had a significant impact on my young moviegoing mind in the 1980s and early 1990s. Her list of towering French and English language performances is formidable, but the fact that she’s rarely been seen on American screens in recent years speaks more to the state of our foreign film scene than her work as an actress. The last Adjani star vehicle to make a significant splash here was Queen Margot (1994), which was released as an awards contender by Miramax in December of that year. In a familiar Miramax move, the film was drastically shortened (by 15 minutes) and given a somewhat puzzling romantic ad campaign, which ended up shocking moviegoers who instead got a bloody tale of regal and religious treachery and violence. Don’t worry; the version running now on FilmStruck as part of our “Regicide!” theme is the original 158-minute director’s cut! [...MORE]

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