Books


Austerity of Style

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 408; 10 November 1957.

A King in New York

In this quixotic narrative, whose only point of reference is the central character, various themes intertwine as they do in music. This style goes hand in hand with the expression of a complex reality that words can hardly express: everything can be both irritating and pleasant. “Life would be dull without all these worries”, affirms King Shahdov. Hiding behind the hysteria of rock’n’roll is the beauty and sensitivity of a night club singer. Polemist, Chaplin still is, but having become wiser and more lucid with old age, he towers over events and ideologies.

His style? He presents facts without technical affectation and in a very concise manner (see the revolution scene), but lingers over that which seems secondary to us. Every other scene is a discussion in a hotel room, an interlude but also a reflection of reality: modern life alternates action with the rhythm of a telephone. The triteness with which the scenes are presented without relief only increases the force of the smallest original notation, be it dramatic – the young hero’s tears – or comic – Dawn Addams’ play with legs in the shower – or the king’s abrupt emotional attack.

Like all creators, Chaplin forces himself into extreme austerity. Dramatic surprise is avoided, the gags pitilessly dissected and the end effect predictable from a long way away (see the fire hose). Product of subtractions more than additions, the result is better, bringing to cream pies their intellectual coefficient.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Nothing but Facts

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 383; 23 June 1957.

Men in War

If war movies make for the best box office in America, they are also highly subject to commercial and philosophical conventions. And rarely has this amalgam been rewarding: From Here to Eternity or Attack (whose last shot is reprised here in contrast), despite their audacities, don’t entirely win us over. Men in War, last of the series, rejects both philosophical theories and traditional psychology about the small group. The synopsis is extremely barebones: in the course of the Korean War, seventeen American soldiers separated from their division must, in order to get back on track, conquer “Hill 465”. Only two of them will make it. To mention a few elements of secondary interest borrowed from the original novel – war novels today are constructed on the image of films: the Black foot-soldier with a soft heart, the paralyzed colonel and his hot-headed companion. But these bits of information, rather than being harnessed by the mise en scène, are neglected in favour the mystery that the simplicity of each character’s traits hints at. Anthony Mann likes heroes who are all of a piece since these are the richest. Each of them being more or less crudely stereotyped, it would have been easy for him, as it is for his peers, to fill his hundred minutes of film with detailed psychological analyses, tedious dialogue about homesickness. He didn’t do that: at one point, the exhausted captain looks at the photo of his wife and kids. This simplicity of trait has all the power of evidence.

This new style is to be explained by the fact that we are dealing with the work of a metteur en scène and not that of an auteur. And, for once, it’s for the better. There’s nothing here that isn’t justified by some notion of a purely physical order. For example, the character of the sergeant is a purely cinematographic creation: he is fascinated by the immobility of his paralyzed colonel, which contrasts with this ever-changing world, and devotes great care to him. “Tell me the story of the foot-soldier, and I will tell you the story of all wars”, goes the epigraph. And the story of the foot-soldiers is summarized through an accumulation of facts: the best shots of the films depict soldiers, dishevelled, sweaty but always active, the one scratching himself, the one removing his shoes in fatigue, the one contorting on ground, the one struck down dead with a weapon in hand, like a Hugo hero (played remarkably by Anthony Ray, son of the director); others show us, thanks to excellent photography, all the sparse “black and white colours” across nature, shadows of clouds that cover combatants in darkness, the sun that seeps through the woods, the blades of grass of unreal tones that form the real setting for the battle. One should also note some very nice ideas, the paralyzed colonel getting cured suddenly while mechanically holding the cigarette he smokes, the sergeant who pretends not to see the enemies on his heels and kills them in one blow, the lieutenant’s clenched fist on which the film closes.

Despite inspired by a classicism of admirable reserve, Men in War could be criticized for some overly studied shot sequences, especially the first one, for some borrowings from the crude art of ellipses, the radio face cut in two by the framing, the militiaman’s hand spread over the tree he hides behind, a soldier’s death seen through the movement of his feet. But the discretion of the mise en scène that seeks, most of all, the effectiveness of a simple and unique detail, there where others prefer to disperse interest, succeeds in imposing itself on us. Let’s note, finally, the remarkable musical score by Elmer Bernstein (whose services are sought by the greatest directors today).

Is Men in War warmongering or anti-militarist? I would be hard pressed to say since it’s one of those rare films whose impartiality we can praise. The work of a man preoccupied solely by appearances and their infinite richness, it allows us to see, and therein lies the essential. Up to you to make up your own mind.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Frozen in Hate

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 392; 21 July 1957.

The Last Hunt

We know that almost all Westerns are of great topical interest. The journey back in time gets the viewer interested in political theses and it gives progressive filmmakers a greater latitude in establishing their ideas.

The Last Hunt, like certain other films by director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value) attacks racism: it tells us the struggle of two buffalo hunters, who have directly contradictory ideas about their professions, at the turn of last century. Charlie kills for the pleasure of killing; Sandy needs money and is repulsed by the massacre he commits. This contrast explains the attitude of the two heroes towards their fellowmen. Charlie has a profound contempt for Indians, whom he kills every time he has the chance, and for humanity in general. Disgusted, Sandy leaves, taking with him the squaw who refused Charlie’s animal love. The last hunt is not to be, since Charlie, on watch outside Sandy’s refuge one winter night, dies in the cold. This statue of ice from the film’s last images – the evil eye, revolver in hand – resumes in a striking way the sterility, impotence and the ridiculousness of ultimately self-destructive, racist hate.

The intelligence of Brooks’ scenario lies in the fact that it explains the conflicts of a racial order through psychological motifs, through the taste for violence: killing Indians or massacring buffaloes helps satisfy one’s unhealthy needs without being pursued by justice. In contrast to literature, like that of a number of directors from across the Atlantic (Losey’s The Lawless, Biberman’s Salt of the Earth), it refuses pure and simple racism and relates it to the vagaries of individual conscience with great objectivity.

However, the film takes into account only one aspect of the problem, whereas the transposition should have allowed it broach more burning topics without fear of repercussions: if racial prejudice still exists in the United States, it’s to be explained first of all by a certain intellectual movement, typically of academic origin and completely alien to the desire for violence. Discrimination today affects Whites too, who are now victims of Blacks or, especially, dissident Whites, as much as it does Blacks.

Richard Brooks’ well-known honesty, so far rewarded, finds its limits here and the mise en scène affirms both the high and low points of the script. The Last Hunt is a curious Western, extremely slow and barely commercial. Brooks substitutes for the application and inventive sobriety of his previous films a somewhat belaboured sobriety. And there’s no contradiction between these two propositions: it’s a question of placing the characters within a framework that eliminates elements foreign to the psychology and the intentions of the auteur, particularly grand spectacle, fights and situation scenes. But if this kind of intellectual cinema is new and more probing than in the rare films that inaugurated it, is it desirable? Does it indicate progress? It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the anti-racist plea would’ve found a greater force in the exploitation of genre conventions than in this rather literary style, which instils – deliberately, I believe – sadness, boredom, barrenness through a sluggish narrative, perpetually dark colour palette and uncertain direction of actors.

These comments don’t stem from a misplaced sense of severity. The suspension of the mise en scène can be explained by the orientation of the script: the film describes beings in flight, real bodies without soul, and their blood-tainted existence. One must recall the splendid final image in this regard, which justifies the film’s style to the letter. None of this is cheerful. If The Last Hunt stands the test of time, it’s perhaps because the cinematographer, Russell Harlan, foremost of the chief operators in Hollywood, has been able to pin down this curious universe in images and because Stewart Granger and especially Robert Taylor, who gets his best role here, have been able to “embody” beings who are tortured and tormented for no reason other than the emptiness of their conscience, beings “devoid of life”.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

A “Nonsense” Gem

Arts no. 471; 23 September 1959.

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

We aren’t surprised that Passez muscade, whose original title is the deliciously euphonic and mysterious Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, appears in France some eighteen years after it was made. This attempt, which the Surrealists gladly categorize among the twenty greatest dates in the history of cinema, perhaps constitutes the best example of nonsense offered to us on screen. W. C. Fields’ film, like Hellzapoppin’ which follows it chronologically, goes farther than the Marx Brothers without however equalling them. And the public is likely to express its frustration by a certain reserve.

The champions of nonsense for the sake of nonsense will praise it to the skies for its intentional alone. Those who hate nonsense will leave the theatre furious at the end of fifteen minutes. However, in fact, if this film is so amusing, it’s somewhat despite the nonsense. Because the idea of this genre is to go against all established rules, especially those of good taste, quality and reason. To put it simply, let’s say that the result tends to become better when the film becomes worse. The critic has nothing to counter this perfectly-founded argument, all the more so because Fields has thought ahead. Through a device often reused since, he tells us the story of a crazy old actor who submits a nonsensical script to a director, a script which will obviously be rejected but whose unfolding on screen we follow.

To be sure, it’s not unpleasant to see the cinematic materialization of automatic writing, which so far has seemed to be the domain of animation. Animation makes everything possible and it’s been a long time since the viewer has batted an eyelid to such excess of improbability. On the other hand, the unreality of the filmed image, rarely highlighted, strikes us at every step. These mad car races, these inaccessible rocky peaks, these free falls of the hero across space fire our imagination. But a film like Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, which accepts the laws of logic, is ten times funnier, ten times truer and also ten times more beautiful. To discover the real through falsehood, or falsehood through the real, is a more successful approach than that of Fields, forced to remain forever in a purely critical universe.

The absurd soon becomes tiresome and the amusing aspects that remain could also have been part of a more realistic and commercial movie. I’m thinking of the beautiful scenes between Fields and the bar owner, between the director and his young actress. Such observational humour, which has no place in a burlesque and which is generally banished from the Marx brothers’ films, is ultimately Fields’ greatest success.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

CICIM Munich no. 22-23; June 1988.

Le Pont du Nord

French cinema of the last few years is based, above all, on the personality of its directors. To trace great trends in it runs the risk of giving a false impression since they are often foreign or contrary to the personality of the leading filmmakers, who run the risk of being sidestepped by our desire for generalization.

We then run the risk of forgetting unclassifiable auteurs or ones in constant evolution such as Demy, Varda, Biette, Gainsbourg, Serreau or Depardon. We run the risk of forgetting a very important stylistic principle such as Robert Bresson’s Partitivism: in his framing, the director of Lancelot du lac indeed tends to isolate one part of the body, to exclude the head, to favour an object or a series of objects, the moment the interest of the image seems hinged on this body part.

But if one had to absolutely put a label on current French cinema, I’d say that it’s a school of hazard. If the preceding decades had produced an art very much planned out in advance, one which attained its limits because of the permanent repetition of this premeditation, contemporary filmmakers, on the other hand, set out on in search of hazard, which alone seems to be capable of bringing something new. We have here Rozier, Rivette, Pialat, who, in the course of the film (Maine Océan, Le Pont du Nord, À nos amours), veer off into a fascinating, unplanned direction. Even a super-classical filmmaker like Rohmer adopted this practice in Le Rayon vert. This is also the working principle of the magnificent Petite suite vénetienne made by Pascal Kané and of Godard’s films. We even find a premeditated hazard in Bergala (Faux-Fuyants, Où que tu sois), whose scripts set off in directions which (wrongly) seem the products of chance. More simply, such hazard can be discovered by the actor’s improvisation (in Doillon, in Téchiné).

That brings us to a cinema of actors, hinged on the expression of emotions binding two or more characters together. A cinema that replaces social tapestry with bourgeois individualism so criticized by the Marxists. That’s normal for a country like France which, in the past forty years, hasn’t really know great crises: neither famine, nor revolution or dictatorship or war.  This is the cinema of Rohmer, who strikes us with his exacerbated minimalism, of Doillon, whose psychoanalytic sense is in struggle with a taste for improvisation and in whose work love comes about through the artificial creation of a conflict, a breakup, of Pialat, of Breillat (Tapage nocturne) and often of Truffaut (La Femme d’à côté).

There is also a cinema founded on the grandeur of the image which, except in Garrel, seems independent of the principle above. Contrary to what one might suppose, this essentially visual cinema, full of light and shadow effects (Garrel, Bard, Azimi, Duras) is often a broke cinema with a precarious existence. A new variant is the music-video-movie (Beineix and, on a more elaborate level, Carax): every shot wants to be a masterpiece and is built on a strong conception of lighting. But this is often at the expense of the story, if by misfortune, there is a story.

Another characteristic is the dissociation of image and sound, which we find in Hanoun, Duras, Straub, Godard, Ruiz, a new variation on counterpoint as defined by the Russians in 1930. The most famous example is the noise of seagulls over Parisian metro in Godard’s films – a way of glorifying both elements through their contrast, where an audiovisual coincidence usually tends to put the viewer to sleep.

Counterpoint doesn’t stop there in Godard. It is systematized, extended to other elements every time it can be, notably to the relation between different parts of the image. Ruiz, on the other hand, narrates a fantastic story on trivial images (Brise-glace, L’Hypothèse du tableau vole).

In France, there is a family of dark humourists (Mocky, Blier, Marboeuf, Grand-Jouan, Sentier). There is also a whole new art born of the economic necessity of shooting quickly (one to three weeks for Vecchiali, Duras, Biette). We also notice writer-filmmakers moving from one mode of expression to another with the greatest of ease. Among the golden quartet of current literature (Weyergans, Duras, Breillat, Cavanna), three of the four have made films. Rohmer alternates between theatre and cinema. Pierre Kast has been able write a novel, Le Bonheur ou le Pouvoir, the same year he made a film, Le Soleil en face, which are both of high quality. End of specialization…

We also find classical filmmakers of quality (Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut), who – the first two at least – are faithful to a traditional structure in the same genre. More generally in the past few years, we notice a return to narrativity, to a more classical presentation, the structuralist and poetic audacities of post-1968 tending to disappear perhaps under the influence of commercial censorship or self-censorship. It’s difficult today to imagine non-narrative films like those of Bard or Silvina Boissonas, even of Garrel. On the other hand, there is a public and critical consensus towards narrative forms like those of Chabrol and Rohmer, quite identical from one film to another, which allows for a certain perfection but also carries the risk of fossilization. French cinema, like the Italian one, tends to become a cinema of the old. At Venice in 1984, French cinema was represented – brilliantly for that matter – by the four great Rs: Rouch, Rohmer, Resnais, Rivette, with an average age of sixty-two. In contrast, the fifties generation has brought us no revelation whatsoever till date.

Experimentation seems to be reserved for certain senior filmmakers who can have their way thanks to their reputation: Resnais, whose every new film constitutes a challenge, a wager, Duras, who approaches her themes through successive recurrence of undulatory movements, Godard.

Ever since Jack Lang became the Minister of Culture (1981-1986), France is also the host country for foreigners like Hollywood once was: South-Americans (Ruiz, Jodorowsky, Santiago, Solanas), North-Americans (Kramer, Berry), Algerians (Allouache), Japanese (Oshima), Italians (Monicelli, Ferreri), Egyptians (Chahine), Polish (Zulawski, Polanski, Wajda, Borowczyk), Greek (Papatakis), Belgians (Akerman), Portuguese (Oliveira), Dutch (Ivens), which makes the notion of nationality often outdated.

Another surprising aspect is the pre-eminence of meteors, exceptional films overlooking an uneven or disappointing body of work (Blier’s Tenue de soirée, Deville’s Dossier 51) or other unique or near-unique works (Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Koleva’s L’État de bonheur permenante, Dubroux’s Les Amants terribles, Breillat’s Tapage nocturne, Rouqier’s Biquefarre, Devers’ Noir et Blanc). Isolated bodies of work like those of Lampedusa, Clarin, Chamisso, Lautréamont, Lowry. This unsettles a number of people in the country where the politique des auteurs was born.

We can also list negative commonalities: predominance of crime movies, highly stylized photography working against the film, moral anachronisms (soixante-huitard behaviour in films set in the past), virtuoso verbalism of the characters for the dialogue writer to showboat with, leftist boyscoutism, where we find nothing more than in the day’s edition of Libération, overload of plot twists to avoid slow passages, lack of first-hand information about the milieux described, endless repetition of characters’ chief trait etc.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Journal de la SRF no. 7; February 1982.

Sauve qui peut la vie

The best films in France today have, for the most part, what is called a “reduced” audience: between 15,000 and 1,000 viewers for Femmes femmes, J’ai voulu rire comme les autres, Passe-Montagne, Le Berceau de Cristal, Courts-circuits, Guns, Rue du Pied-de-Grue, Dora, Daguerréotypes, Vincent mit l’ane…, In girum imus nocte…,Sérail, L’Automne, Agatha, Out One, Dehors dedans, Paradiso, Le Jardinier…

The responsibility for these “failures” is often attributed to a non-conformity to the standardization imposed by the Big Villain, the three-headed oligopoly. But that’s to forget that the situation is similar, or worse, in our neighbouring countries without an oligopoly (Benelux, Switzerland) and that, in most of these cases, the Big Three have done what they could… That’s to say very little. For the problem is more serious: there is a refusal by the majority of the viewers to leave their house to go to the movies.

Hence the importance of television, our staple medium, over which our attachment to the past often prefers theatrical screenings. Let’s recall Gilson’s La Brigade: 3,000 theatrical admissions, 9 million television viewers.

It’s viewers who push the oligopoly (which sometimes prefers the nice role of the patron of the arts) towards standardization through trends, genres, and guaranteed names so that their precious time away from home and the money they spend are a sure investment while the quality of the films could only be the product of copyists.

Over eighty years, this demand for standardized products, reinforced by the capitalists of silent cinema, has continued to a point where, for a lot of viewers, the notion of quality has become one with the notion of standard. Especially in France, the cradle of an old, tired civilization, much less open to difference than the American and the African ones. For proof, you just have to look at all the customers who walked out of the aforementioned films midway.

It’s difficult to overwhelm the viewer when we, the filmmakers, ask retailers for the same cigarettes, the same aprons, beefsteaks, rump steaks, the same brand of shirts through the years.

And how could a viewer appreciate Rivette, De Gregario or Kast if he doesn’t know South-American literature (which too has a readership in France of less than 15,000), an indispensable stage in the thought process of these filmmakers? Can he appreciate Grandperret’s sense of ellipse if he has never tried his hand at editing and if he hasn’t been exasperated like us by the humdrum of the dominant narrative? If he watches ten films a year, isn’t it normal that, like the non-filmmaker creators in Cannes juries, he finds originality in the standardized product that we, after two hundred viewings a year, hate?

From Matisse to Schoenberg, from Joyce to Calder, from Beckett to Straub, contemporary art tends to be an art for the initiated. Is it possible to appreciate modern painting without having followed every step of its evolution over the last hundred years? Can we like a book without learning the language? Renoir, who passes for a popular filmmaker, said that, of the five thousand customers at Gaumont-Palace, only five really saw the film. By this measure, are the viewers of “hits” like Providence or Sauve qui peut really more in number than those of Duras or Hanoun?

That’s why the chief problem of French cinema will not be resolved by economic planning, but by the compulsory teaching of cinema at school, the analysis of films and the study of the evolution of cinema on television channels.

Teaching literature at school can be questioned. But it’s thanks to it that we don’t praise Ponson du Terrail to the detriment of Stendhal, Delly or Des Cars instead of Bernanos or Proust. On the other hand, they tell you: L’Arche perdue, les Baskets and the Disney factory over Duras, Garrel and Rivette.

The public must be changed.

Another major problem: earlier, the spectator used to make his choice based on the theatre, the genre and the star. Today, he also tends to choose according to the auteur of the film. To such a point that very few great filmmakers succeed in concealing themselves behind the genre or the actor. They are automatically assimilated into “auteur cinema”. In the olden days, before being a film by X or Y, Monsieur Lange passed for a crime movie by Jules Berry, La Petite Lise and La Vénus aveugle for serial melodramas. Les Dames du bois de Boulogne for a worldly drama by Paul Bernard. La Ronde for a bawdy film. These at least had their share of guaranteed earnings as genre films or star films – something which would be impossible today.

The tragedy is that the public which demands auteurs, unless it spends its entire life at the movies, can only “absorb” a limited number of these auteurs, those which constitute a must, in general one per country, Bergman, Saura, Wajda, Tarkovsky, S. Ray. In France, there are Truffaut and Resnais, and, in the standing room, Rohmer, Godard, and then Lelouch-Sautet-Tavernier-Blier (even if their status as auteurs is questioned). The others are in the anteroom.

Now, in France there are a hundred auteurs, another hundred pretending to be, and another thousand waiting for the chance to prove that they are auteurs. The “politique des auteurs” has thus created a gigantic garbage. Solution? Make double-billing compulsory to include an ‘arthouse’ film, encourage increase in production methods and video distribution. Create the idea of a regional auteur through a quota for regional films, eating a little into international auteurs. Promote a larger number of French auteurs at the expense of fake auteurs (Schlöndorff, Ken Russell, Scola).

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

[I wrote this long review of Textes Critiques, the complete collection of Jacques Rivette’s film criticism issued by Post-Éditions, earlier this year.]

Textes Critiques

Jean-Luc Godard quipped that his criticism represented a kind of cinematic terrorism. Serge Daney said his writing taught him not to be afraid to see. The Parisian publishing house Post-Éditions has made available a long overdue collection of his articles in French to decide for ourselves. Jacques Rivette became a filmmaker even before he became a critic. When he came to Paris from Rouen in 1950, he had already completed a short film, unlike Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer or Chabrol, his colleagues-to-be at Cahiers du cinéma and later fellow New Wave directors. By his own admission, he never wanted to be a film critic, not in the traditional sense of the term. But, considering his own dictum that “a true critique of a film can only be another film,” he never ceased to be one.

Textes Critiques as an object has the appearance of a cinephilic totem: half-a foot in size, portable, with a French flap cover in black and white featuring only an evocative photo of the author taken by Truffaut in 1950. The minimal outer design flows into the volume, a collection of Rivette’s writings devoid of photographs, film stills or images of any other kind‑an austere presentation that reflects the solemn quality of Rivette’s texts. Apart from an insightful introduction by co-editor Luc Chessel, there’s no extra fat to go with the articles: no biographical sketches, testimonies or commentaries. In other words, you don’t get any information about Rivette’s early years, his gravitation towards cinema, his activity during the months he didn’t publish reviews, the momentous “putsch” of 1963 at Cahiers or the (in)famous December ’63 special on American cinema running over 250 pages that appeared under his editorship, partly responsible for driving the magazine to the verge of bankruptcy.

Collected in the first of the five sections of the book are all of Rivette’s writing between 1950 and 1965: about 75 pieces, most of them published in Gazette du cinémaCahiers du cinéma and Arts. The second chapter is a re-publication of an extended discussion between Rivette, Jean Narboni, and Sylvie Pierre from 1969 on the topic of montage. The third, short section is a collection of tributes to André Bazin, Truffaut, and Henri Langlois, while the fourth brings together nine unpublished articles. Among the latter is a valuable collection of entries from a diary Rivette maintained between 1955 and 1961—a series of short, Bresson-like maxims, theoretical pilots and notes-to-self. The book ends with an insightful interview between Rivette and Hélène Frappat on the question of what makes an object of art worth critical consideration. No explanation is offered as to why the discussion on montage (published without the accompanying photograms or its original four-column format) merited selection over any of Rivette’s other roundtables at Cahiers or why the Hélène Frappat interview is more befitting a concluding chapter than any other interview with the cineaste. Ce qui est, est.

The mode of address is clearly different between the pieces from Cahiers and those from Arts. While the former’s specialized audience and acknowledged partisanship gives Rivette—and his young colleagues—license to passionate excesses, emphatic declarations and mystical aphorisms, the wide readership of Arts imparts discipline and argumentative clarity to the articles. Yet Rivette’s prose remains complex, constructed with long sentences and hefty theoretical arguments. Like the American critic Manny Farber, he feels no obligation to even summarily describe the plot, the cast or the circumstances of a film’s production. The focus is squarely on setting up the polemic or deriving general precepts about the seventh art.

In “Critic Going Everywhere,” Donald Phelps characterized Farber’s film criticism as multi-directional, gnawing away at the peripheries of what a film has to offer and “getting as far away as possible from any point, any centripetal force.” Rivette’s writing reaches outward too, frequently spiraling away from the film at hand to arrive at a provisional theory of all cinema—a theory that is always in the making, redefined and refined with every new encounter with the screen. Thus, a commentary on Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) serves as a launchpad for a meditation of the tension between reality and cinema. An evaluation of Alexandre Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres (1955) becomes a demonstration of the possible ways of talking about a debut work. A review of Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) provides an occasion for revaluating all post-war American cinema.

Yet, Rivette’s is far from an academic approach that takes films as mere evidence for substantiating a theory. These centrifugal reflections emanating from a single film are nevertheless rooted in it, enabled by it. When he concludes, in a review of Angel Face (1953), “What is cinema but the play of the actor and the actress, of the hero and the décor, of the word and the face, of the hand and the object?”, Rivette is offering as much an appreciation of the specific pleasures of Preminger’s new film as a general manner of looking at the cinema. Despite the constant evolution of Rivette’s critical position, several concerns have a permanent presence in his writing, almost all of them rooted, incredibly enough, in the sparkling, lucid first essay he published at the age of 22, “Nous ne sommes plus innocents” (1950), in the Bulletin of the Latin Quarter Cine-club run by Maurice Schérer.

Le cinéma et l’argent, Nathan, 1999.

Publication edited by Laurent Creton.

Paris set for Les Amants du Pont Neuf

An unusual event took place in the autumn of 1991. A film came out, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and everyone knew that it was one of the most expensive films, if not the most expensive, in the history of French cinema: 130 million francs! But the extraordinary thing wasn’t that. The most troubling element about Léos Carax’s film was that the major part of the money spent couldn’t be seen on screen. A series of unfortunate coincidences, reshoots in new sets and a somewhat careless management had contributed to raise the budget to over 100 million francs for a film that, on screen, appears to have cost 30, after having initially been planned for an artisanal shoot in 16mm. Everyone, the industry and the audience, was aware of this incongruity. But it was what was to attract the attention of viewers and help the film have a brilliant run, which would’ve been very satisfactory had it cost 30 million, but was catastrophic for a work of 130. An astounding number of articles were dedicated to events surrounding the film before its release. A striking contrast with the reviews of the film themselves, which didn’t exceed standard length and even suffered from the exclusivity granted to the analysis of the shoot. Everyone was dying to see the film. And I remember very well that I went to the first show of the film burning with impatience.

For most people, the interest wasn’t as much in going to see a good film as in finding out how one could spend so much money, where it all went, and in gazing at the monster. You went to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf like you read the delectable annual report of the accounting office that denounces various kinds of waste in the administration’s spending. Most viewers were aware that their desire to know that couldn’t be fulfilled since the money wasn’t to be seen in the result.

The colossal publicity for made for these Amants—there was even a film about the film—cost nothing: journalists thronged to get more information, so there was no need for a flashy campaign or scores of advertising billboards. The promotion cost for a film that enjoyed two hundred and sixty thousand admission in Paris region was rather small: it was as small as the shooting budget was extravagant. You could even wonder if the entire affair wasn’t a brilliant bluff, if the budget wasn’t disproportionately blown up just in order to get all this free publicity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. There’ve been such cases before: every evening of the shoot of Foolish Wives (Stroheim, 1921), Universal put up fictional numbers purporting to show the ongoing cost of the film’s production at Times Square; or the wily Russell Birdwell, PR agent for Alamo made by John Wayne in 1959, who publicised a highly exaggerated total cost in order to garner the sympathy of exhibitors, who extended the film’s run in their theatres, and in order to increase the interest of voters in the Oscar race.

A pure concept

We can cite two examples which come close to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but producers are careful not to acknowledge that the money can’t be seen in the result, even if the observer wonders where it could all have gone. The trick lies in making sure that no one has the idea or the cheek to raise the question of wastage. The difference arises from the fact that, in Les Amants, the wastage took place during the shoot, involuntarily, while, in the films we are about to study, it was in some ways anticipated even before the first day of shoot.

Jean de Florette (Berri, 1984) was produced in a budget of 59 million francs (of which 13 were above-the-line costs for star actors and auteurs, which is not excessive). So 46 million was spent on the rest, whereas we “see” 15 or 20 at most on screen: only five shooting locations – Jean de Florette’s house, that of Papet, the two villages, the scrubland – in natural settings within a radius of 500 kilometres, five principal actors, some secondary roles, some extras, no chase, no stunt, no short edits, no special effects (except one, a successful one at that), no sumptuous period costumes. The impression of poverty the film gives goes hand in hand with the material poverty of the protagonists. We really get the impression that if so much money was spent (although we can’t totally rule out a bluff, but I think it’s improbable) it was for the filmmakers to convince themselves that they haven’t left out anything, to say that they have spent a lot of money to impress the gallery, coproducers, distributors, exhibitors and the public.

More ambiguous is the case of Le Garçu (1995), which declares a budget of 67 million (of which 15 above-the-line for big names in the credits), even more expensive than the big spectacle of Captain Conan or Ridicule. I must say I almost died of laughter looking at the cost estimate of Garçu, since in no way does the result allow us to imagine a total cost of 50 million. I’m all the more comfortable saying that because the film is, in my opinion, a real masterpiece. It’s an intimate chronicle revolving around a few characters, featuring only one really popular actor at the box-office. Considering the fact that Pialat shoots a lot of takes and sometimes reshoots a part of his film afterwards, we could estimate the visible cost of Garçu at a maximum of 15 million. We can doubt the veracity of the declared budget here: the astounding figure of 7 million for copyright (music and royalties, while the script and dialogues were mostly improvised), or the equivalent of the total cost of two or three Rohmers!

We can notice a similarity with Jean de Florette: both films feature Gérard Depardieu, who appears in the cost estimate against an amount that’s modest for his reputation. Does this mean that Depardieu only accepts to participate in films with a very high budget, official or real? Or that, as soon as Depardieu comes on board, producers manage to increase costs so as to implicate all economic collaborators a little more, to have fun or to even inflate their contribution to the virtual general expenses? Perhaps it was also, in this particular case, a way to prepare for the overspending that Pialat was accustomed to. Difficult to say.

These three different cases illustrate the phenomenon of stated and not-apparent money. Observers take the classification of expensive films at face value without questioning it. Money is a purely abstract concept and nothing else.

This principle can also be applied in reverse: films that cost very less, but seem luxurious. This is how, thanks to its lighting and constant innovation, The Blind Owl (Raoul Ruiz, 1987), which must’ve cost about 5 million francs, appears infinitely richer than Jean de Florette, despite its budget of 59 million. A costume drama like Let Joy Reign Supreme (Bertrand Tavernier) could be completed in 1975 for 4 million: a miracle that we are hard put to explain. The five hours of Jacques Rivette’s Jeanne d’Arc (1993), for little more than 20 million… movies made in developing countries could boast of an absolutely phenomenal quality-price ratio (Farewell My Concubine, Antonio Das Mortes, The Holy Mountain, Oliveira’s No).

Or, simply, the set decorator’s shrewdness enables some incredible savings: we know that, for Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949), the brilliant Cameron Menzies had come up with a prism system that could multiply the number of extras seen on screen manifold.

We’re dealing here with an international phenomenon in both ways, in profligacy as well as in parsimony: we know, for instance, that many American productions for major companies have their budgets blown up by their distributors/financiers, thanks to the inclusion of imaginary or useless general expenses. On the other hand, the scenarios we are about to examine below seem to be typically or exclusively French.

Bluffs

When we have the means to turn over the cards of this strange game, it appears that the official budget of French films, as they figure in the Centre du Cinéma magazine (CNC info) differ markedly from reality, at least as far as modestly-budgeted films are concerned. A precise report written by a student of Paris III estimates, after an interview with the director, the cost price of Inner City (Richet, 1994) at 430,000 francs. The number quoted by CNC info is 2,010,000 francs, 469% of the real cost. Two years after the answer print of one of my films, my producer gave me a final summary of expenses: 36,000 francs. However, the CNC quotation reached 250,000 francs, 694% of the real cost. And yet, I can’t boast of having set a record.

A Jean Rouch film produced by Pierre Braunberger around 1962 is said to have crossed the sound barrier, with more than 1000%. One only needs to add a zero… In general, we see differences that are less stupefying. Let’s say that, on an average, you must divide the stated cost by two to get the real cost. I will cite some personal examples: 210,000 in place of 410,000, or 110,000 in place of 310,000, or 2,200,000 substituting 4,400,000, or 450,000 in place of 1,191,000. And my case is not at all particular. A recent Italian co-production, The Second Time, is declared at 21 million, while, upon viewing, we’d peg it rather at 8 million. The 11 million of The Phantom Heart (Garrel, 1995) are to be reduced probably to 5. These overestimations are sometimes compensated by underestimations that afflict the most expensive films.

These subterfuges aren’t of the same order at all as those evoked at the beginning of this chapter, where the differences between stated numbers and visible spending were voluntary on the part of the producer, no matter that the film was too ostentatious or this ostentation was simulated. In this new category, the differences are neither desired nor taken upon by the producer. They are imposed on him by the Administration. In France, the production of a film is indeed dependent on authorization, the CNC giving its approval only if the film seems expensive enough to be seen through to completion, that is to say more expensive than the real cost of the film, even if the gap has tended to narrow since the middle of the 1990s.

Why this perpetual hiatus? Between 1947 and 1959, the CNC was used to expensive studio productions. It could never accept the drop in expenses enabled by successful films of the Nouvelle Vague from 1958 on and which was made possible by, among other things, location shooting, decrease in number of technicians and the potential reduction of their salaries1. The technicians’ union, which oversees the committee in charge of dispensing production authorizations, tended to oppose films in which salaries were lower than the minimum professional wage fixed by it and whose number, in its view, was grossly reduced (minimum salary which, let it be said, wasn’t obligatory at all for non-unionized technicians and producers).

In conclusion, filmmakers were better off lying and declaring bloated salary numbers and sufficiently high fees before shooting. Failing to comply, a producer saw his file adjourned or rejected. The shoot, for which everything was carefully prepared, found itself pushed, with concomitant postponement fees (already-signed contracts and engagements) and logistical problems (rescheduling of a shoot that had to take place in a particular season to the following year). Subterfuge was a good tactic: it solved all problems and saved time in the dealings with the Administration.

This taste for overspending, rather pronounced among administrative personnel, stems not only from a nostalgia for the studio era. Government officers, just like politicians who are supposed to head them and for whom they are mistaken, love to see investments increasing. For them, anything that increases is good, anything that reduces is distressing. A director of production at the CNC, noticing that I had made my first feature film for very little money, 50,000 francs, told me: “Okay, I’ll let it pass this time, but I hope that you’ll make a more ambitious film next time…” “More ambitious” meant “more expensive”. I tactically refrained from contradicting him, but I said to myself: “What a moron!” For him, ambition meant spending more, whereas my film, which questioned the inanity of university teaching before May 1968, was one of the most ambitious of the year (and too ambitious, in my opinion). For these officers, victims of a bad education, the best of the best meant always more, spending more, earning more. A very dangerous principle of perpetual ascent that evokes the Tyrolian game picked up by game shows, and which leads straight to a breaking point, to the Tarpeian Rock, to Tex Avery’s King-Size Canary, where the canary becomes bigger than the earth.

At first, I naively proposed authentic cost estimates to the CNC, but the personnel at the Centre seemed alarmed by it. The best officer this organization ever had begged me to make an effort to blow up the estimate a little: “My higher-ups will laugh at my face if I hand them such a poor budget.” Seeing him distraught, I told him after some hesitation that I accepted his proposition. He then started wiping the sweat off his forehead, and I think he was grateful to me for my cooperation. This incident proves that his sense of reality was very diminished. He was the best officer and yet he lived in the clouds. His more strait-laced colleagues lived on the moon. Later, when I asked this good man what minimum estimate I should quote to the CNC for a feature-length project (“800,000 maybe?”), he agreed to accept a budget of 1 million, throwing his hands in the air: “I wonder how you can make a film that is to be shot in three continents under 1 million.” Well, the final cost of the film was 298,000 francs…

To be sure, almost all cinema professionals know well that cost estimates are fudged. A little internal machination that bothers no one… The problem is that a lot of them don’t know to what degree. Cinema officers are in fact the children of Mao, since communist China was reputed for its false statistics…The negative consequence of this system is that very official people, observers, international publications and five-year plans gulp down all the number-backed fabrications of the system without batting an eyelid and build castles in the sky with them2. The paradox is that the falser the numbers are, the more their disclosure swells. The officials fudge these misleading numbers a little more and firmly defend them since truth would cause trouble. Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

There are other factors that make bluffing inevitable: outside of rare exceptions, the CNC doesn’t give its approval for shooting if the advance granted reaches 50% of the cost estimate, or if the share of a French television exceeds this percentage (it will then be a telefilm), or if the producer’s contribution is less than 15% of the total (a legal obligation that was recently removed). Now, a rather in-vogue producer told me recently that no producer (except Seydoux, Berri and Fechner) invested money in a film outside of sometimes fictional general expenses and overhead risks; that shows how illusory this 15% is. Ultimately, even if the real estimate turns out to be acceptable by itself for the CNC, you must compulsorily “inflate” the expenses in accordance to the abovementioned percentages and especially – this is the greatest disadvantage of the system – “justify” a fictional investment.

The other disadvantage of the system is that, to increase the apparent cost of his film, the producer’s first (and easiest) approach consists of considerably increasing the royalty cost which, filed in public register, will initiate a drive on behalf of the Artists’ Welfare Office, eager to collect subscriptions based on this fictional amount.

This cover-up isn’t without its advantages for the producer (even if, in general, bluffing is not justified by money-mindedness at all). If the producer’s percentage on the revenue was to be limited according to his real investment, it would hardly reach the 7% that is the current norm for general expenses. The producer’s motivation to get good distribution for his film would then be very limited and would hence incite him into passivity, while with bluffing and his own fictional investments, he can get percentages going from 30% to 100% (considering that certain collaborators are not paid from the first franc of the revenue onwards).

This constant, playful inflation of investments is at once an exterior sign of health and a good reason for asking for aid and funds from the State and from everybody: these sums are so disproportionate that poor producers are hard put to make ends meet and more subsidies, more tax reliefs must be offered for cinema. Paradoxically, we could come to consider that the more statistics are fudged, the better films are (and vice versa). The forced inflation means that they are financed in unorthodox ways, which implies an originality lacking in most films.

Contrary to popular belief, these financial subterfuges aren’t just limited to production numbers. To a lesser degree, differences exist at the exhibition stage. This is how, in Film français, my Brigitte and Brigitte was declared as having had 22,155 admissions during its limited release in Paris. The data processed by the CNC, more exact, gives a figure of 19,357 admissions. It’s my distributor who inflated the numbers communicated to the press in order to help the film, to make provincial exhibitors believe in its money-making potential, and especially to cross the symbolic threshold of twenty thousand admissions. A good film like Muriel – ninety thousand admissions in Film français – probably had less than 50,000. It seems that this cover-up job isn’t possible anymore today, everyone having the right now to verify the reality of these numbers, but I hardly believe that: who’d have the time and the interest to verify this? The only difference is that overestimation is disallowed for champions of the box office, where the bluff would be too obvious.

There is always the possibility – rarely harnessed today, but once common among producers and distributors – to buy tickets to their own films upon their release. Film français won’t lie about the numbers, it’s the numbers themselves that will lie. I remember, for example, that the producer of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped had bought dozens of tickets in 1956 so that the film crosses the threshold contractually necessary for getting a third-week run3.

We can also mention the fraudulent practices in theatres (and which generally works the other way around, towards an underestimation of revenue, but not always), with double sale of the same ticket, the attribution (in multiplexes) of a theatre to a film that doesn’t belong there when the multiplex manager wants to favour a programme in which he gets a better percentage4.

It’s frequently said that the share of the producer/distributor represents about 40% of the revenue, and can’t legally cross 50%, but that’s to forget that distributors are paid minimum guarantees: this is how my The Comedy of Work made 63 francs as revenue for Auchel, and the distributor received 1,000 francs, 1,547% of the revenue. Am I finally going to make it to the Guinness records?

Snowball effect

A fundamental principle of cinema is the snowball that ends up causing avalanches. It’s for this reason that there’s an interest in inflating the revenue numbers of the first run. Some provincial exhibitors reject a film if it hasn’t crossed a certain threshold in Paris. Even I went to see Diva and In girum imus nocte et consumimir igni because their limited release lasted long (at the producer’s cost); this permanence intrigued me.

Distributors and producers seem to be sensitive to the logic of rivalry. They’re all the more interested in a film when they notice that a competitor is interested in it. One day, at a film festival, a distributor told me that he liked my film a lot, but he couldn’t unfortunately take it since he had no more theatres at his disposition. Six months later, I paid for a private screening of the film at a theatre which turned out to have been controlled by this distributor. At this screening was another distributor who enthusiastically made me a hard proposition. Some hours later, the first distributor called me, outraged: “What? You invited a competitor into my theatre, and she wants to buy your film, while it was I who made the first offer?!” I retorted that he’d told me he didn’t have any more theatres and that he’d refused the film. He answered that all of Paris new that he had three theatres and that he’d offer me a sum greater than the one proposed by the competitor, with the promise of distributing another one of my undistributed films.

Thanks to this experience, I realized that in order to get offers from an economic operator and make it go through the roofs, you absolutely had to sustain the interest of a (real or fictional) competitor, to make yourself seen by him, even at the risk of paying this competitor for his temporary service. This is the principle of the “accomplice” to hawkers. “It always rains where it’s wet”, my peer Jean-Danier Simon used to rightly say.

When my first film, Brigette and Brigette, was presented at the Cannes Festival, in a small private theatre, a distributor called me to the smoking room at the end of three minutes: he had noticed that some of his peers were laughing out loud in the hall, and he wanted to be the first to make me an offer, which was soon finalized. He saw the film only six months later, during its release, and he was much less impressed… On the economic front, the problem is to get the first mark of interest, to engage someone in the film’s cycle. The financier gives his money only to someone who already has, or is suspected to soon have, such a person.

When he started out, Claude Lelouch found it very hard to sell his films. He recounts how he had successfully convinced a German client to buy Une fille et des fusils (perhaps his best film) not because of its highlights but because the distributor had seen him driving around in Mercedes… I also remember that a Venezuelan client had asked me, as a precondition to buy my film, some data about the film’s performance in other countries. I made a very precise list of completely imaginary positive reception in faraway cities, where any verification was impossible: Seoul, Oslo, Nairobi etc. And my film was sold this way to Venezuela.

Similarly, when a foreign client enters a production house with posh offices, he won’t dare proposing a lower price for the purchase of a film. We can cite an amusing experiment in this regard: for his client meetings, a wily fellow had the idea of renting producers, magnificently-equipped offices on Champs-Élysées with secretaries and even a name plate on the door for one hour. And it worked…

In the same order of ideas, we’ve often wondered why American films have had such a clear edge in France in recent years. There are several reasons including this one: earlier, in France, a high-profile film was issued at 50 prints at most. Today, 600 prints are needed given that the film should be shown in as many theatres as possible on the first day. A release today involves a lot more issuing cost than before. As a result, sure-shot products are favoured, those that have already proven themselves and made a lot of money (so mostly American films), which are more reliable in principle than resorting to successful French stars (there’s no guarantee that their next appearance will be popular). As a consequence, grand launches, which are partly responsible for record revenues, will lean towards American bestsellers and professionals will do their best to forge a convergence, even a similarity, of tastes between the two continents. The phenomenon is relatively new, if we consider that the champion of American box-office in 1959, Auntie Mame, wasn’t even dubbed and ran for only three weeks in just one theatre in Paris.

Another variant: to be well distributed, you must engage the most amount of people holding economic powers, distributors, investors and exhibitors, such that they seek to recover their investment by all means. If you make them run the risk of losing money, owing to the extent of their investment, you are sure to get a good distribution. If, on the other hand, you make a film all alone, without involving anyone, you are necessarily at a disadvantage compared to those who have compromised their clients who, in turn, will seek to recover their principal sum most of all. A suicidal reflex at times: the film where a lot has been invested could turn out to be less commercial than one made without a single penny.

As a corollary, it seems that it’s beneficial to intimidate economic operators (without necessarily asking them to invest) by making them believe that, if your film doesn’t work, it’s the entirety of French cinema that’ll be in crisis. They then find themselves invested in a mission. By agreeing to take over from the weak-hearted producer of Les Amants du Pont Neuf, Christian Fechner knew well that he was going to lose money. But he became the film’s saviour, the saviour of the most expensive film in French cinema history. It’s better to spend the most possible amount of money (or pretend to) and appeal to public aid, something the producer of a film made for 3 million francs can’t do.

We can lose sight of an essential principle: what counts the most in a publicly-traded company is the dividend on the stock, and not the turnover. It’s the opposite in cinema. Three million admissions for The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), which cost 350 million francs, a loss in fact. The Horseman on the Roof had two million five hundred thousand admissions and cost 170 million, which comes to 68 francs per viewer. In comparison, The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, with a cost of one million, had a hundred and eighty thousand admissions, 6 francs per viewer. The return on Rohmer’s film is hence eleven times higher than that of The Horseman and eighteen times higher than that of Joan of Arc. Even so, it’s The Horseman or Joan of Arc which is a model “showcase film”, in total contravention with the “laws” of the economy.

We notice that French film economy clearly follows the American model, but with a lag of several years. Earlier, owing to prudishness, the French economic system concealed everything related to money: before 1947, it was impossible to know film budgets and revenues. Mentioning these amounted to an infringement of business secrets. Only some rare, favourable numbers (true or false) made it to La Cinématographie française before 1949. Now, in the footsteps of puritanical America where everyone has his cards on the table, unashamed to reveal how much he made every year, all these more or less true numbers appear in the press, at the exhibition stage (since 1949) as well as the production stage (since 1978). Like the Americans of yesteryear, we boast today about spending or making the most amount of money possible.

This phenomenon takes place in France at the very moment when America starts to evolve: today, thanks notably to the low level of social security and the return to black and white, the Anglo-Saxons are proud to reveal that their masterpieces – Go Fish, Henry, Clerks, She’s Gotta Have It, Unbelievable Truth, The Blair Witch Project – were made at prices that defy all competition (between 80,000 and 400,000 dollars), unthinkable in France. I’m even tempted to say that they’re underquoting to create interest and buzz in the media. In France, the honest declaration of small budgets continues to give the impression of a lack of seriousness (even though it’s more difficult to make a film with little money than with a lot) and turns against the films. France’s eternal lag over America…

 

1In this regard, refer to the analysis by Michel Marie in La Nouvelle Vague: une école artistique, Paris, Nathan, collection “128”, 1998

2When the technicians’ union protested in 1973 against the insufficient portion reserved for its members in budgets, the CNC encouraged producers to increase this portion in their agreements: from 1973 to 1974, this went, on paper, from 12 to 21% without a real consequence. We could also mention that these statistics on French cinema include a James Bond movie such as Moonraker, films never started such as Moi, je or L’ailleurs immédiat while excluding Éric Rohmer’s The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque or Robert Guédiguian’s Marius and Jeanette.

3Today, there are friends of distributors who, with their UGC card, continuously punch in at various cinemas to “increase” the number of viewers.

4Exhibitors often base their forecasts about a film’s run on the commercial performance of the director’s and the star’s preceding film. That why, for example, Jacques Doillon found it very hard to make a well-performing film, The Crying Woman, continue its run in a theatre. This success, unexpected with respect to Jacques Doillon’s and Dominique Laffin’s previous performances, was likely to delay the arrival of bestsellers, already contracted for a particular date and their minimum guarantee already paid. The exhibitor at a multiplex moved heaven and earth in order to discourage Doillon’s viewers (reducing the number of posters, hiding stills, turning off the neon lights etc.)

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

An investigation by inspector Juross

Cahiers du cinéma no. 161-162; January 1965.

Pathé-Journal

I’d written too many articles for issues 161-162 of Cahiers, and so I had to resort to a nickname for some of them, that of my brother, the lead actor in Godard’s Carabiniers.

For long-time Parisians, going to cinema is no big deal. But for provincials and foreigners who come to Paris – sometimes with this sole intention – it’s an even more difficult problem than ours when we go, whether for this purpose or not, to Brussels, Lyon, London, New York or Tokyo. And we set down this guide with the hope that Script, Premier Plan, Movie and Motion will return the courtesy.

Let’s assume the problems of travel, stay, time and money are taken care of.

Choice of season

As a general rule, in Paris, there are a few more good films from September to November; it’s rather difficult to know all the programmes from July to September; festival holidays (Easter and especially Christmas) are to be avoided: cinema halls play the same children’s movies. Except in the suburbs, cinemas are sufficiently warm in winter, but most of them don’t have sufficient ventilation in summer. It’s hence preferable to see hit films in winter – more people, so more exhalation, so greater warmth – and flops in summer when, paradoxically, we’re sure to not feel too warm for the same reason.

One exception: at the Cinematheque, flops have a great success; it’s then preferable in summer to go there scantily clad.

Since, in general, you don’t go to Paris to see hit films that play everywhere, but flops with small audiences, the warm season – normally richer in flops – is the best for the real cinephile. For the reader of Films in Review, on the other hand, it’s the cold season, richer in hit films1.

Choice of programme

Cinema programmes are published every Wednesday and are valid for one week. Anywhere on Wednesday (and at 100, rue de Richelieu on the other days), you must buy Wednesday’s L’Aurore (30F) which gives, from the 10th of September to the 10th of July, the programmes of five-hundred-and-three commercial and non-commercial cinemas. This publicity is all the more gratuitous because I only have the sincerest contempt for this tendentious political rag that extols turkeys and whose nine-tenths I throw away right after purchase. L’Aurore will be usefully complemented by Leconte’s Guide indicateur des rues de Paris and Télérama (100F), which you can find at 24 rue du Colisée (Champs-Élysées) and 3 rue du Pot-de-Fer (Latin Quarter) on Wednesdays, from 11 a.m. onwards, and in all good churches on Thursday evenings, and which has the added advantage of containing the names of the directors of all films playing in Paris. In case of contradictions, L’Aurore always trumps Télérama. If you can’t find these two publications, buy Cinémonde.

The FFCC – 6 rue Ordener – contains programmes of cine-clubs.

Choice of film

You must always give preference to the cursed film: a number of Parisian critics who forgot this rule couldn’t see Olmi’s masterpiece, Time Stood Still, which disappeared after eight days. If an interesting film is playing only in French-dubbed version, you must absolutely go see it unless it’s an ambitious non-Italian novelty, in which case it’ll soon play in original version.

Films of purportedly great aesthetic value, even though they are hardly talkative, should be seen in original version, which benefits from an original print rather than an export print.

Choice of cinema hall

As we know, Cahiers 146 (page 36) and 147 (page 40) assess the projection quality in the fifty cinema halls most frequented by cinephiles in 1963; we can refer to that.

We notice the considerable difference in prices – 155F to 800F – from one hall to another for the same film the same week. In no way does it mean that the projection quality is better in the second than the first.

Warning: unaccompanied women and very young cinephiles who go to cinemas with the sole intention of watching films must be careful in the following halls in central Paris (a non-exhaustive list): Atomic, Bikini, Bosphore, Far-West, Méry, Midi-Minuit, Nord-Actua, Paris-Ciné. Whatever your age and sex, you are always better of sitting in the first row of these halls, two of which play in 16mm format 35mm films that only exist in 16mm without the original colour. They are worth a visit for the sake of information.

Cinema halls far from the centre, known as neighbourhood halls, often have the appearance of a badly transformed theatre, something which deserves a look.

Exclusive cinema halls, which change their look every two or three years, amuse us with their supposedly aesthetic, cultural or pleasant innovative extravagance. Invisible glass is widespread here to the detriment of sensitive foreheads.

Functional cinema halls of good taste are rare: each one has its own ridiculous feature. Extremes meet in rococo (deep red common to all of them – cf. Freud) and the oddities. Special mention to the Pagode, the Ranelagh, the Templia, which are frank about what they are, to the Féerie des Eaux du Rex, to the seats of the Bretagne, to the metro-tremors of the Publicis, to the Atonic and to the Nord-Actua, which we must scale, to the pocket cinema Champollion, to the singers and variety shows of various neighbourhoods.

With a little luck (?), you will be entitled to screenings of reckless piss, ejaculation, exhibitionism, fights, homo and hetero soliciting, noticed by our editors notably at the Bikini, the Méry, the Sébastopol, but also in most of Parisian toilets.

Not to be missed: the arrival of hobos with snacks and wine bottles at the Pathé-Journal at noon. They sleep there in the warm until evening. Contrary to their reputation, the three cinema halls specializing in Muslim films are flawless. What’s more, the noise of peanuts here pleasantly masks the humming of the projectors.

Choice of timing

Avoid cinema halls on Saturday evenings, holidays and at the beginning of all-night screenings of hit films: there’s a queue at the entrance and you’ll not know where to go.

Moreover, in the neighbourhood halls, films are generally cut short on Sundays.

Avoid normal halls playing films for the young on Thursday afternoons: we only hear their screams. Some halls have a reduced price before 1:30 p.m.

In general, permanent halls have screenings at 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. The film starts at 2:30 p.m if it runs for 90 minutes, or at 2:40 p.m if it runs for eighty etc. Normal halls have a screening every evening (except Tuesdays) at 9 p.m., on Thursdays, and even Saturdays, at 3 p.m., and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. The programme runs for about a hundred-and-forty minutes; so, it’s easy to find the exact starting time of a big film if we know its runtime. But there are exceptions. Better to telephone in advance if you want to avoid the first part of the film, which – having only one negative point – isn’t the least instructive for the non-Parisian. In the suburbs, the telephone call is indispensable; the cashier will tell you how to get there from Paris.

The entrance

Like everything in France, the best seats (front orchestra) are the cheapest, except in rare, exclusive halls with balcony (Napoléon, Paramount, Wepler). But, in neighbourhood halls, you’ll need to coax the cashiers a lot before getting these seats, which are to be sold at reduced tariffs imposed by the Centre du Cinéma against exhibitors’ wishes. The cashiers will tell you that you’ll have a hard time seeing the film, that you’ll ruin your eyesight, that it’s not healthy, that you must swear on your honour not to ask for a change of seats during the film. And that if you become blind, it won’t be for the lack of warning. They can hold you up for four minutes. And then, say the magic word: “I’m going to report this to the Centre.” But if, by chance, you don’t have exact change, you’ll never have your ticket. Or, they’ll go for the issued-ticket trick: “I thought you wanted a reserved seat; I’ve already issued the ticket: it’s going to go waste…”2

In exclusive cinema halls, a doorman will snip your ticket which the usherette will snip again. Absolutely useless, he’s there to look good, to make you believe you’re entering a theatre or an Opera.

Another useless thing: the usherette, already vanished in England and Italy to the benefit of a discreet lighting on the floor and whom you can even do without by closing an eye fifty to ten seconds before entering the hall. Each person must give her a tip of at least ten francs (twenty in exclusive halls). You can also tell her: “I’ll open the door myself”, but, if you do that, she’s likely to tell you off, disrupt your viewing, or prevent you from stretching out. Although it’s immoral to give ten untaxed francs to this useless thing while giving twenty-seven taxed francs to the producer, it’s better to give her the coin right away.

Warning: don’t ever hand her your ticket in a hall where you enter from the front (or from anywhere else for that matter) for she’ll run fifty metres away to seat you in the back. Some usherettes satisfy their obsession for logic by meticulously filling the hall row by row, left to right or vice versa, and admiring their fine fencing in of paying sheep. In short, annoying and expensive. At the Cinematheque (where you are better off taking your seats at 6 p.m. in view of the previews or hits of the evening), always carry a franc and ask for a ticket starting with AH, AG, AF etc. or say that you prefer a folding seat in the orchestra.

Inside

You can’t smoke inside (except at the Rex, the Féerie des Eaux eliminating all fire hazard, and at the Rotonde) because General De Gaulle agreed to continue the prohibition imposed by his colleague, the Marshall Pétain.

If you are taller than five feet, you are better off sitting on an aisle seat so you can stretch your legs comfortably without having to put up with the narrowness of French seating rows. It also allows you to leave the hall without disturbing anyone if the film is bad (the Godard variation: sit right in the middle to disturb as many people as possible to emphasize your discontent).

Screening conditions are often difficult: the format of the screen rarely corresponds to the format of the film (the superior technical commission of cinema or CST mandates several more or less necessary norms, but doesn’t ensure their effective implementation). At the Napoléon or the Ermitage, which open up from the front, every film is a parade of viewers (go there only after 10 p.m.) that we can tolerate better when sitting in the front at the right. You can’t see the entire screen from some seats at the Atlas or the Saint-Germain. At the Studio de l’Étoile, you can see shadows of viewers in the balcony where the rebellious usherette has seated you, claiming that the orchestra section is closed: pay her and go downstairs. The lighting at the Midi-Minuit reflects doubly on the screen. In front of many screens, a useless curtain crying “theatre” opens well before the film begins and closes well after it ends. Some cinema halls – Paris-Ciné (property of the ex-president of the federation of film exhibitors, Adolphe Trichet), Studio Obrigado – introduce in colour poor copies of black and white films; in such cases, get yourself reimbursed, you have the right to, and say the magic word if needed.

Since 1955, screening quality in France has enormously degraded and the theatre operators, flustered by the increasing complexity of new technology and devoid of references, have laid down their weapons. Lack of sound, fuzzy image, bad framing and darkness abound. Don’t waste a second, cry out right away: “Sound!… Focus!… Framing!… Image!” or simply “Projection!” if you are worried about scaring the public with these technical terms. Never whistle: they’ll think you are whistling at the film or the cameraman.

The screening, alas, is never continued from the point of failure but only much later, in violation of the decree of 18 January 1961 (article 13). Sad state of affairs, chief responsibility for which lies with the indifferent CST, which has just made a fool of itself by defending the intolerable screening conditions at the last Cannes Festival, otherwise irreproachable but compromised by this shortcoming.

Problem and solution

We must understand the passivity of projectionists: their minimum union tariff is 13,400 francs a week, three times lesser than the smallest technician in production, six times lesser than the first assistant camera, twelve times lesser than the director of photography. This is a scandal that must be called out. We can understand a first assistant or an usherette getting paid at the minimum wage, these are optional and often useless jobs not needing precise competence and not entailing serious consequences in case of mistakes. That would be a normal thing despite the massive revenues made by the film industry because, for example, producers pay their couriers at the same tariff as an artisan. But it’s not normal to pay all the collaborators of creation well and pay all the collaborators of exhibition badly (which is what happens in the music industry as well). Collaborators of exhibition must be well paid. We must pay important collaborators in every sector well and pay secondary collaborators less well. Bardot making 5,000 times the minimum wage is normal, but the assistant getting ten times the minimum wage is excessive, and the 1.7 times the minimum wage of the projectionist is ridiculously low.

A projectionist is an artist: he can ruin the work of a technical crew, he can even improve it slightly by his perfection and it’s fair that he be paid in proportion to the enormous responsibility and competence required of him, as a percentage of the gross receipts, or at least more than the assistant and almost as much as the director of photography. There should also be an exchange between the two professions – which will open up new avenues for cameramen who are often unemployed and complement their training – a number of projectionists turning to more lucrative professions. It could be said that screening deficiencies today stem one-fourth from lack of funds (old projectors etc.) and three-fourths from the projectionist and from the theatre owner, who can cobble together his facility and his hall himself, for no cost, instead of waiting for viewers, daydreaming.

In any case, the film industry should not be surprised if our filmmakers prefer artisanship over itself: industrial production is justified only on the basis of its technical and aesthetic quality, which is almost forbidden in artisanship and which comes to pass in only fifty cinema halls out of five thousand (I’m being kind). It’d be stupid to make billion-franc films that can be appreciated only in the Club Publicis…

Instead of needlessly forcing production to increase its costs on the basis of regulatory decisions, we must facilitate a reduction in budgets by the wholehearted introduction of better, ultra-sensitive film stock and lighter material to the detriment of certain other sectors (the CST does the opposite), we must increase the cut to the exhibitor by five percent or give him financial aid to buy new equipment. We must financially encourage the management of cinema halls by projectionists, if they can’t be paid in proportion to the gross receipts, which would be the ideal. The entire industry is capable of evolving. We must transfer capital from one branch to another according to needs, like in America. Our status quo attitude to projection is driving it to ruin and is immorally adding bureaucratic profit to commercial ones. It’s double without quits.

 

1Gibe at this old magazine which praised turkeys and snubbed geniuses.

2All this is in my film Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989)

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Cahiers du cinéma no. 484; October 1994.

French Regions (old) and filmmakers

In the realm of classical music, it’s commonplace to point to Germanic supremacy and English failure. Similarly, the mediocrity of Spanish cinema strikes us in comparison to the abundance of Italian or even Portuguese cinema.

These differences are even more present at the regional level. National identity remains a somewhat hollow idea, a little too recent (under Louis-Philippe, it took three weeks to go from one end of France to another), while regional identity has always existed. Its application to artistic realm is thus valid. In the United States, its creation was a moment dominated by the Midwest (Hawks, Welles, Ray, Losey) and the South (Griffith and Vidor, and also Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, Penn Warren, even Styron and Tennessee Williams), the hurt of the defeat calling for a compensatory expression. Brazillian cinema is centred around the Northeast. Transalpine cinema is, in fact, an Emilian cinema (Bertolucci, Cottafavi, Fellini, Zurlini, Baldi, Pasolini, Antonioni, etc.), opposed to the mediocrity of Tuscan cinema, which has gone down for good, and transmitted by brilliant satellites scattered in the north and the centre of the peninsula.

The regionalization of filmic space in France is less evident since film directors have to live almost compulsorily in Paris in order to work, whereas filmmakers in the neighbouring countries are spread over many metropolises and our painters, sculptors and writers can spare themselves the race to the capital. But we often notice that residential or natal Parisianism is a form of misleading disguise. Compared to the regions, moreover, Paris today has little to offer as original material for inspiration.

We have recently witnessed the burgeoning of Aquitanian cinema, with Eustache, then Téchiné, Breillat and Kané1, with at least four constants:

Childhood. It’s very apparent in Mes petites amoureuses (Eustache), even Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus if we also include adolescence. Kané remains the French filmmaker in whose work the hero is always a child (Dora, Liberty Bell, Un jeu d’enfant). A comparable frequency in the works of Breillat (Une vraie jeune fille, 36 Fillette), and of even Téchiné (J’embrasse pas, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages).

Native land, in which the filmmaker rediscovers the child he was, and not just that: we find here the commune of Pessac and its two Rosière films, Mes petites amoureuses which goes from Pessac to Narbonne to meet Le Père Noël, Biarritz (Hôtel des Amériques, 36 Fillette), the Landes (Une vraie jeune fille), the Pyrénées (J’embrasse pas), Arcachon (Un jeu d’enfant) and Téchiné’s Agenais (Souvenirs d’en France, La Matiouette, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages), Téchiné being the one filmmaker who emphasizes the light and the customs of the place.

Sexuality, broached upon with a candour bordering on scandal (Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain and Une sale histoire, all of Breillat of course, J’embrasse pas, Kané nevertheless maintaining his distance, perhaps because his native Angoulême is decentred with respect to Aquitania and to the other three musketeers).

Individualism. All four prefer characters estranged from their environment, their family and the society, and produce their work at the margins, close to autobiography, in occasionally difficult solitude2. Even on the margins of the other three, despite their commonalities: there is no school whatsoever to speak of.

One must perhaps find here the focal point of a regional reorientation that has been so cruelly lacking in France and which we could envy Brazil, India, Italy or the USA for.

It should, however, be noted that there has always been a point of convergence in France. Our real National Centre of Cinematography is, quite simply, the Centre, the Limagne, the Auvergne. French cinema is, above all, a rhombus with its north vertex at Commentry and its contour passing through Vichy, going till Cunlhat, Sardent and maybe Dun-le-Palestel. This rhombus thus encompasses Gance, Pialat, Bressonn, Chabrol and also filmmakers with Auvergnese affinities like Astruc and Truffaut. In contrast to Aquitanian filmmakers, the Auvergnese tend to obscure their origins (with some exceptions: Le Beau Serge and Les Noces rouges for Chabrol, L’Enfant sauvage and L’argent de poche for Truffaut and, for Pialat, La Gueule ouverte). These directors don’t like labels, which reduce their work to a place, a message, a subject or a trend.

Outside of their exceptional qualities, the Auvergnese hardly have commonalities. Except two:

An initial attraction towards more classical arts: Bresson and Pialat were first painters (and Jean Renoir is the son of Auguste, a native of Limoges). Gance started out as a poet. Astruc – like Renoir – wrote novels. Pialat and Chabrol authored one. Chabrol read every crime novel. Not to mention the importance of writing in Truffaut.

A discordant mix of media seduction and polemical virulence (Truffaut’s and Chabrol’s incisive critiques, Astruc’s camera-stylo, Bresson’s actor-models, Pialat’s raised fist at Cannes). The two are perhaps not so contradictory: iron hand and velvet gloves.

I sometimes wonder if Auvergne’s success – Pialat extols the positive influence of lava on his work – isn’t due to the social skills of children from the Centre. To make good films, you must first be able to shoot, know to manage things, solve monetary problems, beat your competition, gather support. This Auvergnese tide can be related to the “republic of the Bougnats” that France was after De Gaulle, and sometimes even before him.

We must note the inevitable character of conflict when an Auvergnese genius tries to work with an Aquitanian one (Breillat and Pialat on Police): these are two completely different worlds, just like Brittany and Auvergne (cf: the failure of Chabrol’s Cheval d’orgeuil).

Chabrol remains the most-advantaged French filmmaker: not only does he belong to the “golden rhombus”, but he is also the son of a pharmacist, like Resnais, Rivette, Nuytten, Juliet Berto and John Wayne. It helps to have a pharmacist father in cinema because it’s a middling socio-professional category, open to all walks of life, or because direction is a sort of alchemy.

Clermont-Ferrand is thus the true capital of French cinema, more than Paris. But Paris is not deprived either: there is, in fact, an Auvergne-Île-de-France axis, founded on round trips between the two regions, on “transfers” (Truffaut, Renoir etc.).

The express train between the two cities, the Bourbonnais, is the best symbol for French cinema. There are also pure Parisians, such as Autant-Lara, Becker or Doillon. But this species tends to be rare.

The distribution across other regions turns out quite even: in general, one or two great auteurs in each one: Pagnol and Allio (Provence), Feuillade and Leenhardt (Languedoc), Straub and Rohmer (the austere Lorraine), Depardon (Lyon), Stévenin (Jura), Grémillion and Rivette (Normandy) and, for Brittany, Resnais and Demy (who will recreate a little of his Nantes in all other regions).

We see that France splits into two: the Germanophone France of the two Lorrainers (Die Marquise von O, Nicht Versöhnt and the follow-up) and the Anglicist France of men from the West (Providence, Model Shop and the quartet Shakespeare/James/Tourneur/Bronte in Rivette). On the other hand, Auvergne and Aquitaine reject anything foreign (see the failure of Chabrol’s Sang des autres, and Truffaut’s problems with the English language).

Certain Frenchmen exhibit a contempt towards their native region, preferring their region of adoption instead: the Norman Rivette is the one who has shown Paris the best. But I’m overwhelmed with emotion when, in Mon oncle d’Amérique, after thirty-five years of self-denial, Resnais finally shows us “his” island near Vannes. There is a little of that in the Straubs’ Lothringen! too.

That brings me to the black holes: Alsace (unless we accept the dull Wyler as the flag-bearer), the Pyrenees (but it’s sparsely populated), the eight departments of Pays de Loire, from Angers to Nevers, and especially Nord.

This region nevertheless has a number of ambitious filmmakers (Daquin, Duvivier especially), but they seem to be tempted by academicism. And the difficult social reality of the region has oriented them towards a lazy naturalism. I can hardly believe Gilson and Pollet to have avoided this pitfall (the latter with a contrasting country of adoption: Greece and the Mediterranean, just like how the Nordist Malle made his best fiction, Lacombe Lucien, in Aquitania), but these are, alas, interrupted bodies of work, the Nordists not possessing the media genius of the Auvergnese. The supreme insult to the Nordist filmmakers, however is that the best local films were made by an Auvergnese, Pialat moving from the volcanoes to the slagheaps with L’Enfance nue, Passe ton bac d’abord, and getting closer in La Maison des bois. Perhaps Xavier Beauvois will reverse the trend3.

The periphery occupies an increasingly large space: not just recent immigrants (Iosseliani, Ruiz – currently perhaps the two best French filmmakers – Kramer, Bral, Fuller, Santiago, Polanski, late Buñuel, Ivens, Losey and the Ophüls), but also and especially a periphery closer to home: Swiss Romandy (Godard), Corsica (Vecchiali), erstwhile French Indochina (Duras) and, on the other hand, the purest Frenchmen associated, by way of reportage, with faraway lands (Marker, Rouch and Africa). The most surprising case remains Camille de Casabianca, who has made three films, one in Asia, the second in Africa and the latest in America.

Province-Paris, foreign country-France, is French film art founded on the pleasures and pains of transfers?

 

1 Today we can add Nolot, the Larrieu siblings, Guiraudie.

2 Besides, of the three great filmmakers to have committed suicide, two are from the Bordeaux region: Eustache and Max Linder.

3 This was written before the arrival of Dumont and Desplechin.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

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