Interview with Jed Rapfogel, programmer at Anthology Film Archives and curator of "Cine-Simenon"
Belgian-born French language author Georges Simenon may not be a household name in the US, but in Europe he ranks among the most famous and renowned of all 20th-century writers, and undoubtedly the one who most successfully bridged the worlds of mass-marketed popular genre fiction and serious literature. By the end of his career he had won both the status of international best-selling author and the praise of literary icons such as André Gide and Henry Miller. Simenon would merit attention if only for the sheer volume of work he produced – he was something like an industry in and of himself, writing almost 200 novels under his own name, with scores more penned pseudonymously. But what is truly astonishing is that his Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-sized output contains a host of works that are among the most rigorous, troubling, and uncompromising novels of the 20th century.
This summer, Anthology Film Archive in New York City will present Cine-Simenon, a film retrospective drawing from a selection of more then 100 film adaptations of Georges Simenon's novels. In an interview Jed Rapfogel, programmer at Anthology Film Archive and curator of the series, talked with Florence Almozini, Film Officer at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, about the upcoming series.
Florence Almozini: This is a very exciting retrospective that you have prepared in collaboration with the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. Can you tell us about the origin of the project, the research and the title selection?
Jed Rapfogel: Kathy Geritz/PFA and I separately (and almost simultaneously!) conceived of the idea of a film series in tribute to Georges Simenon. Soon after hatching the idea I contacted Kathy with a question about sourcing a print for the series, and she said she’d been thinking about a similar program, so we decided to join forces to make it bi-coastal! Kathy can speak to her own process, but for my part I love organizing series that combine film and literature (or other art forms), and am always looking for ways to present films that involve some of my favorite writers. I’ve been aware of Simenon for many years, but only started reading him fairly recently – I fell pretty hard for his books (especially the roman durs), and since there have been more than a hundred film adaptations of his novels, a film series highlighting a selection of them seemed irresistible.
Given the sheer number of adaptations (and the difficulty of seeing many of them), the research process was necessarily not an exhaustive one. We naturally paid close attention to films by familiar auteurs (Carné, Tavernier, Chabrol, Karlson, etc), but also tried to find lesser-known, rarely-screened titles (like LE TRAIN). And I think we were both interested in highlighting Simenon’s appeal across national boundaries. We were determined to include some of the English-language adaptations (A LIFE IN THE BALANCE, THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE, and THE BROTHERS RICO for instance) - and I would very much have liked to have included films from other countries too (German, Dutch, Italian), but unfortunately those mostly proved impossible for practical reasons (though MAN FROM LONDON is a notable exception).
In terms of the selection, there were some other necessary but painful omissions as well – it was particularly painful to omit Renoir’s LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR and Melville’s L’AÎNÉ DES FERCHAUX, but these weren’t made available to us.
FA: As an American, can you share with us your first encounter with Simenon? Did you know him for his detective novels or mainly for the numerous film adaptions based on his books?
JR: I’ve always been aware of Simenon as the author of the Maigrets (and unfairly dismissed him as such), but it was only when New York Review Books (NYRB) began re-printing a number of his roman durs that I discovered what an amazing (and dark) writer he is. I started with “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By”, and was immediately hooked. I think that may still be my favorite, but I’m also a huge fan of “The Strangers in the House”, “The Engagement”, “Dirty Snow”, “Red Lights”, and “The Act of Passion” (and really all of the roman durs). I’ve only read a couple Maigrets, to be honest, and wasn’t so taken with them.
FA: The mixture of French, American and other foreign films in the series is very interesting and highlights the universality of recurring themes in Simenon's work and rather dark views on human nature. Do you have some particular favorites that you would like to recommend to your audience?
JR: The films I’m most excited to screen are the ones that haven’t been shown or seen much in the U.S., in particular TROIS CHAMBRES À MANHATTAN and LA TÊTE D’UN HOMME (both of which we’re importing from France), as well as LA MARIE DU PORT. Tavernier’s L’HORLOGER DE SAINT-PAUL (THE CLOCKMAKER) is a must-see too, and A MAN FROM LONDON is fascinating for putting Simenon and Bela Tarr’s very different sensibilities in conversation with one another.
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