The Unsung Riches of French Cinema

May 5, 2014 | By Florence Almozini

On the occasion of the 700th issue of Cahiers du Cinema, FIAF and Cahiers du Cinema have collaborated for a special curated series of underrated gems and a special “Carte Blanche” to more recent films strongly supported by the magazine. Florence Almozini, Program Officer for Cinema at the French Embassy, had a few questions for the curators of the show, Delphine Selles – film curator at FIAF - Nicholas Elliott - the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma - and Jean-Philippe Tessé - Associate Editor in Chief of Les Cahiers.


Florence Almozini: Can you talk about the selection of French Cinema's Secret Trove which included some early and rarely screened Jean Gremillon, LE BONHEUR by Agnès Varda, RUE DE L'ESTRAPADE by Jacques Becker, FLAMMES by Adolfo Arrietas, MAINE-OCEAN by Jacques Rosier and the 1934 version of LES MISERABLES BY Raymond Bernard?

Nicholas Elliott : For me, the starting point of French Cinema’s Secret Trove was the “Eleven Stations for a Poetic History of French Cinema” published in Cahiers du Cinéma in October 2012. This was a kind of alternate history of French cinema inspired by the release of Leos Carax’s landmark Holy Motors. Eventually, we picked only two films from the “Eleven Stations” (La Petite Lise and Flammes), but the idea of an alternative, slightly hidden approach to the riches of French cinema came from there. We were looking for films that privileged strong directorial statements and poetic atmospheres. We also focused on films that are too infrequently shown on the big screen as we really wanted to offer to the New York audience the opportunity to see these masterpieces the way their makers made them to be seen.

Jean-Philippe Tessé: The feature « Poetic History of French Cinema » was really exciting to make, because it was a way to combine our preoccupations about contemporary French cinema and the endless necessity of revisiting the history of French cinema. Contemporary French cinema is strongly shaped by its complicated relation to naturalism. Many films descend directly from the works of three great directors: Renoir-Truffaut-Pialat, a kind of vertebral column; sometimes for the good, but often in a bad way. Carax's Holy Motors is a landmark because it woke up another historical line, more poetic, passing through the works of mavericks: Epstein, Grémillon, Cocteau, Arrietta, Guiguet, Rozier, Garrel, Carax and so forth, including the more secret part of the work of well-established directors like Renoir, Duras, Franju or Bresson. We picked eleven films for this feature, but we could have had more. By the way, we wanted to continue this exploration by showing to the New York audience films that matter to us, and which might be unknown for some of them. To curate a selection of films is a way to continue the work of film-criticism in a magazine. It's the same thing. By picking two films by Jean Grémillon, one of the greatest French directors ever, we want to insist on the greatness of this unsung work. We had a long feature about him in our columns some months ago, and we noticed a renewal of interest about him. Arrieta's Flammes is a beloved film in France for the few who know it. Becker's Rue de l'estrapade is a very rare film, including in France, where Becker is really famous for his masterpieces Casque d'or and Le Trou; but it demonstrates the variety of his inspiration: it's a kind of comedy with a very peculiar tone, sometimes reminding the American screwball comedy, sometimes forecasting the French New Wave. Maine Océan is also a beloved film in France, made by a real maverick in the history of French Cinema, Jacques Rozier. And I'm curious about the New York audience’s reaction to his very unique atmosphere and humor. Raymond Bernard's work is inexplicably unknown in France, yet it should be fully part of our heritage. His adaptation of Les Misérables is a remarkably inventive piece, in terms of aesthetic, and is the best creation by the great actor Harry Baur). Finally, Le Bonheur is an absolute masterpiece, one of the greatest French films ever made – but curiously not as famous as it should be.

Delphine Selles : Like it is in many parts of the world, Cahiers du Cinema is a hugely important magazine in the US. The New Wave remains an important point of reference for American cinephiles and Cahiers is inextricably tied to the New Wave in this country. It would have been easy in a way to show films that people love here (Breathless, Les 400 Coups, etc.), but these are easily accessible and often shown on the big screen, especially here in New York. It was important to get off the beaten track and explore other paths, a kind of cinema that Cahiers critics have championed over the years, focusing on rarely-screened films that will be a real discovery for the public. The idea of exploring poetic cinema, such a rich tradition in France's film history, was a great idea and gave us a starting point to build the program.

 F.A. : Did you each pick your own favorite? I am curious to know how you managed to narrow down the selection while keeping a certain coherence in the lineup.

N.E. : I had been dying to see Flammes for years, so I insisted that it’d be included. I’m not sure you can call a film you’ve never seen “one of your favorites,” but yes, we each had our say. Luckily, we all have similar tastes, so it wasn’t difficult to be coherent. We also knew that the films we chose would be ones that have been championed by Cahiers. It’s comforting to see that that method alone ensures a degree of coherence. We also tried to strike the right balance of obscurity (i.e. the excitement of the unknown) and accessibility (i.e. the comfort of the familiar)—everyone knows Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but relatively few people have seen Raymond Bernard’s beautiful film version; Agnès Varda is hardly an overlooked director but I’m not sure many people know Le Bonheur, undoubtedly Varda’s most controlled masterpiece; Maine Océan is a cult classic because it feels eccentric and all-over-the-place, but it’s also a straightforward comedy that displays its director Jacques Rozier’s warmth and endless fascination for people of all stripes. And now that I’ve seen Flammes, I can tell you that it is shockingly weird, but in the most open and intelligent way. It is a film that makes you believe anything is possible, in life and in cinema, and that might be something all these miraculous masterpieces have in common.

J-P. T.: We picked the films through a full consultation between Delphine Selles-Alvarez, Nicholas Elliott, Stéphane Delorme, Cahier’s editor in chief, and myself. All of us made suggestions, so we mixed all the wishes. For a film-lover, it's a great pleasure to show films you love to people who don't know them. So, in my case, I really wanted to show Le Bonheur, because it's a film I frequently show to my lucky friends who don't know it yet. But it was easy to keep a coherence because in Cahiers we strongly cling to a certain idea of cinema, and when we started to talk about the program with Delphine, we immediately felt that she shared this sensitivity, and she was curious and benevolent regarding our suggestions. So the selection was easy to make, in spite of the unavoidable difficulties to obtain some films, for material reasons.

D.S. : Indeed, it wasn’t difficult to be coherent and it was fun coming up with films together. I personally got a lot out of programming the series. Just like Nicholas, I had heard so much about Flammes, but unlike him, I have yet to see it ! I’m very much tempted not to see it on DVD and wait to discover it in the theater with the audience. Similarly to Agnès varda, some of Jean Grémillon’s films are better known in the US, but La Petite Lise, and especially Daïnah, are rarely shown. Having Jean Grémillon and Jacques Rozier book-end the series works well too. Many of Rozier’s films beg to be discovered here (FIAF has been working on a series for some time now) and Maine-Océan was really on top of my list. Since we have a broad audience who come see films at FIAF it was indeed important to keep a balance between the more well-known and the more obscure, and in the end it turned into a somewhat eclectic yet coherent program I think.

F.A.: For the contemporary French films which include THE RENDEZ-VOUS OF DEJA VU, STEAK, SPORT DE FILLES and GOODBYE FIRST LOVE, how did you define the focus?

N.E. : We wanted to show that contemporary French “auteur” cinema is a lot more varied than people imagine. It was important to us to display the different roads cinema can take today, to provide an echo to the broad spectrum of older films we programmed. So the focus is diversity, with political picaresque in New Wave colors (Rendez-Vous of Déja-Vu), futuristic oddball comedy (Steak), and an update on the French specialty of heartbreak and renewal told by the young master Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye, First Love). 

J-P. T: The idea of this program is to give to the New York audience some recent films we love, and which have not been well exploited in United States. Each film is very different and shows the variety of French "auteur" cinema. Sport de filles is a film made by another beloved "maverick" in the French industry, Patricia Mazuy. The Rendez-Vous of Déjà-Vu is a first feature film by a director we had championed before he made it among a bunch of young directors we revealed before their selection in Cannes Film Festival last year. Steak is a pure anomaly: it's one of the craziest French film ever made, featuring Eric & Ramzy, a pair of comedians very popular especially in the eyes of kids. The film released in France as a kind of blockbuster of comedy, but it was so strange and disturbing that it has been totally rejected and was an enormous commercial fail. We were alone to defend it in Cahiers at this time, in spite of his reputation of dumbness. But gradually, year after year, the film has been reconsidered and now has earned a status of cult-film. And his director, Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr.Oizo, the musician), has now a lot of fans conquered by his sense of absurdity (proved in his following films: Rubber, Wrong, Wrong Cops), including in the US, where he lives. To show comedies in a foreign language is always a risk, but we are happy to take this risk. We are equally happy and proud to screen a film made by a former film-critic in Cahiers du Cinema, Mia Hansen-Løve, who is now considered as a truly brilliant director.

D.S. : This was a bit tricky to program because how do you really show the variety of contemporary French cinema in such a small program? Each film we selected stands a bit on its own in the end. All of Quentin Dupieux’ s subsequent films have been distributed here and it looks like he has a bit of a cult following. Although they all have their own unique voice, there seems to be a new generation of French filmmakers (such as Axelle Ropert, Sébastien Betbeder) on the rise and Antonin Peretjatko’s Rendez-Vous of Déjà-Vu is one such example. Patricia Mazuy’s film, Sport de Filles, championned by Cahiers, was shown only a handful of times here in the US, and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye, First Love felt like the perfect way to end the entire series.

F.A. : Do you have any regrets on films that you were not able to include for lack of space, missing prints or other reasons? 

N.E. : I would assume that any film programmer would answer that for every film screened there are five he tearfully surrendered. In my case, I was especially sorry that we could not show Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget or Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy, which are two of the most beautiful French films of the last decade, both carrying on the tradition of French autobiographical filmmaking. But Goodbye, First Love is an equally powerful example of that tradition, and I am happy that we are ending the series with a film by our youngest director, serving as a reminder that the best films are still ahead. (And Jealousy will have a commercial release in NYC this summer.)

J-P. T: Of course, a selection is always too short, we would have loved to show other films with the same criterions than the ones we are going to screen. Films belonging to the same mood of poetic atmosphere, and equally or even more rare than the films we finally picked. Very unknown titles like Jacques Davila's La Campagne de Cicéron, Jean-Claude Guiguet's Le Mirage, Vincent Dietschy's Julie est amoureuse or Gérard Blain's films. Films by Philippe Garrel and Jean Eustache, for sure. In contemporary French cinema that might be unknown outside France, I could quote Pierre Trividic's Dancing, Serge Bozon's Mods or Valérie Donzelli's La guerre est déclarée, among many others. I would also quote La Maison des Bois by Maurice Pialat, a TV-series he made in the early 70's. Pialat is famous, of course, but La Maison des Bois is very rare on screen because of its length, and it's very dear to my heart.

D.S. : On my side I would have loved to show Gérard Blain’s Le Pélican and Jean-François Stévenin’s Double messieurs, two films that are rarely shown here and would have fit well in the series. Next time !

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