Given our programmer’s general antipathy toward the Nouvelle Vague and the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, it came as a bit of a shock to find that the Saturday matinee was two films by Claude Chabrol. The day’s first offering, LE BEAU SERGE (Claude Chabrol 1958), even though sometimes cited as the first movie of the Nouvelle Vague, seems to owe more to Italian Neo-Realism than to anticipate the Nouvelle Vague. It is certainly noir at its core. It also is a movie that, if watching at home, I would hit “Pause” about every 30 seconds to admire and to consider the composition and the corresponding dialogue. There is simply that much going on at all times.
Francois, a young, educated man recovering from a bout with TB, returns to the rural village of his youth. Nothing about the village has changed, yet everything about the people has changed. His best friend from his youth, Serge (Gerard Blain – what an intense performance! And he returns later in the day), who once had great promise, is the town’s young drunkard and spouse abuser. As Francois, in his naivete, scratches the surface of the village, he discovers secrets that perhaps are better to be kept secrets. Francois struggles between saving Serge, and thereby himself, by maintaining an objective, superior, and perhaps arrogant distance, and becoming a part of the village, represented by his relationship with the sensual underage Marie (Bernadette Lafont, who also returns later). Francois certainly changes as a result of the struggle. One can only guess as to whether anyone or anything else changes.
The second Chabrol film was LES BONNES FEMMES (1960). A group of four young women who are friends and co-workers, each represents a character trait – a party girl (Jane – the return of Bernadette Lafont), a quiet seeker of romance (Jacqueline), a money and status seeker (Ginette), and a secret life (Rita). Out one night, Jane and Jacqueline share time and, in the case of Jane, more with two of the most obnoxious males in cinema history this side of Harvey Weinstein. As that evening starts to unfold, Jacqueline admires a parked motorcycle. Its owner appears to admire her from afar. Through the various episodes, he makes mysterious short reappearances. The two obnoxious guys reappear by chance at a swimming pool where the four young women are, and the men immediately start sexually harassing them, all in the name of a good time. The mysterious motorcyclist reappears to save them. That results in Jacqueline and the motorcyclist each confiding their interest in each other.
He and Jacqueline take a romantic walk in the country.
There is a dance. A young man and young woman who have just met confide their interest in each other.
Men are predators. Or: Despair. Delirium. Destiny.
The Roxie evening was a trifecta of Jean Gabin. As I mentioned to a friend at intermission, the only people who don’t love Jean Gabin are those who have never seen Jean Gabin.
GAS-OIL aka HI-JACK HIGHWAY (Gilles Grangier 1955) has Gabin as a single working class truck driver. As all fine films noir should, we quickly find him in his lover’s bedroom, over the elementary classroom in which she – Jeanne Moreau –teaches (okay – I sometimes remind my film classes that a desire for a foolish verisimilitude is the hobgoblin of small minds). There’s an armored car robbery by four men. One takes the money, but splits with it. The other three hunt for him. Gabin, in blinding rain at night, runs over a body in the road. Maybe he was already dead? Maybe he had a valise with millions of francs that is now missing? Maybe the police and the robbers are all after Gabin? Truckers of the world unite! Did I mention Gabin and Moreau? Fun movie, but Gabin and Moreau are the primary reasons to watch.
LE DESORDRE ET LA NUIT aka THE NIGHT AFFAIR (Gilles Grangier 1958) is another of the dozen films Grangier directed with Jean Gabin, nearly a quarter of Grangier’s feature film output.
Gabin is a detective investigating the murder of a nightclub owner who also was involved in the drug trade. This immediately puts him into contact with the owner’s young and stunningly gorgeous mistress (Nadja Tiller, a two-time Miss Austria). She is the daughter of an industrialist who she emotionally blackmails to support her, threatening that she will turn to prostitution if he doesn’t. Rather than being disgusted by this manipulation, Gabin is smitten. Her drug habit fills him more with sympathy than with loathing. They are lovers. It also provides him with an entryway to the upscale world of drug addiction and the solving of the murder. And with his meeting of pharmacist Danielle Darrieux along the way, there is further intrigue. Plus, there is interaction with the nightclub headliner, the marvelous Hazel Scott.
For me, the film takes a spot just on the edge of film noir. The narrative and setting are there. The dialogue is generally there, though its oft-comic moments tend to undercut the tension that it otherwise builds. This is one of those films that, after viewing, I immediately want to see again. Not because it was that great, but because another viewing, now armed with the knowledge of its contours, would likely provide more revelations into the psychological aspects of the film. The intrigue of film noir.
The evening closed with the French Film Noir All-Star team. Actors include: Jean Gabin; Marina Vlady; Bernard Blier; Robert Hossein; Lino Ventura; Gabrielle Fontan; Gerard Blain; and, Julien Carette. Cinematographer: Claude Renoir. Screenplay (as depressing as a Russian novel): Charles Spaak, adapting and updating a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (George Lampin 1956).
Life is misery. Misery is the result of arrogance. Arrogance is the belief that redemption is not necessary. Redemption, if it comes, comes at the end of life. And life is misery.
Gabin, Vlady, Blier and Hossein – their performances with Spaak’s words…there is nothing more that I can say other than –
Despair. Delirium. Destiny.