Archive for Pathe-Natan

The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns

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An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.

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So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.

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The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.

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The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

 

The Monday Intertitle: Loose Lip Synch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2014 by dcairns

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There’s a lot to enjoy in Alain Resnais’s PAS SUR LAS BOUCHE (I’m slowly familiarising myself with his post-sixties career, aided by the fact that Fiona seems to enjoy all of them, despite never having cottoned to MARIENBAD.) In fact, what is there NOT to enjoy in it? But most enjoyable of all may be Lambert Wilson (above, right).

Lambert is playing Mr. Eric Thompson (NOT Emma Thompson’s dad, the one who re-voiced The Magic Roundabout for the BBC), an American in Paris, and with his exquise comic timing he is partaking in a proud French tradition — the unconvincing American. For while his attempts to speak French clumsily and with an American intonation are quite good, they’re not exactly believable, and that adds to their hilarity.

The first French talkie was LES TROIS MASQUES (1929), a Pathe-Natan shot at Pinewood by special arrangement with John Maxwell, the Scottish lawyer-turned-exhibitor-turned-producer who had been working with Alfred Hitchock. Pathe head Bernard Natan seems to have gotten along well with Scots — his TV company was co-founded with John Logie Baird. But LES TROIS MASQUES is a dreadful film, stilted and static in the manner associated with the worst of early talkies. It’s as if British reserve somehow soaked into the celluloid and stifled any Gallic joie de vivre.

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Much, much better is CHIQUÉ, a forty-five minute comedy set in a Montmartre dive and exploiting that old joke about the American tourist who doesn’t realize the apache dance is an act. Adrien Lamy plays the American, who says things like “Pas Anglais! Amurrican I am!” He’s wonderfully, hilariously awful. The film is everything its predecessor is not — fluid, rhythmic, pacy, atmospheric, alive. Pierre Colombier directed it, and went on to make Pathe-Natan’s best comedies.

Another early precedent for Lambert’s perf must be the 1931 film version of the same operetta, co-directed by Nicolas Rimsky, who also plays Thompson. A Russian playing an American in France — I assume he’s enjoyable, but I haven’t tracked down the film.

My faulty memory tells me there are other examples of Frenchmen playing Americans, also Brits playing Americans, and also Americans who aren’t actors playing Americans, but I can’t seem to put a name to them. Let me know if you think of any!

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Everything in the Resnais film is in quotes — a theatrical piece from a bygone age performed, archly, on artificial sets by artistes who disappear by slow dissolve each time they start to exit a scene, with a sound midway between applause and a batting of wings. Such artifice courts sterility, but in Resnais’s hands it’s both funny, the way it would have been on stage in 1925, and something else — a scientific experiment in temporal bilocation, perhaps.

Bought my tickets…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by dcairns

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… which means I am indeed going to Pordenone, Italy for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the 32nd Pordenone Silent Film Festival, who are showing NATAN, the film Paul Duane & I made. NATAN is a talking picture, a documentary about a filmmaker mainly associated with talking pictures, but it does deal with Natan’s production LA MERVEILLEUSE VIE DE JEAN D’ARC, and it features Lenny Borger and Serge Bromberg, two experts on silent cinema who are Pordenone regulars, so they’re stretching a point and including us.

It’s also nice because the festival director, critic and Chaplin biographer David Robinson, used to program Edinburgh International Film Festival, so maybe I can interview him and resume my series The Edinburgh Dialogues.

And of course the movies are an exciting lot — Louise Brooks in William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE, Harold Lloyd in THE FRESHMAN with musical accompaniment by Carl Davis, seasons on Anny Ondra, Swedish movies, silent animation, and very excitingly indeed, the premiere of Orson Welles’ TOO MUCH JOHNSON.

I leave Tuesday.

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The following week on Wednesday, the day after I get back, I’m off to Lyon for NATAN’s first French date, at the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon. Lyon actually appears in the film, in a newsreel where we see Natan preparing the opening of a new cinema. Lyon have homages to Hal Ashby, Studio Ghibli, film noir (with special guest Peggy Cummins), and they have a programme dedicated to experimental filmmaker Germaine Dulac who briefly ran Pathe-Natan’s newsreel department, and they’re showing LE BONHEUR, a spectacular Pathe-Natan production from Marcel L’Herbier starring Charles Boyer. The film’s co-director Paul Duane and producer Paul Duane is also attending, as is one of Natan’s granddaughters, the wonderful Lenick Philippot. Should be pretty special.

It’s going to be a busy and exciting fortnight and I fully expect blog postings to be on the light side… but you never know!

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