The End of Their Day

Truffaut once told Marcel Carné that Carné’s LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS was worth more than his own entire oeuvre. Carné replied, “It’s a shame you’re not a critic anymore.”

The reason for this bad grace is easy enough to see. During his days at Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut had been persistently negative about Carné and most of his contemporaries (Renoir alone could do no wrong). Although there was considerable variation among the Cahiers critics (Godard liked one René Clair film, LE QUATORZE JUILLET, for its portrayal of working-class holiday activities, but Truffaut hated them all), a broad general consensus could be found. Carné, Clair, Clouzot, Duvivier, Yves and Marc Allégret, Christian-Jacque and Claude Autant-Lara represented the paternalistic, old-fashioned “cinema du papa”, or “tradition of quality”. The goal was to destroy this brand of filmmaking (Rivette awarded a symbolic “bullet” to every Duvivier film released during his time at Cahiers — the bullet means “You’d be better off staying home than seeing this,” but it obviously has another, even more hostile implication).

In fact, Cahiers was always a pretty small-circulation magazine, and although the attacks on France’s sacred cows got plenty of attention, they certainly didn’t finish anyone’s career. Even René Clair, who withdrew from cinema with a feeling of having outlived his time, didn’t do so until the mid-sixties, some time after the Cahiers broadsides started.

The movement of Cahiers critics into film-making had a greater effect on the old guard. Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rivette demonstrated in film what they could only argue in print, that it was time for more modern techniques and younger blood. In addition, the whole cultural scene was moving on, so that even without those iconoclasts, filmmakers who had been active since the ’20s were starting to look out of touch.

And it’s true that many of the old guard were no longer making their very best work. The infusion of freshness brought by the nouvelle vague cannot be underestimated: it must have been like the coming of rock ‘n’ roll. But the very politique des auteurs which they represented can be used to argue that film culture would have been richer if the cinema du papa crowd had all been allowed to continue making films alongside the new guys. It’s possible the nouvelle vague thought so too: Truffaut made his generous remark to Carné after his own directing career was in full bloom. Mostly hostile to Clouzot in reviews, he later paid tribute to LE CORBEAU and urged the director to return to filmmaking, resulting in the neglected masterpiece LA PRISONNIERE, a tale of kinky sexual shenanigans among the kinetic art set:

When you get into a director, it can lead you to appreciate the lesser films for their role in the body of work as a whole. Sometimes, what look like failures can assume greater stature in the light of the rest of the corpus. Certainly, only hardcore Hawksians treasure the director’s later works like RED LINE 7000, which is likely to seem extremely old-fashioned for a 1965 movie unless you go into it with a sympathetic eye for the filmmaker’s trademark concerns and mannerisms. Some will even place this film maudit amongst Hawks’ best achievements, and make a solid case.

Similarly, it’s undoubtedly a Good Thing that Chabrol and Godard and Rivette are still with us and still making films, along with contemporaries like Varda and Marker.

I haven’t seen Carné’s last film, 1977’s LA BIBLE (the film of the book?) but his 1974 LA VISITE MARVELLEUSE, a sort of hippy version of an H.G. Wells story, is very lovely. It has the same love of the fantastic and the same doomed romanticism of classic WWII-era Carné. Based on that, I’d like him to have made more late films. I’d even like to see his much-derided juvie delinquent drama LES TRICHEURS (1958).

Julien Duvivier is a filmmaker I have a special affection for. He kept going despite the change in fashions until his death aged 70 in a car crash. I suspect he represented a special offense to the Cahiers boys, since he spoke of himself as a craftsman and always gave principle credit to his writers, notably Charles Spaak and Henri Jeanson. He was as far from the politique des auteurs as you can get. I think he’s a marvellous filmmaker, and I deplore the absence of most of his French-language work from the marketplace. PEPE LE MOKO is rightly hailed as a masterpiece of the poetic realist school, and available on a magnificent Criterion disc, but apart from the (justly acclaimed) American films, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate any of his works unless you speak French. Even in France the number of his films available is pitiful. For this reason alone, the Cahiers/nouvelle vague attacks are to be regretted: Duvivier’s reputation has slipped into the shade, with the result that it’s extremely hard to see his films and reassess them.

From AU BONHEURS DES DAMES — an eeeaaarly Duvivier.

Well, maybe it’s hard for one blog to make much of a difference in the face of 40 years of neglect, but we do what we can. Starting shortly, THE GREAT DUVIVIER GIVEAWAY will attempt to popularise and reclaim from history a 1939 masterpiece that’s been shunted into the sidings of obscurity. Watch this space and CLAIM YOUR FREE FILM, and your place in nothing less than the rewriting of movie history.

21 Responses to “The End of Their Day”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    I’d personally disagree with Truffaut. ”Les Enfants du Paradis” is to me a very overrated 40’s melodrama that’s main appeal to so many is largely sentimental. And Jean Gruault, Truffaut’s regular screenwriter(who also worked with Rossellini, Rivette and Resnais) agrees and has often said in interviews that till today he has no idea what his friend saw in that film.

    To me while Carne is fairly talented and he made two great films – ”Les Visiteurs du Soir” and ”Quai des Brumes”, his work has nothing on Renoir.

    The Cahiers team however weren’t entirely dismissive of pre-war French film-makers. They loved Renoir and Vigo of course but also Sacha Guitry. I don’t know what they thought of Jean Gremillon though. Gremillon is the great unsung talent of classical French cinema.

    The goal was to destroy this brand of filmmaking

    Not exactly. Rather the goal was to re-create a new brand of film-making that had something to do with the world that they knew. The Cahiers team didn’t think that all their films were bad. Truffaut liked ”La Traversee du Paris” by Claude Autant-Lara and Godard while quite vitriolic towards Clouzot admired ”La Mystere de Picasso” his fairly uncharacteristic but striking non-fiction on Pablo(it’ll make a nice double feature with ”F For Fake”). As for Rene Clement, well I don’t think they had anything nice to say about him.

    The only film-maker in the post-war that they liked was Jacques Becker. The others were non-mainstream talents like Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau and early Jean-Pierre Melville or emigres like Max Ophuls.

    The Cahiers policy of the 50’s was to champion the work done by outsiders which meant raking the establishment over the coals.

  2. Forgot to mention Gremillon — another one whose work is disgracefully hard to see.

    Obviously once can like or dislike any given Carne film according to taste. What we can agree on is that not being able to see Les Enfants wouldn’t be helpful. Received opinion has it that Carne’s films turned bad with Les Portes de la Nuit and none of his work without Prevert is worthy, but I adore Les Portes de la Nuit and have seen Juliette, ou la Clef des Songes, which is like a Lewis Carroll/Cocteau mash-up and rather fine. Since these films are hard to see, their reputation is unlikely to recover until this is rectified.

    Of course, I’d argue that even late Duvivier, Autant-Lara etc has some relationship to real life. The early films undeniably do: Poil de Carotte is not some kind of escapist fantasy. And not all nouvelle vague films are any more realistic or socially committed than the films they denounced. Nor should they be, necessarily.

  3. Gremillion’s greatest film Lumiere d’ete has something in common with carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis

    Both were written by Jacques Prevert. Prevert is one of the French cinema’s greatest auteurs, and it’s high time he was acknowledged as such.

    Sonheim is a big fan of Duvivier.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Prevert is one of the French cinema’s greatest auteurs, and it’s high time he was acknowledged as such.

    He’s already a respected poet and screenwriter. And yes he is the auteur of the Carner films but his best film was ”Le Crime de M. Lange” which is definitely a Renoir film.

  5. Carnet du Bal is practically a Sondheim musical already.

    Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer, a fine, underrated movie, gives an invaluable glimpse of wartime French cinema, and name-checks writers like Jeanson and Spaak who tend to get overlooked in favour of Prevert. There’s definitely a whole school of screenwriting going on there.

    Viewing Le Jour Se Leve next to M Lange would give a strong portrait of the differences between Carne and Renoir, but would also show the centrality of Prevert’s contribution to both films. And leave one with a lasting impression of the genius of Jules Berry as villain.

    Even given that this era of cinema is underrepresented on video, the unavailability of Les Visiteurs du Soir is staggering.

  6. Ah but Le Crime de M. Lange is definitely a Prevert film! Nothing remotely like it in the rest of Renoir’s career.

    Plus it has a great performance by George Bataille’s sister — who was also Lacan’s wife. Talk about subtext.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    Sylvie Bataille played the main role in Renoir’s ”Partie de Campagne”(where hubster George puts in an appearance as a seminarian…now THERE’s subtext!) which was in production before ”La Crime de M. Lange”, although released years later after the war because Renoir lost funds and the producers shelved it.

    The style of the film, the sense of space of many connections in the framing and blocking is very Renoiresque as is the change in moods in the film. In any case none of Jacques Prevert’s other works are remotely like that either. Of course that doesn’t mean that the film can’t fit in with thematic patterns in other Prevert screenplays and his own political concerns and the like.

    Renoir was fairly amused by the fact that he got permanent membership in the ranks of left-wing film-makers after he made the film because the idea of a co-operative business structure was co-opted by right-wingers.

  8. I assume the Cahiers team were happy with Louis Malle? He wasn’t exactly Nouvelle Vague but he gave Jeanne Moreau some roles.

  9. Malle started making films around the time the Cahiers writers were starting to make films themselves. He’s definitely more nouvelle vague than cinema du papa, and his collaborators include lots of new wave favourites like Moreau. Their contemporaries were more honoured than their precursors. Even Roger Vadim seemed to get a free pass!

    Renoir certainly thought M. Lange was possibly his best work. Have folks seen his filmed intro to it?

  10. Malle was a New Wve “outsiders” because he was from the upper middle class and the New Wave kids were either proles like Truffaut and Chabrol or “black sheep” like Godard.

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    Renoir certainly thought M. Lange was possibly his best work.

    It’s up there certainly. Renoir’s own favourite of his films was ultimately ”The Rules of the Game”. But he liked most of the films he worked on save for the ones in America and ”Madame Bovary” in France. I still think that ”The Rules of the Game” is Renoir’s most perfect film and that ”La Grande Illusion” is absolutely flawless. Though I suppose them being old stand-bys make people avoid them. ”The River” is also stunning. Of his early 30’s films, I favour the Michel Simon diptych. But then that’s the problem grading Renoir’s work…the man never made a bad film. He was naturally immune apparently.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    Louis Malle you could say was only part of the Nouvelle Vague en passant. I’d say ”Zazie dans le Metro”(an adaptation of a Queneau novel, Queneau being a huge influence on the Cahiers mafia and Truffaut in particular) is a N-V film and perhaps ”Elevator to the Gallows”. Though the Miles Davis score, great as it is, may be a tad too high maintenance.

    Roger Vadim was briefly lumped into the Nouvelle Vague but the Vague spat him out as quickly as they could as soon as they realized the first-class purveyor of kitsch that he was. Truffaut even had a failed lawsuit or something against him.

  13. That movie’s like a trailer for itself. I showed a chase scene to students and one said afterwards “That was the greatest thing EVER!”

    Weirdly, I used to think I didn’t much like Malle, until I counted up the films of his I liked, and there were LOTS. I mean, there weren’t really any I didn’t like. So I don’t know where I got that impression from.

  14. Actually, I just remembered where I got the impression I didn’t like Malle. Damage. Or, as we call it, The Unfeasibly Low Bannister of Jeremy Irons.

    But I admit, that’s a silly reason for thinking I don’t like Malle.

  15. He made one or two bland films, like Damage and Alamo Bay. And I LOATHE My Dinner with Andre. But his career is filled with a number of unexpected highs, Like Vie Privee and Viva Maria. His last Vanya on 42nd Street is incredibly graceful and lovely, as is Reservoir Dogs.

  16. Whoah! Something went very wrong at the end of that sentence, David!

    I’m guessing that you mean Au Revoir Les Enfants…
    I quite enjoy My Dinner With Andre, if only for the fact that I now go “It’s Andre!” whenever I see Andre Gregory in anything else.

  17. […] In a daring rear-guard action to promote the reputation of defunct French film director Julien Duvivier, Shadowplay is GIVING AWAY DVD-Rs copied from a decomposing late ’80s VHS off-air recording […]

  18. Of course I mean Au Revoir les Enfants.

    As ewvery cineaste should know back in the days when Quentin Tarantino was working as a video store clerk a customer came in and asked for “Reservoir Dogs.” Baffled as to what he was talking about, Quentin queried the guy and eventually discovered that the film he was actually asking for was Au Revoir les Enfants. Quentin loved the faux title — and the rest is postmodern cinematic history.

  19. […] you are there, you could do worse than take a look at Mr Cairns’ attempt to bring Julien Duvivier’s film LA FIN DU JOUR to a wider audience. Just follow the link to The Great Duvivier Giveaway […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: