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.