Archive for Jean Gabin


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 24, 2012 by dcairns

First off, a limerick in honour of the late Robert Fuest, here. More on this unsung genius soon.

Off to Paris in again in April, staying in Montmartre, so watched FRENCH CANCAN, Renoir’s Technicolor fictionalisation of the founding of the Moulin Rouge, which doubles as an exploration of showbiz life in general.

Jean Gabin stars, getting back in touch with his song-and-dance-man roots, and he’s joined by the magnificently feral Maria Felix and Francoise Arnoul, she of the surprising nose and infectious glee — she dances like she’s having the maddest good time of her life, which she probably is.

Renoir is achieving several difficult things at once here, while making it all look effortless like a good dancer. First, he’s stringing us along for the first half with what appears to be nothing but froth. Charm is probably genetic, or at any rate I don’t know where it comes from, but I’m pretty sure Michael Bay couldn’t achieve it by hard work. At any rate, as a kind of musical, the movie relies less on dramatic tension (that supposedly essential ingredient) and more on a stimulating array of sets, costumes, girls, amusing characters, music, light-hearted historical observation, girls, and mildly amusing but never riotous comedy bits.

Then the tone shifts slightly to admit true love — an exotic prince is in love with Arnoul, who is shacked up with Gabin and also pursued by her former fiance. The prince’s feelings are far more serious and sincere and painful than any of the troupers’ — showbiz is a dangerous place for such as he. The defusing of this emotional timebomb allows the comedy to proceed , but something has happened. It’s a very bright, non-judgmental film, and the dancers and entrepreneurs, for all their jealousy and squabbling, are non-judgmental people. Those outside their world are prone to more serious emotional attachments, and Arnoul needs to decide what kind of person she is. The theme is made explicit in Gabin’s decreed-by-contract outburst (he had to explode once per movie, the fans expected it — his one is comparatively mild) where he draws the line between entertainment and everyday life.

And then comes the dance —

Spoiler alert — this is the ending —

The cancan itself is spectacular, Renoir’s presentation of it showing how a director can be restrained and placid in shooting and cutting style and still deliver exuberant, exhilarating excitement. It’s the sequence of closeups of audience members that moved me most, and most strangely — these are curtain calls for all the bit-players and leads in the film, and also a kind of farewell to an era, and also something else — a celebration of the audience’s role in the entertainment, and therefor a warm tip of the hat to us, watching on a TV or computer sixty years after Renoir made the film, a hundred and twenty seven years after the events depicted in the film failed  to happen in as elegant and colourful a manner in reality.

Francoise and her camouflaged dress — she’s finally being absorbed into the theatre.

And the other thing Renoir achieves is the creation a vibrant, convincing world built in the studio — it’s not just the beautiful production design of Max Douy (previously praised for the vivacious MARGUERITE DE LA NUIT), which is magnificently detailed and as quirky as the real world while still allowing musical-comedy stylisation to play its role. It’s also the performances, from the stars down to the smallest bit players, all of whom are engaged in their business with recognizable human attitudes. It’s a sublime illustration the principle underlying Renoir’s advice, “When filming on a set, always leave one door open, because through that door, reality will come.”

Speaking of detail, I particularly like the plaster head in a bucket at the back of this shot.

The BFI DVD and Blu-ray can be bought —

French Cancan [DVD + Blu-ray]


A Bad Egg

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 27, 2012 by dcairns

Took me ages to get around to VOICI LES TEMPS DES ASSASSINS, a major Julien Duvivier film. Not sure why. It’s very good indeed, with Jean Gabin settling into his portly patriarch phase, and Daniele Delorme electrifying as his ex-wife’s daughter who comes into his life, seduces him, and wrecks his relationships.

The closest comparison is with LA BELLE EQUIPE, in which Gabin co-founds a riverside bar identical to the one his mother runs here (a fearsome woman, she decapitates chickens with a bullwhip). Gabin himself runs a successful restaurant in Les Halles — Duvivier artfully intercuts nostalgic footage of the real, long-vanished market, with his own elaborate studio reconstruction, and has a rare time tracking around the restaurant itself. The interiors of the film having been constructed to facilitate the director’s elegant camerawork, we get some great stuff tracking between tables, through doorways, peering around partitions…

LA BELLE EQUIPE shares with this film a slightly undercooked ending (LA BELLE EQUIPE has two, one happy, one sad, the sad one being the original and preferable version, but neither one quite living up to what’s gone before) and also a female spirit of malevolence of the kind the director returned to several times in his career. While Viviane Romance in the 1936 movie is an almost unmotivated force of pure evil, Delorme at least has in her past sufficient trauma to suggest how her character got so warped.

While the earlier film acquired a received-wisdom reading as an allegory for the Popular Front (friends decide to share their good fortune and go into business together; it all falls tragically apart), which Duvivier denied intending, I don’t see any similar political subtext here, except as a premonition of the deepening generation gap. Gabin has a young friend he regards almost as a son, who goes on student demos — Delorme drives them apart and conspires to kill both of them. Fear of women seems to drive the movie, with both Gabin and Delorme’s mothers representing different sorts of destructive possessiveness. But the characters at least have individual psychologies that make sense, and it’s a relief not to have the somewhat insipid “good girl” archetype too — Duvivier’s vamps are much more fun than his virgins. But that’s the case with most filmmakers, isn’t it?

One of Billy Wilder’s rules: “If she’s not a whore, she’s a bore.”

There’s also an English lady customer with a drunken dog called Group Captain.

Detective Dinosaur

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 2, 2010 by dcairns

LE PACHA (AKA PASHA), directed by Georges Lautner, revolves around Jean Gabin, playing a detective superintendent six months from retirement, pulling out all the stops to catch a jewel thief who’s murdered all his accomplices, including an old pal of Gabin’s from the resistance. And when I say “revolves around”, you can take that almost literally, since Gabin at 63 was not the most agile leading man. Already in LE PLAISIR, sixteen years previously, he was heavy and aged, his run a lumbering, painful process. Still with almost a decade of leading roles ahead of him now, this 1967 performance uses him as a sort of anchoring rock, sat behind desks or in cars, occasionally ambling alongside the camera tracks, forcing a slower pace.

All the zip-pan sixties antics and action scenes staged around supporting players just emphasise how much the film has to decelerate when the hero is onscreen. Lautner, a former AD, gives us a stripshow and a cameo from Serge Gainsbourg and a nightclub called “Hippies”, but he’s obviously on Gabin’s side, looking back at  a bygone Paris and bemoaning the concrete and immigrants transforming it. (And the movie does seem to dislike both equally.)

A movie like this has a tricky route to navigate — inserting liberal criticism of the cops would dilute it, but presenting too fawning a view robs it of the only defense for this kind of tough flic flick, that of truthfulness. And Lautner seems to be wholly on the side of his tec, even when said protag is intimidating beating witnesses. While Melville was a rightwinger with some surprising liberal tendencies, Lautner only films minorities to create an aura of lawlessness or decadence. Alright, he clearly has a slightly salacious yen for that decadence (personified here by Dany Carrel in a Paco Rabanne type dress), but that’s not the same as sympathy. It’s all very DIRTY HARRY, without a Don Siegel at the helm to try and get at least a little nuance into it.

Still, Gabin is himself, a majestic antediluvian survivor. No other star of his era of French cinema seemed to maintain a presence on the scene the way he did, and it seems he did it by his very refusal to adapt. At times he seems on the verge of going over the top, letting his explosive energy dissipate itself the way it never did in the 30s and 40s, where it would simmer behind his eyes and erupt only in a single scene of fury. Here, there’s a swivel-eyed exasperation with the bureaucrats and petty crooks which threatens to make him tiresomely grumpy. But the few scenes with Carrel (really just an extended cameo from the Da Nang sexpot, but she gets to do proper acting and stay clothed) soften his surliness just enough, and the old saurian still has a little magic.