At this year’s New York Film Festival, two retrospectives were planned to coincide with the release of Bertrand Tavernier’s new documentary My Journey Through French Cinema. The first was a collection of French films prominently featured in the documentary. The second was a selection of titles by Henry Hathaway, a director Tavernier credits as one of classic Hollywood’s most under-appreciated filmmakers. However, in the festival’s infinite wisdom, they scheduled the two retrospectives at the same times on the same days, making it physically impossible to see all of the revivals.
Writer Nathanael Hood personally chose to focus more on the Hathaway retrospective, but still managed to attend screenings of four of the French films.
Here are his reviews.
Deadlier Than the Male (1956) ★★
Julien Duvivier’s Deadlier Than the Male only truly flourishes in the background details and little moments that populate the negative spaces of its scattershot plot: the minuscule figures weaving their way through the clogged arteries of the Parisian markets; eccentric characters ordering brandied deserts for their dogs and the very finest tap water for themselves; an indignant Maître D’ ordering the waiters to serve a group of American tourists their cheapest wine after being asked if they serve Coca-Cola (“This isn’t a drug store, madam”).
Otherwise Deadlier Than the Male seems at war with itself. The first half of the film is a leisurely, naturalistic drama charting the romance between famed Parisian restaurateur André Chatelin (Jean Gabin) and Catherine (Danièle Delorme), the supposed daughter of his estranged ex-wife. Key here is Gabin’s performance as his affections organically blossom from dutiful attention to sincere paternal warmth to full romantic longing. Less effective is the sudden introduction of a love triangle as Catherine seduces André’s adopted son Gérard (Gérard Blain): within the span of a few scenes Gérard goes from stubbornly refusing Catherine’s advances out of loyalty to André to manic possessiveness. The crime thriller second half reveals that Catherine has been playing André and Gérard against each other for her own nefarious purposes. Yes, we suspect Catherine from the very beginning thanks to a prolonged opening sequence watching her stalk towards André’s restaurant. But the film itself refuses to follow up with said intrigues for much of its run-time. The narrative only truly crackles in the last 20 minutes when Catherine’s well-laid plans crumble about her, leaving her to realize that she’s in hopelessly over her head (think William H. Macy’s hapless car salesman in Fargo ). Other early French films, particularly Jean Renoir’s flawed yet lovely Toni (1935), better merged the rhythms of naturalism with stylized romantic melodrama.
Angels of Sin (1943) ★★½
History will remember Robert Bresson’s Angels of Sin in spite of itself. As Bresson’s first feature film, it’s doomed for an eternity of revivals and reappraisals by audiences seeking insights into the early work of one of the cinema’s great masters. Indeed, we see several nascent versions of the themes and obsessions that would mark his work: characters trapped in prisons, both figuratively and literally; stories that double as metaphors for spiritual salvation; sparse, ascetic performances, even in the rare cases he used professional actors. Anyone familiar with Bresson’s work will appreciate how the final shot of the film—a close-up on a pair of crossed hands being handcuffed—inaugurates one of his trademark visual motifs.
But theological pretensions aside, Angels of Sin is simply an overcooked melodrama; you can practically hear Charlie Chaplin sawing away on his violin during the most dramatic scenes. A novice nun named Anne-Marie (Renée Faure) feels called by God to minister to Thérèse (Jany Holt), an ex-prisoner who, unbeknownst to everyone else, killed the man she claims set her up. In her zeal to bring salvation to Thérèse, Anne-Marie self-righteously condemns and provokes her fellow nuns until they kick her out of the convent. But through an extraordinary and fatal act of penance, Anne-Marie finally breaks through to Thérèse.
If anything, Angels of Sin establishes Bresson’s early mastery of the basic techniques of the cinema—rules he would break and deconstruct for the entirety of his career following his third feature Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945). It’s curious to see Bresson’s early, faltering use of narrative ellipses. Though he chooses to depict Thérèse’s act of murder only in silhouette, he slips in two or three odd scenes of police detectives investigating said murder. If this film had been made at any other time in Bresson’s life, these scenes would probably have been entirely cut out.
La Marseillaise (1938) ★½
Whatta helluva way to follow up La Grande Illusion (1937), unquestionably one of the greatest films ever made. La Marseillaise was Jean Renoir’s attempt to capture the early years of the French Revolution in just over two hours—a subject matter that would make any sane director run screaming for the hills. But instead of focusing on the major figures of the Revolution, he turns his sights primarily on a group of citizen soldiers who exist on the struggle’s periphery until their participation in the storming of the Tuileries Palace and the capture of King Louis XVI.
Above all La Marseillaise is a film of words: of peasants and soldiers discussing the Revolution, of exiled French aristocrats plotting their revenge while in Germany, of the various royals chitter-chatting about the petty inconveniences of armed insurrection. But the hard truth is that these passages are overlong and clunky; they’re frequently shot as two-dimensional tableaux, stripping the frame of any depth as the camera languidly pans from one flat composition to the next. Renoir takes a devious glee in skipping over some of the most famous incidents of the Revolution: we hear of the Bastille being stormed, but don’t see it; we hear of the doings of Marat and Robespierre, but we don’t meet them. Even the first singing of the eponymous song takes place off-handedly and off-screen.
There are only three action sequences, but each utilize a different tone. The capture of a military fort by a ragtag group of rebels is played for laughs; a sword-fight skirmish between Loyalists and insurgents as an absurdity where nobody really seems to get hurt, let alone killed; the third a deadly, tragic battle that sees untold scores of troops dead and POWs summarily executed. La Marseillaise lacks stylistic unity, the first half featuring the aforementioned two-dimensional tableaux, the second half indulgent camera work and rapid editing. Almost nothing about the film works. Of the 20+ of Renoir’s films that I’ve seen, this is the only one I would consider a legitimate failure.
Panique (1946) ★★★★
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire (1989) ends tragically. Despite an ending that guarantees the triumph of justice and the punishment of evil, Julien Duvivier’s Panique—the earlier French adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire—is by far the more nihilistic film. Released a mere year after Germany’s surrender in World War Two, Panique is both an accusation and an exorcism of national shame.
It’s easy to miss that Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), the odd fellow who keeps to himself in his room at the top of his small village’s hotel, is Jewish. It’s only briefly alluded to in one line of dialogue. And certainly, his explicitly non-kosher diet of “thick and bloody” lamb chops and “ripe and runny” camembert is no big help. But he is Jewish nonetheless. So it’s impossible to watch his eventual exclusion, persecution, and indirect execution by his fellow villagers after being falsely accused of the murder of a local heiress as anything other than a piercing denunciation of French collusion and indifference towards the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. But even stripped of its social/historical context, the deliberate seduction and betrayal of Monsieur Hire by the girlfriend of the actual murderer as a scapegoat for their crimes is downright Shakespearean in power.
The last third of the film stands as one of the great triumphs of post-war French cinema as harmless rumors and suspicions snowball into an unstoppable lynch mob mentality. Most directors go their entire careers never making a scene as perfect as the one where Monsieur Hire arrives in an empty village square via a taxi only for the entire community to crash into him as one like an angry wave. As an exercise in cinematic craftsmanship, Panique is essential. As a manifestation of post-war French guilt, it’s indispensable.