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Posts from September 2014

Bittersweet melancholy... 10 questions on Le Jour se lève

Posted Friday 19 September 2014 by Sarah Rutterford in Film Releases

Alongside our upcoming release of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève on Friday 3rd October, we've been working with Ben McCann, Associate Professor in French Studies at the University of Adelaide, and author of a new French Film Guide published by I. B. Tauris, to further the reach of this historic reissue. Below, Ben writes about Le Jour se lève's fascinating history, and why for him it's this film of Carné’s that retains such a singular appeal.

Le Jour se leve

Why did you decide to write a book about this particular film?

I first saw Le Jour se lève in my early twenties, whilst I was really discovering 1930s French cinema, and seeking out these exciting classics for the first time. I had seen a couple of Carné’s earlier films, but nothing really prepared me for the monochrome beauty and the structural daring of Le Jour se lève. It’s one of those films that plays out like a dream - perhaps the whole thing is in fact a kind of fever dream for François (Jean Gabin) as he lies in wait for his fate throughout the film - and I just loved the woozy verbal and visual memories the film conjures up. I’ve always admired the actor Jules Berry too (here, he plays the wonderfully oleaginous Valentin), and the way he uses body language to express a whole range of thoughts and sentiments. When I was approached to write a book about the film, I jumped at the chance to revisit it, rewatch it, and find new things to say.

Why did the Vichy government ban footage from original 1939 film?

The censors at the Vichy Department of Information - who had earlier called upon French directors to make ‘healthy and optimistic’ films - identified fifty-six films as ‘difficult, painful, derisory, depressing, morbid, and immoral.’ As might be expected, films like Le Jour se lève, as well as Carné’s earlier Hôtel du Nord and Le Quai des brumes, were deemed demoralising and defeatist, and screenings of them were severely restricted. Another direct intervention from the censor was to remove the shot of the naked Arletty washing herself in the shower François enters her apartment. To see the shot of a naked woman in late-30s French cinema was unheard of, so the censors stepped in.

Le Jour se leve

The original film was thought lost forever following its release but discovered again in 1950. What is the story behind that?

In 1946, Hollywood bought the rights to the film for their own version, The Long Night with Henry Fonda in the Gabin role, which was released in 1947 to box office failure and critical apathy. One of Hollywood’s practices at this time was to purchase the rights to original films, then take them out of distribution and destroy them. In London, the National Film Library was only allowed to hold a copy of Le Jour se lève on the strict proviso that it wouldn't be shown publicly until permission was given by the new rightsholder, RKO. 

The beginning of Le Jour se lève’s flourishing post-war acclaim was due in no small part to the French film critic André Bazin, who resurrected the film from widespread neglect and RKO’s suppressions in his acclaimed Ciné-club analysis, first distributed to film clubs in 1947 and published more widely in 1950. Part of that analysis was entitled ‘Le Décor est un acteur / The Décor is an Actor’, in which Bazin argued that the decor in Le Jour se lève possessed both a dramatic function and a decorative function, and concluded that the film possessed ‘the ideal qualities of a cinematic paradise lost.’

The film has been described as a classic in French poetic realism. Can you expand on why it has achieved this iconic status?

By 1939, Marcel Carné had become the leading standard bearer of the French Poetic Realist aesthetic. This film style combined romantic-fatalist narratives with claustrophobic environments and an accentuated mise-en-scène, and was a strong pre-cursor to American film noir. Le Jour se lève was one of the first films to employ a complex narrative syntax, full of the flashbacks, ellipses and symbolic objects that influenced Orson Welles, John Huston and Howard Hawks, but also young French directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jules Dassin and Jacques Becker, who borrowed Carné’s interleaving of the visual and the psychological to create similar narratives of despair and gloom. Straddling the divide between ‘popular’ and ‘auteur’, Le Jour se lève expertly fits the definition of classical French cinema, with its accentuated visual style, ‘poetic’ scripts, star actors, and elegant deployment of framing, editing, and camerawork. 

Le Jour se leve

Can you tell us where and who Carné might have drawn influence from to make this film?

Le Jour se lève is clearly influenced by the austere visual style of German Expressionists F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, while its recurring urban iconography and characters types recalled Carné’s early mentors René Clair and Jacques Feyder. Carné was a film critic before he became a director, so he would obviously have seen lots of films with different narrative and visual styles. He also wrote a series of impassioned articles that called upon French filmmakers of the early 1930s to create a more democratic cinema that combined populism and underlying social comment to celebrate and ennoble the working-class. In many ways, Le Jour se lève is the culmination of that discussion.

Did Carné always have Jean Gabin in mind to play his working class hero François?

Carné was all set to film La Rue des vertus in 1939, which had been written expressly for Jean Gabin, but was bowled over by the narrative possibilities of Le Jour se lève. Gabin, Arletty and Jules Berry had already been contracted to the initial film, and so the transition from one project to another was relatively fluid. Carné had already worked with Gabin on Le Quai des brumes in 1938, so they were good friends, and responsive to each other’s professionalism. They’d also work again in together in the 1950s, so there was clearly friendship and respect there throughout.

We hear that Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Lukas Moodyson are big fans of Carné. Why do you think he has entered the consciousness of contemporary European cinema?

Partly because the kinds of films Carné made have not really been made in Europe for many years, and so I think there is a sort of nostalgia there for the nuts-and-bolts filmmaking that came so naturally to Carné and his contemporaries. I also think his approach to filmmaking - professional, meticulous, harmonious – never really goes out of fashion. Jeunet’s early films contain lots of little references and winks to Carné, so there is a sense that these directors are perhaps still in love with both the old-fashioned nature of Carné’s films, but also their modern, sophisticated elegance. Carné also had a great love of Paris – its buildings, its people – and Jeunet’s Amélie is a follow-on from that.

Le Jour se leve

Do you have a favourite moment in the film?

I love the greenhouse scene, with Françoise and François. It’s perhaps the most romantic in Carné’s entire oeuvre.  François (complete with subtle lighting on his face, immaculately coiffed hair, and cloth cap) recounts his history of bad luck. Françoise’s role throughout this monologue is to stay silent and return his gaze, although her glistening lips and pale face, coupled with her flowery dress, continue to bolster her role as François’s object of desire. Her gaze is also one of empathy, of understanding, and not just one of restless physical yearning. François then delivers the quintessential Carné/Gabin/Jacques Prévert speech:

"You know when you’re waiting for a tram and it’s pouring with rain – the tram doesn’t stop…Ding!  Full up. So you wait for the next one…Ding, ding! Full up, full up. The trams all go by…Ding! And you stay there, you wait…But now you’re with me, everything’s going to be different..."

There’s a bittersweet melancholy and a stoic resignation here, and the sentiments voiced by François – undaunted optimism, romantic faith – exemplify not only Le Jour se lève’s inner workings, but the entire tone and style of French Poetic Realism.

Thank you, Ben!

To read more about Ben's book, click here. To read about booking the film, visit our film page.

Venice Film Festival 2014: Simon's blog (part 2)

Posted Thursday 4 September 2014 by Simon Ward in Festival Reports

So, 31 films in and the latter half of the Venice Film Festival is proving more meaty with some very interesting titles from around the planet. Here are a few of my highlights.

Shinya Tsukamoto's Japanese war film, Nobi (Fires on the Plain), which he is at pains to say is not a remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 classic, but instead a return to the novel source material, is a powerful, rage-filled beast - in which Tsukamoto himself stars as an inexperienced private fighting in the living hell of the Pacific at the tail end of WWII. 

Nobi (Fires on the Plain)
Shinya Tsukamoto's Nobi (Fires on the Plain)

It’s a phantasmagoric grotesquery, with a tone hovering in a liminal space between life and death. As the starving and lost private tries to make it across the jungle to his forces’ evacuation point, he must avoid the victorious American marines and local militia. Along the way he attempts to hold on to what is left of his humanity while cannibalism and savagery threaten to psychologically overwhelm him. It’s a potent, extremely bloody, completely immersive experience which gives new meaning to the worn adage ‘war is hell’. One for the strongest stomachs which has a slim, but possible, chance at a UK theatrical release thanks to Tsukamoto’s status as director of the Tetsuo films.

In quiet counter-point to Tuskamoto’s film, but one suspects made with equal passion, comes Roy Andersson’s (Songs from the Second Floor, You, The Living) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. A series of the director’s trademark laconic, tender and wry tableaux, this does pretty much what the title suggests (minus the pigeon). A pair of down-at-heel travelling salesmen, peddling tired novelty jokes, search, Godot-like, for a shop called Party which appears to have vanished. Along the way they experience all manner of capitalist and consumer heartache. Yet the film never becomes a simplistic polemic and is more interested in the absurdity of big business and the everyman’s place within the system. It’s a truly unique vision which won’t expand his audience, but will greatly please friendly critics and fans alike.

Hill of Freedom
The latest from Hong Sangsoo, Hill of Freedom

Hong Sangsoo’s (Ha Ha Ha, Our Sunhi) latest, Hill of Freedom, sees us in familiarly wry territory from the South Korean auteur. His sixteenth film follows a young Japanese man’s search in Korea for a woman he had hoped to marry several years earlier. She has been away and just received a series of letters he sent to her when they drop to the floor, mixing up the order of the letters as she reads them. So Hong plays with the time structure of the film, a preoccupation from a number of his earlier films, examining how time organises our perception of events and of people in mysterious ways. It will no doubt struggle to find distribution but for fans of Hong’s work (like me!) it is something to seek out.

Michael Almereyda’s (Nadja) Cymbeline follows his previous contemporising of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with similar results. It boasts a starry(ish) cast including Ethan Hawke (ubiquitous at the Venice festival with several films to promote), Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich and John Leguizamo, and pitches a biker gang (the Britons) against the police force (the Romans), in a manner that owes something of a debt to both Kenneth Anger and Baz Lurhmann. Purists hated this take on Shakespeare but it you can go with it, it has a certain low-rent cheesy cult charm. I suspect given the cast it’ll find its way to UK cinemas where it will need a fair wind and kind critics to make its mark.

Red Amnesia
Wang Xiaoshuai's Red Amnesia

Chinese auteur Wang Xiaoshuai’s (The Days, Beijing Bicycle) latest, Red Amnesia, is one of the strongest films at Venice this year. It owes a good deal to Haneke’s Hidden but is equally its own creation. An elderly grandmother finds herself harassed by a mystery phone caller, which may be the result of one of her yuppie son’s construction deals going wrong. Yet she thinks it may have something to do with her denouncing a neighbour to the communist party many years earlier. As the harassment steps up, and we are in real fear of violence, the films exposes the New China's capitalism and its cost to the older generations, as family values disintegrate in a gold rush. Yet it’s never quite so simple, and the film also captures a complex emotional register between dream and reality, not to mention subtly engaging with queer politics and cultural guilt. It was a riveting two hours which I really hope wins something and gets picked up for UK distribution where it ranks alongside the work of Jia Zhangke in its multi-layered portrait of contemporary Chinese life.

Seeing Abel Ferrara’s (Driller Killer, Welcome to New York) Pasolini here in Venice was a treat. Perhaps Ferrara’s most accomplished work since King of New York, this controlled (which can’t always be said of Ferrara!) take on the last 24 hours in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life is riveting cinema. Willem Dafoe is terrific at capturing the intellectual, political and psycho-sexual complexities of one of the greatest Italian artists of the 20th century. The films mixes Pasolini’s work as a filmmaker and literary intellectual with his queer sexuality and political transgression (which most people believe is why he died) and posits that Pasolini’s murder was a direct result of his gay cruising.

Willem Dafoe in Abel Ferrara's Pasolini

Into this heady mix Ferrara powerfully weaves his own rendition of Pasolini’s last unfinished film project, about two men on a sexual odyssey into a queer utopia, in an imagined Italy, which goes beyond this world and into limbo in the next. While Ferrara and Pasolini are both perhaps acquired tastes for mainstream audiences, this film magnificently manages to please both fanbases in a relatively accessible manner which is no mean feat. It’s hard to imagine this film won’t be wending its way to UK cinemas early next year.

Venice Film Festival 2014: Simon's blog (part 1)

Posted Monday 1 September 2014 by Simon Ward in Festival Reports

It’s just closing in on the half-way point here at the Venice Film Festival and the sunshine has been replaced by torrential rain, thunder and lightening. My feet are wet and many of the films are too.

I’ll skip talking about the actual films I am seeing as a juror for the Europa Cinemas Label Venice Days Award as we won’t be deciding who wins until Friday night. But, outside of this, highlights so far include:

99 Homes from director Ramin Bahrani (who made Chop Shop and one of my favourite shorts of all time, Plastic Bag, which you can watch for free online) is a pleasingly angry indictment of the still reverberating sub-prime mortgage disaster, which precipitated the Western economic meltdown and destroyed many ordinary peoples' lives around the world. Construction worker Nash (a terrific, career best-to-date performance from Andrew Garfield) loses his home to real estate shark Carver (Michael Shannon), only to end up shamefully taking a job with Carver and evicting other hard working neighbours just like himself.

99 Homes
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes

In the process he makes a lot of money, but loses his son and mother's (played by Laura Dern) affections. It's an outraged moral tale, watching as Nash compromises his own integrity to save his family and pays a terrible price. If at times the film threatens to slip into schematic predictability, Bahrin ultimately pulls the whole thing off with aplomb and delivers an engrossing, emotionally complex take on the underside of the American dream. In another time he'd (no doubt proudly) be sitting on the McCarthy blacklist for this terrifically controlled call to arms.

Much talked about has been Peter Bogdanovich’s (The Last Picture Show) return, after a hiatus of 13 years, to fiction feature making with She’s Funny That Way. While it failed to please most critics, it seemed to get the audience on side with its blend of Woody Allen-esque whimsy and schtick.

She's Funny That Way
Imogen Poots and Owen Wilson in She’s Funny That Way

A starry cast including Owen Wilson, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Aniston peppered with cameos from the likes of Michael Shannon, Quentin Tarantino and Dianne Wiest guarantees it UK distribution (I would think). Wilson plays a married theatre director who habitually beds a series of women using an identical patter each time. Gifting each of the women he sleeps with life-changing amounts of money, things quickly get out of hand when his latest conquest, a young prostitute, turns up coincidentally to audition for his latest play, which also happens to star his wife. As his personal life spirals out of control, his new leading lady recounts her rise to fame as a result of the play. Jennifer Aniston is the surprise here with her crass, almost sociopathic therapist mixed up in the lives of virtually all the characters and chewing them and the scenery up as she goes. It's not exactly a subtle performance but it doesn’t aim to be.

Also much anticipated was Ulrich Seidl’s (Import/Export, Paradise trilogy) In the Basement. Seidl returns to his documentary roots here, with a typically provocative exploration of a cross-section of dysfunctional Austrians who use their basements for a range of socially taboo activities. A band of elderly Nazis drink amid banned Third Reich paraphernalia; a gun-obsessed survivalist creates a shooting range for him and his rightwing friends while privately singing opera; a dominatrix tortures her slave, and so on. The title inevitably brings to mind the Fritzl case, and this hangs over the film as Seidl asks what is it about Austria that can produce such a man. However, it does feel a little like this great Austrian filmmaker is marking time with a film which fails to surprise anyone familiar with his body of work, and the likelihood of it receiving a UK theatrical release is slim at best.

The Humbling
Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino in The Humbling

The Humbling, Barry Levinson's latest has a by turns self-indulgent and funny Al Pacino as a famous actor facing a mental breakdown and a resulting creative block towards the end of his illustrious career. When he strikes up an unlikely relationship with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of some old friends, his life is thrown into turmoil but simultaneously rejuvenated. If you can get past all the self-reflexivity of actors playing actors and wringing their hands about the travails of the creative process, there are some very amusing moments here. The often sparkling repartee between Pacino and Gerwig is a treat, and depending on how kind critics are this has the potential to become a minor hit.

And staying with Pacino, David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express) continues his return to his roots (following his recent, acclaimed Joeafter his studio knockabout diversions and delivers a compelling character study of an isolated locksmith, the titular Manglehorn.

Estranged from his son, fixated on a long-lost love and embittered by his own dysfunctional inertia and rage, a budding romance with a bank teller (played with real charm by Holly Hunter) slowly teaches hermit Manglehorn how to embrace the world once again. It's a slight and overly familiar story, but is brought to life by Gordon Green's surehanded and resolutely unsentimental directing and ably supported by his regular DP Tim Orr. It won't set the world in fire but it proves very effective and well handled.

Right then, back out into the rain for some more films…


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