Deadpan Lunacy

Amid the avalanche of overproduced and overmarketed films that flooded movie theaters in the summer of 2006 (Poseidon, Miami Vice, Lady in the Water and Snakes on a Plane to name a few), a gallic import flew in under the radar and delighted any moviegoer willing to give in to its droll sense of humor and fond appreciation of the spy thriller genre of the sixties. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was a huge box-office hit in France and Europe but it barely lasted a week in many of its U.S. playdates.

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Robert Bresson’s Parisian Reverie

The French film poster for FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER (1971), directed by Robert Bresson.

One wouldn’t normally associate Robert Bresson with such rapturously romantic, Paris-based films as Ninotchka, An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi, and Love in the Afternoon yet Four Nights of a Dream (Quartre Nuits d’un Reveur, 1971) is probably the closest the French director has ever come to making a film about love, longing and desire. You could even say it is almost a musical since strolling street musicians occasionally break into song at unexpected moments in the narrative.

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Terence Stamp is Timeless

Time travel has been explored in countless science fiction novels and movies over the years but it is not often treated in such an abstract and ethereal manner on screen as it is in Hu-Man, a 1975 French film from director Jerome Laperrousaz. Except for popping up at a few film festivals in the seventies, Hu-Man went missing for years and was assumed to be lost until clips from it appeared in 1998 on the BBC interview series Scene by Scene, hosted by Mark Cousins. Terence Stamp, the star of the film, was the subject of a career retrospective and Cousins was particularly interested in asking Stamp about some of the more challenging and unusual roles in his filmography such as Hu-Man.

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A Madcap Chase Across Brazil

On September 6, 2021, France lost one of their biggest cinema icons of the 20th century with the death of Jean-Paul Belmondo at age 88. The actor attained international fame in 1960 for his charismatic performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as an amoral car thief on the lam. He was the epitome of bad boy cool in that film and would enhance that screen persona in other crime dramas like Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962). Then, Belmondo reached an even wider international audience with the cross-over commercial hit, That Man from Rio (1964), which was even more accessible to the average moviegoer than Breathless, especially in America.

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French Twists

Marina (Romy Schneider) and Claude (Gabriele Tinti) have a violent argument after leaving an inn in the French countryside. A pistol is fired, Claude roughs up his girlfriend and the couple speed off in a convertible. The car leaves the main road and races along the cliffs of the Brittany coastline until it plunges over a ledge into the sea below with Claude at the wheel. Among the hillside rocks, we see Marina, who miraculously escaped from the car and is the only witness at the scene. All of this unfolds under the opening credits of Qui? (1970), a rarely seen French film which offers some odd twists and turns in its brisk 73-minute running time (In some regions it was released under the title The Sensuous Assassin, which is completely misleading in regards to the actual storyline).

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Jeanne Moreau is Mata Hari

Jeanne Moreau as the famous WWI era spy Mata Hari in Jean-Louis Richard’s 1964 film biography, MATA HARI, AGENT H21.

The road to international fame was a long and arduous journey for Jeanne Moreau but it all began in 1948 when she became a stage actress at age 18. She started appearing in films a year later though it wasn’t until 1958 that she emerged as an important French actress, thanks to two Louis Malle features, the noir thriller Elevator to the Gallows and the scandalous romantic drama, The Lovers. More famous career-defining roles followed such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels (1963) and Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). Yet, in terms of global recognition, she probably reached her peak in the mid-sixties when she appeared in big-budget Hollywood productions like The Victors (1963), The Train (1964) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964). It was during this period that she appeared in Mata Hari, Agent H21 aka Secret Agent FX18 (1964), one of her least known and rarely seen movies.

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In the Kingdom of G

In the film world of the 20th century, there were not too many animators who made the transition to live action feature film directing. Certainly Frank Tashlin was one of the most famous, going from Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoon shorts to manic pop culture comedies like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Hollywood or Bust (1956). Another rare exception was George Pal, who became famous for his Puppetoon shorts for Paramount before establishing himself as a director of fantasy features such as Tom Thumb (1958) and The Time Machine (1960). It is far easier to name more contemporary filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Brad Bird,  all of whom graduated from cartoons to live-action features successfully. The above are all artists who worked in the commercial cinema but, if you are talking about art cinema, the list is much smaller and Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk should be in the top slot. Goto, Island of Love (1969, Polish title: Goto, I’ile d’amour), his feature film debut, is a fascinating achievement that successfully brings the avant-garde sensibilities of his animated shorts to a live action feature.

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Postcards from the Edge: Louis Malle in India

Unaccountably missing or overlooked on most reviewers’ top DVD releases of 2007 was a remarkable set from Eclipse (Criterion’s no frills, affordable editions division) – The Documentaries of Louis Malle. Among the 7 titles featured were the relatively obscure God’s Country [broadcast on PBS in 1986, but filmed in 1981], And the Pursuit of Happiness [1986, also made for television), Place de la republique [1974] featuring man-in-the-street interviews on a busy Parisian boulevard, Humain, trop humain [1974], a fascinating time capsule of French auto workers with industrial noise and Godard-like imagery and the 18 minute short Vive le tour [1962]. But the real highlights of the collection were Phantom India [1969], a 378 minute portrait of that nation that was distributed theatrically as a 7-episode series, and Calcutta [1969], which was filmed at the same time but released separately (It was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival). To call both films an overwhelming experience is an understatement to say the least.

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A Marriage of Convenience?

Almost everyone has a good reason for why they want to get married but for Hugues, there is a very specific need. He wants to find a woman with a place of her own, preferably one with ample square footage that includes a sitting room and a large, walk-in closet. Love or companionship isn’t a main objective. Nor does he have any particular preferences concerning the woman’s appearance or personality as long as she is close to the same age. Strangely enough, Hugues finds the ideal candidate through the Duvernet Agency, a professional matchmaker. Jeanne is not only lovely and charming, if a bit elusive, and she has never been married before. Plus, she resides in a sprawling ground floor apartment once owned by an uncle. What could be better?  So begins 1970’s L’Alliance (also known as The Wedding Ring), an exceedingly peculiar tale that slowly lures the viewer down a rabbit hole.

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Season’s Greetings from Arnaud Desplechin

Misery loves company, and if you are anticipating a stressful holiday season due to an unavoidable reunion with family, in-laws or friends you’d rather not see – even if it is only a Zoom meeting – then you may find a kindred spirit among the dysfunctional gathering in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (French title: Un Conte de Noel).  

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