Opens dramatically, comparing cinema light to the flares signaling the liberation of Tavernier’s city from nazis. Tavernier has been directing features since the mid-1970’s, and I’ve never seen his work, so thought I’d start with this documentary expounding his cinematic influences. He goes long on one artist at a time, each segment feeling like a standalone TV episode.

Long initial piece on Jacques Becker’s films, and I could do worse than bingeing all of these. He discusses Renoir’s great films, sticks up for their technical skill then goes into the man’s sketchy politics, defends Jean Gabin’s politics and his postwar career, then on to Marcel Carne and composer Maurice Jaubert, all these segments linked by actor Gabin. The composer segment is welcome because film music in the 1930’s was almost universally terrible, but Jaubert’s sounds original, and it’s a nice break after 90 minutes of raving about the most obvious choices in classic french cinema. It’s kind of a square doc about square old films.

After Joseph Kosma, another composer I’m less taken with, finally some action: Eddie Constantine crime flicks. A brief look at Godard, through early Truffaut, to the French cinematheque under Langlois. Edmond Gréville looks downright innovative compared to the others, and it starts getting personal with Melville helping Tavernier to start his career in film – these two were highlights, then we coast to a shaky end with Claude Sautet. It’s got me wanting to watch some Becker, Melville and Gréville, I guess, but Tavernier seems to have aimed this at big fans of his work who haven’t seen any Renoir or Carné or Truffaut, and who would that be?

Jean Gabin (the year after Port of Shadows and La Bete Humaine) lives atop the Seventh Heaven apartment building. He shoots a guy, the cops arrive and shoot back. Barricaded in his room, Gabin embarks on a 90-minute flashback while waiting for the sunrise.

Gabin through a fractured window:

He was a factory worker, met lovely Francoise. But she’s sneaking away to see Valentin (Jules Berry of Renoir’s Crime of Monsieur Lange), a stage performer. Jean follows her to the theater, meets Valentin’s disillusioned girlfriend/sidekick Clara (Arletty, star of Children of Paradise) who quits both those positions and hooks up with Jean instead.

Francois and Francoise through the mirror in happier times:

But Jean still wants Francoise and vice-versa. Valentin says he’s not Francoise’s lover but her father. She says that’s bullshit. Valentin just wants the girl but he can’t have her because she’s in love with Jean. He comes to Jean’s place with a gun, gets plugged instead. Back in the present, a hopeless Gabin kills himself to end the standoff. Sad movie.

Gabin and Valentin, another mirror:

Notable for its long flashback dissolves. Remade with Henry Fonda and Vincent Price eight years later.

It took me two or three years to finally watch The Golden Coach and then I loved it to pieces, so anticipation was unreasonably high for this one. At first it’s just another Renoir movie, light and magnificent even when being grim and serious, but as the plot threads started to mirror those of The Golden Coach (woman deciding between three lovers) it built to a similarly wonderful ending. So no, not up to Golden Coach standards, but close!

Jean Gabin:

This was Renoir’s big return to France, his first French movie since the distrastrously received Rules of the Game, so he made a nationalistic crowd-pleaser with lots of dancing girls, just to be safe. In the late 1800’s, Jean Gabin (fresh off Touchez pas au grisbi) is having financial trouble with his high-class variety theater, decides to buy a new place and revive the low-class can-can dance as a popular middle-class spectacle. Calls it the Moulin Rouge, ho ho. Recruits and trains non-dancers including washwoman Nini and gathers old favorite companions including hot-tempered star dancer (and part-time girlfriend) Lola, famous whistler Roberto, and singing assistant Casimir, and gains financial assistance from a visiting prince.

Trouble: Nini is fooling around with Gabin, also has longtime boyfriend Paolo, and is also being courted by the prince. Paolo tells her it’s over if she dances the cancan in public, and she breaks up with the prince (leading to his suicide attempt), so she tries to stick with Gabin, under the condition that he see no other girl but her. His reaction:

So now, boyfriendless, she throws herself joyously into the dance, choosing art over a steady love life, the same ending as The Golden Coach but in exhuberant dance instead of a solemn speech. Wonderful! Can’t believe Katy didn’t want to watch this back when I kept suggesting it in the apartment. Anyway, I’ll gladly watch again when she changes her mind.

Color and sound and costumes are all brilliant. Acting is usually great, and when it’s not, Renoir keeps things moving fast enough that you can’t tell. I was surprised when Gabin wakes up in bed with Lola – I’d forgotten that you could do that in 1950’s Europe. His scene at the end is great, sitting backstage tapping his foot, imagining the action on stage, knowing all the steps and smiling without having to see. The Criterion essay (or did I read it somewhere else?) points out that this scene lets us know that he choreographed the dance and practiced it with the girls over and over without showing us the actual practices… very effective.

Françoise Arnoul (Nini) had previously appeared in Antonioni’s “I Vinti”, is still acting today

María Félix (jealous Lola) was a huge star in Mexico. Giani Esposito (the prince) starred six years later in Rivette’s Paris nous appartient.

Franco Pastorino (Paolo) died a few years later, only appearing in one more film.

This is the earliest Michel Piccoli appearance I’m likely to see (his earlier films are quite obscure). That’s him in the blue.

Cameo by Edith Piaf:

“Still, it’s very sad.”
“But, my friend, happiness is not a joyful thing.”

Three filmed short stories by Guy de Maupassant, reminding me of Quartet. It wasn’t great and made me not want to seek out any of the author’s books… there it also reminds me of Quartet. Not narrated by the author like Quartet was, since the author is dead, but rather by a sort of author character who shows up as an active participant (the artist’s friend) in part 3.

So, Lola Montes and La Ronde, and even Letter From An Unknown Woman would have been wonderful, but I chose to show Katy Le Plaisir instead and now she thinks I enjoy stodgy period pieces. Sure it had some sparks of life in it, but even the documentary extras on the DVD wanted to talk up the difficulty in finding locations and in making the film rather than giving a reason why people seem to like it. Stanley Kubrick once called it his favorite film, so surely there’s something there.

Movie starts out weird, kicking it into high gear with a creepy-looking masked man dancing gaily at a fancy ball, then quickly passing out. It is discovered that he’s an old man trying badly to recapture his youth and hit on young girls, to his wife’s patient dismay.

Centerpiece segment seems like it wanted to be the entire movie, but wasn’t quite long enough so they tacked on the other two bits… it must be over an hour long, about a whorehouse that the camera can never bring itself to go inside. Fortunately, the whores all come outside, closing up shop to take a trip to the country for an unexpectedly moving wedding, before returning home to the glee of the townsfolk.

Last bit, a model and artist fall for each other, but when things get rough and he might leave her, she tries to kill herself… they end up together forever, she in a wheelchair.

Haven’t seen a Max Ophuls movie yet that takes place in modern day… guy liked to create ornate depictions of times past. Some fantastic shots made the whole thing worth watching, incl. the artist meeting the model in the start of segment 3, and her suicide later, which switches fluidly from an objective to a subjective camera, climbs the stairs with her shadow cast before us then crashes through the window and down.

I am so bad at recognizing people, because Simone Simon played the model and I didn’t know it. Jean Gabin was unmissable as the friend/host in the country in the middle segment at least. Claude Dauphin (President of Earth in Barbarella) was the doctor in the first segment.