Category: French films

Beau Travail (1999)

Beau Travail (1999)

Denis poetic, art-house classic is intense, searing and transformative, crammed with beautiful images

Director: Claire Denis

Cast: Denis Lavant (Adjudant-Chef Galoup), Michel Subor (Commandant Bruno Forestier), Grégoire Colin (Légionnaire Gilles Sentain), Richard Courcet (Légionnaire), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Légionnaire)

I think it’s fair to say Beau Travail will not be to everyone’s taste. For every person (a bit like me) who comes out of the film humming ‘Rhythm of the Night’, they’ll be another who will never have made it far enough into the film to even understand why anyone would. Denis’ poetic film, shot like a combination of art project and choreographic exercise almost wilfully foregoes plot and character in favour of experience. Framed around a voiceover that could be almost anything from a diary, to a letter to a suicide note, Beau Travail is a film that wants you to be as uncertain about its aims and intents, as its lead character is about his own.

Denis’ film is a remix of several literary sources, most notably Melville’s Billy Budd – though you can also make a case that there is more than a trace of Othello in there. Set in a French Foreign Legion unit based in Djibouti under the command of veteran Forestier (Michel Subor), our focus is his Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup is a rigid stickler for duty and an obsessive legionnaire, distant from those around him. He takes an almost instant, irrational, dislike for new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) who can form easy rapport with those around him. Galoup schemes to destroy Sentain. In a framing device, Galoup recounts the story having left the Foreign Legion.

It should probably be restated that this brief summary of the plot pretty much covers every detail in this brief but poetically open-ended film. It takes over a third of the film’s runtime for the unexplained conflict at the film’s heart to even begin and Denis scrupulously avoids anything you could categorically call an answer. Which in a way is an answer in itself. Because Beau Travail is, it is easy to forget, a memory piece. It’s framed with Galoup remembering his career in the Foreign Legion, and everything we see in the film is filtered through his recollections. How reliable are these? How much do the strangely intricate, beautifully choreographed desert training sequences reflect reality and how much are they the result of an unreliable narrator?

Perhaps Galoup’s motiveless loathing for Sentain is rooted in his own inability to understand himself and his own longings. Embodied in a performance of immense physical exactitude by Denis Lavant, Galoup is a tightly drawn spring, a mass of careful, well-chosen movements. He’s naturally content with the labours of the French Foreign Legion: scrupulously ironing creases into his clothes, making his bed with careful perfection, striding through the desert wilderness. At the nightclub with his men, he’s a distant observer – he can’t even really take part in their campfire sing-alongs. He only finds physical ease in their ritualised training sequences.

These training sequences are extraordinary, more like Gene Kelly dance sequences than anything you might associate with training. While in the dance clubs the men are awkward movers, on the training field they have sinewy grace. Ritualised fight training sees their bodies move through pre-set positions with a striking, musical beauty. Even back and leg stretches see twenty men moving with perfect co-ordination in the desert sand, leaving matching trails in the dust.

There is a reason why the title translates as Beautiful Work. The film is a continual stream of military tasks in the desert, most of which seem pointless. Camps are built, holes are dug, rocks are smashed. It’s combined with a series of domestic tasks treated with an equal almost fetishistic relish. Men whip water from their laundry as they peg it up to dry. In unison they iron their shirts into a perfect finish. Potatoes are peeled with casual ease. The training they undertake, powering through assault courses, sees them move with a graceful physical ease. There may never seem to be a point to all the things they do but it’s done with a real beauty. You can totally imagine this idealised vision of unison is exactly how Galoup would want to remember his days in his beloved Legion.

Denis’ transformation of Galoup’s memories of the Legion’s work into unspoken dance sequences, also points towards the increasing homoerotic undertone. This feels like more than a clue about Galoup’s undefined hostility to Sentain who is in many ways a spiritual brother-in-arms. But Lavant’s simmeringly intense, buttoned-up (literally) Galoup could never express such feelings. Is that why some of these training sequences that he remembers feel oddly sexualised? A wrestling practise session, bare-chested, feels like nothing less than aggressive competitive hugging. In one training session Galoup and Sentain walk around in an ever-decreasing circle in what feels like the entrée to a tango or a romantic clinch.

It’s not just Galoup. Michel Subor’s professional soldier Forestier watches the topless training sessions with an unspoken (unrealised) fascination. Galoup’s idolisation of his commander – he even carries a dogtag bracelet of Forestier’s in his exile like a totem – is another motivation, jealousy clearly on his mind as his commander takes a shine to the brave new soldier. Galoup it’s suggested is a man who barely understands himself, let alone others, lashing out with violence and aggression at others due to longings he barely feels or understands in himself.

All of this plays in Denis’ slow, observant, film full of carefully composed cross-cuts taking us in and out of the camp and nearby town and throws up a chorus of Djiboutian women who observe the men and interject at crucial points. Beautifully shot by Agnes Godard, it’s a film of striking images often beautifully composed into intriguing montages that go from nightclubs, to deserts, to seemingly abandoned military vehicles. It is I think vital, at every point, to remember that everything we are seeing is being framed through the memories of a man who, Denis implies, is deeply repressed in (possibly) several ways.

Frequently we see scenes Galoup can have no knowledge of. Others– like Sentain finally provoked into striking his senior officer – are played out with a near-dream like unreality. The eventual fate of a character in the desert could be wish-fulfilment for Galoup – after all he could have no idea. Does he imagine his Legionnaires singing to him as he boards his flight to exile? Above all, as he wanders without purpose through the streets of Marseilles, what is he intending to do? Why is he writing his reflections (if you can call such vague narrative interjections that)? Is it an elaborate suicide note?

All of this comes to a head in Denis’ fascinating and beautifully striking final scene. As Galoup lies on his bed – perfectly made – gun in hand, the camera pans across his body to focus on one of his arm muscles twitching rhythmically. Then we cut to Galoup in that Djubati nightclub: but now he looks like a different man, casually dressed, relaxed – and he explodes into a no-holds-barred dance to Rhythm of the Night, full of the frentic, effortless, improvisationary energy he’s denied himself utterly. Is he imagining a fraction of the life he could have had if he was able to embrace feelings and emotions in himself he can barely understand? (A critic observed, Galoup may be so repressed the closest he can get to imagining being gay is relaxed dancing.) Denis told Lavant to dance ‘as if between life and death’. Is this his idea of an afterlife?

Beau Travail won’t be for everyone – and even at its slim 93 minutes, it’s refusal to interject much in the way of pace or characterisation (aside from Galoup, almost every other character is a cipher and Galpoup has crushed almost any trace of personality in himself). But go into it expecting not a throbbing tragedy (as I did at first) but instead something almost akin to a half-remembered dream and it will provide an experience you will be eager to revisit and explore.

Further reading

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Bresson uses an animal to make a powerful spiritual point in a simple but insightful movie

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), François Lafarge (Gérard), Philippe Asselin (Marie’s father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s mother), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Pierre Klossowski (Miller), Jean-Joel Barbier (Priest), François Sullerot (Baker), Marie-Claire Fremont (Baker’s wife)

Robert Bresson valued naturalism in his actors above all things. So much so he would make them rehearse even the simplest actions hundreds of times, to drain all artificiality and performance from it and make it as ‘real’ and controlled as possible. He worked best with non-professional actors, whose lack of training meant there was one less barrier of artifice for him to break down. So, its perhaps not a surprise that one of his best collaborators, in one of his finest films, was such a non-professional he wasn’t even human. He was a donkey.

Au Hasard Balthasar (or Balthasar, at random) also throws in Bresson’s other great strength: a profound, but not overbearing, spirituality, a mark of Christian faith that turned simple stories told on an intimate scale into searching and intriguing metaphors for the human condition. He achieves something quite remarkable here, with a film that places a donkey near its centre but then becomes a meditation on the human condition and our capacity for cruelty and selfishness. And the donkey himself becomes a passive, Christ like figure, undergoing his very own passion on the way to his own Calvary where he will literally die because of – and maybe for – our sins.

Balthasar’s life is one of seemingly random, disconnected movements from one owner to another, all of whose lives loosely entwine. First, the kindly Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who, as a child, adopts Balthasar and brings him into her home. This blissful life lasts a short time before the donkey is palmed off to farmhands then a baker whose delivery boy Gérard (François Lafarge) is a tearaway and criminal. Gérard treats the animal poorly – largely because he envies Marie’s love for it. They enter into an abusive relationship, while Balthasar is taken on by alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who uses him to guide tourists up the Pyrenees. Balthasar works as a circus animal and a beast of exhausting labour for a miller, while in the background the threat of Gérard and his malign influence on Anne and his abuse of Balthasar lurk.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Au Hasard Balthasar is how readily Bresson embraces the nature of the donkey. Balthasar is never anything other than a dumb animal. He has no insight into what is happening around him. Instead, he stands passively chewing. He only rarely seems to recognise and respond to people. Events happen to and around him, but there is no attempt to show them having any impact on him. He is – and remains – simply a donkey, incapable of anything other than what a donkey can do. Bresson allows not a second of anthropomorphism. Babe this isn’t.

Instead, what happens to this donkey tells us more about the humans he encounters around him. This gives us a stunning insight into humanity and how we treat those below us. To most the donkey is not a person or even a creature, it is just a tool. As the miller says, it will be worked until it can work no more and then it will be euthanised. Gérard sees it as a petty scab to pick, a chance for a bit of casual sadistic fun, tying fire-crackers to its tail and watching its distress. The closest to a companion he has, outside of Marie, is Arnold – and even Arnold works him incessantly and drags him back to servitude from a brief release at the circus.

What Bresson does with this, is invest this donkey’s story with immense spiritual impact. The events that happen to Balthasar parallel the stages of the cross, moments of tenderness from strangers and friends mixed with labours dragging his own cross and the mockery of those who watch him. He’s met with indifference and disregard so many times, that his suffering eventually seems to be providing some sort of chance of retribution for the deeply flawed characters around him, that by treating him well the might save their own souls. Instead, Gérard will drag him over the border carrying smuggled goods and he will, uncomplainingly, suffer the punishment for him.

We can but hope that it is to give Gérard a second chance. But I doubt it. Bresson’s impact with his actors, beating the ‘acting’ out of them gives them a flat naturalness – but also allows us to layer our own feelings on top of them. Gérard is a choir boy with an angelic voice – but he’s also a selfish sadomasochist and a bully, charismatic but naturally cruel. Nevertheless, he has a demonic charm. The baker’s wife willingly covers him his theft and showers him with gifts.

And of course, Marie is drawn towards him with self-destructive yearning. She should love her childhood friend Jacques, but he’s a dull, uninspiring, sap. Gérard is rough, tough, wears a leather jacket and can sing like an angel and (you imagine) cuss like a demon. Their first encounter sees Marie torn between fear, fascination and attraction, as a roadside encounter leads to a sexual encounter in a car that has the whiff of lack of consent. Despite this, Marie returns again and again to Gérard, throwing away parts of her life and family to hang on his arm.

It’s only Balthasar it seems she can connect with. Perhaps because they are both sacrificial figures. Marie’s father loses his farm due to pride and stubbornness. She devotes herself to a bad man and rejects the one who idealises an idea of her. Marie’s motives defy logic to us – but maybe this is because she is closest to the donkey and, like him, content (condemned?) to lead a life where she is buffeted by events and people rather than controlling them.

Bresson plays this all out with a quiet, unfussy, contained camera, playing shots out in controlled takes and carefully selecting moments to cut to Balthasar. He avoids moral judgements but presents actions as they are. After all, shouldn’t a miller work a donkey hard? Shouldn’t a baker need him to walk miles? Don’t we go to the circus or zoo all the time and not think about the animals performing for us? Things are presented as they are and we are not pushed towards one view or another.

Except at the end as Balthasar makes his final sacrifice, lying down on his personal Calvary as Schubert plays on the soundtrack (the film’s only real sustained use of music). Quietly, life drains from this animal as sheep flock around him as if to pay tribute. It’s profoundly simple but somehow intensely moving – as if the pointless culmination of this life somehow sees the donkey transcend into something higher and more meaningful, and eternal symbol of virtue and sacrifice.

It’s what makes Au Hasard Balthasar linger in the memory. Bresson’s signature simpleness and restraint, his deliberate, observatory distance from characters and events leave it open to us to interpret what we will. Maybe it’s just a story about a dumb animal. Maybe it’s a story about all of us, about how we exploit things around us and how we treat each other with selfishness and greed. Eventually Bresson leaves it up to us to decide what we can take from it.

Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources (1986)

Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources (1986)

Luscious scenery and combines with fine acting to produce a sort of French Merchant Ivory

Director: Claude Berri

Cast: Yves Montard (César Soubeyrnan), Daniel Auteuil (Ugolin), Gérard Depardieu (Jean Cadoret), Emmanuelle Béart (Manon Cadoret), Elizabeth Depardieu (Aimée Cadoret), Ernestine Mazurowana (Young Manon), Hippolyte Girardot (Bernard Olivier), Margarita Lozano (Baptistine), Yvonne Gamy (Delphine)

At the time this double bill (which I’ll refer to as Jean de Florette unless specifically referring to the sequel only) were the most successful foreign language films ever released. Shot over seven months, they were also the most expensive French films ever made and garlanded with awards, including a BAFTA for best film. Jean de Florette turned Verdi into the soundtrack for France, while its photography transformed the rural idyll of Provence into a major tourist destination and the dream location for holiday homeowners. The films themselves remain rich, rural tragedies, gorgeous French heritage films, a sort of French Gone with the Wind replayed as Greek tragedy.

Told in two parts – although designed as one complete movie – they tell a story of how greed destroys lives in 1920s rural Provence. César (Yves Montard) is the childless landowner whose only hope of a legacy is his hard-working but dense nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil). Ugolin dreams of growing carnations but the perfect land is frustratingly not for sale. When an argument with the owner leads to his accidental death, the land falls to Jean Cadoret (Gérard Depardieu) hunch-backed former tax collector from the city and son of Florette, the girl who broke César’s heart decades ago when she left the village while he impulsively served in the foreign legion.

César and Ugolin resent Jean – Jean of Florette as they call him – and hatch a plan to see his dream of a rabbit farm fail. They secretly block up the spring on Jean’s land and keep his connection to Florette a secret from the rest of the village, encouraging them to see him as an outsider and hunchbacked bad-luck charm. Ugolin befriends the decent, optimistic and hard-working Jean and watches the farm disintegrate. A decade later, in Manon des Sources, Jean’s daughter Manon (Emmanuele Béart) plots revenge for her father on Ugolin and César.

Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s novel – written, ironically, after Pagnol’s film Manon des Sources was butchered down by the studio in 1952 from four hours into an abbreviated two. It’s a richly filmed, luscious picture crammed with gorgeous locations, sweeping camerawork and marvellous score that riffs on Verdi. It’s an entertaining story of injustice and comeuppances. It’s first half (Jean de Florette) is an, at-times painful, unfolding of Jean’s inevitable failure. The second (Manon des Sources) sees all those chickens come home to roost as Manon’s suspicions about César and Ugolin’s duplicitousness are confirmed.

But what perhaps made Jean de Florette as successful as it was, is its mix of Merchant Ivory and BBC costume-drama. Many outside of France essentially took it as art because the characters spoke French. But Jean de Florette is a tasteful, classy, very well-made prestige package designed to be easily digestible. Claude Berri marshals events with the skill of a natural producer – he’s effectively a sort of French Richard Attenborough with a great deal of natural talent with actors, but without the true inspiration of the greats. You couldn’t mistake Jean de Florette as something made by Carné let alone Godard or Truffaut. It’s decidedly too carefully, tastefully made for that.

Which is not to say it isn’t in many ways a very fine film. Its construction is well-executed across its two parts. Berri makes clear that – for all the film showed a picture post-card view of France, encouraged to promote tourism and ‘traditional values’ by the government – the village our film is centred around is rife with prejudice and underlying hostility. It’s all too easy to for them to take against Jean: not only he is an outsider, he’s a tax-collector and a hunchback to boot. Prejudice naturally sets them against him (the villagers gleefully watch this “city man” destroy himself vainly trying to turn his dry land fertile). Manon des Sources makes clear the whole village at the very least suspected the spring had been deliberately dammed but effectively couldn’t be bothered to help.

It’s not a surprise as Jean’s techniques are totally alien to the traditionalists. Played by Depardieu with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, guileless honesty and trust, Jean takes on farming as if its another mathematical problem. He has books full of calculations and productivity rates he expects to hit, covering everything from rabbit breeding to the daily amount of soil and water needed for crops. He is prepared for anything except the cruelty of humans and the weather (Berri makes clear that, even with one arm tied around his back by the spring being blocked, he nearly manages to pull it off).

Instead, his super-human efforts come to naught. Forced to walk miles a day to carry gallons of water back to his farm to irrigate his land, he starts to resemble the weighted down donkey he drags with him. Rubicons are crossed one by one: even his wife’s necklace is eventually called on to be pawned, for all his promises that it would never come to that (fitting the Zolaish tragedy here, the necklace turns out to be worth sod all). Ugolin does everything he can to befriend and support Jean without helping him, even ploughing the land for him when Jean comes close to finding the hidden water supply. The events beat down Depardieu, here in one of his finest “man of the soil” peasant roles, until he is literally left shouting at the heavens, imploring God to give him a break.

This makes is all the easier to despise César and Ugolin, especially as Berri cuts frequently to these hypocrites giggling at their own deviousness and Jean’s suffering. It makes Manon des Sources – arguably the even more rewarding part – all the more satisfying as we watch the two of them slowly destroyed, events replaying themselves from the other direction. Manon des Sources features a performance of Artemis-like grace from Emmanuelle Béart as the older version of Jean’s daughter (the younger noticeably never trusted Ugolin), whose beauty enraptures Ugolin and who in turn dams the source of the village’s water to expose the crimes against her father.

It leads to a series of shattering reveals that break César and Ugolin from their satisfaction and complacency. These two villains are portrayed in masterful performances by Yves Montard and Daniel Auteuil. Under buck teeth and a foolish grin, Auteuil is sublime as a man who has it in him to be decent but is all too easily led by his forceful uncle. He regrets his actions, while never making an effort to reform and reverts all too easily into a love-struck Gollum, spying on Manon and literally sewing her lost ribbon into his skin. He’s a pathetic figure.

Montard has the juiciest part, which flowers into one of true tragic force in Manon des Sources. César is a man whose life of regret and loneliness has turned him into a bitter old man, grasping, greedy and hungry for a legacy. He treasures the few possessions he has of Florette – faded letters and a single hair comb – like relics and subconsciously can’t bring himself to actually meet her son. Suppressed sadness makes him every more tyrannical and foreboding. But Manon explodes this exterior, as events and revelations strip away all he holds dear. It culminates in a breath-taking sequence of raw grief from Montard – which depends on the magnetic power of his eyes – as his last delusions are stripped away and the true horror of his actions exposed to him.

It’s this emotional power that gives the two parts of Jean de Florette its force and impact and lift it the higher plain of its costume drama roots. It may be a very self-consciously prestige picture, designed to appeal to the masses, but Berri’s conservative style is matched with a great skill of drawing powerful performances from the actors. He does this in spades with his four leads and events eventually gain, through their performances, some of the force of a Provence Greek Tragedy. Jean de Florette manages to avoid melodrama and provides real dramatic meat and, while it is not high art, it’s certainly very high drama.

La Règle du Jeu (1939)

La Règle du Jeu (1939)

Shallowness, selfishness and self-indulgence swirl in Renoir’s masterpiece, that plays like a giant metaphor for Europe in the 1930s

Director: Jean Renoir

Cast: Nora Gregor (Marquise Christine de la Chesnaye), Paulette Dubost (Lisette Schumacher), Marcel Dalio (Robert, Maquis de la Chesnaye), Roland Toutain (André Jurieux), Jean Renoir (Octave), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Julian Carette (Marceau), Gaston Modot (Edouard Schumacher), Anne Mayen (Jackie), Pierre Magnier (The General), Léon Larive (Chef)

When you are at the top of society, the rules bend to your will. They are, after all, for the little people. Get to the very top and life is all a game anyway – birth, death, marriages they are just movements in a great dance, none need cause you any concern if you don’t let them. Renoir’s masterpiece La Règle du Jeu explores in microcosm a whole fractured society of pampered, myopic focus on immediate pleasures, outweighing real life tragedies. And, whether at the top of bottom of the social ladder, no one seems able to move beyond a blasé and shallow attitude to life.

La Règle du Jeu is set at a weekend shooting party in the French countryside, hosted by Robert, Maquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Robert is married to a German wife, Christine (Nora Gregor) but having an affair with Geneviève (Mila Parély). But that’s fine, Christine is having a half-hearted affair with naïve airman André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Below stairs, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) yawns through her boring marriage with stuffy groundskeeper, the German Schumacher (Gaston Modot) by flirting with cheeky poacher-turned-employee Marceau (Julian Carette). Over the weekend, flirtations and affairs simmer to the boil, with Octave (Jean Renoir), a family friend, moving uneasily between parties trying to do the right thing.

The timing of Renoir’s film could not have been better. The story of people, as he put it, “dancing on the volcano” found its way into cinemas in July 1939. Europe was on the edge of the precipice. Within a year France would be literally ripped in two by Hitler. And here was Renoir releasing a blackly dark drawing room comedy, with its characters obsessed about small, shallow and trivial details and utterly ignorant of the world around them. Even worse, when violence and death intrude, it’s brushed under the carpet. It was a film that embodied the head-in-the-sand attitude of France, a country just months away from being steam-rollered by the Nazi war machine.

It wasn’t until 1959 that it was rediscovered and took its place as one of the great films. Renoir creates both a delightfully dark and droll comedy of manners, but also a rich and overwhelming metaphor for global chaos. Everything here is magnificent surface, with everyone pretending they are fine, upright citizens while flitting in and out of each other’s beds and never letting anything like morals or genuine emotions intrude. The game demands life be played as lightly as possible.

Everyone seems to know everything, but it’s all a joke. Robert is sleeping with the imperiously bitter Geneviève – so he seems less bothered about his wife Christine’s affair with airman André. Renoir’s film opens with André’s return from a cross-Atlantic flight. The media swarm around him, but André retreats into a funk when he sees Christine is not there to greet him. Even would-be heroes in this film are insular and self-obsessed. Toutain makes André strangely pathetic (you wonder – as does she at times – what the cultured and daring Christine saw in someone so prone to self-pity and devoid of drive). He whines about an affair which won’t take fire, does nothing to drive it and turns a car accident suicide attempt into a sulky fit of pique. He’s neither a romantic hero or a tragic figure.

But then no-one fills their role. Robert hosts the event, but he’s a strangely winsome, at times insecure figure (Dalio used his personal unease as a Jewish actor cast in a very Aryan role to skilled effect). He both puffs about how he doesn’t care about conventions – willingly inviting his wife’s lover to the weekend – but is also a fussy, eccentric figure who delights in clockwork machines and amateur theatricals. He has a casual, playboy attitude to money and life – everything comes easy, so he values very little. He doesn’t like conflict, preferring to let people off the hook, partly why he’s keen to end his relationship with Geneviève as he can’t bear the idea of Christine finding out.

Christine, played with a very effective awkwardness by Nora Gregor, feels surprisingly out of place among this social mileu. She’s consciously aware of her German background, looks uncomfortable in fine clothes, doesn’t enjoy social events and seems less assured than her bolshy, irreverent maid Lisette. She seems less like a Countess than Geneviève, played with cool austere sharpness by Mila Parély. Christine shrugs off the arrival of her lover André (to the respect of all) but on discovering her husband’s parallel affair seems unsure how to deal with it: she goes from bouncing mutual jokes about Robert with his lover, to considering half the household as potential elopement mates. Renoir felt Gregor was uncomfortable in the role – but her discomfort works superbly.

At the heart of this weekend retreat – and the film itself – is a brutish, extended hunting sequence. Renoir, who loathed the killing of animals, knew that nothing speaks more about the nature of man than how he treats those weaker than himself. The hunt is machine-like in its rounding up of birds, rabbits and other animals to be blazed down by the rich and powerful, with the carcasses chucked into the back of a van and never thought of again. Renoir shoots a single rabbit death with intense sympathy, the creature halting then curling itself vainly into a ball in its death throws. It reminds us queasily not only of the blood baths in fields like this only 20 years earlier, but also the carnage to come. It also foreshadows the death the film ends on, the victim falling as pathetically as the rabbits.

This same hunting party is also the catalyst for a string of disasters. Marcel Dalio’s Robert spontaneously affronts the tiresomely officious Schumacher (an unbending, unsympathetic Gaston Modet, rigid in his Prussian militarism) by not only shrugging his shoulders at the actions of charming poacher Marceau (a Hancock-ish Julian Carette, as charmingly amoral as anyone in the film) but actually hiring him. Needless to say, Marceau is less grateful and more delighted at the opportunities for shamelessness this presents him with and instantly attempts to seduce the maid Lisette (a coquetteish Paulette Dubost), setting him on a collision course with Schumacher. All stemming from Robert’s blasé indifference to rules and the contempt for hierarchy only those at the top can afford.

Renoir brings all these events together in a series of masterful sequences. This is a film that frequently shifts in tone and transition. The film moves so comfortably between storylines, from upstairs and downstairs, that it’s unfocused and meandering narrative reflects its themes and delivery. Above all, Renoir yet again demonstrates his mastery of marrying film and theatre. La Règle du Jeu could be a classic piece of farce, but is constructed with the skill of a master cineaste.

Much of the final act of the film is taken up with a truly sublime sequence, edited and shot to perfection, that sees all plotlines and entanglements intermingle in a dinner party. Renoir’s camera roves and tracks through the house. Events and characters play out in the back of scenes, while our focus is elsewhere. Figures at the edge of the frame suddenly seize the camera’s attention. We’ll move rooms and characters we left five minutes ago will march in continuing arguments. It’s a breathtaking display of planning, narrative and cinematic panache, expertly directed.

Renoir himself, as Octave, is the closest thing we have to either an audience surrogate or master of ceremonies. Of course, he’s neither of these things: he’s a clumsy bear of a man (even dressing as a dancing bear for the amateur theatricals), who tries to do the right thing out of stubbornness and masochistic pride. He pushes André and Christine together even though he loves Christine – in fact he sets at it with more energy than either of them. He fantasises about himself as a conductor, and that’s what he wants to be: controlling the dance rather than playing the tune. But he’s clueless, clumsy and ineffective and his actions inadvertently push a man to his death.

That death ends the film. Renoir triumphantly doesn’t make this epic or even tragic – it’s a clumsy case of mis-identity, the victim of one of these unhappy lovers settling accounts and picking the wrong person. But the game goes on: everyone pulls together to re-establish the status quo and stress it was an all accident, no one should feel bad, these things happen and everyone back to your drinks. Master and servant come together to keep the status quo ticking over and nothing is allowed to intrude on life. It’s a stage-managed ending that allows nothing to be learned and nothing to change.

After all, the rules mustn’t be changed when everyone is comfortable with them. La Règle du Jeu is a masterful metaphor for an entire society where shallowness, selfishness and self-indulgence win out over duty and decency. Everyone we see is preoccupied only with their own desires, from the whimsy of Robert to the flirtations of Lisette, the self-pity of André and Octave’s desire to influence the narrative. It whirls round and round like a merry-go-round until someone falls off and dies. The volcano is primed to explode, but the dance goes blithely on.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Dreyer’s searing, close-up dominated, silent masterpiece is a truly unique piece of cinema – and still astounding

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Cast: Renée Jeanne Falconetti (Joan of Arc), Eugène Silvain (Bishop Pierre Cauchon), André Berley (Jean d’Estivet, prosecutor), Maurice Schutz (Canon Nicholas Loyseleur), Antonin Artaud (Bishop Jean Massieu), Gilbert Dalleu (Jean Lamaitre, Vice-Inquisitor), Jean d’Yd (Nicholas de Houppeville), Louis Ravert (Jean Beaupère), Camile Bardou (Lord Warwick)

It falls to few films to have the grace to redefine what cinema could do. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those films that simply demands to be seen – and once seen will haunt you forever. For a film in many ways so profoundly simple, it is also profoundly wise, deeply affecting, troubling, moving and finally almost unbearably painful. Shot in an iconic collection of interrogative close-ups, Dreyer’s masterpiece earns its place as one of the greatest films ever made.

Dreyer’s masterstroke here was not to create a conventional biopic. We see nothing at all of Joan’s finding of her faith, her campaign against the English or exploits on the battlefield. Instead, we witness only the final days of her life, pulled up as a heretic before a biased and arrogantly superior ecclesiastical court. We first see her not as a strong figure (or even defiant) but a frightened girl creeping into frame, dwarfed by spears and towered over by a priest. If the French producers were expecting a triumphant eulogy to their recently beautified national saint, they had a shock.

Mind you, they had plenty of shocks already. Dreyer’s film used one of the most expensive sets ever built. Seven million francs were shelled out on an intricate medieval castle and courtyard, full of interconnecting passage ways. Dreyer’s surviving model of the set is impressive. You have to assume the real thing looked impressive as well, because the film almost never shows it. The Passion of Joan of Arc takes place in tight, fixed, searching close-ups – most strikingly of Joan but also of her interrogators and the witnesses of her martyrdom. The epic is pulled down to the tightest and most intimate framing of all: the human face, with all its blemishes, imperfections and dizzying emotions.

Those emotions play most sharply across the face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Falconetti had performed briefly in one film eleven years previously, but this was effectively her only work on camera. And it is extraordinary, one of the most searing, memorable performances in the history of cinema. You will never forget the fixed glare of her eyes, the devotional joy in her face and the self-accusatory pain in those same eyes when she briefly recants. Dreyer and Falconetti worked closely together to chart every single moment of the complex array of emotions.

Hope, despair, defiance, fear, self-loathing, determination, shrewdness, timidity – all these expressions form both in micro and in carefully held shots that allow Falconetti to naturally move from one to another. This is one of the few films that really has the patience to record thinking. We see realisations dawn upon her, her face slowly changing to process them and then (frequently) her eyes filling with genuine, heart-rending emotion. It becomes an intense – painful – study in powerlessness and vulnerability, dappled with little moments of hope. Her joyful face when the shadow of a window forms a cross on the floor is almost unbearable.

Not least, because as she stares enraptured at this shadow, we cut back and forth to her interrogators forging a letter from the Dauphin to further break her spirit. Dreyer introduces the priestly interrogators with one of the few motion shots, a long tracking shot panning across the rows and rows of well-fed, comfortable men who are about to stand trial over this young woman. The close-ups reveal as much about the priests as it does Joan. A complacent, arrogant Bishop smirks while he picks his ear. Others snigger and stare in disgust at this abomination.

But Dreyer’s film is remarkable for how much scope he gives many of the priests. We see some of them begin to form serious doubts as Joan’s sincerity flies in the face of their expectations. Schutz’s Canon – writer of that fake letter – doubts grow, finally seen sadly turning away as she is prepared for burning. Even Silvain’s Pierre Cauchon isn’t a sadist, or really a bully – just someone who can’t imagine a world in which he is wrong. It’s what leads him to push and push, sometimes with a resigned unease, willing Joan to recant. Some burn her sadly: but burn her none-the-less.

Dreyer’s film though is a passion – and, like the medieval plays that inspire it, it wants to take us on a journey to understand the power of Joan’s faith and nobility of her martyrdom. The priests convey us and Joan to the torture chamber – one of the few wide shots Dreyer uses, to show us the extent of the ghastly devices. A giant breaking wheel is turned with increasing, horrifying speed, its many spikes blurring, as Cauchon demands Joan recant. It drives her into a fainting fit and she is bled. A real AD gave up his vein to produce shockingly, horrifyingly genuine spurts of blood.

Dreyer’s claustrophobic close-ups are not designed to throw us into Joan’s POV, but to make us feel as trapped as she does. It’s striking that many of the close-ups can’t be either Joan’s perspective or the priests. There isn’t always continuity between them – we’ll cut from a full-on view, to a side-on one, a camera angle above and then below, staring up or glaring down. The effect is less about putting us into the eyes of its characters, than to make us feel like a spirit in the room, powerless to intercede. There are no establishing shots for geography, only the onslaught of faces shouting at the camera or starring with confessional pain at the lens.

Which helps even more with the sense of devotional mystery play Dreyer is aiming to create, using the language of cinema in ways no theatre-maker ever could. As Joan is mocked, and garlanded with a false crown, by braying English soldiers, we feel as trapped as she does. When her hair is sliced away, the shears feel uncomfortably close, but just as traumatising is the agony of guilt on Falconetti’s face, at the realisation she has turned her back on her God.

It’s been said watching the film is like watching, as if by a miracle, actual documentary footage of the trial. This realism is one of Dreyer’s master-strokes. So many other directors would have allowed touches of medieval pageantry, of poetry among the stark images. The closest we get to this is a doubtful Joan starring at freshly dug up skull, from the eye socket of which wiggles a worm, while deciding whether to confess. Other than that, the lavishness (that perhaps the producers expected) is nowhere to be seen, helping make the film as punishing and (finally) moving to watch as it is.

The final burning offers no release. The camera maintains its focus on Joan, who quietly passes the rope to her executioner so he can bind her to the stake, then turns her eyes one final time to heaven before her face is obscured in smoke and flames. Dreyer’s camera doesn’t flinch, and its fair to say Joan’s death is as horrifying as anything caught on screen. An alarmingly life-like body blackens, burns and shrivels in uncomfortable mid-shot. In a stunning swinging camera shot, soldiers prepare weapons to disperse the crowd. Dreyer’s camera doesn’t shy away from this atrocity either: bodies are battered, a fallen woman stares sightlessly in the camera, screaming mothers run with children in their arms, a cannon pans across the camera and fires into the crowd. The smoke of the burning – to which we constantly cut back to – fills the screen. It’s bleak and hellish.

This is truly a passion, a sense of the ascension of the spirit through the dread of pain and suffering. And we feel every moment of it through the uncomfortable but profoundly moving immersiveness of Dreyer’s camera – and the breathtaking camerawork of Rudolph Maté – and the astonishing raw performance of Falconetti. The Passion of Joan of Arc sears itself onto your memory, a visceral, unique piece of film-making unparalleled in the history of the medium.

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Bresson’s fascinating message of hope, simply but superbly deconstructs the addiction of a life of crime

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Martin Lasalle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (Police Inspector), Dolly Scal (Michel’s mother), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (First Accomplice), Pierre Etaix (Second Accomplice), Cesar Cattegno (Inspector)

A man watches with fixed eyes, breathless and tense, as another man’s hands artfully dodge out from beneath his newspaper to caress the lapels of his fellow train passenger, coming away with a wallet clasped between the folds of his paper. It has a clammy sense of the illicit, a tempting underbelly of the world, where the normal rules don’t apply and the special can take advantage of others because they deserve the world’s benefits more. It’s about being a pickpocket, but it could be about any shadowy world just under what society permits, where the attraction is being part of the club more than any of the actual awards from the act.

No wonder pickpocket Michel (Martin Lasalle) starts to believe his own pumped-up hype: he’s no ordinary man, but a superman, an uber-mensch who has a right to help himself to the gains of others. Getting caught? It will never happen: after all just fools and little people stumble into that trap. Instead, Michel walks through the streets of Paris with the fixed glare of the addict, who can’t wait for his next stealing fix. He’ll take from anyone (even his own mother), ignore the pleas of friends, taunt a police inspector and hoard his gains in a secret nook under his bed. Even the glances that come his way from the daughter of his mother’s landlord, Jeanne (Marika Green), can’t win him away from his longing for the buzz of crime.

Bresson’s perfectly formed novella of a film (it clocks in at a trim 74 minutes) turns this into a profound journey into one man’s soul, where he will constantly dance between temptation and redemption. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (the criminal who thinks he is a better man, the police officer he engages in a battle of wits), Bresson uses this underlying idea to craft a profound, articulate and focused study of the emptiness behind indulging our worst instincts.

Because that’s what Michel is doing. He’s clearly smart enough to find a proper job, casting aside the offers of his friend Jacques to fix him up. But he can’t raise the passion for a normal life. Bresson, whose style embraced the rawness of unnatural performers, almost literally plucked Martin Lasalle from the streets. Carefully tutored by Bresson, all artificial effects were hammered out of him, leaving Lasalle a blank and exact performer. It works perfectly for Bresson’s concept of the criminal as a dysfunctional human, unable to relate to or understand others, unable to engage in the world, coming to life for his crimes and plodding through the rest of time with monotony and a striking lack of emotional engagement. (It admittedly works less well for those scenes where Lasalle must demonstrate emotion, which he plays with a mechanical dutifulness.)

Michel can’t bring himself to see his dying mother, dropping money off with Jeanne to pass over for him (money, it later transpires, he had stolen from her in any case). His friendship with Jacques sees him go blandly through the emotions. We constantly see him trudging up and down stairs, opening and closing his door, moving his few possessions around, all of it with clockwork regularity that seems relentless. He falls in with fellow pickpockets but doesn’t even learn their names. The most he ever seems engaged is during his sly exchanges with a police inspector (avuncular Jean Pelegri) who seems certain he’s a thief.

Perhaps Michel is so relatively animated in these exchanges because he’s desperate to be caught. Because how can you be a superman, if no one can really see what you are doing? The bitter irony is, your genius for theft can only be publicly acknowledged by being caught, the greatest failure of any thief. But Michel longs, in some part of himself, for recognition, praise and to stand-out. His life – in a grimy bedsit, wearing the same ill-fitting suit (which hangs about him, as if exaggerating his blankness) – is strikingly un-special. His best attribute as a pickpocket is that he’s a non-entity you wouldn’t look at twice. Is there a bigger slap in the face for the man who would be king, that his greatest strength is his ability to not be seen?

It must be particularly harsh, as Bresson makes clear Michel isn’t even a particularly adept pickpocket. He fluffs his first few attempts, his heart pounding so much that he can’t bring about the steady hands needed. His early crimes are clumsy and ineffective. At a race meet that opens the film, he filches cash from a lady’s handbag and only a lack of evidence saves him when he is immediately picked up. When he is finally found by his expert accomplice (played by real-life thief, and master of sleight-of-hand, Kassagi), his crude techniques are ruthlessly exposed.

This would-be superman never reaches the heights of Kassagi. Bresson’s shooting of the pickpocket’s crimes are edited like the greatest heist thrillers, tense moments of balletic beauty. We see hands carefully unbutton jackets from behind. Wallets knocked out of pockets and caught as they slide down a person’s body. Wrists are clasped and stroked as watches are removed. The pickpockets work in a team of three: one takes the wallet, passes it to a second who palms it instantly to a third who escapes. All this is caught by Bresson with all the grace of Gene Kelly. It’s exciting, dynamic – and also (you can’t escape it) sensual. You can see why Michel gets such a thrill out of it.

But he’s also the least of his team of three – and when the other two get nicked, he really should take the hint. He practises at length to make his fingers more supple, his ability to grasp watches and wallets more fluid. But his movements are never quite graceful enough, his face always a little too sweaty, his eyes flicking a little too much as if worried about being caught in an assignation. Later he travels to London but returns penniless, too inept to keep hold of his cash from card-sharps.

Bresson’s film reaches, gently but highly effectively, for a spiritual message. What joy or grace is there for Michel? Crime and the dreams of being someone special fill a void in his life. That void has no room for friends or family. Not even for God, who he’s touched by “for three minutes” at his mother’s funeral. Even the (to us) evident love of Jeanne can’t really touch him enough to change his ways. Or at least, perhaps not until he hits rock bottom where, like Paul on the road to Damascus, he will have a sudden vision, trapped behind bars, that life can be different.

To give that impact, Bresson has to show (and understand) the lurid temptation of a life beyond the rules and the norms. Pickpocketing was his tool – and it perfectly conveys the addictive glamour of feeling superior to others – but really it could have been the buzz of any addiction, the thieves hunting each other out with the knowing eyes of fellow addicts. These sensual delights are false though, engaging and absorbing as they are. Told without melodrama, it’s a stunning, hard-boiled thriller that ripens into a profound, subtle and intelligent parable, assembled with a cool, exact genius that makes filmmaking look simple.

The Four Hundred Blows (1959)

The Four Hundred Blows (1959)

Injustice, oppression and disregard fill the life of a young ‘Truffaut’ in this marvellous coming-of-age story

Director: François Truffaut

Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Albert Rémy (Antoine’s father), Claire Maurier (Antoine’s mother), Guy Decomble (“Sourpuss”, the teacher), Patrick Auffay (René Bigey), Georges Flamant (Monsieur Bigey), Pierre Repp (English teacher), Daniel Couturier (Betrand Mauricet), Luc Andrieux (Gym teacher), Robert Beauvais (School director)

Truffaut’s first film, shot when he was just 26 years old, is not only one of the finest debuts ever, it’s also one of the films most in touch with being a child. Heavily based on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, it’s a beautifully told exploration of how much children can be misunderstood by adults and what a cage, of circumstances outside of your control, childhood can become.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 12-year-old living in a cramped apartment with his parents, who have a tempestuous relationship and alternate between half-interested mateyness and exasperation with their son. Antoine is marked at school as the class trouble-maker and constantly finds himself in scrapes, only increasing the perception of him as a tearaway and lost cause. Eventually packed off to a reform school (basically a borstal), only his imagination and love of books and film (qualities no one sees in him but us) give him any hope.

What’s with that title? In French it’s Les Quatre Cents Coups in reference to the expression “faire les quatre cent coups” which roughly translates as “raising hell”. The alternative English title of Wild Oats (which to be honest isn’t much better) was rejected. But perhaps it’s for the best. The 400 Blows has a poetic gorgeousness about it: it reminds us of Waugh’s powerful quote from Brideshead Revisited about the destructive impact of circumstances and misguided interventions on the tragic Sebastian: “a blow, expected, repeated, falling upon a bruise”. And what is Antonie’s life but 400 blows hammering down, repeatedly and expectedly on the same bruise?

This is a kid who never catches a break. From the opening scene, as the kids pass around a page torn from a naughty calendar, it’s him who gets caught with it – because he starts doodling artistically around her eyes. He’s distracted from his punishment homework by one of his father’s (brief) bursts of friendly interest. Worried, he skips school the next day then invents a ridiculous lie of his mother dying to cover it, cementing the impression he is a habitual liar. When he quotes his beloved Balzac in a school essay competition, he is thrown out of the class for plagiarism. After stealing a typewriter, he’s caught when he tries to return it. The kid cannot get a break.

It’s a hugely sympathetic and moving insight into Truffaut’s own childhood. He too was raised, largely in indifference, by two parents who seemed uncertain they wanted him. Like Antoine, he discovers the man he thinks is his father actually isn’t. He also he spent eight years living with his grandmother, because his mother wanted an abortion not a child, and witnessed his mother’s extramarital romances. Truffaut to spent much of his time with his closest friend Robert Lauchney (here appearing as René Bigey – Lauchney worked on the film’s crew).

But, also like Antoine, Truffaut was passionate about imagination and the arts. Antoine reads Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (smoking an illicit cigarette – after all he’s French) and it makes such a powerful impression he can quote large chunks of it from memory in a school essay and builds a candle-lit shrine at home to the author (with his usual luck, the candle nearly burns down the cramped flat). The cinema is his other big escape. He takes every opportunity to visit, staring at the screen with wonder, stealing film posters (he swipes an image of Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika) and finding an outlet for his imagination and intelligence that the real world never offers.

This is a child who requires attention, focus and encouragement to bring out his vibrancy and creativity. What he gets are orders to take the bins out and stupefyingly boring lessons of endless repetition mixed with abuse at school. Home life has only flashes of happiness: Antonie’s childish, giggling joy when his parents take him to the film, and laughing in the car as they remember the film on the way home, is the only time he seems to smile in their presence. At others, his mother mixes irritation with sudden bursts of affection that are really bribes for good behaviour.

He is bought to life in an extraordinary performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud. Found from a pool of 200 applicants from a newspaper advert, Léaud transformed Truffaut’s idea of Doinel. Truffaut saw him as more overtly fragile, timid and artistic. Léaud has all of that – but matches it with a defiance, a bravery and a slight resentment that makes his vulnerability all the more affecting. He is the sort of kid you see as a tearaway but, look closer, you’d see the soul of an artist.

Léaud’s performance is guided with a great deal of delicacy and skill by Truffaut – so successfully that he and Truffaut would collaborate five more times on films about Antoine’s future life. His part was largely unscripted, Truffaut outlining the plot and scene and then encouraging him to use his own words. It’s gloriously effective in a beautifully naturalistic late scene, when Antoine (the camera focused solely on him), responds to a series of questions from an unseen psychiatrist about his past, including an abashed cheeky giggle when asked about his sexual experience.

The 400 Blows also helped to kickstart what would become the French New Wave. Truffaut – and cinematographer Henri Decaë – shot the film with an on-the-streets naturalism that gave a large dollop of documentary realism to a narrative film. Decaë’s roving camera, moving easily and naturally through the streets, tracking the movement of the children, is also reminiscent of the very act of being a child, where life is often one of wild drifting and aimless but purposeful running through streets. The wide angles capture the everyday details of the Paris in a way that feels intimate and real, and also manage to hammer home the cramped apartment the Doinels live in (Antonine’s bedroom, Harry Potter like, is basically a cupboard under the stairs next to the bin).

It all builds towards the film’s extraordinary ending. Thrown into a reform school, essentially told by his mother she doesn’t want him to come home, barred from seeing his friend René, asked to choose which hand he wants to be slapped with by the teachers and forbidden access to the books and films he loves, Antoine does what he has done all his life. He runs.

Running from a football match, evading a pursuing teacher, Truffaut gives us two long tracking shots of extraordinary beauty but also profoundly openly to interpretation. Antoine runs through the countryside, the camera keeping pace with him, his feet pounding on the grass and pavement. We are joining him in his flight, running free alongside him. Then he arrives at his destination – and the camera tracks him as he walks across the beach until finally he sees the sea. He wades – and then turns to look directly at us, Truffaut freeze-framing and zooming in.

Are we being challenged? After all, perhaps we are all complicit in the wretched judgement Antonine has faced. Or is this him welcoming us, accepting us, acknowledging us as his co-conspirator and escapee? Who quite knows. What we do know is that The Four Hundred Blows set Truffaut on the path to being one of the world’s leading directors – and is a stunning, sympathetic and heart-breaking insight into the struggles and injustice that childhood can consist of.

The Last Metro (1980)

The Last Metro (1980)

Passion, privacy, tension and terror all come to head in Truffaut’s stately theatrical occupation epic

Director: François Truffaut

Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner), Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger), Jean Poiret (Jean-Loup Cottins), Heinz Bennent (Lucas Steiner), Andréa Ferréol (Arlette Guillaume), Paulette Dubost (Germaine Fabre), Sabine Haudepin (Nadine Marsac), Jean-Louis Richard (Daxiat), Maurice Risch (Raymond Boursier)

The curtain parts and we are introduced to a magic world of imagination and drama play out before us on stage. But how can the actors immerse themselves in this, while such huge drama plays out in the real world? It’s the dilemma of the Montmatre theatrical troupe in Paris during the Occupation. With war raging with all its complex moral choices and dangers, how can you focus on the art within – or for the matter process the complex emotional entanglements in an already claustrophobic profession only made worse by the perils of Nazi occupied Paris and their pet collaborators.

Truffaut’s film is called The Last Metro as it recalls a period during the occupation when hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Parisian theatres to stay warm at night before rushing to catch the final train home before the curfew. The Montmatre Theatre is run by Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), a film star turned stage actor struggling to keep the theatre going in the absence of her Jewish theatre-director husband Lucas (Heinz Bennett) – who, unknown to anyone else, is hiding in the theatre basement. Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) is her new lead actor for their latest Ibsenesque production: but his presence will stir powerful feelings in the embattled Marion.

Truffaut’s film steers away from his other more famous work – the sort of vibrancy and romance of earlier films like Jules et Jim or The Four Hundred Blows or the inventive playfulness of Day for Night. Instead, The Last Metro is a more formal, classically shot, interior piece that revels in small moments and touches of emotional investment so subtle and glancing some viewers might not even notice them. It’s also – surprisingly for cinema’s leading cineaste – a film deeply in love with the mechanics and backstage drama of theatre, subtly contrasting the claustrophobia and intensity of such spaces with the oppressive world-shrinking and glance-over-your-shoulder anxiety of occupation.

It’s also a superb character study, with a quite brilliantly complex and compelling performance from Catherine Deneuve. A starlet with a double burden – not only keeping the theatre alive, but also her husband – Marion is a woman pulled so hard and so overwhelmingly in so many competing directions, it’s taking every ounce of her control to hold herself together. Facing financial pressures, censorship pressures and the constant fear that a single wrong word could see her theatre ripped away from her and her husband discovered and killed, she maintains a cold and professional veneer that rarely, if ever, slips.

So little does it, that Bernard – played with an effortlessly underplayed grace and charm by Gérard Depardieu that belies his Rugby-player bellicosity – is, for the most part, blissfully unaware of Marion’s growing, unspoken, attraction to him. A love she seems hardly able to acknowledge herself, not least because it feels like an even deeper betrayal now of her husband, hiding out in the basement and utterly dependent on her, than it would in peacetime.

Lucas – a wonderful Heinz Bennent – is himself teetering on the edge of falling apart from the sustained effects of acute cabin pressure. Never leaving the damp theatre basement – apart from surreptitious trips to the stage late at night – Lucas’ attitude to his enforced imprisonment moves from a larkish boys-own adventure into an increasingly bitter resentment. Directing the show from afar – a drain has been hooked up so he can listen in on rehearsals – he provides late night feedback to Marion to accompany the detailed handwritten notes he ‘left behind’. Mapping out future productions on his cell walls, Lucas avoids the suspicion that the constant pressure of concealing him has tipped their relationship from romance to one of anxiety-ridden responsibility.

It contrasts with the play the company is performing: where, in typical Ibsen style, the lead is a tragedy tinged woman, suffering memory loss, who falls into a deep but mutually painful love with her son’s tutor. Even from the rehearsals, Marion begins to feel some bleed of this dramatic relationship into her real world: she asks Bernard to not touch her during rehearsals, as if worried that this moment of physicality could lead to consequences she cannot control.

Touch is a key sensation in The Last Metro – as if moments of physical contact and intimacy carry even more weight in a world where no one can be trusted and every word must be carefully watched. Bernard uses a repeated routine of palm reading to try and seduce (with mixed results) a series of women (most notably lesbian production designer Arlette – strikingly played by Andréa Ferréol – who, in a lovely flourish, he describes as longing for “like a warm croissant”). Physical contact – the light caress of a face and hands – is crucial to the film. Truffaut’s camera zooms in on moments where hands take each other, either in longing, understanding or – in a sequence where Marion journeys to Gestapo headquarters – with the threat of imminent violence.

Closing distance is particularly important in a period where all contact must be carefully judged and measured. Collaborators, like powerful press chief Daxiat, will use the smallest slight or word out of place to justify pulling your world down. Played with a hissable vileness by Jean-Louis Richard, Daxiat is a pompous, self-important, two-faced and vindictive man parroting Nazi slogans and revelling in his power to destroy careers. But, small man though he is, the Occupation gives him power – when Bernard angrily confronts him for his rudeness about Marion in his review, its Bernard who Marion is furious at for his recklessness.

It’s because hanging over every moment – and constantly playing in Deneuve’s expressive eyes – is the dread of what will be found if her theatre is searched or how doomed her husband will be if it is closed. Finding a play that passes muster with the censors and pleases the masses is literally a matter of life and death.

Truffaut echoes the claustrophobia of occupied France in his shooting of the cramped backstage world – and he and Suzanne Schiffman in their screenplay add to this with their look at backstage politics and affections between actors, stagehands and crew. Even the outside is shot like an interior – and Truffaut never bothers to make the locations feel like anything other than sets, as if the whole world is a claustrophobic theatre – with extensive use of mid and close-up shots and subtle tracking shots that maintain the theatrical effect.

It does make for a film that can feel stately and a little too heritage – and its undeniable you miss some of the energy of Truffaut’s other films (you can’t imagine his idol Hitchcock ever shooting a frame of The Last Metro­ – or what he would have made of its luxurious pace). Its subtle energy is sometimes so easy-to-miss that it can be easy for parts of the film to pass you by. Plotlines – such as Bernard’s support of the resistance – sit awkwardly at times within the framework, and the film’s boiling down of Vichy France to (essentially) one bad apple told a story about Occupation that was very pleasing to the French self-image (no wonder if was a massive hit).

The Last Metro is at times a little too in-love with its cultural heritage and the quiet professional skill of its making. But, it counter-balances this with some involving and subtle work from all its principles and director: and in Denevue (especially) and Depardieu it had two of the greatest actors in French cinema at the top of their game. Multi-layered and demanding, it’s a film that makes you work from its newsreel opening to its fourth-wall, metatextual ending, riffing on romantic entanglements, art, burdens and the oppression of occupation. Perhaps too knowingly prestige to be great, but still an essential watch.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Friendship, class, warfare and change are explored superbly in Jean Renoir’s masterful war film

Director: Jean Renoir

Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt Maréchal), Marcel Dalio (Lt Rosenthal), Pierre Fresnay (Captain de Boëldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Major von Rauffenstein), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Julie Carette (Cartier), Gaston Modot (Engineer), Georges Péclet (Officer), Werner Florian (Sgt Arthur), Jean Dasté (Teacher)

“Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1”. That’s what Joseph Goebbels called Renoir’s La Grande Illusion on its release in 1937. It’s easy to think it’s because of its pacifist stance – the idea that war itself is the Grande Illusion – but perhaps it’s because Renoir’s masterpiece isn’t easy to dismiss as polemic. It’s intelligent enough to present soldiers who believe in fighting a war on different levels, but don’t see that as a reason to hate the enemy. La Grande Illusion is as much about the passing of an era and the important links that bring us closer together rather than tear us apart. And that of course was anathema to a Nazi regime, intent on crushing freedom of any sort in Europe.

Renoir’s film is one of the foundational war films, the first great POW drama. Two French officers are shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over enemy lines. One is working class pilot Lt Maréchal (Jean Gabin), the other aristocratic Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay). Moving from camp to camp, the two finally find themselves in a camp run by the German officer who shot them down, aristocratic Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). Von Rauffenstein and de Boëldieu have more in common with each other than the soldiers on their own side – though von Rauffenstein’s Victorian, romantic view of the world differs from de Boëldieu pragmatic awareness of the advance of change. When Maréchal and fellow prisoner, Jewish officer Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) plan an escape, will de Boëldieu help them?

La Grande Illusion is a beautifully thought-provoking and gorgeous piece of film-making, a wonderful and hugely influential film. (It inspired, among others, The Great Escape with its tunnel digging escape exploits and Casablanca’s famous La Marseillaise scene). It’s a pacifist film, masquerading as a war film – but one where we never see any fighting. A polemic would have shown us the horrors and slaughter of the trenches. La Grande Illusion shows us men proud to be soldiers, praises their bravery, centres the cavalry-style dignity of the air-force and features just one death. What makes it more pacifist is the lack of anger or rage of its characters, their lack of rancid nationalism.

This is partly because the film explores a war at the cusp of societal change. The nineteenth century era of ‘gentleman’s war’ is passing away, as are the old societal hierarchies. Maréchal and de Boëldieu are on the same side, but when they are shot down it’s striking that they have more in common with their supposed enemies. Invited to a commiseration dinner by the victorious German pilots, the aristocratic de Boëldieu bonds with flying ace von Rauffenstein (they speak in English together, something that immediately separates them from the others, about horse racing) while Maréchal is delighted to find a German working-class pilot was, just like him, a car mechanic in Marseilles. There is no hatred here, just mutual respect.

On arrival in the camp these class differences are magnified. Maréchal (the magnificently charismatic Jean Gabin) fits in far easier with the other French prisoners, all of them either professionals (engineers, teachers and the like) or outsiders, like Jewish officer Rosenthal (a heartfelt Marcel Dalio). Maréchal is inducted, enthusiastically, into their escape attempts (including the tunnel digging) as well as the social events, like the cabaret shows. de Boëldieu is a different case: there is a faint air of distrust (one prisoner even questions whether he should be told about the tunnel), and he gently refuses to take part in any cabaret and indulges the escape attempt through a sense of fair play.

But de Boëldieu is aware his world is moving on. Superbly played by Pierre Fresnay, with a wry, breezy upper-class distance that masks an acute insight, de Boëldieu knows the future belongs to commoners like Maréchal. His world – and his counterpart von Rauffenstein – is one of horse-racing, society dinners and grand houses, where a gentleman never lets a person’s nation affect his perception of them. He takes part in the war as a final grand gentleman’s sport, but also knowing that a glorious death is “a way out” of the difficult social changes that will follow.

It’s an understanding not shared by von Rauffenstein, played by an iconic preciseness by Erich von Stroheim. Von Rauffenstein respects the word of a gentleman (during a search, he tears apart the beds of every prisoner but de Boëldieu, taking his word for it that he has no contraband), sees war as a glorious expression of masculinity but never something that should come between friends. Locked within a neck brace, his posture stiff and his hands forever in trapped in tight white gloves, there is more than a hint of the closet to von Rauffenstein – and his faintly homoerotic attraction to de Boëldieu, who he sees as a natural brother-in-arms is both sad and slightly touching.

Where do de Boëldieu’s loyalties lie though? To his social equal and contemporary with whom he shares a lifetime of upperclass pursuits, or his fellow countrymen with whom he shares nothing? It’s the core of the second act of the film, as Maréchal and Rosenthal plan their escape and ask for de Boëldieu’s help. Goebbels was no doubt also unhappy with the presentation of Rosenthal. Sure, he fits many of the Jewish stereotypes: he’s a rich foreigner whose family has bought up French land. But he’s also decent, kind, shares his food and sheds a tear when Maréchal is released from solitary confinement. Maréchal and the others aren’t above befriending him despite his Jewishness, but here Rosenthal is a hero.

He’s also part of the melting pot of characters who, though they have moments of prejudice, are fundamentally all in it together. A black French prisoner goes more or less uncommented on. In solitary confinement, a distraught Maréchal is bought a harmonica by a friendly German guard, which he then delightedly plays. The French officers join in a mutually teasing relationship with an officious German guard. The various nationalities in the prison camp all muck in on their cabaret show (and escapes – a blackly comic language barrier prevents a departing Maréchal from informing a newly arrived British officer there is an escape tunnel finished and ready to go in the camp). Despite the world is tearing itself apart, but that’s not a reason for people to hate each other.

Indeed, on the run from the prison camp, Rosenthal and Maréchal find refuge on the farm of a German mother, Elsa, and her daughter, her husband having been killed in the war. (War victories get remarkably little airtime in La Grande Illusion – the famous singing of Les Marseillaise after Maréchal announces a French victory is followed in the next scene by the Germans winning it back. In the camp the soldiers grow increasingly cynical about the shortage of promised easy victories). Maréchal and this woman form a romantic bond – with Rosenthal as translator – that again transcends national boundaries. Can you imagine Goebbels being thrilled at that paragon of Aryan maidenhood, falling in love with a lunking Frenchman whose fellows killed her husband?

Neither would he be thrilled by von Rauffenstein’s desperation to save the life of de Boëldieu, the man abetting an escape. Dancing through the POW castle, pipe in hand, literally leading the guards a merry dance, de Boëldieu stage-manages his own death to leave a legacy and avoid facing the future he knows he has no place in. There is a fatalism about de Boëldieu not present in any other character: and certainly not von Rauffenstein who can’t imagine his world is ending.

But life will go on for others. Every character has a longing for life outside of the demands of war. During the cabaret, a French officer dresses (convincingly) in drag: there is something touching about the stunned, longing silence that falls across these men as they stare upon the closest thing to a woman any of them have seen in years. Maréchal plans for a future with Elsa, Rosenthal one of acceptance in his French home. War is an encumbrance, but one people understand is a burden on all regular people.

The film is beautifully made by Renoir, who uses a series of striking long-takes and intricate camera moves to create a feeling of time and place that is completely convincing, but also hugely engaging and immersive. Characters constantly stare out of windows, stressing their isolation, or are framed seemingly encased by their surroundings. Leaving aside the technical achievements and artistry, La Grande Illusion is a heartfelt, complex and moving film that challenges and questions as much as it feels regret for a time being left behind. By avoiding polemic, and stressing simple humanity and the madness of hate, it’s one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made.

Amour (2012)

Amour (2012)

A couple struggle with an unbearable burden in Haneke’s extraordinary and moving film

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges Laurent), Emmanuelle Riva (Anne Laurent), Isabelle Huppert (Eva Laurent), Alexandre Tharaud (Alexandre), Rita Blanco (Concierge), Carole Franck (Nurse), Dinara Droukarova (Nurse), William Shimell (Geoff)

Think of Haneke, and you tend to a picture a rather cold philosopher, starring at humanity through a microscope. Some of his best works are chilling explorations of man’s capacity for inhumanity and cruelty. But Haneke’s work is based on a brilliant understanding of what makes people tick, and that insight applies as much to love as it does to cruelty. Amour is Haneke’s searching exploration of what love can be like, and how it can make us behave, in the worst situation possible: one where we are helpless to ease the suffering of someone we love.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) an Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired piano teachers, married for almost forty years. The life is one of relaxing calm, enjoying the success of former pupils. All that changes when Anne has a silent stroke, the effects of which leave her paralysed on her left side. Georges resolves to care for her, dedicating himself to seeing to her every need, even as Anne’s body and mind (and desire to keep living) swiftly decline and a second stroke brings on even greater helplessness and dementia.

We know it won’t have a happy ending. It’s told in flashback, the film opening with the door to Georges and Anne’s apartment being broken down by the police, discovering Anne’s body laid out on the bed, surrounded by flowers. We know from the moment of Anne’s first stroke, where this story is heading. And none of it should be a surprise. Haneke based the story on an experience in his own family, where he was left helplessly watching a person he loved suffer, powerless to do anything other than offer brief comforts. Amour asks if there can be anything harder for to bear than being unable to help (or even, in the end, really communicate) with someone we love?

Georges devotion to Anne is clear. He obeys to the letter one of her first wishes when returning from the hospital: she does not wish to leave her home. So, they stay in their apartment (the film leaves this apartment only once, in our introduction to the leads) and Georges cuts up her food, helps her in and out of bed, fetches and carries and helps her get dressed. Steadily Anne’s ability to do things independently declines; and after her second stroke evaporates entirely. She’s incontinent (reliant on a nappy), delirious and incapable of coherent speech, unable to leave the bed and getting her to eat her mashed-up food and water is a daily struggle. Slowly, any trace of the real Anne only exists in Georges memories, which he clings to tightly.

In some ways, this is a horror film: the horror of powerlessness as someone literally wilts away in front of us, a new part of their personality disappearing every day. It frequently plays out in an austere silence – tellingly for two people whose whole life has been music, there is precious little of it in the film. The Anne at the film’s end – frightened, childlike, tempestuous and able to utter only a few words (like “Hurts”) over and over again in an incoherent refrain – bares no resemblance to the intelligent, witty and engaging woman at the film’s start. In every line of Trintignant’s face there is the weary, numbed pain of a man unable to do anything other than gently try to apply the brakes.

But it’s love that keeps him refusing to give-up, and the film is an exploration of the never-ending lengths we will go to for those who mean the most to us. Georges entire life becomes Anne – by the end there is a barely a waking hour that isn’t consumed with her needs. From the start, even the smallest tasks are challenging for Anne: we see her struggle to put on her glasses and turn the pages of a heavy book one-handed in bed. This only gets worse – and the loss of dignity a person feels as they become incapable of controlling any part of their body, including their bladder, is presented by Haneke with a horrific matter-of-factness.

But, what I think is particularly interesting about Amour– and I think Haneke’s stroke of genius – is the flip side of love. Because it also makes us selfish: and you can argue it makes both Anne and Georges selfish. Georges, in particular, begins to horde Anne, as if he was so desperate to keep some vestige of his life with her alive, that he wants to keep her all to himself. He consistently turns down offers of help. He reacts with anger to their daughter Eva (a sensitive Isabella Huppert), telling her that he and Anne should be left to their own privacy. He takes a perverse pride of taking on an impossible burden and refuses to consider any suggestions to reduce his burden (with only great reluctance does he hire a day nurse). Love has made him greedy, to keep Anne to himself.

Part of this comes from his desire to preserve Anne’s dignity: he even locks Anne’s bedroom during one of Eva’s visits as he feels Anne wouldn’t want her daughter to see her like this. Georges dismisses one nurse as he feels she is mistreating Anne. This is fascinating scene: we see no evidence of this – all we see is the nurse showering Anne like a child and later combing her hair and showing Anne her reflection (and she’s furious at Georges accusation). The film suggests, perhaps what Georges can’t bear is the nurse’s infantilising of Anne in her dementia. It can’t be squared with his own desperate attempt to keep some of his memory of her unaffected by what she has become.

Anne knows early where this is going. When Georges returns early from a funeral, he finds her sitting outside an open window. Nothing is said in the following conversation, but it’s clear that Anne was in the midst of attempting suicide. Later she talks bitterly about the point of carrying on. In her later dementia state, she frequently refuses food and water as if determined to try and bring her own life to an end. It’s a cry Georges isn’t interested in hearing: he bolts it away in his mind and battles to the end to try and preserve what life she is, even once striking her with frustration after she spits out her food once again.

Amour can be seen as a pro-Euthanasia film. But I think it’s more complex than that. It’s about love, and how it can drive us to undertake super-human efforts for another person that are also, in a way, about ourselves. That’s what Georges does: a burden that damages his own health and well-being, which he takes on because he will not let go and whatever small parts of Anne are left, he doesn’t want to share with anyone else (not even their daughter). When he takes his fateful decision – and one we’ve been expecting from the film’s first frame – it’s as horrifying as anything Haneke has filmed, both on Georges’ despair and Anne’s instinctive terror.

Amour is blessed with two stunning performances. Emmanuelle Riva won a BAFTA and an Oscar-nomination for her superb performance, a technical masterclass combined with huge emotional depth as Anne moves through fear, anger, self-loathing and finally into a deep, dark well where her understanding of what is happening to her slowly fades away in a babble of incoherent words. Jean-Louis Trintignant, lured out of semi-retirement, is sensational: a shambling, devoted, cantankerous, heart-broken, stubborn man dealing with a profound, never-ending grief and loss.

Haneke films it with a stately calmness and leaves a myriad of possible interpretations open to the viewer. But above all, he invests the film with a humanity, warmth and compassion that will speak to anyone who has had a loved one succumb to the infirmity and fear of old age. Amour is deeply moving, profoundly insightful and achingly beautiful.