Classics from France: The French carrousel

The golden era of French cinema is relived at Alliance française de Karachi.

In sultry June when schools are closed and Karachi’s elite usually head for cooler climes and greener pastures, the Alliance française de Karachi screened a number of French film classics, produced before 1950, for the classic cinema buffs who were left behind. Some of the films were made before World War II, some during the conflict and a couple after peace had been restored. Each had its own special ambience and private message. For the enthusiast who was weaned on the celluloid magic of Carne, Renoir and Pagnol, this was a real treat — a high point in entertainment and a journey into the rich cultural past of one of the world’s most civilised countries.

For years France has been a recognised leader in haute couture, the world of fragrance, the plastic arts, cuisine and wines. To this list I would add motion pictures, specially the films of Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Vigo, Luis Bunuel and Rene Clair. Their collective brilliance was an essential part of the golden age of French cinema. I would also like to include Max Ophuls who, along with two dozen actors and directors, fled Germany to escape persecution from the Nazis. One of the Jewish actors, who fled from Berlin to Paris and eventually to Hollywood, was Peter Lorre, the actor with the sinister baby face and whiningly caressing voice. He was the quintessential creepy menacing foreigner who just couldn’t be trusted.

The films that had been selected for the festival were distinguished, among other qualities, for their sheer literacy. Marcel Carne had five films, of which Les enfants du paradis (1945) is the most outstanding. Around 600 critics voted it the greatest film ever made. This classic, which was made in 1944 during the German occupation of France, has a curious history. Starring Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur and Arletty, it was essentially a tribute to theatre and the indomitable French spirit. The movie took over two years to complete because of Nazi sabotage, the arrest of cast members, the need for secrecy and Carne’s determination to show his epic creation in a free France. Carne’s other films, Hôtel du Nord (1938), Quai des brumes (1938) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939) that were shown are slow, brooding, introspective studies of decent people, inexorably drawn to destruction by fate. Both are metaphysical and highly demoralising classical film noire at its most eloquent, and an excursion in gloomy studio realism. Hôtel du Nord is about a suicide pact between a man and a woman, where the man shoots his companion but loses the nerve to take his own life. Curiously enough, it was Quai des brumes, the tale of a trapped army deserter and the most infamous example of poetic fatalism that was held responsible by certain high-ups in the Vichy government for capitulation to the Nazis. Carne retorted to this accusation by stating that, “The storm was not the fault of the barometer.”

Many French directors worked in the poetic realist style. Of these Jean Renoir was the most influential. After a somewhat erratic silent career, he matured into a genuine artist of cinema with the coming of sound. One of his most famous quotes is, “I am not a director. I am a storyteller.” La grande illusion (1937) and La règle du jeu (1939) created waves around the world when they first surfaced. Illusion makes the point that war is futile. It also contains scenes in which a French officer and a German widow are involved in a romantic affair. The Nazis attempted to destroy all European prints of this classic. However, a negative was found by American troops in Munich in 1945, from which the film was painstakingly reconstructed. Some critics have compared this movie to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on the book by Erich Maria Lamarque, which was also banned by the Nazis. La règle du jeu, which is about Europe’s decaying social and political structure and upper class French society at the outbreak of World War II, has been cited as one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. It was also a favourite of Orson Welles, who said he would like to take the film to the ark.

La femme du Boulanger (1938) by Marcel Pagnol, chiefly known for the three episodes of the Marseilles trilogy, is a frothy film about the voluptuous wife of a baker in a village in Beaujolais, who ran off with a handsome shepherd. This spells disaster in the village and the baker goes into deep depression. No bread is forthcoming. The local squire and the priest galvanise the whole village into search parties and the woman is finally found. Pagnol was a firm believer that film is a performer’s medium, and thus he concentrated on dialogue and characterisation. Many of his films benefitted from location shooting.

Clochemerle (1948) was the last film to be screened in the festival which, I believe, was included at my specific request. Unfortunately, due to some technical problem, it couldn’t be shown and another movie was screened instead. Directed by Pierre Chenal, Clochemerle is a delightful bawdy comedy based on the satirical novel by Gabriel Chevalier. The theme focuses on a proposal to erect a public urinal in the village square. This polarises the community, pitting the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism backed by the church against each other. There are some truly hilarious scenes which reminded me a little of the Don Camillo series set in a Po river valley town in Italy. The stories were written by Giovanni Guareschi, the Italian journalist, cartoonist and humourist. In his forward to The Little World of Don Camillo (1953), he wrote, “The communists are after me. The fascists are after me. The church is after me. The government is after me. But I am determined to live… even if they kill me.” In the film version, Fernandel plays the Roman Catholic priest Don Camillo and Gino Cervi plays the communist mayor Peppone.

The response to the screening of the films at the Alliance was not as positive as one had hoped. On the opening night, there were around 20 visitors, a third of whom were Pakistanis. But the attendance gradually dwindled with each successive screening, until there remained just four hard core devotees, two of whom were French, in the last film. It can perhaps be attributed to the security situation in the city and the late starting time. Another reason could be that tastes have changed considerably and audiences are less interested in the languor of camera work and metaphysical themes which tease the mind. They prefer plots where the action is fast and furious. It wasn’t always like that. In more normal and peaceful times, film festivals attracted considerable interest and people, who normally did not have the opportunity to see the best of Europe, the US and Japan, at least got to do so through films. In my opinion, however, European classic films, by and large, are not really relevant to Pakistan, except to the small tribe of Western-oriented cinema buffs who are fast becoming an endangered species. The art films that have recently emerged from Iran and India certainly are. Not only do they discuss common themes and problems, they also demonstrate that when it comes to brilliance, the West does not have a monopoly.

Anwer Mooraj is a columnist for the op-ed pages of The Express Tribune

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 13th,  2014.


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