René Vautier: Anti-Colonial Filmmaker

November 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

I first heard the name of René Vautier from Erwan Moalic, the powerhouse behind the remarkable film festival in Douarnenez, a true community-based festival dedicated to working class audiences and featuring films on ethnic and other minorities (in existence since the 1970s). I was asking Erwan if he could please identify what was the ideological influence that had informed the establishment of the Douarnenez event, and he named Vautier, whom he described as a hugely important but little known and widely-suppressed Breton filmmaker. The description proved correct, as when I asked around about Vautier at a later point (talking mostly to colleagues in anthropology and French based in the UK and the US), almost no one knew of him (I gather, I did not ask the right people): I was left with the impression that the filmmaker is not as widely known as he apparently should be. Eventually I was nicely surprised to come across a lengthy article on him in the Financial Times (of all places), in which author Tobias Grey described him as ‘the most censored of all French filmmakers’. Luckily, there is the Internet where one can find more on him, from the good French-language Wikpedia article to various write ups on his classic anti-colonialist film Afrique’50 and on his best-known film, the documentary-style feature Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1972).

It is this film,
To be Twenty in the Aures, that prompted me to write on Vautier today, as I finally got round to watching the French language DVD I had purchased in France a few months ago. It is a memorable and certainly extremely brave feature, which can be taken for documentary at moments, especially when featuring extreme scenes such as the rape of a local woman or the torture of detainees (scenes that surpass in intensity similar scenes from such anti-war classics as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War or recent Iraqi-war themed films like Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha). A platoon of hesitant French soldiers are fighting the colonial war, being fed daily doses of indoctrination from the radio dispatches and from their own lieutenant Perrin (a remarkable young Philippe Léotard), yet the things that happen on the ground and the local relationships they forge make them more and more disillusioned about the supposedly patriotic mission they are serving. The only French film to be included in the Cannes selection in 1972, the film received the FIPRESCI prize. Aesthetically it is a pre-cursor of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1993); at moments I also thought that certain scenes in it may have influenced Bill Douglas’ Comrades (1986) — both films featuring European men who are essentially displaced by being transplanted to a Southern environment. The film is released by Doriane Films, a distributor that carries the work of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Ousmane Sembene. I see that in the Amazon.fr site, from where it is available for sale, this rare DVD ranks at around 30,000 level of popularity. Sad.

The DVD features various extras, most importantly a 55 minute-long extraction of his earlier work on colonialism in Algeria, called Peuple en marche which presents the anti-colonial stance of the director particularly persuasively and features what I suppose is an extremely rare footage (as Vautier is, reportedly, the only French filmmaker who has filmed the war in Algeria from the point of view of the colonized). The 23 minute documentary called Vautier The Indomitable which chronicles the life of the director, was particularly important to see, especially as it features the sequence of systematic suppression of his work over the years (filming, prison terms, filming again, hunger strike, filming, censorship, and so on) in a light-hearted manner, evidently this being the way in which Vautier prefers to present himself. Born in Bretagne in 1928, he has remained at the periphery of French militant filmmaking. It is sad to see he is so little known, provided that what I saw of his work appears to be so enormously important: after all, he filmed in Algeria at the very same time when Frantz Fanon was writing his seminal The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Yet spending time in Paris earlier this year, I did not come across any mentions of Vautier nor across events that would feature his work (whereas, in conjunction with the commemorations of 1968, there were plenty of discussions of other similarly-motivated groups, such as the Medvedkine collective and others).

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

Slogans (Albania/France, 2001) Gjergj Xhuvani

July 3, 2008 at 12:41 am

Albania is one of the few European countries that are still eligible for assistance under the Fonds Sud Cinéma funding programme, administered by the French government in support of the cinema of underdeveloped nations around the world. In most of these co-productions, France its engaged as a minority partner, providing production and post-production services mostly at the high tech end. Fonds Sud Cinéma is a smartly conceived enterprise, clearly meant to keep a steadily subsidized business flowing to the numerous small and medium-sized French production outfits and post-production companies (see Iordanova, 2002). The main shortcoming of the operation is that producers who get involved in these project are mostly specialized in working with various other countries (such as Russia, Lebanon, Italy) and are thus outsiders within French cinema circles. Their lack of contacts and influence is most palpable when it comes to distribution: the films get made but remain seen very little. If it were not for the French government assistance, however, Gjergj Xhuvani’s Slogans (2001) would probably not even have been made, as local funding bodies in countries like Albania distribute their meager production funds mostly by providing matching funds where foreign assistance is already in place.

Set in a small town in the mountains in the late 1970s, Slogans (2001) follows the arrival of science teacher Andre (Artur Gorishti) to take up a new position with the local secondary school. The atmosphere is stuffy from the onset, and soon various bizarre episodes begin taking place. Evidently, the focus of the school’s endeavors is not on learning; pupil and teachers’ energies alike are directed to appeasing the local authorities’ demand to constantly demonstrate loyalty to the ideas of communism. Rather than in the classroom, instructors and students have to spend their days on the surrounding hills where they are to assemble various prescribed slogans in white stones. About fifteen meters long and two meters wide, the slogans are supposed to express the genuine feelings of all Albanians on important matters in the country’s political agenda. Andre is requested to make a choice between ‘Keep Up the Revolutionary Spirit!’ and ‘America’s Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger’ as his next class project. When he chooses the slogan that is clearly the shorter and easier to put together, his allegiance comes under perilous scrutiny.

Even though the events take place in the late 1970s, everything looks and feels like in the middle of the ideologically absurd 1950s. Discussions of the shape of the slogan’ letters and on the better suitability of certain stones is a fully justified subject for a serious conversation. A series of depressing episodes revealing the dull determination of the local communist party apparatchiks follows and results in unjust treatment of ordinary people. First an illiterate peasant is accused of conspiring with the imperialists because he let his goats disturb the neatly arranged stones of the slogans. Then a boy who has to present on China in class makes a mistake and describes the country as ‘revisionist’ (rather than the correct description of ‘communist’), a misdeed for which the boy’s father is reprimanded (as he falls under suspicion for secretly indoctrinating his son in anti-communist beliefs).

It is mostly due to the French co-producing participation that the film received some exposure, ensuring at least a degree of distribution in Albania, France, and in a handful of European countries. Distributor Celluloid Dreams was involved, and there is an entry giving synopsis and contact information related to the film on the web-site run by France diplomatie, intended to assist the international exposure of French-supported films. Slogans played as part of various festivals (Karlovy Vary, Tokyo), became the fist Albanian film to be shown at Cannes, won awards at regional festivals in Bratislava and Cottbus, and was part of traveling showcases featuring recent Balkan or Albanian cinema. Even though it is not available in mass distribution, Slogans appears to have reached a truly global (diasporic?) niche audience, as the six posts about the film on the IMDb orginate from viewers based in locations as diverse as Australia, Hong Kong, Spain, Canada, Poland, and Norway.

Those who have written about the film on occasion of its release in the West often begin by admitting they know next to nothing of the place where the film comes from, referring to it as ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’ country with ‘weird’ and ‘bizarre’ history. They usually end up recommending travel books on Albania, which, supposedly, contain some answers on this peculiarly isolated corner of Europe.

Indeed, the countries in the communist camp lived in a self-contained universe. In addition, the Balkan region was the home of three of the states that came to be known as communist mavericks — Romania, Albania, and Yugoslavia – as each one had a bizarre and non-conventional way in being a state socialist country and retain relative independence not only from the West but also from the grip of the Soviets. Among those three, Albania was by far the more isolated one, having voluntary shut itself for the West, but then also having broken up with the USSR, having reoriented itself to China, and then having broken up these ties as well around the time of the cultural revolution (an episode masterfully treated in Ismail Kadare’s The Concert). That a slogan like ‘Vietnam Will Win’ is still in use in Albania a decade after the actual end of the Vietnam war may come across as absurd, but this episode of the film is based on a true anecdote, showing the shocking extent of the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.

The paranoid ruler that the country had ended up with, Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), undoubtedly enhanced Albania’s maverick status. Romania and Yugoslavia were also led by mavericks in their own right, Ceausescu and Tito. But while we can find film portrayals that explain away the charisma of some of the top communists and the popular obsession known as ‘cult of personality’ (e.g. Stalin in The Fall of Berlin, or Tito in Tito and Me or Marshall), a film on Enver Hoxha is yet to be made.

But while not directly presenting Hoxha as a person, Albanian cinema has had its own way in presenting the man by showing off his absurd deeds. Kujtim Cashku’s Kolonel Bunker (1996), for example, explores the process of Albania’s “bunkerization”, a massive defense project involving the erection of thousands of concrete bunkers meant to protect the nation in a foreign assault. These semi-destroyed concrete bunkers litter Albania’s landscape today and have become a sort of an embarrassing visual trademark of the country; they are featured, among other films, in Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica (1994). One of the scenes in Fatmir Koci’s Tirana Year Zero (2001, see Horton), another film produced with the asistance of France, takes place in a field full of meter-tall metal spears sticking up from the ground: yet another one of Hoxha’s defense inventions meant to pierce the foreign parachutists that may try landing on Albanian soil.

Reviewers are more or less unanimous of their assessment of Slogans as a ‘deliciously sardonic’ tour-de-force, which takes a satirical swipe in making a ‘scathing attack on the ignorant and imbecilic nature of fanatical politics’ of Albanian communism (Russell). If we see the film in a wider context beyond the Balkans, however, it could be considered as yet another representation of the presence of Maoist indoctrination in Europe, continuing in the tradition established by Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) and the Norwegian satire Pedersen: High School Teacher (2006).

In Slogans, Jamie Russell points out, all these endless meetings and discussions of ideology ‘have become so commonplace that no one can blink without offending some obscure party doctrine.’ In that, Slogans is a faithfully realist account, featuring the unbelievable yet fully authentic extremities of indoctrination and stupidity of dedicated party apparatchiks. Revealing moral stupor that comes across in everyday life situations has been the core approach of many of the most successful films about communism. Although many of these are set in the late 1940s and 1950s, some look into more recent periods. Some have relied on showing victims of the absurd (Hungarian Angi Vera, Pal Gabor, 1979), some on revealing the hypocrisy of the system (Bulgarian A Woman of 33, Chr. Christov, 1982, Margarit and Margarita, N. Volev, 1989) while others which prove that the genre of absurdist comedy may be indeed the most appropriate for exposing what is wrong with communist indoctrination, have openly relied on satire (as seen in classics such as Czech The Party and the Guests, Jan Nemec, 1967, The Joke, Jaromil Jires, 1969, and The Ear, Karel Kachyna, 1970, or Hungarian The Witness, Péter Bacsó, 1969),

Based on a story by Ylljet Alicka, who worked on the adaptation, the film relates a series of anecdotes rooted in real events. Andre’s daily reality may seem absurd, but it is nothing more than a condensed account on an ordinary life of an employee under communism. The whitewashed-stone slogans on hillsides existed not only in Albania but also in other neighboring communist countries; they were suggested by the ideological department of the Party either centrally or locally and were ‘built’ not only by school children, but also by the army and factory workers. The absurd usage of ideologically-loaded terms that no one understood was another wide spread practice that went far beyond Albania and was endemic to the whole communist camp; all sorts of things were qualified as ‘revisionist’ without ever being clear what was the doctrine that was being revised and without ever inviting critical scrutiny on political discourse. Thus, Slogans is a straightforward account on a seemingly absurd situation.

What seems more absurd to me, however, is Andre’s attempts to keep a high moral ground. To Western viewers, he is the only one who comes across as utterly ‘normal’. Even though born and bred in Albania (and thus not knowing anything else), Andre resorts to a quiet resistance, in conspiracy with Diana, the French teacher (Luiza Xhuvani), whom he likes. His behavior is driven by pragmatic considerations, which grants him the unanimous support of the pupils when he chooses to work on the slogan that is shorter and easier (and thus not trying to please the local party secretary). Later on Andre will be the only one who will show he is not prepared to tolerate the absurdities, and will become an outspoken advocate for the goats herdsman who is under serious allegation for ideological conspiracy. He then defends the boy who called China ‘revisionist’ and his father. And so on. With the exception of the dedicated officials, Slogans shows that most ordinary Albanians were, like Andre, normal people.

But if this was indeed the case, who are all these people who cheered at Enver Hoxha (and at Ceausescu, at Mao, at Stalin, and various other tyrannical leaders) and whom we see in some astonishing surviving video clips?

A search for Enver Hoxha on YouTube yields a rich selection of videos that show thousands of people who cheer the leader. It shows records of folk performance singing sons in his praise, and then other scenes, of these same songs being sung by crowds on huge rallies.

Were they all ‘normal’ people like Andre who just pretended to participate and kept their heads down? Or were they, as it seems more plausible to me, believers in the idea that was being sold to them, who participated in the indoctrination without having recourse to any other possible view of the world (similar to the marching North Koreans we see on footage from Pyongyang). I would personally prefer to stay with the feeling of despair and suffocation, and the overpowering absurdity that permeates Albanian classics like Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army (Quartet Encounters) (see Iordanova, 2006) and The Palace of Dreams.

REFERENCES

Horton, Andrrew, Tirana, Year Zero. In: The Cinema of the Balkans (24 Frames). London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
Iordanova, Dina. “Feature Filmmaking Within the New Europe: Moving Funds and Images Across the East-West Divide,” In: Media, Culture and Society. Vol. 24 (4), 2002, pp. 515-534. 19 pp.
Iordanova, Dina. The General of the Dead Army. In: The Cinema of the Balkans (24 Frames). London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

© Dina Iordanova
3 July 2008

French film actors on the stage: Sami Frey

June 28, 2008 at 12:03 am

Many of the well-known French film actors seem to regularly appear on stage as well. Spending time in Paris gave me opportunity to go and see such cinematic legends like Jeanne Moreau (in a reading of Quartett by Heiner Muller at Theatre de la Madeleine) and Isabelle Hupert (in Le Dieu du Carnage by Yasmina Reza at Theatre Antoine) live on stage. Moreau is now 80, and Hupert – 55, and they both look amazing, fully defiant of advancing age. Amazing.

For me, though, the biggest attraction was watching Sami Frey read on stage, along Moreau. The man is 71 years old now, but, like his ageless partner, seemed no older than fifty. His good looks now come with a certain degree of subdued reticence, as if he wants to suppress references to his artistic persona of eccentric Latin Lover (whom he has played many times over the years).

The earliest I remember Frey is in the lovely threesome dance in the bar sequence in Godard’s Bande à part/Band of Outsiders(1964), alongside Anna Karina and Claude Brasseur. Apparently, he started his career back in 1956; one of his early appearances has been in Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). His main claim to fame from the period, however, is the highly publicized affair with Brigitte Bardot. Later in life Frey was partner of actress Delphine Seyrig.

Even if a small role, his outrageous appearance as El Macho in Dusan Makavejev’s subversive Sweet Movie is a key cinematic moment for me. True to his brandmark approach to using extreme stereotypes, for this film Makavejev turns Frey into the perfect embodiment of the Latin Lover from the popular imagination: he dresses him in a black-and-gold matador’s costume topped by a large cape under which El Macho can shelter women during lovemaking, and he makes him wear thick mascara and eye shadows in glittering gold. Then he plants him up on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and has him sing a high pitched Spanish song of fate and history, surrounded by an adoring crowd of female fans. Miss Monde (Carole Laure) who is passing by, is so powerfully attracted to El Macho that she literally jumps on the man. Their love embrace turns out so awesomely crushing that eventually the copulating pair have to be taken to hospital to be medically separated from each other. Unforgettable.

Frey’s most important performance achievement, however, remains the remarkable portrayal of a mentally unstable aging Artaud in Gérard Mordillat’s rive gauche investigation of an artist sinking into madness, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud/My Life and Times with Artaud(1993).

In North America Frey appeared in Bob Rafelson’s noir thriller Black Widow(1987) where he plays a businessman involved with both Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.

© Dina Iordanova
28 June 2008


Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer (France, 2006) with Gérard Depardieu and Cécile De France

June 23, 2008 at 12:51 am

The revival of the 1970s and the popularity of shows that bring back the music of ABBA is clearly a trend that still has got some steam. After seriously tarnishing his reputation with in the English speaking world with a series of appearances in all sorts of Hollywood rubbish, Gérard Depardieu, another man who was young in the 1970s, makes a nostalgic comeback in The Singer.

If analyzed critically, the film would not withstand much scrutiny. But it is one that belongs to the guilty pleasures kind, and this is all that matters, really. It has the full potential to become a cult classic among the sizable group of those whose cultural consumption got a boost by ABBA’s revival.

Depardieu’s rugged charm is juxtaposed to the attractive French newcomer beauty, Cécile De France, who mostly poses than plays a female protagonist that is preposterously underdeveloped and unconvincing. But who cares. The film is really enjoyable to watch, part because of the erotic dynamics between the lumpy Depardieu and the stylish sex appeal of De France, and part because of the numerous ‘oldies’ that are performed and sang in the film, at various dance halls, discos and restaurants in the Clermont-Ferrand area.

In a bonus interview on the DVD, director (and writer) Xavier Giannoli explains that he has always been attracted to the music of the 1970s. As a child of French-Italians, Giannoli had the chance to have French-Italian singer Christophe (who makes a cameo appearance in the film) as neighbor. This gave Giannoli quite a bit of exposure to the closed world of popular music. Indeed, in the film Depardieu (as singer Alain Moreau) is seen rehearsing his repertoire of ‘oldies’ on the background of a neon sign of Christophe’s name (alluding to the Christophe’s well-known passion for the American popular culture of neon-lit diners and Cadillacs).

The film was part of the Cannes competiton in 2006 and got lots of critical acclaim, mostly for Depardieu’s comeback performance, and lots of media coverage, mostly for the unmatched Parisian chic of the actress who was one of the best-dressed women at the festival. Here is the French trailer, featuring some of the 70-ies oldies that constitute a lot of the film’s charm.

The Singer has not been released in the US, not even on DVD. Amazon.com lists it as only available in French. However, there is an English-subtitled version published in the UK and available from the British amazon site at amazon.co.uk.

© Dina Iordanova
23 June 2008

Studio 28: Cinéma d’art et d’essai, Paris, 18th (Montmartre)

June 20, 2008 at 12:49 am

Address
10, Rue Tholozé
75018 Paris, France
+33 1 46 06 36 07
Metro: Blanche (line 2) or Abbesses (line 12) or Pigale (lines 2 and 12)
For the current programme click here.

Located in the heart of bohemian Montmartre (and featured here as shown at the evene.fr web-site), this is the cinema that has continuously screened films since the moment it opened in 1928 (hence the 28 in its name), thus claiming to be the longest-running film theater in Paris. One-screen operation with a seating for less than 200, Studio 28 can be found on one of the small streets behind Moulin Rouge near the Butte Montmartre. Reportedly, its opening screening featured a documentary about Abel Gance’s epic Napoléon (1927).

The theater is continuously linked to the history of the surrealist movement. Having opened with the declared intention to be a site for ‘cinéma d’art et d’essai’, it rapidly becomes a meeting point for members of the avant-garde. The premiere of Buñuel and Dali’s Golden Age in 1930, however, meets with the noisy disapproval of a right-wing gang, which attacks the cinema and destroys works by Man Ray, Max Ernst and Dali that are on display in the couloirs. As Gilles Renouard remarks in his Paris cinéphile, this famous incident turns Studio 28 into a ‘martyr of avant-garde cinema’ (p.24). The founder, Jean-Placide Mauclaire, is forced to quit as he is unable to refund the amounts for tickets he has already sold. Two years later, in 1932, a new owner, Édouard Gross, revives the operation by making a safer bet and refocusing the program toward showing films by the Marx Brothers and Frank Capra. Nonetheless, the site retains the experimental and avant-garde reputation it already has.

After 1948 the cinema was owned and run by the brothers Edgar et Georges Roulleau, who brought new life in by organising a series of exhibitions and revitalizing the place as a meeting point for artists; they showcased the work of Bresson; Buñuel’s Los Olvidados had its French premiere here in 1950. Jean Cocteau was closely involved with Studio 28 throughout the 1950s, when he designed a number of features of the interior, most notably the light fixtures which are still there today. He spoke of the cinema as ‘the theater of chefs-d’ oeuvres, the chef-d’ oeuvre of theaters’, a slogan that is prominently displayed in the theater’s foyer.

Today, Studio 28 is still held by the same family. The current owner, Alain Roulleau (who is featured in the video below), renovated it in the late 1980s with the assistance of interior designer Alexandre Trauner. They brought in contemporary technology to the screening room but retained everything that contributes to the the nostalgic charm of the place (like the Cocteau light fixtures or the display of Jean Marais’ footprint). The old piano used in the 1930s is still here, reportedly having provided the accompaniment to an event hosting Charlie Chaplin. Like the creators of the classic Paris vu par (1965), Alain Roulleau thinks and talks of Montmartre as a village, and of his intention to keep the village atmosphere in his cinema. No wonder that the cinema featured in a scene of Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, showing Amelie going to the cinema on a Friday.

Films are normally screened in VOSF (original version with French subtitles), and the usual programming features mostly recent international or French releases, full-length animations, American indies. Like other Paris theaters, Studio 28 also shows about 10 titles a week on the average, often just for a couple of screenings, which means that the projectionists here do not get much rest: they need to change the reels sometimes even for a single screening.

More importantly, Studio 28 is the place to see new films on Tuesday nights, before the official opening on Wednesdays, often in the presence of the director or other members of the crew. In the past, the place has organized pre-premieres for films by Cocteau, Truffaut, and Welles films. Just last week, the cinema played host to the first showing of Diane Kurys’ new film Sagan (2008), featuring an acclaimed performance by Sylvie Testud.

Like other art house film theaters in Paris, Studio 28 does not have a popcorn stand and viewers are not allowed to take soft drinks into the screening room. What may come across as a restrictive policy to hard-core popcorn lovers, however, is compensated by the charming cafeteria and covered courtyard garden, where one can sip champaign during the happy hour. Owner Roulleau is involved professionally in the champaign trade, yet another traditional domain of French excellence, so he often organizes film-linked champaign receptions. And, of course, the Montmartre village around the cinema caters to all tastes with a rich choice of restaurants.

The owner also rents out accommodation in the nearby building; the clientele consists mostly of Francophile Americans who truly love the place and display their admiration by writing on travel sites and even by posting short videos in praise of their experiences. A review by Xavier Delamare and Studio 28‘s own web-site provide additional information.

© Dina Iordanova
17 June 2008

Cinéma des cinéastes, Paris, 17th (Clichy)

June 16, 2008 at 12:35 am

Address: 7 Avenue de Clichy
Paris 75017 France
+33 (0)1 53 42 40 20
Metro: Place de Clichy, line
Current programme available by clicking here.
Here I saw the animation The Boy Who Wanted to be a Bear.

The Filmmakers Cinema (Cinéma des cinéastes) is located in Clichy, definitely off the beaten tourist track — if you want to visit, you are most likely to need to plan a special trip to here. But it is well worth it. You can combine with a visit to Studio 28, another historical theatre, as well as to locations such as Montmartre, Moulin Rouge, la Cigalle, and Place Pigale – all in the vicinity.

The cinema is located in a building which was formerly a cabaret where famous stars like Maurice Chevalier is known to have performed. It was then transformed into a popular cinema in the 1930s under the name of Les Mirages (see for more details Xavier Delamare’s account on the building’s history). I have heard rumors that the building’s metal skeleton is to be be credited to Gustave Eiffel, but have not been able to confirm.

This is a key cinema for the cinephile: a place where a selection of the films that screened at the Quinzaine des realisateurs descends as soon as Cannes closes, and where one can get the chance to meet not only French but also many leading contemporary cineastes from all over the world.

An organisation called Société civile des auteurs réalisateurs producteurs (ARP), led by Claude Berri, undertook it in 1987 to bring to life a long-standing dream of many French filmmakers by establishing a cinema which would adhere to the principles of diversity and independence. Formerly owned by Pathé, the building underwent a substantial refurbishment in the 1990s, and the new Cinéma des cinéastes opened its doors to the public in 1996.

Unlike may of the other cinemas that prefer to keep older architectural features in the interior, this one has got thoroughly modern looks: exposed brick and concrete, metal pillars and staircases. There are currently three theatres, providing accommodation for 315, 93 and 71 viewers respectively (see the Evene site and the excellent overview by Mathieu Menossi for more details). Besides Berry, directors like Claude Lelouch, Claude Miller, Jean-Jacques Beinex, and others are involved in running the organization that governs the cinema. It is often the case that some of the programming is done by well-known cineastes.

The programming is of really high quality, always extremely interesting and always really diverse: screenings of rare films, previews, retrospectives, documentaries, and special programmes including discussions and talks, as well as meetings with filmmakers. The cinema regularly showcases surveys of various national or regional cinemas (e.g. Greece, Mexico, Eastern Europe) and hosts short festivals on exciting topics such as ‘debuting in cult cinema.’

The cinema’s bistro, Le Bar à Vins du Cinéma des Cinéastes, is hidden away and thought of as one of the Parisian cinephiles’ best kept secrets. It cannot be entered directly from the street but can only be reached by climbing the staircase from within the cinema’s foyer (no need to buy tickets for a film!). Located inconspicuously on the upper floor, it overlooks the busy street downstairs and provides a minimalist modernist decor. Some occasional musical events are organized here (mostly jazz), and, of course, many French filmmakers have it as a preferred hang out (see a praising review of the bar at Paris Traveler).

© Dina Iordanova
16 June 2008

Paris vu par… (1965)

June 15, 2008 at 12:09 am

One of the documentaries from the DVD’s bonus section makes the claim that this Barbet Schroeder-produced film is the last representative of the nouvelle vague. Interesting, even though I cannot offer an informed opinion on this statement, one way or the other. What I found more intriguing, however, was Jean Douchet‘s remark (in one of the interviews included in the bonus) that when planning for the film, the group decided to treat Paris as a collection of little ‘villages’ (as opposed to the more traditional division of the city by ‘arrondissment’), aiming to show the spirit of each one of these enclaves within the metropolis.

Having just spent three months in Paris, watching the film gave a boost to my understanding of the class dynamics of this urban conglomerate — from the high end bourgeois alienation seen in Rohmer’s Place de l’Etoile and Chabrol’s La Muette (both in 16th), to the working class protagonists of Jean Rouch’s Gare du Nord (which includes a brilliant Barbette Shroeder appearance) and Pollet’s Rue St. Denis (both in the 10th), with the addition of other types of stratification shown in Godard’s segment on Montparnasse and Levallois. Things have not changed profoundly today, and the same class divisions persist along the same demarcation lines.


Jean Rouch, seated near the site of the old Cinematheque, discussing his episode, Gare du Nord.

In his review of the film, Ed Howard describes the collection as a ‘terribly uneven lot’, ‘flawed and mediocre’, attributing most of the film’s achievements to Godard’s involvement. This is a verdict that could be passed on to most similar efforts, from Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1962) to Montreal vue par…. (1991). And while he may have a point about some of the not particularly original dramatic turns here, I would think that a lot of the subtlety and the social commentary, on the relationship between people, architecture, and urban ambience, escapes to outsiders. Had I seen the film at an earlier point, before living in Paris, I probably would not have been able to appreciate many of its aspects. The favorable comparison of the film to Paris as shown in Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) and its contrasting to what a French reviewer calls ‘pseudo poetics’ of the city, found in Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956) only makes sense when one is familiar with the social structure of the metropolis.

The DVD of Paris vu par… does not have English subtitles, which is generally the case of French films in local shops: unlike domestic films sold in other European countries, French cinema does not come with subtitles, you are expected to be fully fluent in French in order to view and understand it. Dommage, as one would say in French, as even with the best efforts to follow the (sometimes intense) conversations, many of the subtleties of the dialogue were lost for me (as they would inevitably be for many foreign viewers whose French may not be at the level of native fluency). New Yorker video have released a subtitled version many years ago, it is a rarity in a format that is rapidly becoming obsolete, a few copies of which are still available on Amazon and EBay.

© Dina Iordanova
15 June 2008

Jean-Pierre Mocky ‘Solo’ (1970)

June 4, 2008 at 12:33 am

The vendor at the MK2 Bibliotheque DVD store who sold me a copy of Solo could not answer very clearly my question on who precisely is Jean-Pierre Mocky. I had asked him what the director is like, as I had only heard fleeting references that described him as a maverick of sorts (and I knew he was owner of the small Le Brady cinema in a seedy part of Paris). The sales assistant said that many people believe Mocky’s kind of cinema is precisely what cinema ‘should be’. In response to my request to choose one film that would give me a taste of Mocky’s work, he picked out Solo in an English-subtitled version.

Mocky is the writer, the producer, the director, and the lead actor of Solo, a political thriller that exposes the shady role that the police played in suppressing the change-seeking rebellious French youth. It is 1968. Vincent Cabral (Mocky) is an internationally-known violinist who, on the side, also smuggles diamonds in his Stradivarius. Returning to Paris after a trip, he learns that his younger brother, Virgil, is in trouble for involved with a 1968 student group that organizes pogroms on demoralized bourgeoisie, and the police are after him. Vincent enters a dangerous game, with lots of shoot outs and blasts on the way; he manages to save his brother, but at the expense of his life — his final brilliant solo performance.

Watching Solo brings so many endearing references to trashy popular culture films in mind, not least because ts production values place it clearly in the B-movie category. On the one hand, moments of the film are truly reminiscent to some of the Japanese jakuza films of the 1960s (e.g. Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, 1966). On the other hand, the skinny long-armed and handsome Jean-Pierre Mocky reminds at moments to young Clint Eastwood, from the Dirty Harry period. On the background of a Georges Moustaki tune, he is driving and talking, with a cigarette always hanging out of his mouth; he jumps easily in and out of female beds, and has a subdued elegance which comes along with the feeling that something about the protagonist is low-class.

One of the bonus features on the DVD, an aged Mocky talks of the film’s reception history. Released in early 1970s, Solo enjoyed good reviews and was generally regarded as one of the films that reflected the spirit of 1968. Later on, however, it fell out of favor with the crowd of critics that control the reminiscing of 1968. In 1998, for the thirtieth anniversary of ’68, it was shown only on two TV, and at that not in May but only in November, a timing that effectively obscured the reference to ’68. Mocky felt that this oblivion erased the frame of referencing in which the film had been created (I can confirm that in 2008, except the comprehensive program at Cinematheque Francaise, I did not see the film scheduled in any of the retrospectives of ’68).

Judging by what I see at the IMDb, Mocky is a one man powerhouse. Born in 1929 and having appeared in supporting roles as early as 1950 (notably, also in Cocteau’s Orphée), he is 81 now and still active as director, actor, writer and producer. He is credited as the director of nearly sixty films (which, rumor has it, can mostly be seen at his own cinema, Le Brady in the 10th arondissement). He has been in small roles in films by Godard, Visconti, and Antonioni, and in the lead of many other films; actors that have appeared in his films range from Bourville to Jeanne Moreau, Michel Serrault, Richard Bohringer and Michel Blanc. An idiosyncratic history of French cinema, in other words. His history of producing and directing suggests that he may qualify as a French Roger Corman. No wonder that critical interest in Mocky is awakening, and that his oeuvre, like the work of many other popular culture figures whose films were snubbed for years, is being rediscovered and reassessed (I stumbled on a comparison of Solo to the work of Jacques Audiard, and was persuaded by it). Just last year, Pathe Europe released a number of Mocky on DVD, many with English subtitles. There is an authoritative BiFI-published monograph by Eric Le Roy, Jean-Pierre Mocky, as well as a book of interviews, M. le Mocky.

© Dina Iordanova
4 June 2008

Laurent Cantet wins Cannes Film Festival 2008

May 26, 2008 at 1:17 am

French director Laurent Cantet has won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival for Entre les murs/The Class, a film based on a book by François Bégaudeau.

Being based in Paris these days, I can certainly say this was totally unexpected for the French. The other film in competition, Arnaud Desplechin’s Un conte de Noël, is widely covered, its group of actors are on the front pages of every possible magazine, and the film is already playing at cinemas everywhere. The coverage for Entre les murs, on the contrary, was a low key affair throughout, with a few interviews here and there and in a subdued tone in the overall, as the film screened last at Cannes and was not expected to leave a particular mark (beyond the generally good impression that the cinema of Canted normally enjoys). It may also be that the French, after having awarded scores of Cesars to Abdellatif Kechice’s L’Esquive/Games of Love and Chance a few years ago, may be tired of classroom films. As I write this on the day after the Festival closed, the imdb entry for the film is incomplete, and the Wikipedia article about the book on which it is based is only two lines long. This will certainly change very quickly.

Here is a clip from the film.

In the French tradition of ‘auteurs’, Cantet has built up a solid even if not ‘hot’ reputation over the years, and one can certainly say he is one of the most robust and level-headed filmmakers working today in the vein of the classical realist tradition. His ‘method’ has already been the subject of a scholarly investigation(Pour une méthode d’investigation du cinéma de Laurent Cantet). His first international success, Ressources humaines/Human Resources(1999), was extremely well-received and even though it dealt with the seemingly most prosaic subject matter — the intricate politics between employees within an organization — it was reviewed as highly original and unexpected; no wonder as it is one of the rare contemporary films to tackle head on the world of work. This is still my favorite among his films. It was followed by L’emploi du temps/Time Out(2001), based on the true story of a man who had lost his job but who felt uncomfortable telling his family and cheated on them for a long time by continuing to pretend he was crossing into nearby Switzerland for his job while gradually suffocating in a web of financial swindles. A very fine portrayal of the contradictory reaction of a weak person confronting a difficult situation. More recently, Cantet continued exploring complex human relationships, this time of subtle exploitation, in Vers le sud/Heading South(2005), his most wiedly distributed film starring Charlotte Rampling. It is an investigation into transnational sex tourism involving vulnerable young Haitians, an allegory of the not so subtle exploitation that generally marks the interactions between the global North and South.

Cantet’s earlier, The Sanguinaires (1997), a study of the family dynamics’ over a summer spent on a small island, is available on VHS.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish cineaste to whom I dedicated a post on 14 May 2008, has won the award for best director. Click here to read it.

© Dina Iordanova
26 May 2008


Documentary on the big screen: Mai 68 at the Filmotheque du Quartier Latin

May 24, 2008 at 1:07 am

An initiative of Documentaire sur grand ecran, the program Sauve qui peut (le monde), a title clearly referencing Godard’s 1980 film, was presented at the Filmotheque du Quartier Latin, with the subtitle Quand les cinéastes montent au front. Yet another example of robust programming, this time conceived by academic Dominique Villain, it included:

Vent d’est, France/Germany/Italy, 1970, groupe Dizga Vertov (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)
Ernesto Che Guevara : Le journal de Bolivie, France/Switzerland, 1994, Richard Dindo
The Cool World, USA, 1964, Shirley Clarke
In the Country, USA, 1966, Robert Kramer
The Edge, USA, 1967, Robert Kramer
Ice, USA, 1969, Robert Kramer
Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima, 1960
Le fond de l’air est rouge, France, 1977-2008, Chris Marker
Pravda, France/Germany, 1969, groupe Dizga Vertov (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)
Ian Palach, France, 1969, Raymond Depardon
La Sixieme face du Pentagone, France, 1967, Francois Reichenbach and Chris Marker
Rocky Road to Dublin, Ireland, 1968, Peter Lennon
British Sounds, France, 969, groupe Dziga Vertov, (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Henri Roger)
L’esprit du temps, Netherlands, 1968, Johan van der Keuken
Saute ma ville, Belgium, 1968, Chantal Ackerman
Libre examen, Belgium, 1968, Luc de Heusch
Le 17eme parallele, France/Vietnam, 1968, Marceline Lordian and Joris Ivens

Yet another program, Mai 68 des luttes ouvrieres, exclusively evolving around documentary is presented at Saint-Ouen and at the L’Ecran de Saint-Denis during the last week of May.

© Dina Iordanova
24 May 2008