Finally! One of the great films of all times has become available. For years I have waited for a good copy of Marcel Pagnol’s La femme du boulanger (“The Baker’s Wife”) to be transferred to DVD. The only version I have is one I recorded from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast decades ago. The subtitles were horrible and the print none too good. I have treasured it for years and proudly introduced it to friends whenever I could.
But now, Criterion will be offering a new, cleaned up, re-titled version. It is one of the greatest films ever. After watching it, Orson Welles claimed that its star, Raimu, was “the greatest actor in the world.” He called the move “perfect.”
Raimu etches a perfect line between the comic and the tragic, playing a French village baker whose wife runs away with a younger man and who, heartbroken, refuses to bake another loaf until she returns. The villagers, despairing of ever again getting a good baguette, go all out to retrieve her. All the fine details of pre-war village life are drawn with subtle precision. As novelist Graham Greene said of the film, “the human actors are only part of the general setting — the well and the olive trees and the crude, crowded church and the Cercle Republicain (tavern) with the tin advertisements, and the hunter going out in the dawn with his dog and his gun while the baker sleeps in his (dough) trough beside the oven.”
It is a closely observed and beautifully seen world.
(It is hardly the only great film too long unavailable: Abel Gance’s famous 6-hour silent film, Napoleon, has been restored, but is unavailable in the U.S. for ridiculous legal reasons — blame Francis Ford Coppola — but is available on a Region 2 disc from Amazon. All-region DVD players are common and inexpensive and worth the small investment.)
The popular conception of “foreign films” has changed over the years. Where once the term meant Bergman, Fellini and French films, it has now gone on to mean Pedro Almodovar, Johnnie To and Oscar-winning Mexican directors. A foreign language film is more likely to be in Cantonese than in Swedish.
But I was born in the earlier era, and for me, the great movies are French. Yes, I have almost all of Bergman’s films on DVD, and most of Tarkovsky, but the great majority of the discs on my shelves are in French. I once catalogued them and counted well over 200 of them.
Most people, when they think of French movies, think of the New Wave — that handful of directors in the late 1950s and into the 1960s who brought new techniques and new energy to the industry, along with an appreciation of Hollywood’s best work.
But French cinema is much more. There were great movies before Truffaut ever came along. And great directors. Pagnol, Becker, Duvivier, Vigo, Clair, and above all, Jean Renoir.
And there have been great directors since the wave hit the shore: Patrice Leconte, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Agnes Jaoui, Catherine Breillat, Jamel Debbouze.
I am going to suggest a few of their movies, all (at least when I bought them) available on disc. Many are also available on streaming video.
I have listed no more than a single film from any one director, to ensure a variety and a wide scope. I have tried to avoid the obvious choices, because you may already be familiar with them: Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion, Breathless, Jules and Jim, Wages of Fear. And, I have not included any Renoir films, mostly because they are self-recommending and any real movie lover should already be familiar with them.
The earliest of these films is Pepe Le Moko, which was remade (and sentimentalized) in the Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer, Algiers. The French original is much better, in large part because Jean Gabin is so much greater an actor than Boyer. Julien Duvivier was a great standard of French directors in the 1930s.
I am including also a peculiar film, The Story of a Cheat by Sacha Guitry. Guitry is one of the great French comics, who wrote many stage comedies, was as famous a performer in his day as, say, Richard Pryor was in his. This film is unusual in that it is presented almost entirely as voice-over narration. It is excellently clever.
Mainstream French films of the ‘40s and ‘50s include many wonderful genre films, almost all better plotted and with more interesting characters than their Hollywood cousins.
Touchez pas au Grisbi, by Jacques Becker, is one of Gabin’s greatest roles. And that is saying a lot. (The title translates, roughly, as “Hands off the loot.”)
Les Diaboliques, by Henri-George Clouzot is the greatest suspense movie of all time, outdoing Hitchcock by a large margin. It was remade in Hollywood in 1996 with Sharon Stone. Oy.
A third crime drama from the 1950s is Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, which has a great soundtrack by Miles Davis. It marks a shift in French film. Malle’s early work is not generally considered part of the New Wave, yet, there were several directors working at the time who prefigured the New Wave, giving us very personal films and often using locations rather than sets, and a more naturalistic style of acting.
Among those directors is Jean-Pierre Melville. Most of his work comprises heist dramas or crime stories. But I didn’t want to overweight this series of films with gritty thugs and grittier cops. And Army of Shadows tells an almost autobiographical story of the French underground in World War II. It has plenty of suspense and drama.
Now we come to the New Wave itself. There were a handful of directors working in this new style, more free and improvisational, using location shooting rather than studio sets, and breaking up the normal beginning-middle-end narrative structure.
The two gods of Nouvelle Vague couldn’t be more different. Jean-Luc Godard is anarchic, innovative and indefatigably political. He wants to destroy the status quo. He probably never made a completely successful film, but moments in every one of the astound with brilliance. He does things no one ever thought to do: drop out the soundtrack, edit arbitrarily, shoot dialog from behind the heads of the actors, shift from color to black and white and back, point the camera away from the actors. Godard freed up filmmaking for the next 40 years. Band of Outsiders is one of his most famous films, and includes the race through the Louvre that is quoted in several other films.
Francois Truffaut, on the other hand, is a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, and he finds the humanity in pretty much everything he films. As warm as Godard is cold, he is everyone’s favorite New Waver. So many of his films are so well known, I’ve tried to find one for you that you probably haven’t seen, The Woman Next Door. It’s a late film and features Gerard Depardieu before he became a joke. He was then a great actor.
Claude Chabrol was the most prolific New Wave director, with nearly 60 films under his belt. He was also the most conventional of the New Wave directors, turning his talents primarily to suspense and crime films, but seen in the fresh style of the New Wave. Le Boucher is probably his most characteristic film.
Eric Rohmer may be an acquired taste. They are talky, and were made in series, one group called “Moral Tales,” and another called “Comedies and Proverbs.” Summer (in French Le Rayon Vert: “The Green Ray”) is one of the Comedies and Proverbs.
Jacques Rivette is another New Waver, and he is notable for the length of his films, and his patience. It can try the patience of his viewers, but not if you pay attention. My favorite film, La Belle Noiseuse, is four hours long and spends a lot of that time showing an artist drawing with a crow-quill pen on paper. I’m not letting that out of my house.
But I’m going to suggest instead, Va Savoir, probably his most accessible film, that has a great part for Jeanne Balibar. Claude Berri has a supporting part as a librarian.
I only mention that because Berri is really a director, and The Two of Us is a great film, and probably the only one in which an anti-Semite comes across as lovable. Michel Simon is a force of nature and I recommend seeing any film he is in.
Finally, two recent films. French cinema has long ago taken what it could from the New Wave and moved on to more contemporary themes.
One of my favorite living directors is Patrice Leconte. The Hairdresser’s Husband is quirky and heartbreaking and stars Jean Rochefort. He’s great in everything he does.
There are several women directors who should be included. My favorite is Agnes Varda, but I’m including here instead Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat. It can be rather brutal, but it is definitely worth seeing.
Lastly, I’m including a musical. Yes, a musical. It is Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, and it features an “all-star” cast of great French actresses: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard. This is like lining up Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, all in the same movie. It’s a doozy.
I hope you enjoy all these. There’s plenty more to see, if these whet your appetite for Gallic filmmaking and if any of these directors particularly hits your buzzer, there are another five or ten films by the same maker.
That’s your first 15 recommendations. But here are 25 or so more (I cheated. Some are trilogies, one is a pair). These are all films I love dearly:
Quai des orfevres by Henri-Georges Clouzot
La bete humaine by Jean Renoir
La ronde by Max Ophuls
Une femme est une femme by Jean-Luc Godard
Bob, le flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville
Betty by Claude Chabrol
Le quai des brumes by Jacques Prevert
Monsieur Hire by Patrice Leconte
Le Trou by Jacques Becker
Mouchette by Robert Bresson
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 by Jean-Francois Richet
Under the Roofs of Paris by Rene Clair
Man on the Train by Patrice Leconte
The Taste of Others by Agnes Jaoui
Vagabond by Agnes Varda
The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci
The Marseille Trilogy by Marcel Pagnol, three films: Marius; Fanny; and Cesar
The Earrings of Madame de … by Max Ophuls
Trilogy by Lucas Belvaux, including: Cavale on the Run; An Amazing Couple; and After Life
La Vie en Rose by Olivier Dahan
The Widow of St. Pierre by Patrice Laconte
Inspecteur Lavadin and Cop au Vin by Claude Chabrol
Le Samourai by Jean-Pierre Melville
Shoot the Piano Player by Truffaut
Jet Lag – (Decalage Horaire) by Danièle Thompson
Sex is Comedy by Catherine Breillat
Ridicule by Patrice Laconte
I am deeply embarrassed by the films I have left out. If you have a favorite, please add them to the comments.
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