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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.

Click any image to enlarge

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.