Fanny’s Journey

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s true story, Fanny’s Journey shows a thirteen year old girl who must lead her sister and friends out of WWII France into Switzerland. This powerful film captures childhood very naturally. The direction and acting are authentic and captivating.

Fanny and her sisters have been sent away from their parents to live in a boarding house that secretly protects Jewish children. When a priest informs on the boarding house, Madame Forman, one of the adults who run the place, manages to arrange for the children to go somewhere safer. She gets them all fake passports and schools them on what to say to anyone asking them questions en route. Each child is given a new name and Madame Forman tests them on them day and night.

From the start it’s touch and go. Germans are everywhere and Vichy French police are an equal threat. At first an older boy, Eli is in charge of the children, but after he’s arrested, Fanny’s thrust into the lead. She must figure out where to go and what to do next once their train is redirected and they lose touch with Madame Forman. As the going gets tougher and tougher the children feel like giving up and have plenty of complaints. Some are so young they have no idea why Jews must flee or what was happening to Jews throughout Europe. Their ignorance showed their wisdom.

The tension is maintained throughout the film and you’re heart will go out to these children. Fanny’s Journey is destined to be a classic.

In the final credits, you’ll see the real Fanny, who is still alive and has lived in Israel since the end of the war.

The 400 Blows

If I taught French or film, I’m have all my students watch François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I’d seen it years ago and after watching the other films centered on Antoine Doinel, I had to re-watch the first.

Formidable! I see why this is deemed among the top of the French New Wave movement. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud in his first film, The 400 Blows introduces filmgoers to Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s alter ego, who’s constantly chastised at school by his poor overworked, overwhelmed teacher who spends his days getting 50 some students to recite poems they don’t care about and winds up blowing his top everyday. School is a dull hell full of humiliation. Then at home poor Antoine has ripped pajamas in an old bed stuck in a corner of the kitchen. His parents argue constantly. His mother is constantly on his back. She never learned to mother as she was a teenage mother who did not want her son, who her mother convinced her to have. Antoine is acutely aware how unwanted he was and is.

Yet Antoine is clever, though irresponsible. He cuts school with his friend René. When he gets in trouble at school he tells his teacher that his mother has died. Of course, his lie is revealed and as usual severely punished so he runs away from home.

Antoine’s life spirals downward. Sure he made stupid mistakes and sure he was dodgy, but other than René this poor boy has no one on his side. It’s just heart-breaking. To think that Truffaut’s life is even tougher is painful to imagine. The film is shot masterfully. The acting so real and moving. It’s a haunting film that though I saw it (for the second time) last week, I still think of The 400 Blows.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes interviews with Truffaut, Léaud’s screen test and other bonuses.

Parisian Charm School

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In Parisian Charm School Jamie Cat Callan provides an orientation to the uninitiated to the to élan of Paris. Her lessons on fashion, color, use of voice, flirtation and such explain why the French have such elegance and poise. In addition, she gives the names of tour guides and teachers with businesses that give unique experiences to English speakers.

The book is a fun, breezy read, that gives a romantic look at all things French. It’s far from a complete or sociological look at the City of Lights. I thoroughly enjoyed Callan’s writing, but realize that like any country France has its pros and cons and that a lot of the tours or experiences would be pricey. So remove your rose-colored glasses before you sell your house and move to Paris in search of amour.

Antoine et Collette

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A short film by François Truffaut, Antoine and Collette is a slightly melancholy look at Antoine Doinel’s attempt to get a girlfriend. First seen in 400 Blows Antoine has grown up left his neglectful, abusive home at 17. He’s on his own and works for a record company, where he gets lots of tickets to concerts.

At one concert he sees Collette and immediately falls head over heels for her. She’s indifferent to him so there’s misadventures as Antoine tries to get Collette’s attention. Once they become chummy, her parents meet and take to Antoine. This will be the story of his life, girls’ parents, but not the girls themselves liking this well-meaning, rather lost boy.

The film is touching and realistic and charms viewers in its 26 minutes. I wish it were longer and was glad to watch Stolen Kisses and see more of Antoine.

The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.