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Les Misérables

les mis 1934

As a big fan of Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical Les Misérables, I had to get the Criterion Collection version of Raymond Bernard’s epic film, which was made in the 1930s. (Some say 1934, others 1935.)

At 284 minutes, it’s a long film and I’ve been watching it over the course of a couple weeks, but it’s been worth it. (This might be the longest film I’ve ever watched.) For the theaters Bernard succeeded in convincing the studio to release the film in three parts so viewers would watch the film on three different days at their convenience. Quite a wise idea as I had to take breaks.

At first because I’m so tied to the musical with Hugh Jackman, I didn’t connect immediately with Harry Baur as Jean Val Jean. But with his sincerity and vulnerability Baur won me over and became Jean Val Jean as much as any actor.

Since this Les Misérables was made in the 1930s, I expected lower production values. Certainly scenes weren’t as lush, but they were high quality and a lot of money went into the rebellion and costumes and more. The film spent less time with Fantine and didn’t hurt the filmportray her falling into prostitution as graphically as the musical, but I see that as a plus because I know some friends didn’t want their children who’re in middle school to see those scenes with Anne Hathaway. I don’t blame them because they are hard to watch and more so for young viewers. Here if your teen is willing to read subtitles, they won’t be so affected by Fantine’s downfall.

Compared to the musical, Bernard’s film doesn’t sugarcoat the Thenardier’s greed and cruelty. They aren’t made to seem funny or cute. This film also makes it clear that the young boy, Gavroche was the Thenardier’s son.

Even with almost five hours of film time, spread across three films, Bernard edited out some of Hugo’s work, even some parts that are present in the shorter musical. I missed the expected scenes at the end when Marius distances Jean Val Jean from Cosette.

All in all, while it’s a time commitment, this production of Les Misérables is well worth watching if you’re a fan of the story. I will definitely look for more films directed by Raymond Bernard and for films featuring Harry Baur, who was great as Jean Val Jean.

 

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Army of Shadows

An amazingly powerful film, Army of Shadows shows the ordinary people joined the French Resistance and courageously opposed the Germans during WWII.

From the solemn beginning with German soldiers goose-stepping in front of the Arc de Triomphe to the bitter end, when . . . oh, I won’t say, Army of Shadows grabbed me.

After the opening sequence, we meet Gerbier, who’s sitting in the back of a German truck getting transported to a prison camp. Scenes of ordinariness follow. The truck driver makes a stop to pick up provisions from a farmer. Gerbier’s guard makes small talk to let Gerbier know he’s going to a “good” prison camp. At the camp, Gerbier is housed with two groups of prisoners, the first three amuse themselves with dominos and chit chat and seem to be and to have been men who just go with the flow. The other two prisoners are a young communist and a dying Catholic teacher. The division reflects French society, two groups, one that’s earnest and sickly and the other that’s lively, but superficial. Neither one gets much accomplished. Thus Gerbier sets his own course and doesn’t join either “side.” He’s the lone, strong, sensible man.

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Gerbier is transported to the Nazi headquarters and manages to escape. Then as he meets the other members of the Resistance, we watch as Gerbier leads a plot to abduct and kill the young man, who betrayed the Resistance. ordinary people plan and organize what would be criminal acts they’d never undertake in ordinary circumstances.

All the actors deliver compelling performances. The story presents a fascinating look at history and was quite controversial when it was released in France in 1969. Critics were divided on the film because of its controversial portrayal of the Resistance fighters, who sometimes act like very intelligent gangsters.

What’s amazing about the film is how little action it contains. In certain instances there are chases and attacks, but that’s subordinate to the characters’ thinking, sacrifice and courage.

This film was so compelling that after I finished watching I started watching again, this time with the commentary running.

The Soft Skin

Truffaut offers a realistic look at infidelity in The Soft Skin (1964) where Pierre Lachenay, a publisher and scholar known from his TV appearances, gets obsessed with Nicole, a flight attendant, and starts an affair with her. Pierre has a sort of budding butterball look. He could be the Pillsbury Doughboy’s French father. He is smart, yet bland. He’s married to an attractive woman and they have a young daughter whom he dotes on. He doesn’t hate his life, but when he sees Nicole on a flight, he becomes smitten.

He later sees her at a hotel and follows her to find out her room. It’s a bit stalker-ish, but not quite. Nicole who’s probably half Pierre’s age is interested. She hasn’t experience romantic love and is in awe of Pierre’s success.

Throughout the film Pierre and Nicole have difficulty meeting up. Their rendezvous always go awry. Perhaps an old friend meets Pierre and asks to go for a drink. He’ll respond that he must drive back to Paris and the friend will say that’s where he wants to go and figures they can drive together. All the while Nicole’s twiddling her fingers back at the hotel where they’re staying. Such obstacles crop up again and again. Ever nervous, Pierre bungles along with his poor plans and lies. Yes, Nicole is young, beautiful and energetic, but having the affair is offset by the stress of lies and running around only to be thwarted.

Eventually Franca Pierre’s wife realizes something’s off. After awhile Franca gives up on the marriage and asks for a divorce. Freed, Pierre agrees, but he soon finds that breaking with Franca does not lead to bliss in a new posh apartment with Nicole.

The film is beautiful and Truffaut’s direction is sophisticated and engaging. He films intimacy in such a classy, real way. He shows affairs as they really are, not all romance, not all due to a horrible spouse. Infidelity certainly doesn’t lead to a blissful new romance and a break with past problems.

The Rules of the Game

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I had to watch The Rules of the Game under strange circumstances. My DVD only would play the film with the commentary going. Thus I read the subtitles and once in a while got a snippet of dialog without English commentary. I prefer first viewings without the expert’s take, but perhaps in this complex film the commentary was best.

 

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game depicts two parallel classes, the upper middle class and the servant class. From the bourgeois Christine, Robert’s Austrian wife has disappointed her would-be lover Andre, an aviator who’s just completed a round the world journey. Andre gets no satisfaction from the clamoring crowd or the inquisitive press. Christine didn’t come so the whole flight was for nought.

Christine’s been in her Parisian home with her husband Robert and her maid Lisette. Robert’s tiring of his lover Genevieve and Lisette’s tired of her husband Schumacher. All are leaving for the countryside where a web of relationships will tangle creating a fine mess pulling the film from farce to tragedy with a surprise ending.

Renoir saw WWII coming. He also saw his society drunk on frivolity, careening over an edge. The Rules of the Game is a rare film that begins with light-hearted, harmless fun, but ends with broken hearts and a tragic death. The characters who all play at love see the consequence of their erroneous worldview.

The film is beautiful and many scenes are complex dances. Renoir was ambitious to offer such sophistication and it wasn’t till decades after it was made that The Rules of the Game was considered a masterpiece, one of the finest movies of all time.

If you think you’ve seen the actor playing Robert before, you have. He was ran the roulette table at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

I’ll definitely watch this one again.

Dad in Training

In this French film, we meet Antoine, the Dad in Training, who’s a mess as an adult. He’s a music producer and has little regular work. In the opening scene he’s begging for funding for the latest singer he’s found. It doesn’t look like that recording will get off the ground. At home, he contributes little financially and nil as far as child care of his two delightful daughters.

His wife Alice reaches a breaking point. The couple separate legally and Alice sends the two girls to Antoine for him to take care of for two weeks. She goes incommunicado so Antoine must manage juggling both his music career and figuring out how to be a father, how to get a 6 year old to take her medicine, how to console a nine year old daughter, who thinks she’s responsible for her parent’s separation and how to feed two kids when money’s tight. His sister often helps out and offers a realistic, sometimes critical but always true view of Antoine’s life.

As the story progresses, after various gaffes hooking up and with online dating, and Antoine does grow up as a father. Alice is impressed, but will they get back together?

All the performances rang true. I liked Antoine’s sister’s role as she offered real advice without pulling any punches. The ending was real and certainly not what a Hollywood film would have done. A definite thumbs up.

Marguerite

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Touching and true, Marguerite (2015) is set in France of the 1920s. The central character Marguerite loves music and supports her local music club lavishing funds on them with the one stipulation that she’s allowed to sing at various concerts. The film opens with such a concert that she hosts at her mansion. The musicians and young singer who opens the performance are top notch, but when Marguerite takes the stage glass cracks and you want to cover your ears. She has no idea what pitch is. Two cads from Paris who crash the event are delighted. Their twisted sensibilities find her the perfect means of satirizing the current art scene.

Yet no one — not her unfaithful husband, her duplicitous servant, the voice coach who’s desperate for money or her friends at the music club — will tell her the truth. Encouraged by the cads, Marguerite decides to sing publicly and while many know they should tell Marguerite that she can’t sing, no one can burst her bubble.

Listening to Marguerite’s screeching and seeing her tricked all the way to the rather sad ending isn’t easy but it is enjoyable enough. It was good for a long flight and the lead actress Catherine Frot made me sympathize with and like a character who would be easy to look down on.

The Pearls of the Crown

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Sacha Guitry as a writer tracking down rare pearls

Sacha Guitry created another light-hearted film with The Pearls of the Crown. In this movie, which Guitry wrote, directed and stars in, a French writer, a man works for the Pope and an English royal assistant, search for three, rare, matching pearls that have gone missing since the 16th century. As the three men hunt down these pearls, they discover the truth in the lives of historical figures like King Henry VIII. Throughout the film, the audience is treated to wry humour. Here Guitry, who’s something of a French Noel Coward, plays for roles: two kings, a writer and one more character.

The film is charming and you’ll even learn a bit about history. Good when you’re looking for light entertainment and don’t mind subtitles.

Zazie dans le Metro

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Directed by Louis Malle, Zazie dans le Metro (1960) is an exuberant, colorful film that sends up all the devices and techniques of film based on a masterful comic novel by . The story is simple and doesn’t capture the quality or

Zazie is a lively, 10 year old girl, who visits her uncle in Paris while her mother has a rendezvous with a lover. Her one hope is to ride the metro, but there’s a strike so that seems unlikely. A flamboyant man with an odd set of friends, Zazie’s uncle lives an unconventional life since he’s an exotic dancer and has a wide assortment of eccentric friends.

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Zazie explores the city and outsmarts most of the adults around her. She’s a worldly girl who speaks honestly at all times, but swears a lot. Since my French isn’t street French, I doubt I understood the full force of her swearing.

The film’s comedy is fresh and the pace fast with several of the best chase scenes I’ve ever seen. The film is exuberant and one I keep thinking of and smiling each time I do. The actress who played Zazie, Catherine Demongeot, gives a realistic, captivating performance. It’s a film I whole-heartedly recommend and know I’ll watch again and again.

Related

Good essay on Criterion Collection “Girl Trouble.”

The Jewish Cardinal

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What an absorbing — and true story!

I happened upon The Jewish Cardinal (a.k.a. Le métis de Dieu) at my library and am so glad I did. It’s the story of Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who converted to Catholicism as a boy during WWII. His mother was killed at Auschwitz and though his father isn’t religious, he’s hurt by his son’s conversion and later decision to become a priest.

As the movie starts, Pope John Paul II soon makes Lustiger a bishop and soon a cardinal. Lustiger is real, someone whom people can relate to. He shakes things up and causes turbulence but eventually people see he’s right. For example, early on he sees that the church needs to reach people via mass communication and he starts an archdiocese radio station which he himself broadcasts from.

He also doesn’t like when his Jewish origins are written about as a gimmick or when he’s asked by a high ranking rabbi to deny his Jewish identity.

He often meets with John Paul II in the ’80s when the pope is fairly new. They understand each other and he earns the pope’s respect.

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When it’s learned that Carmelite nuns have made a convent in Auschwitz, Lustiger becomes something of a mediator and possible pawn in a conflict that’s both political and religious. He’s savvy enough to broker a fair resolution, but gets betrayed.

The acting is stellar with Lustiger (played by Laurent Lucas) and the actother cast members turning in bold, believable performances. The actor who played JPII carried off the role with great credibility. (He’s not perfect.) The film’s never hokey or preachy, just real and compelling. I’m so glad the intriguing name called to me.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

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Directed by Jacques Becker, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi! (Hands Off the Loot!) is an unusual gangster film. Released in 1954, the film chronicles a genteel, older gangster, Max, who’d like to cash in his gold bars and retire. Max is very debonair and respected in his circle. We never see how he got 50,000,000 Francs in gold, which is usually what the main focus of a gangster film would be.

The first hour of the movie we see his life, his friendship with Riton, who’s a sidekick, rather than an equal, his girlfriends, his evenings at a little restaurant and night clubs. He’s involved with a platinum blonde showgirl, while Riton’s showgirl Josy is brunette — and is getting some action on the side with another younger, gangster. Max stumbles on Josy and her other lover, which leads to a good scene when Max takes his friend home, presents him with the facts about Josy and shows us how good friends should care for each other in troubled times.

The movie’s pace picks up in the last thirty minutes. Angelo, Josy’s real love interest, abducts Riton using him as leverage to get Max’s gold. Loyalty forces Max to get Riton back and in doing so there’s the sort of a pursuits and shoot outs you’d expect in a gangster movie.

I thought the acting was good, but the first hour of the movie should have more plotting, just a little more. Show us Max getting the gold. I can be patient with a film that wants to go off the beaten path, but I almost gave up on this one. Finally, the very end of the film is abrupt and left important points about Max’s future up in the air so I can’t give this a thumbs up, unless someone knows more about Jacques Becker or French noir films.

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