#93 (tie) – Madame de… (1953), dir. Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

Mirror, mirror, at the ball. Director Max Ophüls brings the elegance in Madame de…, a lavishly staged romance set in European high society.

Max Ophüls kicked off his directorial career in his native Germany, but as so many other Jewish artists, he fled the Nazis in 1933 and eventually made his way to Hollywood at the outset of the 1940s. There he made a number of well-received films, including previous list movie Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), which drew on a Continental sophistication and moral flexibility that one did not find in the generally more prudish American studio system. But many of Ophüls most admired films were produced after his return to Europe in the 1950s. With Madame de… (aka The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953) Ophüls ups the ante in his depiction of fin de siecle upper-class society, drowning the film in gowns and ornately dressed sets. It also follows the lead of his previous list film in following the progression of an intense, but ultimately doomed affair. But Madame de… trades in a greater subtlety, working within the unwritten — and often unspoken — rules of society and enhancing the dynamics among characters through remarkable camerawork and staging. It is a film as elegant as its aristocratic leads, and as sparkling as the diamond earrings that launch the story. (100 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – Diary of a Country Priest (1951), dir. Robert Bresson

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Confessions. Our unnamed titular protagonist pays his respects at the death of the one person who he was able to truly comfort in director Robert Bresson’s meditation on faith and anguish.

This is kind of a big one — our first Robert Bresson film at Fan With a Movie Yammer. Bresson is the most decorated director on the Sight & Sound list, with a remarkable seven films (more than half his total output) earning a spot on the list. Among the most respected and revered of French directors, Bresson is known for his minimalism and use of non-professional actors, and his films are credited with paving the way for the French New Wave of cinema. The director’s third feature, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951), is his first film on the Sight & Sound list. Featuring unorthodox plotting and a distinctly spiritual bent, Diary of a Country Priest follows the travails of a young priest who has just received control over his first parish. There he meets suspicion and resentment from his parishioners, and his internal struggles — both bodily and spiritually — threaten to consume him. Spare and elegant, but displaying an ever tightening emotional tension (and a wry, satiric bent), Diary of a Country Priest is an exploration of what it means to find consolation in a world full of tragedies and malice. (115 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – Children of Paradise (1945), dir. Marcel Carné

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Mime doesn’t pay. Baptiste, a lovelorn stage performer in 1820s Paris, serves as the soul of Marcel Carné’s epic melodrama of ardent love, self-destructive passion, and the populist power of theater.

With materials scarce and their country still under Nazi occupation, Marcel Carné, France’s most successful director of the era, and the famed poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert decided to make the biggest, most expensive film ever produced in France. From end to end Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945) was a poke straight in the eye of the modern reality of France and the modern motion picture in general. French Resistance were hid by the production as extras and crew. The set designer and composer were Jews whom Carné helped hide from the Nazis as they worked on the film. The Germans wouldn’t allow movies to be longer than 90 min, so Carné simply split his three-hour film in two and claimed it was two movies — re-running the credits again in the middle. But what appears on screen also places Children of Paradise well outside the realm of the conventional. Set in 1820s Paris, the story follows the tangled lives of several men who are vying for the love of the streetwise Garance. This in itself is nothing unusual, but the film’s vision of a bygone era is wholly unique — diving into the theatrical past to question the limits of the cinema of the present. The principal wooers of the film are Baptiste, a mime who is the first to elevate his art beyond pure slapstick, and Frédérick, an impoverished lothario with dreams of playing Othello. As such, much of the film is based around scenes of performance on the 19th century stage, often in mime and generally with an over-the-top brio that strays wildly from naturalism. Children of Paradise is wholly about passion — pure, lustful, possessive, or destructive — which the film lays bare in its chaotic vision of old Paris, its romantic cinematography, and the fervent declarations and actions of its characters. (190 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – La Grande Illusion (1937), dir. Jean Renoir

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La grande fuite. Jean Gabin, France’s biggest box office star of the day, waits for his moment in Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war drama La Grande Illusion, an exploration of, well, a lot of things about pre-WWII Europe.

French director, critic, and future yammer subject Francois Truffaut once noted that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because the very act of depicting war inevitably glamorizes the combat or glorifies the soldiers involved. Truffaut is probably right concerning most war pics, but it is doubtful his maxim could apply to director Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war film La Grande Illusion (1937). Set during World War I, the film follows two French officers, the aristocratic Captain de Boldieu (Pierre Fresney) and the working class pilot Lieutenant Maréchel (Jean Gabin), as they deal with being POWs in German custody. The film establishes a number of prisoner-of-war movie archetypes that would be copied by numerous later films (with one prominent scene being lifted pretty much wholesale for Casablanca). But it is a distinctly unusual war movie, in that there is no combat and no bad guys. Even the attempts at escape serve more as backdrops for character studies and observations about the absurdities of nationalism and class divisions or the way that fate has of undoing even our best laid plans. Most anti-war films look to man’s brutality to make their point; La Grande Illusion instead chooses to showcase our common humanity. (114 min.) Continue reading

#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir

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Unnecessary roughness. Farce and tragedy collide head on in director Jean Renoir’s cynical take on pre-WWII French society — both high and low. In this shot, a marquis and the man trying to steal his wife carry the marquis’ mistress after she falls into hysterics — a taste of the complicated relationships woven throughout the film.

We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.) Continue reading

#90 (tie) – Partie de Campagne (1936), dir. Jean Renoir

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Upswings & downpours. Young innocent Henriette attracts the attention of the locals (and grips the camera’s eye) as she exuberantly takes to a swing set in Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne — a short film in which it is the provincials who teach the city folk a thing or two about being jaded.

It’s a lovely day for a picnic, but the weather is liable to turn. Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by renowned French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and strangely enough it is a film he never actually finished. Edited together by friends after World War II, the short film follows a family of Parisians as they spend a day out in the countryside sometime in the 1860s. A pair of local men take notice of the Dufour family, and decide to make a play for the attractive daughter, Henriette (and perhaps her mother too). While the know-it-all father and Henriette’s hapless fiancé do a bit of fishing, the women go off on a boating trip with the two men. Before long, the journey down the river turns amorous, until a storm intrudes. Comical and romantic, but pained and ambiguous, Partie de campagne is a deceptive film that manages to pack a whole lot into its brief running time. Renoir would go on to make fuller, grander statements about the human condition — notably list film #4 The Rules of the Game (1939) — but his humanity (and cynicism) are on full display in this beautiful, if incomplete, teaser. (40 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – Napoleon (1927), dir. Abel Gance

Napoleon (1927)

Able was I… Napoleon surveys the rain-soaked aftermath of his assault on a British garrison during the siege of Toulon in Abel Gance’s silent epic on the youth and early career of the famed French military commander and emperor.

For a time he was the most feared and powerful man in the world, he gave his name to an era of history, and he was a character in both War and Peace and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But before he would command hundreds of thousands of troops and be crowned an emperor, he would first need to win a snowball fight. At least that’s how it all starts in director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. The massive, sprawling film spends over five hours (in the version we watched) documenting the early years of Napoleon’s rise to power, beginning with his days at school and moving through the first years of the French Revolution, the siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s courtship of and marriage to Josephine, and his invasion into Italy. The film features a remarkable array of cinematic techniques and innovations to tackle the incredibly complex story of not just a remarkable man but also the fate of a nation in transition. Perhaps Gance’s most famous innovation in Napoleon was the first use of a widescreen format, which he accomplished by utilizing three cameras which would simultaneously film scenes that would then be projected onto three linked screens. Unfortunately unavailable on DVD, Napoleon is tricky to track down but it presents truly remarkable spectacle on a scale most movies can only dream of. (310 min.) Continue reading