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Transcendent Realism: Jacques Becker Film Retrospective: Brooklyn Art Museum Cinemathek

Kate Johnson

Jacques Becker's work features a moral neutrality that leaves viewers to judge for themselves, unlike many contemporary efforts.

Jacques Becker

Audiences at the recent BAM Cinemathek's Retrospective of works by French director Jacques Becker may have come away feeling as though they had seen something extremely fresh and classic at the same time. If Becker's name is less recognizable than Renoir's or Truffaut's, this Retrospective has at least introduced a few New Yorkers to his varied oeuvre.

His work features a moral neutrality that leaves viewers to judge for themselves, unlike many contemporary efforts. Equally notable is the films' lack of movie stars, as well as the histrionics and conceit (the "key light") that typically accompany them. Instead, they offer naturalistic acting, sharp dialogue and photography, and surprising plot turns. Often without any musical score, his films are not afraid of the occasional uncomfortable silence. Becker's films demonstrate that the period of French cinema after the Second World War and before the New Wave was a fruitful one. None of the films I saw missed a beat.

Jacques Becker, his first film job as an assistant to Jean Renoir, began making his own films in 1939. His work was temporarily interrupted by WWII, but he quickly resumed after with The Last Ace in the Deck (1942), and made films continuously until The Hole (1960). This Retrospective, according to BAM Cinemathek curator Florence Almozini, was inspired in part by a screening last year of Casque d'or, perhaps Becker's most renowned film, and the success of this screening helped the Cinemathek secure eight rare imported prints from France for the Retrospective.

Antoine and Antoinette (1947) is a brisk, breezy comedy about a young, working-class couple who misplace their winning lottery ticket. The film seems at first a simple comedy with distinctly drawn neighborhood characters and a happy ending; yet, much more is at work in this day-in-the-life story. Working-class resentment and a quasi-religious transcendence surface in Antoine's (a Joel McCrea-like Roger Pigant) anguish over the winning lottery ticket he has lost. The hushed lottery office Antoine visits to make his claim recalls a church, from the moment he reverently gazes up at its facade to his entrance. All is hushed but for the occasional mournful note made by a piano tuner. Thinking himself among the chosen ones, Antoine steps up to one of the men behind a desk, only to discover the loss of his ticket. "It takes all kinds," the officials chuckle as Antoine departs. Clearly, they have branded him a dreamer, a loser, a nut. And for the moment, until he finds his ticket, he may as well be.

The rest of Antoine's day is a Twilight Zone-style nightmare in which he is unable to understand how he could have lost his lottery ticket. Even he cannot eventually help questioning his own sanity. Although his life is set right when the lottery ticket turns up, Antoine's experience as a man on the outside of the good life underlines the film's focus on working class anger.

Thinking of the things that he and his wife Antoinette (the ravishing Claire Mafféi) would like to buy, and of the attention that she, a beauty and a mild flirt, receives from other men, Antoine clearly feels that the lottery ticket's jackpot of 800,000 francs would insure his marriage and eliminate any risk of her infidelity. Meanwhile, she is being wooed by exactly the sort of interloper he fears -- a lecherous old grocer who offers her a high-paying job at his store, with "favors" clearly included in the contract. When Antoine gets his chance to give the grocer a sound drubbing, he beats up on far more than a lustful old man. He beats up on the unfairness of it all, on the forces that allow the unscrupulous grocer to have money and power in the world, while Antoine has neither.

The Hole (1960), Becker's last film, is a jailbreak thriller. It uses sparse locations and dialogue and no music. The viewer is introduced to four cellmates in a holding cell in Paris' Prison de la Santé, by way of their new, fifth cellmate, Claude Gaspard (played by Marc Michel with the delicacy of Montgomery Clift). All four men fully expect to get at least a 5-year prison sentence, so they have already devised a plan to tunnel out. When Gaspard arrives, they have no choice but to take him into their plan.

As in Antoine and Antoinette, this film's degree of realism is striking: one man is shown urinating in the jail cell, and in the infirmary, the men discuss pissing and the clap. Yet, for a film about five men confined to a single cell, we learn astonishingly little about any of them. With the exception of the new arrival, Gaspard, we don't even learn their crimes. The cellmates live by a communistic philosophy, taking shifts at their tunneling labors. But their group loyalty is crucial, and with the introduction of Gaspard it cannot be guaranteed. Also as in Antoine and Antoinette, the higher-ups are corrupt and use their power to divide and break down those who beneath them.

Technologically, The Hole taps into the possibilities for representing suspense through sound, silence, and light. As the sound of men pounding away at cement and metal becomes routine to the viewer, for instance, the silences between begin to breed tension. Later, this explodes in the film's excellent, silent climax, a purely visual moment, shocking us precisely because it has no aural warnings.

Becker's attention to lyrical details also emerges. At one moment, two cellmates hide themselves by one's hoisting himself on the other's shoulders while two guards walk past. The guards smoke cigarettes; one of them describes the end of a love affair in the jaded language of a Hemingway character. In another quietly lyrical moment further on, two cellmates catch a quick glimpse of freedom -- of the success that will elude them -- when they lift a manhole poke their heads out onto a Paris street and watch a taxi drive slowly past; they, and we, are completely enthralled with the freedom they will never achieve.

Casque d'Or, although not acclaimed at the time of its release, is now considered a classic of French cinema. Casque d'Or is directed precisely, without a layering on of melodrama or morality. Yet, because of its classically tragic subject matter and its late 19th-century setting, Casque d'or does feel stuffier and more predictable than Becker's other films.

Stars Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani (who also had an off-screen romance) are excellent in the film, but the small, glamorous cast doesn't serve

Becker's strengths as well as the ensemble, unknown casts of his other films. In Casque d'or, the carpenter Manda (Reggiani) is in love with Marie (Signoret), but their love is doomed by her jealous lover, the gangster Leca (Claude Dauphin). Early on in the film, a group of theater going aristocrats enters a rough-and-tumble tavern where the two main characters also eventually converge. This is "cut-throat alley," as one of the men comments, and the women cry excitedly: "We'll get murdered here! We'll get raped! It will be fun. Will you protect us?" This line boils down the key events of the plot, and the theatergoers stand in for us. Like them, we are able to slum for a night in "cut-throat" alley, and to indulge ourselves in observing the love affairs and violence of its inhabitants.

Perhaps the most surprising film that I saw was Becker's early eccentric black comedy, Groupi Red Hands (1945), a treat for today's audiences. The film begins with the return from the city of the long-lost son and heir of a peasant family. "Monsieur" (Georges Rollin), as the son is nicknamed, is in for a series of surprises upon his return to the strange and sinister Groupis, the family that he never knew, having been sent to Paris at a young age to be raised. Unbeknownst to him, his father, "The Miser" (Arthur Devere), has brought him home in order to marry him off to a young girl endowed with a lot of property. His uncle, Red Hands (Fernand Ledoux), is the most menacing member of the clan, playing tricks on Monsieur to scare him upon his arrival. But with corpses popping up around the farm and some missing money to find, there is enough to perplex Monsieur without any of Red Hand's tricks.

The family's antics and cover-ups are strange and comic, peaking in the moment when the resuscitated 106-year-old great-grandfather (Maurice Schultz) is carried through the house by relatives who hope that he will point out the hidden family "treasure." Like any French peasant tale, this one reaffirms the value of money and family loyalty.

As in his other films, Becker navigates the large cast dexterously. Although we are given very little information on the many characters and their relationships (for the film has far too much to accomplish to spend time on introductions), every one is memorable, with standouts being the ignored great-grandfather and the wastrel Tonkin (Robert Le Vigan), whose feverish love of the Congo has infected him like malaria. A lack of music in the film reinforces the family's strangeness and draws attention to the cinematography, which can be creative. At one point, the girl Muguet (Blanchette Brunoy) wonders aloud whether Monsieur might get the guillotine, and the film cuts to the strong, slanting shadows on a white shed, their shape mirroring exactly that of a guillotine blade.

Becker's films please today through their striking lack of pretension. And it is when you attempt to find the contemporary heirs to Becker's style that the divide between his period and our own really shows. It is possible to think of some recent films and filmmakers, French and otherwise, that carry on in the vein of some of Becker's preoccupations -- working class issues, classical tragedy, black comedy, or pure suspense. But often, these films show us how the "enemy" is harder to identify today than it was for Becker, at least idealistically. The obstacles facing the working classes today are mixed up with race, corporate culture, and post-colonial thinking. Current suspense films often play around with time, and dramas seem unable avoid the pervasiveness of psychology in everyday life.

When one looks at films of recent years, it is possible to see its difference from Becker's classical cinema. Increasing attention to racial difference, drugs, and psychology has changed how we view narrative or put our stories on film. One viewer commented at the screening of Casque d'or that, while he thought the film very good, it was less "elegiac and impressionistic" than he had expected. If films today seem more "elegiac and impressionistic," it's because, in a sense, they must be. And we must be impressionistic because there are too many competing messages flying past us to make anything simple; we must be elegiac to get at anything "higher," in a reflexively cynical culture that can no longer perceive "straight" narrative as authoritative. One might wonder if, today, film characters can achieve transcendence. It is transcendence, as much as realism, that marks the excellence of Becker's films.

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