Marc Allégret: Julietta (1953) | featured image
Jeanne Moreau in Marc Allégret's Julietta (1953) | original studio promotional still

Time Out for Love: Five Little-Seen Classic French Films Streaming on OVIDtv

OVIDtv specializes in documentaries and arthouse items such as these five French films of the 1950s and 1960s from directors Marc Allégret and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. This is my catnip.

Jacques Doniol-Valcroze

This busy and important man co-founded and edited Cahiers du cinéma. During the ’50s, its upstart critics were disparaging the French studios’ Cinema of Quality for its dull and trivial reliance on literary sources and mere acting rather than any sense of contemporary life or aesthetic vision. Allégret, along with several others, was considered a poster boy for what Francois Truffaut dismissed as this “certain tendency in French cinema”.

Okay, there’s something to that, but it’s also true that the Cinema of Quality had its own way of revealing contemporary values while constructing watchable professional films, and at least some were terrific. A good example is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, easily the best film I’ve seen of this novel.

The more important accomplishment of the Cahiers critics wasn’t tearing down the Old Guard but unleashing the most talented crew of young filmmakers the country had seen. Critics sometimes linked Roger Vadim with this French New Wave, even though, as we’ve seen, he was Allégret’s man.

Doniol-Valcroze was among that New Wave as an actor, facilitator and a filmmaker, although his films are often unknown to people conversant with his buddies Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. Well, here are two movies, engaging in themselves, that prove Doniol-Valcroze’s influence by and upon Alain Robbe-Grillet, specifically Robbe-Grillet’s script of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961).

A Game for Six Lovers (L’eau à la bouche, 1959)

Released in January 1960, according to IMDB, this film was shot in 1959, the year of the feature debuts of Truffaut and Godard. This film feels almost as notable a debut even though it’s adopting a very sleek commercial sheen of classy escapism rather than the rough-and-ready approach of those guys. The producer is the storied Pierre Braunberger, who would produce a lot of New Wave material and also, by the way, Julietta (1953).

Doniol-Valcroze’s film adopts a continuity with High Culture as it mimics those plays of Marivaux and others who specialized in romantic farces among the privileged, as counterpointed by the more vulgar antics of the servants. Roger Fellous’ camera, with its penchant for zooms, keeps picking out classical nude paintings and statues, while Serge Gainsbourg’s perky score includes a jazzy piano take on J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

The film’s French title, echoed in Gainsbourg’s song over the credits, means “water at the mouth” or rather “mouth-watering”, as sexual desire is the driving motivation. The film opens with frantic jump cuts as various characters call out the name “Fifine”. Fifine (Alexandra Stewart) is missing, and hostess Milena (Francoise Brion) pauses to have a flashback, which takes up the rest of the film, over the weekend’s events. By the way, future filmmaker Nadine Trintignant is responsible for the chic editing.

The American Fifine and her brother Jean-Paul (Paul Guers) are supposed to spend the weekend with Milena, a cousin they basically don’t know, for the reading of their grandmother’s will by attorney Miguel (Gerard Barray). Fearing negative judgments, Fifine forbids her lover Robert Godard (Jacques Riberolles) to show up.

He arrives anyway to relay a message from the delayed Jean-Paul, but when he sees Milena, he’s so struck that he doesn’t correct her assumption that he’s Jean-Paul. All further events will turn on this foolish lie, which he takes as a joke of no importance. Since he and Fifine have an open relationship, they agree that she’ll pursue Miguel, a former lover of Milena.

Meanwhile, the horny butler Cesar (Michel Galabru) chases after pert new maid Prudence (Bernadette Lafond), who hardly lives up to her name but is the only one to figure out Robert’s identity. The segment that will test many modern viewers is when Cesar “comically” chases her up the huge square stairwells, tearing off bits of her clothing, and which we’re to understand is all part of her participation in the chase she’s about to conclude to her satisfaction.

Watching all of this is little Florence (Florence Loinod), the cook’s moppet of a daughter. Wise beyond her years, she rebukes Cesar for eavesdropping at keyholes and says, “I know everything that goes on without listening at the doors.”

The name Godard and a few other surnames show the New Wave tic for in-jokes. Another is that Milena reads Guy de Maupassant‘s Une Partie de Campagne (1946) famously filmed by Jean Renoir, so that’s two cultural references in one. She cannot be named Milena, of course, without cuing the fake Jean-Paul to read Kafka’s Letters to Milena. This thing’s dripping with culture.

If the relentless and eye-popping tours of the fabulous mansion remind viewers of the real-estate porn of Last Year at Marienbad, which was still a year or two in the future, even more telling are a couple of scenes when the characters stand like chess pieces on the square tiles. We’re not hit over the head with it, but it’s there, and it’s even more extravagantly there in the next film, which came out the year after Last Year at Marienbad.

The Denunciation/The Immoral Moment (La dénonciation, 1962)

This film is advertised as The Immoral Moment, evidently the “sexy” title invented for US distribution back when but which makes no sense to me. Instead, I see an arresting work of 1960s modernism, historical meditation, and existential ennui disguised as a disorienting thriller, one that deserves to be as well known as films of Claude Chabrol or Jacques Rivette.

After the flashy credits and amid intermittent narration by Laurent Terzieff, we witness Michel Jussieu (Maurice Ronet) entering the Play-Boy Club and being confronted with a dizzying sequence involving a corpse, mysterious backlit characters, and his own collapse into lights-out when hit with a chair. For the rest of the movie, in anticipation of the films of Dario Argento and other maestros of the giallo, the quasi-amnesiac hero will try to reconstruct and understand what he saw and heard.

We’ll learn that his life has at least four competing factions. First is his comfortable upper-class home with a fabulous wife (Francoise Brion from A Game for Six Lovers) and daughter (Florence Loinod, the child in that same film). The wife is the daughter of a government minister leery of scandal.

Another faction is the police, represented by relentless and fast-talking Malterer (Sascha Pitoeff), who keeps badgering Jussieu about what he saw that night and why he keeps going back to the Play-Boy and making the acquaintance of performer Eleanore Germain (Nicole Berger).

Eleanore represents the third faction, the conspirators who keep sending threats by letter and phone call that he’d better keep his mouth shut. They’re not helping their own cause. Her role in the proceedings is ambiguous, as befits a nominal femme fatale. She seems a little like Alice in Wonderland, unless she’s the white rabbit.

The last and most decisive faction is represented by Pierre Malet (Raymond Gerome), an old friend, ex-boss, and practical sole survivor, along with Jussieu, of their French Resistance group. Crucial to Jussieu’s behavior is the sense of guilt he reveals in a flashback in which, under torture, he’s encouraged to “confess” to what the Nazi commander already knows. The French translator is later condemned as a collaborator, and Jussieu couldn’t offer mitigating testimony without injuring himself.

Thus the web of guilt, shame, complicity and lies dating back to the war comes to fruition in current events, which are linked to strikes, radical politics, and conservatives. This is mesmerizing in subject and style, and disorienting aesthetically and morally. It feels several years ahead of the soul-searching of the Occupation and WWII that came up in French cinema, and it seems a wholly original treatment by Doniol-Volcroze.

In one subtle dialogue with his daughter, Jussieu perhaps unintentionally links the postwar moment of judging collaborators with the role in the French Revolution of Robespierre, “the man who cut off all those people’s heads”.

I haven’t mentioned the most striking element. Jussieu is a film producer. Twice in the narrative, he watches rushes of a film in progress, consisting of narration while the camera dollies through a stunning mansion of chandeliers or through the dark stony streets. The connection with Last Year at Marienbad does hit us over the head this time, in case we overlooked the prominent casting of that film’s star, Pitoeff.

Whereas A Game for Six Lovers was shot in a sleek, flat, impeccably clean black and white, this follow-up is in silky, voluptuous black and white, as shot for widescreen by Henri Raichi. The producer, again, is Braunberger. The editor is Bob Wade, most famous for his work with Robbe-Grillet’s films. Georges Delerue graces us with the lush score.

As near as I can tell, the story has nothing to do with romance in time for Valentine’s Day, and I don’t care. This is hands-down the best film of the batch and the one most worthy of a Blu-ray from Criterion or Kino Lorber. (By the way, I’ve just learned on Amazon that A Game for Six Lovers is available from a small company.) This brings us back to our first point.

I’m very happy to be able to see these excellent digital restorations, which have apparently been available in France for a decade or so, and I can only hope their exposure by streaming will encourage hardy Blu-ray distributors to license them.After all, the fact that films are currently streaming doesn’t mean they will be available forever. Surely films are licensed for certain periods and then gone again. On the other hand, if you’ve got a disc in your hot little paws, you can watch it whenever you feel the urge, even if nobody else can.