Icarus Films recently released DVDs of A Game for Six Lovers (L’Eau à la bouche, 1960) and La Dénonciation (1962). These are two early features of Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, an important and overlooked figure in the French New Wave. For reasons we’ll explain, Dear Reader, this will be less a review and more a reminder.
Most filmmakers we think of as French New Wave wanted to make films when they grew up, but they started as critics for Cahiers du cinéma, an upstart film journal co-founded by Doniol-Valcroze, who functioned as its editor for several years. A Game for Six Lovers nods to sophisticated plays of romantic mix-ups and masquerades by Marivaux and other classic French writers. In other words, it revives and updates a centuries-old tradition. All the unnecessary, lighter-than-air plot complications depend on people lying to each other for the flimsiest reasons.
The main liar and seducer is Robert Godard (Jacques Riberolles), named as a nod to Jean-Luc Godard, and that’s far from the only in-joke. Robert is the lover of Fifine (Alexandra Stewart), an American staying for the weekend at the fabulous chateau of Milena (Francoise Brion). The dialogue notes that she’s named after one of Kafka’s girlfriends.
For reasons that make little sense, Robert impulsively pretends to be Fifine’s brother so that he can stay and make a play for Milena while Fifine falls in love with Miguel (Gérard Barray). These actions among the spoiled upper-class wastrels are counterpointed by antics amid the servants, the butler Cesar (Michel Galabru) and maid Prudence (Bernadette Lafont), who hardly lives up to her name. All of this is observed by the precocious and jaundiced eyes of a wise child, Florence (Florence Loinod).
A Game for Six Lovers, released in January 1960, was shot in 1959, the same year Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were unveiling their debut features, The 400 Blows and 1960; Breathless. A Game for Six Lovers is just as important and impressive, although it adopts a sleek, chic, polished look and comes drenched in High Culture. The editing by future filmmaker Nadine Trintignant is modern in its disorienting jumps, assembling the exquisitely sharp black and white images shot by Roger Fellous.
The French title means “mouth-watering”. This indicates sexual motivations at play, and it also signals the lavish style on display, from the beautiful estate to the cinematic aesthetics. For example, a jazzy harpsichord rendition of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, is provided on the soundtrack by the certifiably hip Serge Gainsbourg.
A couple of touches look forward, presumably by accident, to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), which was scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet. As we’ll see, La Dénonciation came out after Last Year at Marienbad and references it yet couldn’t be more different.
La Dénonciation (also known by its US title The Immoral Moment) is a sleek, suspenseful thriller centered on a morally haunted Michel Jussieu (Maurice Ronet), who enters the dark, shadowy Play-Boy Club and plunges into a disorienting situation. He gets brained with a chair after stumbling on a corpse. Michel spends the rest of the film trying to remember and reconstruct what happened and how it might relate to his activities in the French Resistance.
From flashy credits to silky widescreen photography by Henri Raichi and lush score by Georges Delerue, La Dénonciation is high Sixties style and gripping all the way. The cast includes Francoise Brion, Nicole Berger, Sascha Pitoeff, Raymond Gerome, Michael Lonsdale, and narrator Laurent Tierzieff.
By the way, Michel is a film producer, and sometimes he stops to watch the rushes of his latest production. That’s where the most explicit references come in to Last Year at Marienbad, not to mention that Pitoeff starred in that film. Doniol-Valcroze not only praised Robbe-Grillet but helped him, for example, by playing the lead role Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle (1963).
Now, Gentle Reader, we explain why this isn’t a review so much as a reminder. If you feel a sense of déjà vu from any of this, or rather déjà lu (“already read”), it’s because we said all this not so long ago when PopMatters reviewed these films’ debut on OVID TV. The folks at Icarus Films must have noticed, for right there on the back of La Dénonciation, at the top of the blurbs, you can find:
“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.” – PopMatters.com
You can take that to the bank, for I know that writer well, and his taste is impeccable. Perhaps, now and then, he uses too much blurbiage.
I’d like to believe my words had something to do with the company’s decision to release films on home video in Region 1. I doubt it, but I leave just enough mental wiggle room to allow for the flattery. My only complaint is that they aren’t Blu-rays. Oh well.