Les Durs and the Anatomy of the (French) Tough Guy: Gabin, Ventura, and Belmondo

At Les Durs (The Tough Guys) Film Fest, the tough guy is a bulwark against decay; he's the guarantor of value -- even if that value is compromised by the world around him.

The Anatomy of the (French) Tough Guy

The Film Forum in New York City is hosting a festival, programmed by Bruce Goldstein, featuring cinematic performances by Jean Gabin, Linio Ventura, and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It’s appropriately called “Les Durs”, or “The Tough Guys” and presents thirty-two films from 15 July through 2 August, including many of the finest movies within French film history. This festival affords us an opportunity to do something we sometimes neglect to do in our admiration for film. It offers a concentrated look at three remarkable actors, all known primarily for their differing takes on the tough guy persona, plying their craft in an ample array of films by various directors and deriving from various decades.

While we often celebrate the vision of the director, we can easily overlook the contributions of the actors themselves. If the directors and writers are the minds behind these films, these three men are the faces and bodies that present the ideas and solidify the images for which the movies are renowned.

The notion of the tough guy is so clichéd within film as to be nearly unremarkable. In the abstract, the tough guy presents the unrelenting force, the implacable stalwart, the imposing and unstoppable effulgence of blinding Will. Seen in this light, the tough guy is barely a character at all but rather a manifestation of some archetypically masculine force. Yet, in the best instantiations of the type, the tough guy is no mere force of Nature but rather the recalcitrant insistence that Nature not erode human endeavor and worth. The tough guy is a bulwark against decay; he is the guarantor of value — even if that value is somehow compromised in an eternally fallen world. Even the tough guy as gangster (a common figure in the films showing at the festival) represents an attempt to buttress the fragility of value and honor (even if it is an honor among thieves). The man without honor is a coward and a scoundrel, not a tough guy, a pretender and not the thing in itself.

The tough guy in film, at his best, is no mere type. Each instantiation reveals something deeply personal, deeply human about the role one adopts when being the tough guy. Moreover, in watching these films, starring these exemplary players of the persona, we see how each of the three creates a personal vision of what constitutes the tough guy across these various films and these various roles. This is not to say that these three actors “always play the same role”. To assert that would be lamentably foolish. But the finest actors establish flexible personae that maintain a certain consistency across their work while still allowing them to embody a variety of roles. This essay is an attempt to account — however briefly, however, inadequately — for the workings of such personae in the performances of these three actors.

Jean Gabin

Born Jean-Alexis Moncorgé in Paris in 1904, Jean Gabin adopted his stage name when he became a cabaret entertainer specializing in an imitation of the singing voice of Maurice Chevalier. He played secondary characters in two silent films and numerous early French talkies but when he was featured in a 1934 film by director Julien Duvivier, Maria Chapdelaine, he began to garner attention.

It was his next two films with Duvivier, La Bandera of 1936 and Pépé le Moko of 1937 that brought him to prominence and made him one of the most recognizable actors within the emerging “Poetic Realism” approach to French filmmaking. Gabin is featured in many of the classics of the style, including La Grand Illusion (1937) and La Bête humaine (1938) by Jean Renoir, as well as Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and the marvelous Le Jour se lève (The Day Rises, 1939) by Marcel Carné.

Gabin was the perfect embodiment of poetic realism. His face simultaneously projected a hollowed-out sense of loss and a quiet insistence on holding on to one last vestige of hope. As a young man he already had those tired old eyes that looked resignedly out upon an unforgiving world. As an elderly man he retained that quixotic gleam his expression could adopt that communicated a strangely joyful rebellion, a refusal to accept the world on its own terms, an insistence on transforming its recalcitrance into an image of his own design. Gabin did not alternate weariness with exuberance, senescence with youth; he somehow manifested both at once.

Poetic Realism itself was predicated on an understated contradiction. It focused on the gritty underside of life: the marginal, the working class, the poor, the dispossessed, and the violent. Its realism was at times callous. Its protagonists were cruelly offered some escape that they knew on some level was founded on an illusion and they were forced to bear witness as that illusion inevitably crashed before them, leaving them hopelessly tied to the miserable status quo or resigned to an untimely death. Yet this is Poetic Realism. It’s aestheticized, made beautiful through a lens of nostalgia — bittersweet and tending toward the cloying without becoming so.

Jean Gabin

The poetic and the real are in tension. Poetry, after all, derives from the Greek word poiesis, meaning “a thing made or formed” whereas the real is what simply is. The “formedness” of these films is notable — all those long takes, the distinct manner of framing shots, the attempts to remind the viewer that one is observing, that this is reality through an aesthetic gauze. If we identify with these characters, we do so from a distance, a sort of Kantian divide wherein we are always aware that the sufferings of these figures are offered to us for our enjoyment. Poetic Realism can, in that light, appear rather sadistic.

Of course, the linchpin here, the commonality that holds this seeming contradiction of poetry and realism together, is love. These films almost universally revolve around the theme of doomed love. Love is deeply poetic and yet profoundly and utterly real. Love is a fact of life; indeed it may be seen as driving the very engine of life itself. Empedocles, the pre-Socratic philosopher, posited that Love and Strife were the two opposing forces that brought about change in the world. After all, Empedocles asked, if the four elements (Earth, Water, Air, and Fire) were simple and unalterable, then how is change to be explained? Empedocles offered the idea of Love as the principle of union and Strife as the principle of separation: attraction and repulsion, formation and decay.

Doomed love narrativizes this opposition. It enacts the impulse for union that Love as a principle represents but its inevitable failure realizes the entropic decay instantiated by the principle of Strife. Doomed love illustrates the cyclic dynamism of existence (and, if we are to believe Empedocles, this is not limited to human existence but rather is indicative of all vitality).

On the other hand, love transmutes reality; it has an inherently poeticizing function. While love may be a fact of life (even an underlying Empedoclean principle of life), it’s also something that we create, that we form and care for, that we attend to, nurture, and develop. We, in the strong sense, make love. Love is the work that we do upon the reality of our lives. It’s our attempt to transform the givens of our existence, to wrench ourselves out of the quagmire of the quotidian.

Indeed, it’s through its focus on love’s transformative potential that Poetic Realism overcomes suspicions of sadism. It’s not simply the case that these films aestheticize harsh reality for our complacent enjoyment as we sit comfortably in a theater. But rather Poetic Realism is the filmic enactment of the work love does upon life — or, better yet, the work that we do upon our lives in making love. The poetry of Poetic Realism is the cinematic representation of the alchemic effect love has upon reality.

Gabin served as the ideal protagonist of the style. There’s a passive acceptance of situation in his acting that is perhaps impossible to articulate. Take the scene in Le Jour se lève when the police begin shooting through the door of the room where Gabin’s character, François, has ensconced himself after shooting his rival. The police hurl a fusillade of shots through the room. François, just lighting a cigarette, evinces only a modicum of surprise. He methodically moves an armoire in front of the door to secure his position, while calmly smoking his now lit cigarette.

More shots tear through the window, puncturing the mirror. François calmly watches the proceedings as though it were a tennis match, his eyes moving from the window to the mirror. He is passive and alert, self-assured and wary. He approaches this danger in the same manner he approaches at least one of his two love interests in the film — that is, with a kind of arduous reserve. He looks for deliverance but he doesn’t particularly expect it and he is resigned to its refusal to materialize.

The trick at which Gabin seems to excel is that he can give expression to a sort of acceptance that things will turn out badly without ever succumbing to a mere nihilism. He knows that love happens, that deliverance (however fugitive, however temporary) occurs. He has faith that in a fallen world, love remains. But that faith can waver. At times he loses his composure. For example, François soon expresses his frustration by destroying the mirror that suffered so many bullet holes. In another scene, he threatens to defenestrate the rival he ultimately kills.

Yet, the shattering of the mirror does not strike one as abnegation, as giving up in the face of an imperturbable enemy. Rather, it’s a futile but necessary exertion of some modicum of control. It’s not the expression, ultimately, of despair but rather of hope. What is shocking and ought to be celebrated in Gabin’s portrayals of these characters is that despite the frustration, despite the bitter acceptance of fate, his faith in love and hope perseveres.

Lino Ventura

He wasn’t a French-born citizen and he never acted prior to his film debut at the age of 34, yet he would become one of the most celebrated actors in French film from the late 1950s until his death in 1987. Indeed in 2005 he was named twenty-third of the hundred greatest Frenchmen on the France 2 television show “Le Plus Grand Français de tous le temps”. Although adept at comedy, he is doubtless best known for his dramatic roles — particularly as the gruff, world-weary figure, looking for a way to take control of a bad situation.

Lino Ventura was born in Parma, Italy in 1919, and, out of respect for his parents, he never renounced Italian citizenship. However, the family moved to France when Lino was still very young (the precise age varies in differing accounts). On the rare occasions when he starred in an Italian film, he spoke his native language with a slight French accent. He dropped out of school at eight years of age. He attained prominence as a wrestler around 1950 but soon had to abandon that career owing to an injury.

The director Jacques Becker, casting about for an Italian actor to feature in a film with Jean Gabin, hired a reluctant Ventura to appear in Touchez pas au grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot, 1954). Gabin was deeply impressed by the inexperienced actor and encouraged him to pursue a career. Looking at Grisbi, one can readily see what struck the veteran Gabin.

Lino Ventura

Throughout the film, Ventura’s character, Angelo, exudes a quiet self-assurance. He seems eternally complete unto himself, holds his own counsel. Although he seems willing on the surface to compromise, he is always plotting out how he can get the advantage of his interlocutors. Ventura plays the character with the unhurried assiduity of a highly competent businessman. He holds his head slightly down, a gesture that remains ambiguous. Is he showing deference or is he so determined that at any moment he may thrust his head through the wall?

Then there’s that puzzling expression on his face. Is he smiling or grimacing? Is it obsequiousness or defiance that he communicates? Our inability (and indeed the inability of the other characters) to ascribe a definite meaning to his facial expressions vouchsafes Angelo a buffer zone. His motives are known, ultimately, only to himself. He remains inviolate, intractable behind an impenetrable façade.

I don’t imagine I would be mistaken to assert that among these three actors, Ventura is the least recognized outside of France. A stronger assertion might be that there’s a certain nondescript quality to his acting persona. It’s not that he somehow appears anonymous in his films but his presence is elusive and enigmatic; he remains inscrutable. In this sense, he is perhaps the closest of the three to the notion of the tough guy as force of Will.

While both Gabin and Belmondo can be rigid in their bodily stances, they are often looser in their movements. Ventura uses his body in an almost monumental sense. He is the walking impediment, the imposing edifice, the inexorable assertion of dominance on which the gangster film and the film noir so often rely. The least trained of the three, Ventura is perhaps the most overwritten by the weight of film’s ability to transform a character into a symbol of outlandish potency.

This is true even in his marvelous performance in Jean-Pierre Melville’s riveting Army of Shadows (1969). Watch as early in the film Ventura moves through a detainment camp in occupied France during World War II as he lists the different types of people found incarcerated there in a voice-over. There’s something unsettling in the way he moves his body through that sea of people. They are all engaged in passing the time, desultory conversation, wandering aimlessly.

Even in this environment, however, Ventura’s character moves with an irresistible sense of direction and impetus. The toughness here is one of mind manifested corporeally. In no way does Ventura’s presence menace any of the people surrounding him and yet no one can deny him the inexpressible but palpable power he exudes.

Jean-Paul Belmondo

If Jean Gabin was the face of Poetic Realism, Jean-Paul Belmondo served for a time as the metonymic presence of the New Wave when he burst into the public consciousness with his unforgettable role as Michel Poiccard in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). The son of an Italian-born French sculptor, Belmondo was lackadaisical and performed poorly in school. He initially sought a career in athletics, pursuing his fervor for football and boxing. He found some success as a boxer but left the sport. He then enrolled at the Conservatoire National Superieur d’Art Dramatique, but his professors did not hold out much hope for his future success. Indeed, he found little success with his initial cinematic efforts after his graduation in 1956 — although he did feature in some notable films including Claude Chabrol’s rich but poorly received A Double Tour of 1959.

However, the following year and his collaboration with Godard would change everything for the young actor. For a moment, Belmondo served as the epitome of cool among the youth of 1960s Paris, his portrayal of Poiccard inaugurating a “Belmondism” among the hip. Belmondo eventually moved to more commercial films. He retained his reputation for physical prowess, insisting on performing his own stunts. But doubtless it’s his prominence in the New Wave that serves as the foundation of his fame.

Jean-Paul Belmondo

François Truffaut, another founder of the New Wave, once insisted that it was not a movement, a school, or a group, but rather a “quality”. Aside from the fact that the progenitors of all artistic movements deny the applicability of the term to whatever it is they are doing, Truffaut’s stipulation of the New Wave as a “quality” is revealing. “Quality” is a difficult term to pin down adequately. Plato defined it as that through which things can be said to be such and such. So a table is said to be brown because it contains the quality of “brownness”. Now “brownness” is not a thing out in the world. I cannot pick up and show you “brownness” per se. I can only show you things that have the quality of “brownness”.

As thinking about “quality” developed, it became the contradistinctive pole, by the time of Descartes, to “quantity”. If quantity was measurable and therefore intersubjective (I can show you that there are three things in front of us at the moment), then quality was more irremediably subjective and private. “Quality” increasingly came to stand in for a principle of je ne sais quoi, the indefinable, the indeterminate, the felt.

The mysterious quality of the New Wave exemplified that sense of attitude over quantifiable substance. It’s a highly allusive style. Each film gestures directly toward a panoply of cinematic precedents. The New Wave openly cavorts with film techniques, refusing to allow the spectator to merely identify with the characters of the film. In this sense it’s a child of Poetic Realism (we are constantly reminded that we are observing a representation) but it’s a form of Poetic Realism in which the characters themselves seem to have become self-aware. They realize that they are really just representations, avatars for screen presences of the past.

Moreover, the New Wave suggests that this is the condition of existence for all of us, all of the time; that we are all mere desacralized avatars for types of human existence. We represent the Mother, the Child, the Worker, the Lover. We are tokens of archetypes that antedate us and over which we have little direct control.

In this sense, the central figure of the New Wave is a sort of 1960s flåneur. The flåneur, best articulated by the writing of Charles Baudelaire and later expounded upon by Walter Benjamin, is the modern wanderer through the urban landscape. The flåneur is the aloof observer. He observes, and therefore stands apart, and yet becomes absorbed in what he observes. He identifies with that which he observes without losing his identity within it. As Baudelaire describes him, the flåneur finds himself in “the midst of the fugitive and the infinite” and he seeks to “see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world”.

Although Breathless did not inaugurate the New Wave, it quickly became the style’s most representative film and Belmondo became the emblem of hipness at its center. Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard was a charismatic but nihilistic cop-killer. He closely identified with the screen persona of Humphrey Bogart and therefore seems utterly aware of himself as a token standing in for a type. All of his mannerisms strike one as rehearsed to the point of flawless but disengaged enactment. Poiccard “is” a cigarette dangling loosely from slack lips, a hat brim pulled precipitously over the eyes. He’s a grand plume of smoke emerging from a sneering grin, a pair of sunglasses pushed a bit too high on a slightly (charmingly?) misshapen nose.

Perhaps the most iconic motion he makes throughout the film is the gesture in which he drags his thumb across his lips. We see it early in the film, just after Poiccard’s opening assertion that he is a “fool” but he “must” (what he “must” do being left indeterminate). He rakes his thumb back and forth across his mouth as he observes the world – it’s both a signal to his female accomplice and a sign of his utter indifference.

Poiccard is a quality, there’s no substance to him that’s not borrowed from elsewhere and yet he continually reminds us that he is playing this role and that he chooses to do so. He is the flåneur–absorbed in his role but not to the point of dissolution and yet also an absorbing presence who draws us in, making us want to watch as he performs that gesture again — so perfectly rehearsed, so mesmerizingly without meaning. As a flåneur, he is irrevocably “cool”, detached in his absorption. To be totally disinterested is in itself uninteresting. That’s not cool. To be completely devoted to one’s passion is to be enslaved to something outside of oneself. That’s also not cool.

To be cool, to be a flåneur is something else, something mediate and elusive, to be caught between the fugitive and the infinite. To be cool is to exude a quality of indifferent partiality. To be cool is to know the protocols of social existence and to enact them but with a detached awareness, a gentle irony — the gentle irony that Poiccard exhibits at the moment of his death, when, he performs the facial gestures he had earlier used to flirt with his American lover and then finally pulling his own eyelids closed with his hand, supplying himself with lovingly ironic, secular last rites. It’s absurd and beautiful at once — the perfect representation of the quality of the New Wave.

* * *

Thus, we are offered three images of the tough guy: the stalwart Knight of Love, the inscrutable Force of Virility, and the mildly ironic Flåneur. But we have only begun to scratch the surface of the personae projected by these three actors. These films, most of which inspire (nay demand) repeated viewing, peel back layer after layer of complexity, human interest, and the pure joy of discovery.