Jean Seberg in Swindlers

Projecting Delusions: Two French New Wave Masters on the Dangers of Film

The World's Most Beautiful Swindlers and Ophélia will satisfy buffs who must track down previously obscure items from the French New Wave.

Quick, name a movie that Jean Seberg made with Jean-Luc Godard. Now, 100 film buffs out of 100 would have no trouble naming Breathless (1959), for who in the world would name an obscure, difficult-to-see anthology made five years later? The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964) is a title few people know, but at last, it’s available, and the Godard/Seberg segment is by far the most worthwhile part.

Anthologies were popular with international co-producers in the ’60s, presumably for budgetary reasons. Their mixed-bag nature made them notably less popular with audiences and critics, but that didn’t stop the flow. The result is that many major names made odd random segments that are now hard to track down. I’ve often thought someone could perform a major service with a big boxed set. It would be a nightmare to license and never make its money back, but perhaps it could be underwritten by an international cabal of state-funded arts institutions. If any such cabals are reading this, drop me a line and I’ll help you produce it.

The theme of today’s example is that every segment stars a beautiful woman involved in some kind of swindle. With its sections linked by a Serge Gainsbourg song, the print here offers four stories, although there used to be five. Roman Polanski withdrew his piece about diamond theft in Amsterdam, so all we see of it are the snippets in the trailer. Co-written by his frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, this would have been a great extra to track down.

The Tokyo section is directed by Hiromichi Horikawa, a name virtually unknown outside of Japan, who seems to have directed Toho genre films. This predictable anecdote about a bar girl who spends the night with a shady lech features smooth and beautiful black and white photography and the pouting presence of Mie Hama, one of Japan’s most popular stars at the time and now best recalled for You Only Live Twice (1967).

The Naples segment from Ugo Gregoretti, who’s made a handful of films and lots of TV programs, is a good example of “comedy Italian style”, meaning sad and rueful observations of satirically exaggerated human behavior. Gabriella Georgelli, a beauty contest winner who specialized in sexy roles, plays a prostitute who participates in a phony marriage scheme.

While those heroines don’t end up getting exactly what they wanted, Cathernine Deneuve is barely present in Claude Chabrol’s segment about con artists selling the Eiffel Tower to a crazed German millionaire. Chabrol applies himself unaccustomedly to broad comedy in a straightforward, less than hilarious anecdote centered on performances from Jean-Pierre Cassel and Francis Blanche.

Saving the best for last, the film delivers Godard’s segment with Seberg, which turns out to be a kind of postscript to Breathless. Seberg is now playing a successful bourgeois American, a TV reporter from San Francisco who travels the world pointing her little 8mm camera at the exotic strangers, as here in Marrakesh. Documentary shots feature locals staring into the camera, and therefore at us, as one man reverses the dynamism by pointing at the camera and us in an ambiguous gesture.

Godard’s standard tricks are here: shots of movie posters, snatches from books (Melville’s The Confidence-Man), disjunctive and self-conscious editing — the only thing missing are titles flashing on the screen. Godard’s films feature interviews and lengthy man-woman dialogues, and this segment combines both as Seberg’s character interviews a man handing out counterfeit money in the streets.

She promises not to tell the police and then she does, for a “clear conscience”. This violates journalistic ethics, yet it’s an example of conventional morality for a character who, from a legal point of view, never does anything wrong. The counterfeiter accuses her, in her mission of truth-telling, of “stealing” from her subjects and her audience, thus indicting her concept of “cinéma vérité” and her mention of French documentarian Jean Rouch. This attitude is part of the man’s broader concept of money itself as a form of theft, such that his distribution of false money is an act of liberation.

While Breathless ended with Seberg confronting the camera directly and then turning her back on it, refusing to participate further in the folly it created, this segment’s interview ends with the man turning his back on her, and the final image is of Seberg pointing her camera directly at “our” camera. The exchange of power and image, of authority and refusal, is complete. While the other segments tell generic “swindle” stories, Godard leaves us with an intellectual though accessible meditation that undercuts its own touristy concept.

Andre Jocelyn and Juliette Mayniel in Ophelia (1962)

The film’s release will satisfy buffs who must track down previously obscure items from the French New Wave, and the same is true of Chabrol’s 1962 feature,

Ophélia, a modern reimagining of Hamlet, whose hero overhears Laurence Olivier’s film version of same and starts pushing the parallels with his own situation. The parallels are strong already, for the story opens as the man’s father is being buried while his mother has already married his uncle.

The film begins with an establishing shot of a distant mansion with a funeral crowd in front, then cuts to a close-up of the corpse, then to a corpse-eye view from the coffin looking up at the mourners before the lid is sealed over us. We’ll feel that clammy claustrophobia for the next two hours, albeit aestheticized by Jean Rabier’s lovely photography, which glides about its subjects while sliding from wintry shades of grey to high-contrast chiaroscuro with very deep blacks as Pierre Jansen’s music slides from lyricism to modern jangles.

The family is called Lesurf in what may be intended as irony, for they’re the owners of the local factory that employs the town’s “serfs”. The class tensions of a strike are built into the story, although this aspect is handled mostly with comic caricatures. Ivan (André Jocelyn) is the high-strung young idiot who “acts out” with everyone, provoking his mother (Alida Valli) and stepfather (Claude Cerval) and arousing the concern of a not-really-girlfriend (Juliette Mayniel) to whom he assigns the role of Ophélia whether she wants it or not. Despite the title, she’s not central to the drama.

The movie avoids the play’s most melodramatic aspects — no ghost, no murders — and changes the ending in a way that makes sense in one way and feels non-credible in another. The most intriguing parallel is the way Ivan decides to make a movie that will expose his parents’ conscience. It’s a pastiche of silent comedies that Ivan accompanies with piano and narration to the amusement of the crowd, although its subject matter is adultery and murder. He explains that it may be taken as a comedy or drama depending on the viewer, to which one woman suggests that she won’t know how to respond.

This is explicit commentary on the whole movie. Chabrol implies that perhaps the entire film we’re seeing is the young man’s film, aligning Chabrol’s own DIY filmmaking spirit with that of the effete, misguided, spoiled Ivan who’s spiting his elders. We’ll suggest this film is best approached as ironic comedy, though not a funny one, with Ivan as an example of the type whose obsessive delusions, which include the desire to claim himself as a tragic hero, get the better of him. So much for thinking that picking up a camera will solve your issues.

The Blu-ray mastering on both films looks terrific. The only extras are the trailers.

RATING 5 / 10