Category Archives: France

Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

It’s strange now to consider how controversial Le Jour Se Lève was upon its initial release in France on the eve of the second World War, because the way the murder, which was the element the French government took issue with, is shown in the film wouldn’t skim the surface of what’s showcased in modern PG-13. In fact, the film’s infamous opening, the shot which sets up the rest of the plot (everything else is either a flashback or a flash-forward to this moment) may have been shocking to an audience at the time, and it’s still moving if you watch the film on its own terms; but I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit watching the sequence which merged on melodrama.

To paint the picture: there’s an argument from behind the door at the top floor of an apartment building, a shot rings out, and a man slowly stumbles out of the apartment clutching his wounded chest. Just when you think he’ll collapse onto the floor, his facial expression changes from confusion to desperation and he slouches his foot onto the staircase and begins to tumble down the stairs, and then down another flight and then another. Where he stops, a blind man walks in and starts poking him with his cane saying ‘Is anyone there? Someone fell!’

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!!

Although melodramatic certainly and perhaps intentionally a bit comically so, the opening leaves a strong impression, making it an effective centrepiece to the drama, which looks to the man behind the gun as its hero, played by Jean Gabin. Gabin, as usual, takes on the role with his fascinating mix of stoic coolness and a little French charm. Gabin was really the hero of the poetic realist movement in French film (a movement to which this film firmly belongs) just before the French New Wave (which would see the more boyish, flighty Jean-Paul Belmondo take the helm before the icy gaze of Alain Delon in the ‘60s). Although it seems to always play second fiddle to the New Wave in terms of the shows I see produced in art house cinemas near where I live, and attention paid online, poetic realist movies like Le Jour Se Lève, or another Gabin classic, Grande Illusion, known for their ‘impressionistic’ style, are films that aren’t afraid to really let their big moments take time to develop, and they seemed to place some heartfelt attention on relationships between characters that weren’t so flip and flam, especially the romantic ones. I’ll always begrudge Godard and Truffaut (although him to a lesser extent) for swapping out the impressionistic soft-gaze lenses and romantic scenery for that kind of quick hodgepodge of cuts and pastes and zigzagging edits that always leave me feeling dizzy and annoyed, but both movements are certainly fascinating to dive into in their own right.

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Our introduction to François, under a patented poetic realist soft gaze lens

In any case somehow Gabin has always seemed to me to be the most honest of the French leading men. He often played hard-working men stuck in tough situations, which is a bit ironic because his acting always has a real ease to it, like he’s never too concerned or stressed – he wouldn’t consistently knit his brows like the anxious Delon, but nor did he have Belmondo’s holiday smile. Nevertheless, in this film he certainly has reason to stressed – although he doesn’t show it. After killing the man we see in the initial take, he’s trapped in his room at the top of his apartment, as an appalled mob stares in at him through his window from below, kind of like a reverse of Rear Window. Through flashbacks, we learn of his past, his romantic love for his namesake (he’s named François, she’s named Françoise, very poetic realist), and of his ordeal with the conniving man who he murdered (who was, believe it or not, a dog trainer by profession).

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François and Françoise hitting it off

The plot is simple, although there are a couple interesting twists and realizations along the way. The simpleness of the plot, however, showcases its theme in a more poetic, straightforward light, in my opinion: it’s a love story with a couple triangles, but its real message is about jealousy, and how a man can be driven to such extremes solely due to feeling the awful type of powerlessness it is to learn that the woman he loves slept with another guy who is a gigantic schmuck – even if it was before they were ever together.

François is a good man with a tough job (he paints things with a ‘sand-gun’ (?!), surviving off milk all day) but he is in love with a woman who, he believes, really sees him. Françoise (female) tells him that she likes him because he has one eye that’s smiling and one eye that’s a bit sad…and he reminds her of her teddy bear that has only one ear. Compliments? Francois seems happy to hear it, and takes the teddy home for himself as memento. For her part, Françoise, the virginal, somewhat infantilized love interest of the film is not nearly as interesting of a character as Clara, the more experienced woman who Francois rebounds with when he sees his true love dabbling off with the dog trainer. There are some wonderful scenes where we see Clara’s jealousy of Françoise, all in subtext, even as she helps Françoise in her madness after hearing that her lover committed murder. And in a way, Clara’s jealousy mimic Francois’ jealousy of the dog-trainer, and they’re the only two characters who seem to think for themselves, so I couldn’t help wonder what the film would’ve been like had they run off together.

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Enough said.

When the film finally catches up to the murder itself, there’s a powerful moment where Francois, after learning the dog-trainer slept with Francoise just like dozens of other girls he didn’t care about – pulls out the gun, says ‘well look where it’s got you now’, and shoots – and in response, just after receiving the bullet, the dog-trainer goes ‘…and you?’ (Et toi?).

It sunk in for me then that they had been both driven mad by this girl typically oblivious like the ingenues that era seemed to love; we just happened to be cheering for Gabin/François because he’s a better guy in human terms…but who’s the real villain of the story? The old dog-trainer who collects women as objects or the silly girl who chooses to sleep with him anyway?

Poor Clara…

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A Bout de Souffle/Breathless (1960)

A Bout De Souffle is famous for its editing, and Jean-Luc Godard’s fast-cuts are the most striking part of this film.  What seem like important events fly by, people zip around rooms, and pieces of conversation are unnaturally slapped on top of each other.  We have no idea what we’ll be looking at next, and it’s very exciting.

Godard’s film jumps more cuts than Michel Poiccard jumps cars, which is a lot.

The film is driven (often literally) by Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a reckless European playboy, who steals cars, toys with women, smokes all the time and gets into a lot of trouble.  Before long, Michel finds himself in over his head: he’s wanted by the police for the murder of an officer, something that happens so fast that we’re left wondering, like Michel might be, if it actually happened.  Unfortunately for him, it did, and it’s not long before the police have his wanted photo on the front page of the Paris newspaper.  Michel has no time to lose: his plan is to go to Rome, but first he needs money, and he needs to convince the woman he loves to get in his car and drive away with him.  The money he can get; the girl proves to be not so easy.

Patricia, an aspiring reporter from America played by Jean Seberg, is a bit too complicated to be won over by Michel’s plan of escape, at least at first.  She says she doesn’t know if she loves him, if she wants him to love her, or if she wants to go to Rome with him.  She really just likes having fun with Michel.  In the middle of the movie, Jean-Luc Godard puts them in her tiny apartment together for about twenty three minutes: he’s trying to get her to go to Rome, but is really just paying attention to her, and she’s trying to get him to keep paying attention to her, and stop talking about Rome, and nothing happens.

Well, nothing really happens.

The scene is great because they’re both having a lot of fun, and because Godard’s camera work jolts us into attention every once in a while.  Suddenly he’s under the covers and she’s wearing a different dress, now she’s looking at the mirror in the bathroom and he’s found a bathrobe, now we get a flash of his chest and her dimples, and Godard continues to find something new to appreciate about the two characters and their relationship.  The scene is long, but it’s a delightful change of pace from the feverish opening, and sets us up for the finale, where, as in all movies about men on the run, what Michel is running from finally catches up to him.

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The Class (2008)

Near the end of The Class, a girl tells her teacher that she’s learned nothing the past year at school, and that the books they read in class are useless.  Her teacher finds that hard to believe, so he asks her about the books she reads at home.  “Well, there’s The Republic.”  He’s surprised, obviously.  “By Plato?”  “Yeah.”  If there’s something The Class wants to teach us, it’s that kids, like this one, can be surprising.

If you went to junior high, you know this one too.

The movie follows a teacher and his class of ninth graders in a tough district of Paris throughout a school year.  The teacher, named Mr. Marin, is played by Francois Begaudeau, who wrote about his experiences teaching in Paris (he’s actually a teacher, not an actor, or so they say) and the novel was adapted loosely into The Class.  It’s a loose adaptation because the kids play themselves, not characters from a book – they use their real names.  Most of the scenes came about through structured improvs with Francois and the kids, and maybe that’s why the acting in this film never feels like acting.

Mr. Marin’s job is not easy: the kids tease him, insult him, ignore him, threaten him, write him hateful letters, and one particularly problematic student accuses him of being gay.  Yet it’s his resilience that makes the movie so hopeful: he gets all of this young teenage garbage thrown at him daily, and he’s still doing his thing the next day, ready for something good to happen in his class, for a moment when we’d get to see what makes it all worth it for him in the end.  There’s a few of those moments: apparently teaching isn’t all fire and brimstone (that would be substitute teaching).  These moments of hope are very rewarding: if you’ve ever wondered, as I often have, why anyone would want to be a teacher, The Class seems to offer an answer.

I don’t know why, but I don’t think she means it.

The main conflict of the story is centered around one particularly troubled youth named Souleymane, and the school’s unfruitful attempts to get him to actually do some homework, among other things.  As time passes his behavior seems to be getting worse (he risks turning his French lessons into boxing matches), to everyone except Mr. Marin, who’s discovered that the boy has a secret penchant for photography, and is trying to encourage him.  We get to see a stand-off between Mr. Marin, who believes the boy can be helped, and the rest of the school board which seems to be leaning more and more towards expulsion.  We root for Mr. Marin’s cause ever since we see Souleymane’s eyes light up when Mr. Marin posts his photos on the wall for his classmates to see, and can’t help feeling frustrated by the school system that seems to offer no alternatives but to expel the young boy – which, to complicate matters, could lead to his being sent back to his father’s home in Mali.

So he claims.

We empathize with Souleymane partially because of his surprising soft-spot for photography, but mainly because it’s easy to relate to being messed up at that age.  You could argue that every student in The Class is lost in some way, just like every kid in the real world was in junior high.  And these are kids in the real world, they’re not actors, they’re just kids, and maybe that’s what makes this film so powerful.  The kids get to be kids, they’re not forced to try to be actors, and we believe them through all of their confused, hormonal outbursts.  This may be Francois Begaudeau’s book, and it may be Mr. Marin’s story, but time and time again, the kids surprise us and steal the show.

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