The long war between France and the US has its liveliest consequence in the world of film: Hollywood does movies, the French do cinema. In terms of equipment, the Yanks were the pioneers, but France’s Charles Pathé was the first tycoon and — more importantly — George Méliès was the inventor, by accident, of the method of cutting from scene to scene which has become the signal contribution of cinema to narrative.
After the invention of talkies, Hollywood pulled out of sight and sound of its panting pursuers, but the French have remained obstinately inventive and creatively resentful: they harbour an abiding sense of having been robbed of an art form which has been degraded by Californian philistines. Only a few American directors (and Alfred Hitchcock) were dubbed auteurs by François Truffaut and his chums at Cahiers du Cinéma when, in the 1950s and onwards, they attempted the coup which would make them self-appointed arbiters of cinematic merit (poor Vincente Minnelli fell off their train, because he was such a poor subject for interview).
Charles Drazin traces the unparallel histories of the development of the movies ici et là. In terms of organisation, volume and commercial clout, Hollywood clearly won the war. But the French resistance has engendered a series of memorable films. Quality has been the best revenge. Yet it was precisely the tradition of classy, literate films, such as those directed by Julien Duvivier, which Truffaut attacked in his explosive article ‘Une certaine tendance dans le cinéma français’. Truffaut and his friends affected to be mounting a critical revolution, but their politique des copains was more of a putsch than an aesthetic.
Their smart purpose was to discomfit the old guard and replace the movies of the professionals who merely told a story, and relied on stars, with something within their own means, technical and financial. As Drazin makes clear, the young pals found it easier to be smart at the expense of the older generation than to outstrip them, even though stripping — in Vadim’s Et Dieu Créa la Femme — became part of the machinery of their pseudo-revolution.
Louis Malle, whose movies were hybrids of classic narration and innovative matter, and who had the funds and reliable competence to make them commercial, regarded the Nouvelle Vague as an ‘exercise in publicity’. It preceded the psychodrama of May 1968 which enabled both Truffaut and his frère-ennemi Jean-Luc Godard to direct, and halt, the cinematic traffic at the Cannes Festival of the same month, thus aborting the projection of movies by 20 young film-makers whose big chance it was.
After the événements subsided, and a Gaullist government had been elected, there was a confrontation with the quondam revolutionary André Malraux over the sacking of Henri Langlois, the administratively cack-handed creator of the Paris Cinémathèque. The Cahiers crowd sponsored a general strike of film people, but when they were confronted by the CRS, Godard ‘gave the order to disperse’; a nice way of saying that he lost his nerve.
Drazin marches through the decades with business-school efficiency, tracing the lines of influence with a lack of partisanship which combines le fair play with a certain blandness. This becomes evident when we are told that
Just as Vichy’s National Revolution sought to rebuild a positive image of France after the calamity of defeat, Hollywood’s embrace of the [Production] Code amounted to a redressement too, albeit with the ultimate motive of safeguarding its commercial interests.
I doubt if Louis B. Mayer was into redressement any more than Vichy was up to anything but toadying to the most reactionary elements in French society and shaking hands with Hitler.
The influence of French film on Hollywood is most blatant when it comes, for instance, to Casablanca, a direct derivative of Pépé Le Moko. The latter’s greatest moment takes place in the casbah, when Jean Gabin and a passing courtesan have a love scene in which the dialogue consists entirely of the nostalgic exchange of the names of Parisian métro stations. It is synopsised, by Humphrey Bogart, with ‘We’ll always have Paris’. Casablanca has now eclipsed Pépé, though one of its screenwriting Epstein brothers is reported, reliably, to have said, ‘Yep, it was a pretty slick piece of shit’. Write ’em like that and you can afford to talk like that.
In matters of taste, Drazin is never foolish and rarely surprising. Who would guess how brilliantly funny and original Blier’s Les Valseuses was from the faint praise it receives? Duvivier’s Les Enfants du Paradis is accepted as a masterpiece but there is no mention of its resemblance to Penelope’s tapestry: shooting was protracted, during the last stages of the Occupation, in order to keep the actors in work and safety.
The amount of attention given to Godard’s only ‘movie’, Le Mépris (Contempt), is disproportionate to its small merit. In an attempt to match his use of Bardot against Vadim’s, Godard wasted BB’s assets (and spoiled Moravia’s novella, not least the ending). When it came to sex, he was much more successful in Vivre Sa Vie, of which there is no mention, although a still of Anna Karina dresses the cover of the book.
It is a testimony to the quality and quantity of French cinema that any study is bound to be partial. Drazin is adept at seeing the connection between, for example, Duvivier’s Poil de Carotte and Truffaut’s Quatre Cents Coups (which Duvivier was noble enough to salute when he was on the Cannes jury), but he doesn’t mention Joseph Losey’s The Boy With Green Hair, which — along with his Marxism — earned him a left-handed salute from the Cahiers.
Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien is said to be the ‘fictional counterpart’ of Marcel Ophüls’ Le Chagrin et la Pitié, but its ‘hero’ did not so much collaborate with the Germans as join the milice, seduced by the louche French company he could then keep. It is outside Drazin’s scope to note that Pierre Blaise, the young actor whom Malle recruited in the Corrèze, bought himself a flash car and was killed driving it. Malle told me that he felt as if he, and the cinema, had lured the young man, like a provincial Icarus, to his death.
When it comes to surveys, flaws and omissions are inevitable. However, Michael Winner should be cited as the director of Hannibal Brooks, which is said to derive from the hugely successful (now forgotten?) La Vache et le Prisonnier, of which the unmentioned La Traversée de Paris (Pig Across Paris), with Bourvil and Jean Gabin, was another by-blow.
The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, a witless hack, is given altogether too much respect. The grand absent here is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a masterpiece sponsored by television, as so much French film-making has been since the rise of Canal Plus. As for the last decade, when a film historian takes the eclectic, slapdash François Ozon seriously because he has been commercially successful, it is a small, indelible instance of la trahison des clercs.