It is 100 years since the birth of René Clément, a film director with such a rewarding body of work it is perhaps (in anniversary randomness tradition) appropriate to explore some of his films that are available for home viewing. René Clément was, in many ways, the actors’ director and was the guiding force behind roles as diverse as that of five year old Brigitte Fossey in Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits ) and Alain Delon in Plein Soleil (1960), both of whom, on the documentary extras on these discs, recall their admiration for such a pioneer of French cinema. In many ways the wonderful emergence of the French New Wave did have an unnecessary side effect – some of the forerunners to the movement or those who directed non-New Wave films at the time of its peak popularity (and Plein Soleil is as hip and cool as any New Wave flick) have, in retrospect, somehow received less exposure than they might. This is particularly strange in the case of René Clément because his films embraced new concepts as much as they adhered to old-school stylisation and his films seem as relevant today as they were when they were made. In an easy-to-criticise mainstream of world cinema it should be noted that René Clément received multiple awards for his earlier films, including Oscars (for Au-delà des grilles (The Walls of Malapaga ) and Forbidden Games).
He began his career making documentary films but Clément soon turned to fiction feature filmmaking and achieved great success, starting in the 1940s with his post war films and concluding with his final completed works in the 1970s. These works range in tone from Hitchcockian tension to Godardian hip. What is striking is that, even though some stylistic elements perhaps show signs of their age, the films remain utterly compelling and pleasingly modern in their depiction of ordinary protagonists often in horrendous, or at least extraordinary, situations.
In Forbidden Games, young Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) is fleeing Paris with her parents along with a multitude of other refugees when disaster occurs. The Nazis bomb the road they are travelling on, leaving her parents and her reliable canine companion, Jock, dead in the aftermath. Clinging to her little dog’s body she escapes the carnage and seeks shelter. She chances upon Michel Dolle (Georges Poujouly), a boy who takes to her and convinces his farming family that they should look after the distressed girl. Michel cares for Paulette very deeply but they both need to come to terms with what has happened, consider the authorities’ reaction and decide what to do with Jock’s body. In order to give Paulette’s former canine companion a good burial Michel decides to build a cemetery and initiates a series of robberies of crucifixes and gravestones to help his new found friend. But his act of kindness has consequences for his family, their neighbours and the wider community, as well as poor Paulette.
What was originally planned to be an anthology of three shorts by three directors, Forbidden Games evolved into one feature with just one director, Clément. This revised approach led to a change in shooting schedule and an expansion of the shorter length to produce a tight feature film which allows the story to develop but never outstays its welcome. Central to the film beyond the simple plotting are the delightful performances, particularly from the younger cast members. Brigitte Fossey, who was just five years old when shooting began, is utterly convincing, as is Georges Poujouly as the slightly older naughty boy who wants to do good. The air strikes at the start of the film are totally realistic and the sense of loss in the aftermath is shocking. Religion plays a deep role in the community that Paulette joins and this helps create a sense of tension concerning the graveyard robberies that is matched by the political necessities of finding Paulette a home. In many ways this is a film that will bring tears to all but the most hardy individual but it is never lacking in depicting elements of humour that enhance the human element of the incidents portrayed. In terms of war crisis films this ranks alongside Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Barefoot Gen(1983), and La Grande Illusion (1937) , the former two similarly exploring the effects of war upon children.
Gervaise (1956) is a period drama which tells the tale of the feisty Gervaise (Maria Schell), whose life becomes incredibly complicated because she just will not let things lie. She has even managed to end up in a cat-fight with fellow laundry worker Virginie (Suzy Delair) because Virginie brings to question Gervaise’s luck with men. It’s true, though, men do seem to be a problem; Gervaise has a son and a daughter by Auguste Lantier (Armand Mestral), whom she met when she was still young, but he’s left now her for Virginie’s sister. So Gervaise finds a new fellow in the shape of Henri Coupeau (François Périer), a roofer whom she marries and he doesn’t seem too concerned with having someone else’s children around. Gervaise starts her own laundry business, borrowing 500 francs from her husband’s friend, the generous and dashing blacksmith Goujet (Jacques Harden). But disaster strikes when Henri has an accident which means that he cannot work for a long time and Gervaise soon discovers that the money she has been saving to repay Goujet has been disappearing, to fund an alcoholic bottle or several, and for her husband’s sojourns outside the shop and home. The house then acquires an additional resident thanks to Henri but the new lodger is none other than her old flame Auguste. If matters were not bad enough her rival Virginie returns to the area, declaring friendship and introducing Gervaise to her new husband M. Poisson (Lucien Hubert).
Based upon the novel L’Assommoir by Émile Zola, Gervaise is a kitchen sink epic, set in the nineteenth century, a tragedy of a grand scale, that deals with a generation of social misery. Despite the problems facing the titular character she does everything in her power to maintain a semblance of normality for herself and her children. Early on we witness a vicious fight with her nemesis Virginie at the laundry, in front of fellow colleagues who hoot and cackle with glee as the pair slug it out. It ends with a graphic spanking that is as funny as it is shocking. An interesting aspect is the way that aspects of the film, presumably such as this scene amongst many, have been treated by the BBFC (censors or certifiers) over the intervening years since its initial release. It is now rated 12A but in 1956 it received an X certificate and even then there were cuts at this rating. But these aspects of personal mishaps, violence and misery are intrinsic to any good adaptation of works by Zola.
Again the performances are pitched perfectly, from Henri’s variable behaviour depending on whose company he keeps, as well as his general level of intoxication, to the almost misguidedly sweet Goujet, whose role in the film is strengthened from benefactor, to potential lover, to saviour of a growing boy’s dreams. Clément directs the film in a way that links the drudgery of everyday life with the complexity of Gervaise’s relationships. This is a very up-market production. The effects, carefully integrated through thoughtful shots and editing (notably Henri’s accident) help engage with a harsh world, one in which Gervaise is desperate to find a reasonable future, something that is very unlikely given the situations and circumstances. Period epic drama at its finest and – at times – most harrowing, but for all the right reasons, Gervaise has, surprisingly dated very little (perhaps it’s the period it is set in!).
Following Gervais, Clement directed This Angry Age (1958), another adaptation, this time from Marguerite Duras’ novel and featuring Anthony Perkins, before taking on his most famous work, Plein Soleil (1960) , an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Is Paris Burning? (1966) written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola had all makings of a hit, with a star studded cast, including Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and even Orson Welles, but somehow this film about the liberation of Paris by the French resistance failed to ignite the box office. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s Clément continued to direct mystery dramas.
In The Deadly Trap (La maison sous les arbres ) artist Jill (Faye Dunaway) and her brilliant husband Philippe (Frank Langella) reside in their home in Paris with their two young children, Cathy (Michèle Lourie) and Patrick (Patrick Vincent). Jill has a number of issues to deal with, most notably her memory loss, which Philippe finds incredibly frustrating. He works as an author and his next work is due to be published soon. This seems to be at odds with a previous career and the organisation he formerly worked for, whose purpose and motives appear to be somewhat shady, and they appear to want him back. Philippe has no further wish to be involved in their activities, whatever they are. But more worrying is what Jill seems increasingly incapable of looking after their children. Matters take a turn for the bizarre and inexplicable when a simple trip into the city results in the children going missing. This leads to a police search and Jill is briefly held in custody. Evidence of their clothes and toys by the riverside suggests a possible watery demise for Patrick, although divers cannot locate a body. Who knows what has happened to him and his sister? As questions arise over who can be trusted (be they friends, colleagues, neighbours or babysitters), nothing is clear and resolutions seem all too worrying.
The Deadly Trap is carefully structured to depict a simple portrait of a family drama unfolding into an increasingly sinister plot, requiring explanations that, for a lot of the running time, ensure that the viewer is as desperate as Jill to seek solutions about what is happening and why. In many ways this reflects elements of, say, Don’t Look Now (1973), but there the aftermath of a child’s death is the initial focus whereas here the loss of children (carefully a balanced plot possibility that the book the film is based upon ‘The Children are Gone’ would have revealed in the title!) results in confusion and worry. As with Gervaise and Forbidden Games, the plot features a pair of children facing situations that are potentially damaging to their normal expectations of growing up and plays on every parent’s fear, whatever the final revelations turn out to be.
In And Hope To Die, Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant) emigrates to Canada where he joins up with a criminal fraternity, led by boss Charley (Robert Ryan), who reside in a lakeside hideout, away from the city but close enough to implement any nefarious criminal activities that they might choose to partake in. Their next planned job is a kidnapping with a massive ransom. Tony needs to earn the trust of this new group although endears himself to the women in the circle, Sugar (Lea Massari) and Pepper (Tisa Farrow). As the group spend time together, missing piles of cash and further planned operations ensue and respect for each other is something that is lacking, but this is not surprising, given the protagonists’ chosen disreputable professions.
Tony may well have lost his marbles, literally in the case of the flashbacks that link the concept visually as well as metaphorically, but Clément uses his ability to structure his films to ensure that he times his revelations to perfection. As well as the flashbacks he employs flash editing of images that improve our understanding of the characters but this also serves a purpose of distancing us from the criminals and their desires and purposes. Criminals are cruel and criminals are cool, so movie traditions dictate, and And Hope to Die is no exception, although here Clément plays with uncertainties in plot and character development to enhance the drama. Clément adopts a languid pace as he depicts Tony trying to become part of the criminal clique, letting us get to know the characters and their purposes, and this contrasts sharply with inevitable and savage denouement.
And Hope to Die was Clément’s penultimate film. He went on to direct The Babysitter (1975) before retiring. He was awarded a special César Award in 1984 by the French motion picture industry for his lifelong contribution to film.
A remastered version of Plein Soleil has been released on Blu-ray.