European Film 101

Good evening, class.   

Hopefully you enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock Week (and how could you not?) 

This week, we head across the pond for European Film 101. Bergman and Truffaut and Fellini and Godard!   

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.   

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.


Europe

As we already learned, cinema started in Europe, so while the epicenter moved to Hollywood, it very much stayed alive on the old continent. 

The big early name in Europe is Jean Renoir, the French master behind The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion

From there, the French film culture progressed to "Cahiers du Cinéma", the French film magazine that invented the idea of the "Auteur Theory."

In short, the Auteur Theory is the belief that every film has a singular author and that author is the director. 

"Cahiers du Cinéma" was established in 1928. In 1957, Éric Rohmer took over as editor, leading a team featuring Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut, collectively 6 of the greatest filmmakers in all of Western Europe. 

Collectively, they formed the French New Wave, the original indie film 

The French New Wave blew up cinema. It changed everything and influenced everything. 

Eventually, it became ripe for parody. 

Prior to the New Wave, Italian cinema had their own movement with Neorealism, which generally worked with non-actors, showing the plight of the working class. 

This is, of course, a simplification, as Europe has produced more than its fair share of world-altering cinema of all kinds. 

Get ready to dig in. 


this week's films

I absolute adore this set of films. 

For the sake of time, I only wrote up some of them, but also in the syllabus is Jules and Jim, A Man and a Woman, Bicycle Thieves, Persona, and La Dolce Vita.  

Some of these write-ups are taken directly from my old blog. 

Children of Paradise               

[1945 | Marcel Carné]

Watch: Criterion | Amazon (rental)

Filmed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of WWII, Children of Paradise is an epic tale of tragedy where it is not enough to love and be loved in return. The story revolves around the theatre scene of 1830's Paris. Baptiste (Jean Louis Barrault) is an exceptional mime who falls in love, but in a moment of timidity when he does not allow his love to flourish he misses his opportunity and she ends up with aspiring actor Frederick instead. However, when she's fingered as an accomplice to attempted murder, she seeks refuge with a wealthy admirer. Years later she returns to Paris to find that Baptiste and Frederick have become the pillars of the theatre and that her feelings for Baptiste have only grown stronger with time, but his wife is able to run interference and they are kept apart. 

While Children of Paradise is commonly hailed as the greatest achievement in the history of French cinema, the argument has been made that this is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. If that is wrong, it is not wrong by much. This is a big-budget studio movie that feels like a small, personal drama. A large portion of the French Resistance worked as crew members to keep them out of concentration camps, and the entire production took over three years to complete. Under those conditions, it's amazing the film was even made at all. Somehow, they managed to come up with one of the best things you'll ever see on film. 

Simply stated, this is a tragic tale of love lost. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert infuses the film with a sense of poetic beauty that informs every bit of the production. Somehow he manages to make even a coarse bit of dialogue feel sublime. There are several extended mime performances that would stand alone outside the framework of the film as a whole, but add a fascinating dimension to the proceedings. Director Marcel Carné films on numerous sets because, well, that's what he had to work with. But in a film that revolves around the world of the theatre, it works to the film's advantage. Just as in the theatre nothing is truly as it seems, so it is in the film. All of the characters, for that matter, seem to have a different idea as to their standing in the world at large. At least four primary characters are in love with Garance, all of them thinking at various points that their love is reciprocated, so when she is revealed to be kissing Baptiste on the balcony, Frederick comments that, "Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to no one." And when Baptiste's wife discovers the affair, Garance is gone. He chases her into the street, brushing past his son as if he weren't there, but is unable to navigate through the carnival crowd full of people dressed as his famous mime. He's left struggling against the crowd, desperate and forlorn.

Umberto D.               

[1952 | Vittorio de Sica]

Watch: Criterion | HBO Max  

A simple love story between an old man and his dog, Umberto D. was controversial upon its release in Italy, panned by several critics, and shelved for a time in various places, but in the end it survived to get an Oscar nomination and become one of De Sica's best loved films.

It took a nationwide search of bread lines and pensioners to find Carlo Battisti, who turns in an amazing performance in this, his only film. Battisti manages to find the inner sorrow necessary for the role of Umberto Domenico Ferrari, a public works employee of 30 years who's pension is insufficent to provide for him and his dog and is facing eviction. Maria-Pia Casilio, another non-actor, plays the sympathetic maid who befriends Umberto and is hiding a pregnancy from the landlady so she can keep her job. Both give performances that far exceed any expectations of anyone with their lack of experience.

Umberto is trying to raise the money for his back rent, but is unwilling to outright beg for charity. He's unable to sell what little dignity he has left. However, his watch and prized books are sold at a fraction of their worth, and it's clear as he's forced to lower his asking price that this is the last hope for a man trying to stay afloat. Through it all, he has his dog Filke for comfort, but when he disappears while Umberto's in the hospital, we see the seeds of panic in his eyes and the absolute relief when Filke is recovered.

There isn't much of note in the direction and camera work. De Sica knows that for the film to work, we must focus on Umberto, so he allows us to do just that while reminding us just how powerless he really is. There's nothing left for Umberto; he hasn't a chance in the world. All he has is a devoted dog, and sometimes that's all you need.

The Seventh Seal               

[1957 | Ingmar Bergman]

Watch: Criterion | HBO Max

Few films have survived in the public consciousness quite like Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and only one of them of them are Swedish black and white films about death. Bergman's image of death, and specifically death playing chess, is everywhere in popular culture, including the opening of "Cheating Death" from The Colbert Report.


Or, this:

If you've spent any time at all following the history of cinema, you've heard of Bergman. The Swedish Master is known for dark character dramas, often questioning God. 

He was a Big Deal. 

Or, to quote Martin Scorsese:

If you were alive in the 50s and the 60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to becoming an adult, and you wanted to make movies, I don't see how you couldn't be influenced by Bergman ....It's impossible to overestimate the effect that those films had on people.

Bergman's spiritual quest is at the center of the films he made in the middle of his career. "The Seventh Seal” opens that period, in which he asked, again and again, why God seemed absent from the world. In "Through a Glass Darkly” (1962), the mentally ill heroine has a vision of God as a spider. In the austere "Winter Light” (1962), Bjornstrand and von Sydow appear again, in the story of a country priest whose faith is threatened by the imminence of nuclear catastrophe. In "Persona” (1966), televised images of war cause an actress to simply stop speaking. In the masterpiece "Cries and Whispers" (1973), a woman dying of cancer finds a faith that her sisters cannot understand or share.


The last three major films in Bergman's career look inside for the answers to his haunting questions. They are all autobiographical, including "Fanny and Alexander" (1984), the last film he directed, and two more he wrote the screenplays for, "The Best Intentions” (1992) and the remarkable “Sunday's Children” (1994). That last film, based on a memory of a summer vacation in the country with a young man and his father, a dying minister, was directed by Bergman's own son, Daniel--perhaps as a way of allowing Daniel to deal with the same kinds of questions Ingmar has had.


Bergman's work has an arc. The dissatisfied young man considers social and political issues. In middle age, he asks enormous questions about God and existence. In old age, he turns to his memories for what answers there are. And in many of these films, there is the same kind of scene of reconciliation. In “The Seventh Seal,” facing the end of his own life and the general destruction of the plague, the knight spends some time with Joseph and Mary and their child, and says, "I will remember this hour of peace. The dusk, the bowl of wild strawberries, the bowl of milk, Joseph with his lute.” Saving this family from Death becomes his last gesture of affirmation. In "Cries and Whispers,” a journal left by the dead sister recalls a day when she was feeling a little better, and the sisters and a maid walked in the sunlight and sat in a swing on the lawn: "I feel a great gratitude to my life,” she wrote, "which gives me so much.” (Roger Ebert)

Bergman's worldview is probably best captured in his masterpiece Scenes From a Marriage, a 6-hour TV miniseries about a "perfect" marriage falling apart that is credited with DOUBLING the divorce rate in Europe. 

Think about how influential a film would have to be to do that. 

Bergman isn't an easy watch. 

His films require a lot of the audience, but they're worth every second. He's got 6 masterpieces. There's this, Persona, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and Fanny and Alexander

You should put them all on your Watchlist, but if you have to pick one, it's The Seventh Seal

The 400 Blows               

[1959 | François Truffaut]

Watch: HBO Max | Criterion

In The 400 Blows, the first chapter in François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, we meet our hero (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a disobedient 12 year old Parisian. A child of whom his parents seem to care little, he has a penchant for dishonesty that gets him in constant trouble both at home and at school, so he decides to run away, promising to return when he has become a man. After he steals a typewriter, he's sent to military school, where he escapes through a hole in a fence and heads for the sea.

Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series is a landmark of cinema, as it marks a rare instance of an actor originating a character as a child then continuing to play that character in five films over the course of twenty years, but more importantly because it serves as a backbone of the French New Wave. The series as a whole is a fascinating look at how a young man such as Antoine grows up, matures (well, to an extent), and essentially adapts to life. All five chapters are good, but there's no question in my mind that The 400 Blows is the crown jewel. Partly because he is a child and children tend to not see potential complications, this is the most focus we see from Antoine in terms of his goals and desires. He knows simply that he does not like home or school and that he'd rather be elsewhere, whereas in later segments we quite often see Antoine torn between multiple options.

And why shouldn't he? Truffaut essentially tells us as much in the famous final shot of The 400 Blows where Antoine, having successfully run away, reaches the ocean for the first time in his life. He takes a few steps into the surf, then turns back, but he is unsure where to go. He has achieved his goal of running away to the shore and now hasn't a clue what to do next, so he just stands there. At the height of his dilemma, Truffaut freezes the shot and zooms in on that face full of indecision. He is stuck, completely unsure what to do next, and that is the theme Truffaut continues to explore throughout the series.

As this is one of the first films of the French New Wave, he appears to be placing the art form as a whole on that beach with Antoine. The New Wave, many have said, birthed the modern film era, taking it out of the classic period with its tendency to follow formula and essentially breathed new life into it. Truffaut, Godard, and their cohorts showed a complete disregard for the conventions of cinema and made their films by any means necessary. This often included filming in the streets of Paris without permits, employing friends as actors, and working with little to no budget. But, necessity being the mother of invention, they found ways to create techniques and methods and images that would resonate world-wide. It could be argued that there isn't an American film from the last five years that isn't at least indirectly influenced by the New Wave. So Truffaut is asking the film medium what it wants to do. Does it want to go back to the military school and continue making the same films over and over again, or does it keep running into the unknown. The answer, clearly, is the latter.

The 400 Blows is, at least to me, a deceptively simple film. At no singular point does it seem as if you're watching a great film. That is, there isn't that point where a single moment blows you away, but the sum total of the film does exactly that. This is Truffaut's first film, finished at the age of 26, and it's easy to see the effect of that innocence on the screen. This is the look of a filmmaker who doesn't yet "know" what he can and cannot do, so he just does what he thinks will be the most effective. And he's pretty much correct every single time. The film, largely based on his own childhood as a rebellious child prone to skip school and go to the cinema, seems to understand children better than most, and it understands Antoine Doinel most of all. But it refuses to fully condone his actions, instead sympathizing with him in a way that makes them understandable, even if they are wrong.

He also bring a bit of whimsy to the film as he shows how the children as a group respond to authority. In a clever scene the children are on a physical education run through the streets of Paris, trailing behind a gym teacher and his incessant whistle-blowing. Truffaut puts the camera on a roof and follows the class as the students peel away from the group and head for freedom until finally there are only two students following him. They are either the least clever of the students or the most obedient or a combination of the two. Regardless, they are tied to the status quo while their classmates are off living their lives in the Parisian streets. Morally, Antoine Doinel and his like may be classically wrong, but they are choosing to do things by their own rules, and when you live by your own rules, it's hard to judge those actions by classical morality.

Breathless               

[1960 | Jean-Luc Godard]

Watch: Criterion | HBO Max

Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the French New Wave. Truffaut was the more classical filmmaker, while Godard was the rebel. Susan Sontag called him "a deliberate 'destroyer' of cinema." 

Godard was (and still is) a legendary character among directors. He famously said "a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." When the Academy gave him an Honorary Oscar, he asked if they had seen any of his films. 

Godard's methods of work on Breathless were purposefully chaotic. He admitted that he deliberately created confusion to achieve "a greater possibility of invention". Shooting in the busy streets of Paris, he avoided crowd control, and at one point a policeman leapt from a passing bus to assist an apparently dying [actor]. (The Guardian)

In Breathless, Godard is largely credited with popularizing the "jump cut", one of my personal favorite editing tricks. 

Like most brilliant innovations, it came into existence because of necessity. 

Godard made 20(!) feature films in the 60's and while they aren't all amazing, it's a staggering output from a brilliant rebel. 

Watch enough of Godard's peak run of films and you'll get the feeling that you've seen it before. You have. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction

The movie had a sensational reception; it is safe to say the cinema was permanently changed. Young directors saw it and had abandoned their notions of the traditional studio film before they left the theater. Crowther of the Times, who was later to notoriously despise its descendant "Bonnie and Clyde," said of "Breathless" that "sordid is really a mild word for its pile-up of gross indecencies." The jump cuts to him were "pictorial cacophony."


Yet Crowther conceded, "It is no cliche," and the film's bold originality in style, characters and tone made a certain kind of genteel Hollywood movie quickly obsolete. Godard went on to become the most famous innovator of the 1960s, although he lost the way later, with increasingly mannered experiments. Here in one quick, sure move, knowing somehow just what he wanted and how to obtain it, he achieved a turning point in the cinema just as surely as Griffith did with "The Birth of a Nation" and Welles with "Citizen Kane." (Roger Ebert)

Closely Watched Trains               

[1966 | Jiří Menzel]

Watch: iTunes (rental) | Criterion | Kanopy

Latest in a long history of people who's chief ambition is to get through life by doing as little work as possible, young Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) prepares for his first day working in a railroad station by recounting his family's heritage, from his father's penchant for laying on a couch all day and collecting a pension to his grandfather the hypnotist and his futile attempt to stop the German troops through hypnosis. At the station he befriends Hubicka (Josef Somr), the resident Cassanova, who advises him on the process by which he can lose his virginity to his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendová), a conductress on one of the trains. His attempts in that regard prove to be far too eager, and a distressed Milos, thinking something must be wrong with him, tries to kill himself. Meanwhile, Hubicka's latest seduction comes under scrutiny from the German military.

Despite the ongoing war, director Jirí Menzel portrays Czechoslovakia as a country obsessed with sex. War is but a minor inconvenience. Even when a bomb destroys the photography studio of Masa's uncle, it has little impact on the characters or the narrative and Menzel spends as little time on it as possible, opting instead to move immediately to Milos' suicide attempt. And why not? When you're in a remote railroad post in the middle of Czechoslovakia, where nothing happens except the passing of trains, it's easy to find the terrors of love much more troubling than the horrors of an abstract war. It's only when the war comes a little closer to home, when the bombs actually destroy the building you're in, that it even warrants a mention.

That's not to say Milos and Hubicka are ambivalent about the whole thing. On the contrary, when the resistance comes to their door, they are more than willing to help out, even if that means blowing up one of their trains.

But Closely Watched Trains isn't about war, it's about Milos coming into his own as a man. Václav Neckár plays Milos as a boy who's sexual inexperience informs everything about him, from the way he does his job to the way he relates to people around him, both male and female. Neckár's Milos is timid and unsure, an innocent terrified of the world around him. He so wants to become a man that when he fails on his first attempt, he assumes the failure to be a sign that he will never be able to perform and goes to a bordello where, instead of employing a prostitute, he cuts his wrists in the bath. He is so despondent that it isn't until a doctor informs him that premature ejaculation is perfectly normal--a symptom of being "too healthy"--and that he should practice with an older woman of ill repute and think of football.

When he does find one, finally and after asking nearly everyone he encounters to set him up, he emerges a new man, composed and assured and confident. Suddenly he fills the screen. Jirí Menzel enhances the transformation, equating him to his mentor by evoking shots early in the film where Hubicka enjoys the memories of his latest conquest. No longer does Menzel continually put Milos in the bottom of the screen where he can be easily dominated by the other characters. Instead, Milos is given equal billing, existing on the same plane as everyone else--a sure cinematic sign of maturity.

What Menzel does in his Academy Award winning film is infuse every frame with a virginal eroticism that mirrors the preoccupation of his hero. Seen through Milos' mindset everything is sexual, yet nothing advances past a certain point. There is no sex education for Milos, who is continually stymied in his quest for knowledge by a hastily closed curtain or an urgent telegraph or some other interruption. But it's not just Milos who sees everything as sexual. There's Hubicka, to be sure, but also their boss, Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská) the telegraph operator with whom Hubicka has a particularly explicit fling, and virtually every other character in Closely Watched Trains. This begs the question: why is everything sexual in Menzel's film? Is it because Milos is preoccupied with sex, or is it because Menzel is trying to make a certain statement about the futility of war? Or is it a combination of the above?

8 ½               

[1963 | Federico Fellini]

Watch: Amazon (rental) | Criterion | Kanopy

You can't talk about Italian film without spending a lot of time on Federico Fellini. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards (he finally won an Honorary Oscar in 1993), he is the only person to direct 4 films to Oscar wins in Best Foreign Language Film (Best Foreign Language Film, like Best Picture, is given to the film's Producer). Those films? La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Amarcord, and 8 1/2, for which he was also nominated for Original Screenplay and Best Director (he lost to Tony Richardson for Tom Jones, a decision that has not aged well.)


8 1/2, on the other hand, is widely considered one of the 10 greatest films ever made. Massively influential, it's been parodied and referenced all over the place. 

Considered by some to be autobiographical, 8 ½ is an evocation and exploration of the experiences of Guido Anselmi, a director who is creatively blocked and seems unable to finish the film he is working on. He wanders through a maze of fantasies, memories, and encounters – real and imagined – with people who depend on him, love him and even hate him until finally it appears that he kills himself.
In the end, however the suicide may be only another fantasy as the film ends with Guido in a circus ring directing a final scene filled with everyone we have met in the film as well as some we are meeting for the first time. They dance and Guido joins them. The film Guido cannot make is the film we have just watched. (Joe Gillis)


coming soon

Get your dancing shoes on. 


Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.


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