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Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960

September 14, 2012 - December 9, 2012


A common canard of film history is that the French New Wave of the late 1950s swept aside the French cinema that had come before it, replacing a staid “tradition of quality” with a new, breathless energy. But even for Truffaut, Godard, and their Cahiers du cinéma brethren, the history of film in France, from the passionate poetry of Jean Vigo to the magisterial ironies of Max Ophuls, was an essential source of inspiration. This major series, presented in conjunction with New York’s Film Forum, surveys that history from the end of the silent era to the beginning of the sixties. Spanning four months and dozens of films—including both beloved classics and rarities, many in imported 35mm prints—Grand Illusions builds on our long tradition of exploring this most influential and enduring of national cinemas.

The series brings together an extraordinary constellation of directors and actors, each worthy of a series of their own. In September and October the program spotlights, among others, René Clair, whose experiments with sound translated an avant-garde attitude into popular art; Marcel Carné and Jean Grémillon, whose poetic realism survived the German Occupation; and Ophuls, whose late work imbued the period drama with subtle acuity. Showcased in November and December are the humanist genius of Jean Renoir and the Provençal warmth of Marcel Pagnol; the variously surreal sensibilities of Vigo, Jean Cocteau, and Georges Franju; and the postwar cynicism of Yves Allégret. The directors’ visions are brought to life in performances by Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Gérard Philipe, Raimu, Simone Signoret, and many other icons of the French—and international—screen. See these films again or for the first time and revel in the diversity and vitality of the “old wave” of French cinema. As Truffaut once wrote of Renoir’s work, these are “films that still breathe.”

Juliet Clark

Friday, September 14, 2012
7:00 p.m. Le jour se lève
Marcel Carné (France, 1939). Gabin gives one of his greatest performances in this Marcel Carné/Jacques Prévert collaboration, “perhaps the finest of the French poetic melodramas” (Pauline Kael). (87 mins)

Friday, September 14, 2012
8:50 p.m. Casque d’or
Jacques Becker (France, 1952). With a fluidity that almost defies narrative plotting, Jacques Becker unfolds a tale of love doomed by its setting, the Paris demimonde at the turn of the century. A young Simone Signoret is sensual and sassy as a gigolette who abandons her gangster mec for an honest carpenter. (94 mins)

Saturday, September 15, 2012
8:20 p.m. Hôtel du Nord
Marcel Carné (France, 1938). Two doomed lovers swear upon a suicide pact, but one loses the plot in Carné’s atmospheric, fatalistic melodrama. “A stimulating reminder of the great days of French cinema” (William K. Everson). (100 mins)

Friday, September 21, 2012
7:00 p.m. La ronde
Max Ophuls (France, 1950). A prostitute (Simone Signoret) loves a soldier (Serge Reggiani), who leaves her for a chambermaid (Simone Simon), who . . . etc., etc., until the story returns to the prostitute. “Ophuls displays dazzling technical virtuosity and cinematic elegance” (Chicago Reader). (97 mins)

Friday, September 21, 2012
8:55 p.m. Le plaisir
Max Ophuls (France, 1952). In adapting three de Maupassant stories, Ophuls sardonically explores the distinctions between pleasure and happiness. "Illustrates not merely Ophuls's unparalleled sense of flow and texture, but also his proto-feminism” (Slant). Starring Gaby Morlay, Simone Simon, Jean Gabin, and Danielle Darrieux. (95 mins)

Sunday, September 23, 2012
7:00 p.m. The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Max Ophuls (France/Italy, 1953). Following a pair of earrings, Ophuls's fluid camerawork tracks the course of love and the character of a class. "Perfection” (Pauline Kael). With Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica. (105 mins)

Saturday, September 29, 2012
6:30 p.m. Le bonheur
Marcel L’Herbier (France, 1934). Anarchist attempts to assassinate queen, queen protects anarchist, queen loves anarchist, anarchist loves queen. Or does she . . . and does he? Here the palace is a film studio, the royalty are movie stars, and the fairy tale survives even L’Herbier’s ironic analysis. With Charles Boyer and Gaby Morlay. (105 mins)

Saturday, September 29, 2012
8:35 p.m. Lola Montes
Max Ophuls (France/Germany, 1955). Restored 35mm print of the French version! In Max Ophuls’s audacious final film, a life of passion becomes the stuff of carnival. “The ultimate cinephilic object: a color-and-CinemaScope dream” (Boston Phoenix ).(110 mins) NOTE: This replaces the originally scheduled screening of Panique.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
7:00 p.m. The Italian Straw Hat
René Clair (France, 1928). Judith Rosenberg on piano. A masterpiece of silent comedy, The Italian Straw Hat is a tribute by René Clair to the early French pioneer filmmakers, but one that moves with a rhythm and tempo unseen before its time. “One of the funniest films ever made, and one of the most elegant as well” (Pauline Kael). (84 mins)

Saturday, October 13, 2012
6:30 p.m. Under the Roofs of Paris
René Clair (France, 1930). René Clair’s first sound film involves entanglements among a comely immigrant (Pola Illéry), a street singer (Albert Préjean), a petty criminal (Gaston Modot), and the singer’s best friend (Edmond Gréville); the film’s creativity and wit lie not in the plot but in Clair’s inventive technique. (82 mins)

Saturday, October 13, 2012
8:15 p.m. Les grandes manoeuvres
René Clair (France, 1955). René Clair’s first color film is set in a provincial garrison just before World War I. Gérard Philipe plays a cavalry officer and self-styled Don Juan who wagers that he can seduce any woman in town, chosen at random. (106 mins)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
7:00 p.m. Le million
René Clair (France, 1931). A search for a winning lottery ticket spurs René Clair’s unique blend of music and romance, a screen operetta by way of the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dali. (80 mins)

Friday, October 19, 2012
7:00 p.m. À nous la liberté
René Clair (France, 1931). Clair combines fantasy with irony, whimsy with wistful pessimism, musical comedy with fine-tuned slapstick to create a satire of the highest order in this tale of two ex-cons, one now the owner of a large phonograph company, the other a freedom-loving vagabond. (82 mins)

Friday, October 26, 2012
7:00 p.m. Remorques
Jean Grémillon (France, 1941). Cowritten by Jacques Prévert, Remorques stars Jean Gabin as a tugboat captain working the storm-battered coast of Brittany, where the moody Michèle Morgan soon washes into his life and he begins to become unmoored from his marriage to fragile Madeleine Renaud. (85 mins)

Friday, October 26, 2012
8:45 p.m. Lumière d’été
Jean Grémillon (France, 1943). Although it was never released in this country, for many British and French critics Lumière d’été stands alongside Children of Paradise as a masterpiece of French cinema made during the German Occupation. A remote mountain inn is the setting for a class-crossed love affair. (112 mins)

Sunday, October 28, 2012
5:00 p.m. Le ciel est à vous
Jean Grémillon (France, 1944). Based on a 1937 news event, and released just before the Normandy invasion, Le ciel est à vous tells of a provincial couple who are devoted to a joint goal: for the wife to break the world solo flying record for women. (105 mins)

Saturday, November 3, 2012
6:00 p.m. L’étrange Monsieur Victor
Jean Grémillon (France, 1938). Imported 35mm print! This rarely screened Grémillon gem is a mordant and morally ambiguous tale of bourgeois hypocrisy, crime, and comeuppance involving Victor, a respectable shopkeeper by day, fence by night. (97 mins)

Sunday, November 4, 2012
2:00 p.m. La bête humaine
Jean Renoir (France, 1938). Imported 35mm print! Jean Gabin delivers a tragically human performance as a locomotive engineer in Jean Renoir's poetic, pessimistic adaptation of Zola's novel. (105 mins)

Friday, November 9, 2012
7:00 p.m. Children of Paradise
Marcel Carné (France, 1945). "This lushly romantic creation, directed by Marcel Carné and written by Jacques Prévert, is a one-of-a-kind film, a sumptuous epic about the relations between theater and life . . . and a film poem on the nature and varieties of love” (Pauline Kael). (182 mins)

Saturday, November 10, 2012
6:30 p.m. Grand Illusion
Jean Renoir (France, 1937). New 35mm Print! Jean Renoir’s deeply humane portrait of World War I POWs, “one of the most haunting of all war films” (NY Times). Starring Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim. (117 mins)

Saturday, November 10, 2012
8:45 p.m. The Story of a Cheat
Sacha Guitry (France, 1936). Imported 35mm print! It’s not the story, but the telling of it in Sacha Guitry’s elegant, hilarious masterpiece of an adventurer and cardsharp who knows that crime indeed pays. (83 mins)

Sunday, November 11, 2012
2:00 p.m. Toni
Jean Renoir (France, 1934). Imported 35mm prints! Two Renoir classics: in Toni, an immigrant Spanish farmworker is involved with two women, one who loves him, one whom he loves. “What is striking about Toni is its dreamlike quality” (François Truffaut). Followed by A Day in the Country, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. (127 mins)

Sunday, November 11, 2012
2:00 p.m. Toni

Saturday, November 17, 2012
6:30 p.m. The Rules of the Game
Jean Renoir (France, 1939). Made just before the outbreak of WWII, Jean Renoir's masterpiece of ruthless grace uses a gathering in a country house as setting for a tragicomic study of polite society on the brink of collapse. Named fourth best film of all time in a 2012 Sight and Sound Poll. (106 mins)

Friday, November 23, 2012
4:00 p.m. Marius
Alexander Korda (France, 1931). The first installment in the beloved Fanny Trilogy introduces César, boisterous proprietor of a Marseilles bar; his son Marius, drawn by the call of the sea; and Fanny the fishmonger, the apex of a triangle between Marius and widower Panisse. "These films display such old-fashioned virtues as truth to life and boundless humanity" (Time Out). (122 mins)

Friday, November 23, 2012
7:00 p.m. Fanny
Marc Allégret (France, 1932). The continuation of the trilogy is Fanny's tragedy but César's story: he is played by the incomparable Raimu. (122 mins)

Saturday, November 24, 2012
5:00 p.m. César
Marcel Pagnol (France, 1936). The conclusion of the trilogy poignantly evokes remembrances and regrets as the cycle of life and love begins again. "Today the modest charms and graces of the Pagnol trilogy seem more precious than ever" (Time Out). (116 mins)

Saturday, November 24, 2012
7:20 p.m. Beauty and the Beast
Jean Cocteau (France, 1946). Jean Cocteau's classic tale of love and transformation remains one of the cinema's most enchanting and sensuous excursions into the realm of poetic fantasy. “One of the most magical of all films” (Roger Ebert). (93 mins)

Sunday, November 25, 2012
3:00 p.m. Douce
Claude Autant-Lara (France, 1943). Imported 35mm print! "If ever there was a buried treasure, the delectable Douce is it. Considered Autant-Lara's masterpiece, it is set in Belle Époque Paris and charts the decline of an aristocratic family to symbolize the end of an era and of a moral order" (Cinematheque Ontario). (90 mins)

Sunday, November 25, 2012
4:50 p.m. Such a Pretty Little Beach
Yves Allégret (France, 1949). Imported 35mm print! At a seaside inn, off-season, a melancholy young man becomes a curiosity to both residents and guests in this poetic, fatalistic noir. (97 mins)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012
7:00 p.m. Orpheus
Jean Cocteau (France, 1949). In Cocteau’s dreamlike, terminally mod interpretation of the Orpheus myth, Orphée is a Left Bank poet, and the Princess of Death travels in a Rolls Royce, escorted by leather-clad living dead. (91 mins)

Sunday, December 2, 2012
2:30 p.m. L’Atalante
Jean Vigo (France, 1934). Imported 35mm print! Vigo’s only full-length feature is a poetic masterpiece on the theme of passionate love, employing fantastic set pieces and bizarre juxtapositions to tell of a young barge captain and his peasant bride in their first days together. With Vigo’s infamous boarding-school riot of a film, Zero for Conduct. (141 mins)

Sunday, December 2, 2012
2:30 p.m. L’Atalante

Thursday, December 6, 2012
7:00 p.m. Crime and Punishment
Pierre Chenal (France, 1935). Imported 35mm print! Chenal’s version of the Dostoevsky classic has its place in the poetic fatalism of the thirties French cinema, but it also reveals the strong influence of German Expressionism, complete with distorted sets and radical camera angles. (103 mins)

Friday, December 7, 2012
7:00 p.m. Port of Shadows
Marcel Carné (France, 1938). Imported 35mm print! Carné and Prévert’s melancholy poem of life and death in the lower depths of Le Havre. Starring Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Michel Simon, and Pierre Brasseur. (91 mins)

Friday, December 7, 2012
8:50 p.m. Eyes Without a Face
Georges Franju (France, 1960). A brilliant plastic surgeon lures unsuspecting women into his lab in order to find a face for his disfigured daughter in Franju’s shimmering fantasy, part horror film, part poetry. With Franju’s powerful slaughterhouse documentary, Blood of the Beasts. (108 mins)

Friday, December 7, 2012
8:50 p.m. Eyes Without a Face

Sunday, December 9, 2012
3:00 p.m. Les orgueilleux
Yves Allégret (France/Mexico, 1953). Stranded in a Mexican seaside town, tourist Michèle Morgan endures a series of trials, beginning with her husband’s grisly death from meningitis, that gradually bring her closer to an alcoholic expat. Full of Buñuelian satire and existential absurdity, with images that are startling even now. (103 mins)

Sunday, December 9, 2012
5:00 p.m. Carnival in Flanders
Jacques Feyder (France, 1935). Imported 35mm print! In 1616, a Spanish regiment arrives in a Flemish town, and are challenged not by the men, but by the women, in Feyder’s comic gem. “One of the rare, perfect works of the screen, this comedy masterpiece suggests a fusion of Breughel and Boccaccio” (Pauline Kael). (90 mins)

Series curated by Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby and shown in conjunction with a similar series entitled The French Old Wave, curated by Bruce Goldstein for Film Forum, New York. Thanks to the following individuals and institutions for their assistance with this retrospective: Delphine Selles-Alvarez, Sonia Droulhiole, Muriel Guidoni-Deregnaucourt, French Cultural Services New York; Anne-Catherine Louvet, L’Institut Français; Denis Bisson and Nora Orallo, French Consulate San Francisco; Nicolas Pagnol, Compagnie Méditerranéenne de Films; Eric Le Roy and Mahboubi Fereidoun, CNC; Fleur Buckley and George Watson, BFI; Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Mark McElhatten, Sikelia Productions; Daniel Bish, George Eastman House; Eric Di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures; and Gary Palmucci, Kino Lorber. Archival prints are presented with support from the Packard Humanities Institute.