French Films are Golden Nuggets

Issue section: 

Preview of 'The Golden Age of French Cinema', National Film Theatre, London

L'Age d'Or ('The Golden Age' around 1929-45) includes many of the enduring classics of French cinema.

Part one of the season, showing in June, is screening Jean Vigo's 1934 masterpiece L'Atalante. This was the anarchist director's only feature film before his death, aged 29. The script was imposed on him, but Vigo turned the movie into a beautiful hymn to the dignity and dreams of working people - a barge skipper, his new wife and the two crewmates. From their wedding in the country ('She couldn't wait to get away'), along the Seine, to the canals of Paris, and on to Le Havre, we follow the crew's sometimes turbulent journey expressed with an overwhelming humanity.

Zéro de Conduite (Nought for Conduct), Vigo's earlier short film, is set in a corrupt and stifling boys' boarding school. The famous ending has the boys revolting during Commemoration Day celebrations, where the civic dignitaries are represented by straw dummies. This revolutionary classic, banned until 1945, was the inspiration for Lindsay Anderson's 1968 movie If.

A Nous La Liberté (1932) by René Clair is also well worth seeing. The comedy begins with two friends attempting to break out of jail. Only one succeeds, and we see him rise to become the owner of a huge phonograph company. His old friend begins work at his factory, which closely replicates the production lines and imposing architecture of prison.

Golden Age part two runs through July.

Jean Gabin's mesmeric screen presence, simple technique and working class authenticity made him the great star of prewar France. In Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko, Gabin is a gangster hiding in the Algerian Casbah. This classic crime/romance melodrama's marvellous lighting, photography, performances and dark tone combined to put the noir into film noir forever after. Pépé le Moko also avoids the imperialistic, often racist, attitudes of earlier films by showing the empathy between Pépé and his Algerian hosts.

Marcel Carné's brooding Le Jour se Lève (1939) is a classic of poetic realism in which Gabin plays another outsider. Having killed his rival in love and barricaded himself into an attic, he reflects on how he came to be there, waiting through the night for his inevitable capture, listening to the police sirens getting closer. The movie's scriptwriter, surrealist poet Jacques Prévert, a Communist, wrote many of the greatest films of the era.

Renoir's brilliant La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game) was also scripted by Prévert. Renoir was influenced by Communism and had been deeply committed to the Popular Front, but by 1939 the class collaboration of the leadership had squandered all the advances of the workers' movement. The setting is a country house, representing France. The upstairs, downstairs plot lines are secondary to the more general themes and tone. A cull of rabbits takes place on a neighbouring estate (a reference to the Spanish Civil War). This is then disturbingly replicated as masters and servants join together for a shooting party that becomes a visual orgy of killing.

There are 27 movies showing in this welcome season, many rarely shown.