Monday, September 10, 2018

Noir and romance, comedy and drama: the ‘tone changes’ of Jacques Becker (part 1 of two)

“I’m not meticulous, I am maniacal!” – Jacques Becker (Arts, Dec. 1954)

Bingeing — it’s what TV fans do, right? They make a big deal of it, discuss it with their friends, write about it online, to the point where it has become an all-too-familiar phrase referring to watching every episode of a series in a row, over a short span of time (most always through a streaming platform, because Americans is the laziest peoples…). Here’s a super-secret: Culture and entertainment fans have been doing this since... well, forever.

Fiction readers have “binged” their favorite writers, music junkies have listened to their favorite artists for weeks/months at a time, and cinephiles have gone to film retros of their favorites for eons now. And all these long-established methods of bingeing involved (gasp) leaving the house, to gather and/or experience the work!

One of the utter joys of living in NYC is being able to see all of a filmmaker’s work in a short span of time in a theater. Thus, an occasion like the Film Forum’s comprehensive Jacques Becker festival, which ran from Aug. 1 to Aug. 16, was a festival not to be missed. It allowed me to see all of his rarest films in one short span of time — since then, I’ve rewatched two of the films and read two books about Becker (see references at the bottom).

Becker is an unusual case for American film fans. Three of his films, undisputed classics (Casque d’or, Touchez pas au grisbi, Le Trou), have pretty much always been in circulation in the U.S. — all available on DVD at the current time. But, aside from a VHS release of two others (Antoine and Antoinette and Rendezvous in July) in 1998, his other films have been out of circulation over here.

Becker died prematurely but accomplished much in his last two decades. He went from being an assistant director to Jean Renoir in the 1930s to making films of his own during the Occupation, following his release from a German prison camp. He forged a recognizable style, distinguished by his meticulous visuals and attention to detail, and even more recognizable subject matter, in the Forties and Fifties, and died at the age of 53 in 1960 of hemochromatosis (a build-up of iron in the bloodstream).

The Film Forum retro featured all 13 of his features and the films on which he assisted Renoir. While I didn’t see the films in chronological order, it was more than apparent that Becker got better and better as a filmmaker from ’42 to ’60. He blended the humanist concerns that he surely drew from Renoir with a vital visual style that only got “showy” when he was intent on probing a character’s dilemma — and then a super-tight close-up was used.

Becker directs Montparnasse 19.
It’s easy to see how his work influenced the French New Wave, who wrote favorably about his films when they were critics. His use of real locations in romances like Antoine and Antoinette influenced Truffaut and Godard, but his focus on common characters — both in the forefront and as marginal “color” — is reflected in the early work of the New Wave directors.

He never made a film directly based on his own experiences, but his life crept into his narratives. “You can only tell a personal story well on screen,” he maintained. “You can borrow from someone else but you must love it so much that, by thinking and working on it, you end up forgetting that it belongs to someone else.” [“L’auteur du film? Un auteur complet,” L’Ecran Francais 1947]

Becker with young
Jeanne Moreau.
Coincidentally, Becker completed 13 features, as did his countrymen and colleagues Jean-Pierre Melville (an admirer of Becker’s work, who died at 55) and Robert Bresson (who lived to the ripe old age of 98). Out of the 13 features he directed, eight are absolutely terrific, two are very good, and three are uneven.

What was the word that his biggest critical advocates used to describe his films? Uncle Jean (aka J-L Godard) put it in his usual detailed style: “There are several good ways of making French films. In the Italian style, like Renoir. In the Viennese style, like Ophuls. In the New York style, like Melville. But only Becker was and remains French in the French style.” [quote from the 1960 article “Frere Jacques,” Godard Par Godard, p. 209; translation mine]

The filmmaker himself agreed, several years before: “It’s a bit of my entomologist side: [the films] take place in France, I am French, my work is about the French, I observe the French, I am interested in the French.” [Interview conducted by Truffaut and Rivette, Cahiers du Cinema, Feb. 1954; translation mine]

His first feature, Dernier Atout (1942), was made during the German Occupation of France, and so it avoids political (or even humanist) messages entirely and is merely a frothy bit of entertainment. Oddly set in South America, the plot involves two French student policemen who compete for the distinction of being the school valedictorian. The slightly cross-eyed character actor Noel Roquevert (a favorite of Becker’s) plays their boss, and their assignment is to apprehend the second in command of an American crime ring.

The film is workmanlike and betrays none of Becker’s later mastery at depicting a criminal milieu. The most interesting thing is the convenient murder of one female lead, thus allowing the more handsome of our protagonists to take up with the second woman. (Atout also features way too much music on the soundtrack — Becker’s films after this contain scenes left silent, for dramatic emphasis.) 

Goupi Mains Rouges (1943), besides having a wild name (“Goupi Red Hands”), is Becker’s first masterwork. An uncategorizable picture that radically changes tone at least twice in its running time, Goupi starts out as a familiar tale of a city slicker visiting his (very) small town relations (the titular Goupi clan). His visit is initially quite nightmarish, with menacing events including a whipping and a murder.

The film then adopts a lighter tone as the city/country rift is emphasized, and then in its third act it is a well-constructed mystery that finds the most “backward” of the characters (the city slicker’s uncle, nicknamed “Red Hands”) turning into a sort of detective solving not only the murder, but the matter of where the family “treasure” is hidden.

An incredible leap forward from Atout, Goupi shows Becker in a more assured mode, switching effortlessly from genre to genre, and starting to use some of his trademark techniques, including an evocative use of music and a carefully subdued visual style.

Falabas (1945) presents more refinements, as this completely sincere yet wonderfully over-the-top melodrama begins with the sight of a dead man and a female mannequin lying on the sidewalk being gaped at by a group of women. We then track backward to find out how and why the “couple” landed there. With its tragic resolution already established, the film moves through its paces beautifully, as we see a ladies’ man fashion designer fall madly in love with one of his conquests.

Becker adopts the tone familiar to “women’s pictures” of the time but also moves the film quite deftly into obsessional territory, portraying the designer’s amorous fixation as une amour tres folle. Unlike the rather lengthy-for-its-plotline Atout, its 110-minute running time is perfectly utilized to show the designer’s increasingly crazy passion.

Becker’s fourth film, Antoine and Antoinette (1947), set the standard for Becker’s excellent run of love stories, which took place in a recognizable, realistic environment but contained fanciful plot twists and coincidences.

The film is considered the first of Becker’s “youth trilogy” — that term being a critical invention, since the films do not overlap in any way and the notion of a trilogy leaves out the fourth “young love” film, Rue de l’estrapade (’53). The plot is wafer-thin but beautifully executed: A young married couple are living on a tight budget until the girl (Claire Maffei) buys a winning lottery ticket… and the boy (Roger Pigaut) loses it in the Paris metro.

Here Becker devotes a good deal of time to setting up the characters and their colorful environment, an apartment building where the neighbors know each other very well, to the extent that one of Antoine’s friends (and Antoinette’s admirers) climbs out of his window and moves along the ledge to enter the couple’s apartment for a conversation. The only villain in the piece (besides fate, which lets Antoine lose his wallet with the lottery ticket in it) is a lecherous grocer, played by Noel Roquevert. 

One can see a clear line between Antoine and the later work of the New Wave. All of that younger generation looked up to Renoir (from whom Becker was carefully borrowing), but Truffaut’s work most clearly shows the influence of Becker. Many beautiful shots of Paris punctuate Antoine, prefiguring the shots of Parisian landmarks that appear in the first few films of every critic-turned-filmmaker in the Cahiers “posse” of nouvelle vague filmmakers. Becker also veered away from his mentor Renoir (who specialized in long takes) by including hundreds of shorter shots in Antoine. 

Rendezvous in July (1949) was the centerpiece of the retro, since Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein’s Rialto Pictures has acquired it for U.S. distribution (meaning, hopefully, there will be a fourth Becker film released by Criterion). This is the first time Becker adhered to an element he perfected in the next few films — presenting a story that has already begun (with the younger characters being differentiated from each other through a series of phone conversations that establish who each one is).

The Spanish critic Eulalia Iglesias points to Rendezvous as “the first film to treat the notion of youth culture.” [“Comedies of love, freedom, and youth,” Jacques Becker, 2016, p. 75] Given the fact that American movies had only previously focused on teens who were super-wholesome (the Andy Hardy pictures) or in a gang (the “Dead End Kids” movies, and later Forties dramas like City Across the River), Rendezvous is indeed an “early” study of young people who are neither ridiculously wholesome nor endearing crooks.

The film is just as charming as Antoine and yet it is not as sympathetic, because it is a group portrait and thus has more protagonists. The group-portrait aspect makes it a more fascinating time capsule, dwelling on the cultural fascinations of young people (college-age and twenty-somethings in this instance).

The lead male characters are interested in ethnography, jazz, and filmmaking; the lead females are both aspiring actresses who also have a love of jazz. Becker was 42 at the time of the film (Godard was later chided for being “too old” when he made the youth film Masculin-Feminin at the age of 36). He clearly felt connected to the characters, though, because he himself loved jazz and had the ethnographer/film student character — the conscience of the piece — lament that “The French aren’t making movies!”

Different viewers will latch onto different scenes as favorites. The jazz club scenes are the most joyful, while the moments in the theater-class are great satires of both pompous acting teachers and hammy acting students. The centerpiece of the film, though, is clearly the scene where the ethnographer freaks out on his fellow bohemian buddies, who have informed him that they can’t go on an expedition with him that was to be the subject of a documentary they would film as a team.

The scene seems to be one that could have easily utilized Woody Allen’s “author’s message” thought balloon (from What’s New Pussycat?), as Lucien (Daniel Gelin) tells his friends to “wake up, dammit!” and laments that the French aren’t making films (read: thoughtful auteur cinema, as distinguished from what the nouvelle vague writers later called the “tradition of quality” features). 

While the scene is overly preachy, one can see how it inspired (again!) the nouvelle vague critics, who were fed up with the films that Truffaut branded “le cinema de papa.” In a way, the sequence in Rendezvous is a “manifesto” moment in a film that has its share of dramatic sequences, but which will be best remembered for its light-hearted interludes — as when the lead characters ride together throughout Paris in an amphibious vehicle left over from the war (that takes them through the streets then into and across the Seine, and then back up on land) to drop off and pick up their little inner circle of friends.

Becker’s next love story, Edouard and Caroline (1952), is another beguiling concoction but, in comparison to the preceding two films, it comes off as a filmed play. The plot concerns a classical pianist (Daniel Gelin) whose wife (Anne Vernon) comes from a rich background. Her uncle is having a private party at which the pianist will perform — that is, if the couple can overcome their arguments.

Becker never made a bad romance, so Edouard is indeed very entertaining but it lacks the sense of place and feeling of community that Antoine and Rendezvous had. We also know from the beginning that the couple’s love is stronger than their petty squabbles and a happy ending is most certainly in the cards. (The film’s most notably odd aspect is that Vernon’s character is being seduced by her upper-class cousin, who likes reminding her of how poor her husband is.)

Interestingly, this film and his last young-couple film, Rue de l’Estrapade, were scripted by his real-life partner Annette Wademant. Perhaps this is the reason that Caroline and the female protagonist of Estrapade (both played by the wonderful Anne Vernon) are among the most fully realized women characters in Becker’s work?

The only onscreen interview with Becker that one can find online is this snippet from the INA archive, where he talks about Edouard and Caroline and his love of jazz (with no English subtitles):

Becker’s first masterpiece came out in 1952. Casque d’or was a flop at the box office in France when it first came out , but it became a big success in other countries and then returned to find a bigger French audience, and the richly deserved status of “classic.”

A beautifully constructed blend of romance and crime, the film is set in the “Apache” world of La Belle Epoque and the script was based on real-life individuals (whose fates in many regards were not as sad and doomed as the characters in the film are). Meek-looking Manda (Serge Reggiani) slays a gangster in a knife fight over the gangster’s moll (Simone Signoret). He and the moll then have an idyllic time together until Manda’s friend is arrested for the murder of the gangster, and Manda has to decide what to do.

The film works on many different levels, but most of all it is a moral tale, featuring a character with a very strict code of honor in a thoroughly dishonorable community (this emphasis on honor was one reason Casque was a favorite of Becker’s colleague Jean-Pierre Melville). The plot moves toward an inexorable conclusion and one of the best finales in Becker’s works (and cinema history), a heartbreaking gesture by Signoret that remains in the memory. Signoret and Reggiani are sublime in the film, and it loomed large in their filmography for the rest of their lives.

A beautiful scene from the film (with English subs):

Francois Truffaut was a major fan of the film and lionized it in his 1965 intro to the issue of L’Avant-Scene Cinema that contained the full script of the film: “Those of us who love Casque d'Or are clear in our minds that Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani had their best roles ever in it, even if the French public (but not the English, decidedly more subtle) was cool to this paradoxical coupling, so beautiful precisely because of its contrasts — a little man and a large woman, the little alley cat who is made of nothing but nerves, and the gorgeous carnivorous plant who doesn't turn her nose up at any morsel.” [Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life, 1975; 1978, Simon and Schuster, p. 177] 

Serge Reggiani in Casque d'or.
As is so common of great critics, Truffaut also summarized the appeal of the film in a single phrase when he noted that it evoked the past “with tenderness and violence by means of a refined use of tone changes.” [p. 178]

Here is some silent behind-the-scenes footage from the film’s production (which can be found on the Criterion release):

A wonderful bit of connecting-the-dots (which is what this blog and the Funhouse TV show have been all about for the last 25 years) appears in the bilingual book Jacques Becker [Festival de San Sebastian/Filmoteca Espanola, 2016, pp. 108], where it is noted that the memorable song “Le Temps des Cerises” is used at the end of Casque. This Utopian song, identified with the French Commune and then the Popular Front in the Thirties, has been used by filmmakers to summon up a feeling of a “paradise lost” (or about to be regained?).

Carlos F. Heredero notes (in his “Melancholy elegy for a defeated Utopia,”) that the song was later used prominently by other Funhouse deities – namely, Alain Tanner in his classic Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976) and Aki Kaurismaki in his dialogue-less melodrama Juha (1999). 

Part two to come.

In the meantime, here’s a beautifully edited clip-comp of Becker images:


– Quim Casas and Ana Cristiana Iriarte (eds.), Jacques Becker, Donostia Zinemaldia-Festival de San Sebastian/Filmoteca Espanola, 2016, Bilingual edition – in Spanish and English (the only English-language book on Becker!)

– Jean-Luc Godard, Godard Par Godard, Cahiers du Cinema/Editions de l’Etoile, 1985

– Jean Quevel, Jacques Becker, Cinema d’aujour’hui series, Editions Seghers, 1962

– Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life, 1975; 1978, Simon and Schuster]

Web link:

– Four vintage articles by Becker and one interview with him. [in French] La Belle Equipe website.