Thursday, May 19, 2022

Jacques Rozier: Dream vacations run aground

Photo by
Raymond Cauchetier.
While Godard remains the only one of the internationally famous French New Wave filmmakers to still be with us, a lesser-known French filmmaker whose work in the late Fifties and early Sixties was distinctly in line with the “nouvelle vague” (both the Cahiers posse and the Left Bank group) is still alive at 95. Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1962) is the greatest New Wave film to never receive a single legal release on U.S. DVD or Blu-ray (or even VHS), but his later lengthy comedies are just as worthy of study — and just as unavailable in the U.S.

This piece will not be a survey of Rozier’s life and career, but rather an in-depth exploration of the four fiction films of his that are available in France on DVD and are thankfully now all on the Rarefilmm site. Adieu Philippine is most definitely the masterpiece in the bunch, but the three comedy features that followed possess a charm and a deadpan notion of (Rozier’s favorite theme) things falling apart that makes them very unique farces.

Younger Rozier.
Although Rozier’s 1955 comic short about a precocious schoolboy, “Rentree des classes” is delightful, the true prelude to Philippine is Rozier’s short “Blue Jeans,” which qualifies as an early New Wave short, as it was released in 1957. All the hallmarks of the movement are there: real locations, innovative camerawork, editing (mostly wipes here) to move the plot along, the behavior of young people as the subject, and “empty” moments where the characters contemplate their future.

The films follows two young men in Cannes — Rozier offering a preliminary version of a theme he loves, namely people on vacation. The boys wander the city and the beach trying to pick up girls, but when they get them they have neither the money to romance them properly nor the savoir faire to move it to the “next level.”

Rozier employs an older-sounding narration to voice the thoughts (in past tense) of one of the young men. The age in the voice convinces us that, while this short was shot in the present tense, the events are being pondered by an older man remembering his youth. (Rozier, like the other New Wavers, was around 30 when he made his filmmaking debut.)

His feature debut, Adieu Philippine (watch it on Rarefilmm) is indeed his best-known film. The film contains all of the facets that New Wave debut features have, plus it has a wonderful musical soundtrack consisting of original compositions by Jacques Denjean, Paul Mattei, and Maxime Saury, pop songs, and some irresistible (to the characters and us) cha-cha music.

The film’s plot is beautifully structured. The most commonplace aspect of it — two young women (Stefania Sabatini, Yveline Céry) are in love with one young man (Jean-Claude Aimini) — is complemented by the fact that the young man knows that he’s about to be “called up” for military service in Algeria (during the Algerian War, a conflict that was not supposed to be mentioned in French films).

This serious element serves as a brilliant counterpoint to the mostly light-hearted tone of the film, which is emphasized in the second half from the shift in location — the lead Parisian trio go on a Club Med vacation to Corsica. In the final scenes, the girls begin to truly suffer over their “shared” love of the boy, and the boy finally registers his uncertainty at going off to war.

Thus, Philippine is an apparently light romantic comedy that has a barely concealed serious subtext. This is particularly fascinating in light of the fact that the film falls into the “two carefree girls” subgenre of New Wave film, which stretches from Godard’s “Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick” (1959) to Rivette’s masterwork Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Rozier added flavor to his tale of young people by hiring non-professionals for the three lead roles. They are all surprisingly good and lend an air of awkwardness and authenticity to their roles.

The visual experimentation that Rozier utilized in “Blue Jeans” is used wonderfully here, as the wipes — and jumpcuts and fades — again convey the movement of time, while the film’s most memorable musical sequence has the camera serving at one point as the “dance partner” for one of the girls (Céry). 

As a cha-cha tune plays, she dances with us, staring into the camera, providing the sort of bond with the viewer that characterized the famous moment in Monika (1953) by Bergman where Harriet Andersson looks straight into the camera (as Godard had Karina do in Vivre Sa Vie).

The film’s release was delayed for a few years. It was shot in 1960 and was to be edited and released in ’61. There was a major problem, however — the sound was missing from various scenes, and so Rozier had to lip-read what the characters said, since he had allowed his non-pro leads to largely improvise their dialogue.

Godard was a great admirer of Rozier’s (see below), to the extent that he introduced him to the producer Georges de Beauregard. Unfortunately, Rozier didn’t get along with Beauregard; it is noted in Rozier’s French Wikipedia bio that Rozier’s feud with the producer was one reason he was considered “the enfant terrible of the New Wave.” Philippine came out without Beauregard’s name on it, and in a version that had been reedited by Rozier from the initial cut intended for release, approved by the producer. 

Rozier may not have been a writer for the Cahiers or a Left Bank storyteller, but his work was very warmly received by two of the most outspoken of the “nouvelle vague.” Francois Truffaut’s review proclaimed: “You will not find a single unusual frame in Adieu Philippine, not a single camera trick, and neither will you discover a single false note nor any vulgarity. Nor will you find ‘poetic moments’; the film is an uninterrupted poem. Its poetry could not emerge clearly from looking at rushes; it arises from any number of perfect harmonies between images and words, sounds and music.” [Truffaut, The Films in My Life, 1978, Simon & Schuster, pp. 324-325]

Godard declared Philippine to be one of his ten favorite films of 1963, and wrote about “Blue Jeans”: “Here the truth of the document makes common cause with the grace of the narration. True are the two layabouts who patrol Cannes on scooters in search of girls; graceful the long tracking shots along the Croisette or the rue d’Antibes, boldly edited one after the other in direct cuts. True the dialogue and attitude; graceful the realism of the photography and the shutters which poetically scan the afternoon on the warm sand…. It is a film about time passing — in doing what? In exchanging kisses. So its moral, both gay and sad, is that of Louis Aragon’s quatrain:

In the crossways of kisses/The years pass too quickly/Beware beware/Shattered memories.”

[Godard, Godard on Godard, ed: Milne, 1972, The Viking Press, pp. 114-15]

Uncle Jean’s opinion of Philippine was pithier: “Quite simply the best French film of these last years.”

Regardless of these raves, the film failed at the box office. It took nearly a decade for Rozier to produce his second fiction feature. In the years between he directed shorts and several original TV programs, many of which were about music (popular and classical) and fashion. A bunch of these shorts can be found on the “underside” of the Internet. Most are not available with English subs, but a few are.

The two earliest shorts (mentioned above) are both included in the French box set with English subtitles; two others, “Dans le vent” (an early Sixties short about the fashion trend of women wearing capes) and the extremely silly “Nono Nenesse” (a 1970s pilot for a TV show where four adult actors, including noted comic performers Jacques Villeret and Bernard Menez, played precocious babies) are also available with English subtitles on the Net  (although the latter barely needs any).

Three of the best of Rozier’s interim documentaries have been included on Criterion discs. “Paparazzi” and “Bardot et Godard” (both 1964) are on the Contempt release — both were authorized by Godard to show the making of the film, with the former focusing on the many photographers trying to get even a telephoto glimpse of Bardot, the latter showing some location footage and explaining the film’s plot and themes. Rozier’s full-length 1964 doc about the legendary Jean Vigo for the “Cinéastes de notre temps” series is included on the Complete Jean Vigo collection on Criterion. (My review of the set is here.)

The subsequent, lengthy comedy features by Rozier are, as noted above, included in the French box set and on the Rarefilmm site. The first of these is the epic-length (for a comedy) Du côté d'Orouët (watch it on Rarefilmm), which is the most “immersive” of Rozier’s comedies crafted in the documentary style. Shot on 16mm for French TV in 1969, the film was never shown on television and was released to theaters four years later.

No dubbing or visual effects for Rozier — he shot Orouët in a candid style with direct sound. All the better to convey the realistic side of a journey to the Atlantic coast by three young women who are looking for diversions from city life.

These ladies giggle. A lot. They in fact spend a great deal of the first two-thirds of the film giggling at various situations. Joëlle (Danièle Croisy) is our initial focus of attention, as we see her at her white-collar office job. She has been invited on vacation by her friend Kareen (Françoise Guégan), who has the ability to share with cousin Caroline (Caroline Cartier) a family beachfront house in the coastal town of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie. Shortly into their visit, the girls are joined by nerdy Gilbert (Bernard Menez), Joëlle’s coworker, who has a pretty evident crush on her.

Gilbert becomes the central figure in the film, with Kareen and Caroline teasing and taunting him, and Joëlle being oddly cold. The film’s tone shifts at the hour and 45 minute mark (Orouët runs a full 154 minutes) when Joëlle is openly seen as being miserable at the dinner table. Rozier studies the antic behavior of the three girls and Gilbert up until then, and his documentary approach (documentary conveying a “serious” tone to most viewers) does blend in an unusual fashion with the light-hearted silliness.

The last half-hour finds the vacation falling apart, as the girls lose their taste for the local life by the beach and Gilbert finally snaps — after preparing a big dinner that no one eats, he finally notes to Kareen that “you take me for an imbecile.” This rebellion is cemented in the final, “turnaround” scene where we are back in Paris and Joëlle watches at a restaurant as her new coworker flirts with Gilbert, while she (Joëlle) laments how uncertain her future is.

Menez featured
on the DVD release.
The above sounds like quite a lot of plot, but it is actually conveyed in a very short span of time. One comes away from Orouët thinking of it as a tale of a man who has been (latter 20th-century phrase) “friend-zoned” by the object of his affection and can find no way out. (This was further underscored by the fact that Menez went on to have a successful career as a confused “nice guy” comic actor in TV and movies.)

Orouët does rework the notion behind Philippine: that “happy summer vacation” movies can have dramatic subplots lurking behind the carefree images of girls in swimsuits. Rozier continued to explore vacations that go awry in his next two comedy features. 

Watching Rozier’s lengthy comedies one is struck by his desire to create humor in a deadpan fashion by shooting the most farcical sequences in real time. This sense of “real duration” comedy that lasts longer than that in conventional farces (which run 80–100 minutes tops) is quite a tall order for a filmmaker, and only one other filmmaker in my opinion has undertaken it and succeeded; Jean Rouch in the several-hour version of Petit a Petit (1970), about African dignitaries who visit Paris to find out how to properly build skyscrapers. (This version is rarely exhumed, but I saw it at Anthology Film Archives many years ago.)

Orouët was indeed Rozier’s longest comedy, but his next feature, The Castaways of Turtle Island (1976; watch it on Rarefilmm), has the most solid comedic premise: A travel agent comes up with a “Robinson Crusoe” getaway where the customers go to a desert island and live by their wits.

The travel agent is played by the great French comic actor Pierre Richard, who by the time of Castaways was already famous, having made The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1972). Rozier was asked to dream up a vehicle for Richard, who was eager to work with Rozier but who had to move on to a different project at a certain point — therefore, an odd twist near the end of the film where his character disappears for several scenes and then is revealed to have been jailed.

As with all of Rozier’s features, Castaways has an episodic structure, in which Richard and chubby, jovial Jacques Villeret function as a comedy team, running the vacation in a wholly incompetent manner. The passengers initially like the idea of being adventurous, but they soon grow tired of Richard’s odd demands — for example, he stipulates that they must swim from boat to shore as they approach the island, since Crusoe was the survivor of a shipwreck. Thus, their boat can’t neatly dock at their destination.

A passenger who remains interested is Julie (Caroline Cartier), a press attaché whom Rozier utilizes as a narrator in the last third of the movie. This might have been because of Richard’s “disappearance” from the plot or because a “joining” device was needed to guide the viewer, since Rozier had no completed script for the film and allowed the actors to improvise.

The scenes that work best are the ones in which Richard imparts his castaway “logic” to the passengers. The scenes that don’t quite gel are an introductory subplot about Richard cheating on his girlfriend with a Brazilian woman (which runs the first 20 minutes of the picture and amounts to nothing in terms of the story as a whole) and some of the sequences at the end of the journey, where Villeret and Cartier nearly become a romantic couple.

Rozier is quite skilled at shifting the tone of his films. Even so, the chubby and playful Villeret seems like a very odd choice as the would-be Crusoe who does indeed know what he’s doing on the desert island — and thus seems desirable to the press attaché.

As had happened with Rozier’s two preceding features, Castaways had a troubled post-production period, after an eight-week in Guadeloupe and Dominica. The producers didn’t like Rozier’s improvisatory method of filming and the large amount of footage he shot. It took two years before he had a final cut assembled, and the film ultimately failed at the box office, despite Richard’s enthusiasm for the project from start to finish.

As it stands, Castaways has some great scenes and memorable images, and it leads the way to Rozier’s next comedy, Maine Ocean (1986).

Maine Ocean (watch it on Rarefilmm) is the closest thing to a conventional French farce that Rozier ever made, but it still has all the hallmarks of his style, from documentary filming techniques to deadpan comedy rendered in “real duration.” The difference, here, however, is that the filmmaker didn’t concentrate his energies on delivering a linear storyline — he lavishes attention here on subplots and gets rid of all his main characters save one in the final scene. The characters do take a very linear trip, as is reflected in the title, from the Gare Montparnasse (which is located on the Avenue du Maine in Paris) to the Atlantic Ocean.

The plot, such as it is, starts off with a classic farcical misunderstanding: a Brazilian dancer (Rosa-Maria Gomes) who speaks very little French is accosted on a train by two by-the-books ticket takers (Bernard Menez, Luis Rego) who badger her about not having followed ticket-approval protocols. A French lawyer (Lydia Feld, who also coscripted with Rozier) who speaks Portuguese comes to her aid, and the dancer ends up accompanying the lawyer to one of her trials — a very funny case involving a violent fisherman (Yves Alonso) who believes himself to be easygoing and a victim of circumstances.

In a show of spontaneity that is the norm in Maine Ocean, the lawyer then accompanies the dancer on her cross-country trip to “see the sea” at Les Sables-d'Olonne. (They eventually wind up in a fishing town on Yeu Island.) The newfound friends then re-encounter the two ticket takers and the violent client, all of whom are in love with our heroines.

This ragtag group are joined by a Mexican entrepreneur (a wonderfully over-the-top Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), who believes the Brazilian dancer can sing (which she can’t). He sets in motion the third act, in which there is a delightful scene set in an empty civic center, where the entrepreneur finds out the truth about the Brazilian, and all the characters (including the drunken ticket takers and the equally drunk fisherman) take part in an impromptu dance.

Benez’s ticket taker ends the film alone, taking a circuitous journey home to his wife and kids in Nantes. Although one misses the rest of the cast, his character’s moving from a small boat to a bigger one, back to a smaller one, and then to the smallest of all in the finale to reach the shore makes him perhaps the ultimate Rozier figure — a guy whose vacation fell apart but who has exciting and incredible memories that will last him the rest of his life.

Menez is clearly one of Rozier’s favorite performers (the Wiki photos of Rozier in both his American and French Wiki bios come from an appearance the filmmaker made at a Menez book signing), but the performer that amused this viewer the most is Yves Alfonso, who had showy roles in Godard’s Masculin-Feminin, Made in U.S.A., and Weekend. Alfonso’s staccato-sounding way of speaking (which is actually a regional dialect of French called “Poitou”) and his character’s short temper are great comic devices that make him stand out from the otherwise friendly and low-key characters in the film.

As noted above, Maine Ocean is closer to the “normal” French film farce than any other Rozier picture. Average French farces move along familiar lines — mistaken identity, characters who try to reinforce their lies, role-playing, and the misadventures of dunderheaded comic “types.” The fact that Rozier worked in this, more traditional fashion of emphasizing characters and gags most likely contributed to the film being not only a critical success (all of Rozier’s films had that distinction) but also a modest hit with the public.

The Seventies farces of filmmaker Bertrand Blier, whose dark and absurdist comedies are generally dissimilar to Rozier’s (and who was the subject of a series of 14 episodes on the Funhouse TV show!), bears one strong element in common with Rozier’s humorous films, especially Maine Ocean: the male characters are all idiots and the women possess the clear minds (or at least the rational logic) needed to get things accomplished. Rozier is very different from Blier (and is from an earlier generation of French filmmaking), but their shared fascination for chaos-causing males does unite their comedies.

Perhaps it was the presence of Feld as a co-scripter, but the vacation in Maine Ocean involves no lingering images of women in swimsuits — although the Brazilian does dance in her very skimpy costume in the civic center scene.

Rozier’s work changed a great deal from the late Fifties through the late Eighties, but his visual approach remained the same. One can lament that he was only able to make five feature films in his career (the last being Fifi Martingale in 2001, costarring Alfonso and Feld, who again coscripted). But those films are engrossing models of French farce, delivered in a uniquely realistic manner and with a common theme — sympathetic but harried characters using their “getaway” vacation to prove something to themselves. It’s a very different approach that refreshed an age-old genre.

Rozier in recent years.
I said at the outset of this piece that I would not be discussing M. Rozier’s personal life, but I must at least mention the latest, very sad headline that appeared across the Internet in July of 2021 concerning Rozier. A movement arose to amass many signatures on a petition to get the filmmaker lodging after it was revealed that his landlord was throwing him and his wife (who was ill at the time) out of their apartment.

This is a very sad development, which is explained in English here; the fact that his eviction was occurring as he (age 94!) prepared prints of his films for a tribute to his work at the Cinematheque Francaise was an even unkinder cut. A recent article in English on the Criterion website states briefly that “fortunately, filmmaker and writer Paul Vecchiali came to [Rozier’s] aid.” I could find no confirmation of how Vecchiali helped out Rozier — one must also be aware that Vecchiali himself is currently 92 years old.

If anyone has any additional info or links about what is happening with M. Rozier’s living situation, please let me know in the comments section. In the meantime, I urge everyone to watch the Rozier films that are now available on the Net, and rejoice in the fact that a filmmaker who worked against adverse conditions for most of his career is finally getting his vacation in the sun.

UPDATE (5/23): Thanks much to "Gone to the Movies" for the note verifying that Vecchiali did indeed help out Rozier. The organization mentioned in the Tweet is the Société des Auteurs Réalisateurs Producteurs. It's good to know that old New Wavers are there to help each other out. Bravo, M. Vecchiali!

Thanks to friend and superior cineaste Paul Gallagher and Rarefilmm mastermind Jon Whitehead for help with access to these films. The Rarefilmm site can be found here.

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