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The Left Bank Revisited: Marker, Resnais, Varda

In the early 1960s, critic and curator Richard Roud, faced with the “luxuriant flowering” of so many new talents under the wide umbrella of the French New Wave, attempted to draw a distinction between the directors allied with the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma (including Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard) and what he dubbed the “Left Bank” group. This latter rubric embraced a loose association of makers that consisted principally of the directors Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. The classification, which Roud admitted was a bit of a conceit, had been enacted for the simple fact that the Left Bank area of Paris was home to each of these directors. But Roud associated this neighborhood with a “state of mind” as well—one that in his estimation was synonymous with “a fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking.” He recognized as well that this community, long a center of the avant-garde, was also “traditionally frequented by the political Left.”

While Roud sadly passed away in 1988, the three directors whom he had first united nearly forty years ago continue to be actively engaged in filmmaking that is replete with as much intellect and adventurousness as ever. The shorts, documentaries, and features these directors have created could easily fill a month of our programming. Instead we present an intertwined sampling from the collective oeuvre of the “Left Bank” group.

For their assistance in the arrangements for this series, the Harvard Film Archive wishes to thank Olivier Bouin and staff at the French Consulate in Boston, Veronique Godard at the French Embassy in New York, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the American Cinematheque.

 


June 16 (Friday) 8:30 pm
June 17 (Saturday) 9 pm

La Jetee (The Jetty)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 1962, 35mm, b/w, 29 min.
With Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux
French with English subtitles

Marker’s sole fiction film is constructed (with one crucial, brief exception) from still photographs that are combined in serial fashion with voiceover narration and music. The result is one of cinema’s most compelling works, a love story set in a bleak future and involving time travel and memory. After the destruction of civilization by war, a member of the underground survivor community, haunted by glimpses of a barely recalled face, is sent by scientists back to the past to look for a key to humanity’s salvation. There he finds a lover, love of the world when it was still alive, and traces of his earlier self. This ecstatic, lyrical film conveys the pain and weight of modern history and the intense power of images.

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June 16 (Friday) 8:30 pm
June 17 (Saturday) 9 pm

Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime

Directed by Alain Resnais
France 1968, 35mm, color, 91 min.
With Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot, Anouk Ferjac
French with English subtitles
 

A poetic work of science fiction—kin to Marker’s La Jetée—Resnais’s film is a tightly wrought, mesmerizing exploration of memory and time. A man (Rich) is rescued by scientists from suicide and sent traveling in time, accompanied by a charming mouse who has been used in such experiments previously. The man becomes lost as fragmentary episodes from his past take over in a chaotic series of unordered events. Beautiful, tranquil, but increasingly menacing moments point to a love affair with a girl the man may or may not have killed.

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June 18 (Sunday) 8:30 pm
June 22 (Thursday) 9:15 pm

Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad)

Directed by Alain Resnais
France/Italy 1961, 35mm, b/w, 94 min.
With Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff
French with English subtitles

When this film appeared, viewers had never seen anything like it, and we can perhaps still say the same today. The characters meet in an opulent chateau/resort hotel with an elaborate geometric garden, and the air is heavy with memory and imagination of what might have occurred a year ago, what might occur now: a murder, a love affair. Working from a script by the celebrated novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Resnais created dazzling surfaces, an hypnotic rhythm of deliberately paced camera movements, and  a dense atmosphere of sexual tension centered about Seyrig, who delivers a great, otherworldly performance.

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June 19 (Monday) 7 pm

Du Côté de la Côté (The Riviera—Today's Eden)

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1958, 35mm, color, 24 min.
With the voices of Roger Coggio, Anne Olivier, Jean-Christophe Benoît
French with English subtitles

One of a series of films Varda made for the French Tourist Office, this short subverts its official purpose with humor and irreverence, a sense of the incon-gruous, and a quasi-surrealist take on the region reminiscent of Vigo’s A Propos de Nice. Elegant images and witty commentary contrast the crowded pleasures of the beaches with the stately, private gardens of the rich as all humanity seeks a paradise on earth.

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June 19 (Monday) 7 pm

La Pointe Courte

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1954, 35mm, b/w, 89 min.
With Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret, inhabitants of La Pointe Courte
French with English subtitles

Varda had trained in art history and worked as the official photographer for the Théâtre Nationale Populaire in Paris before turning to cinema. In her ambitious first film, often considered a progenitor of the French New Wave, she interweaves two parallel stories to create a portrait of the Mediterranean fishing port in which she grew up. The first involves a married couple (Monfort and Noiret) who struggle to right their relationship in the face of deep differences of personality and background. The other story, in the  manner of Italian Neorealism, focuses on the fishermen of La Pointe Courte and their struggles against poverty and officialdom. Varda moves back and forth between these two bodies of material, imitating, as she has said, Faulkner’s technique of parallel construction in The Wild Palms.

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June 19 (Monday) 9 pm

Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Even Statues Die)

Directed by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker
France 1950–53, 16mm, b/w, 22 min.
In French

This collaborative film, banned for more than a decade by French censors as an attack on French colonialism (and now available only in shortened form), is a deeply felt study of African art and the decline it underwent as a result of its contact with Western civilization. Marker’s characteristically witty and thoughtful commentary is combined with images of a stark formal beauty in this passionate outcry against the fate of an art that was once integral to communal life but became debased as it fell victim to the demands of another culture.

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June 19 (Monday) 9 pm

Sunday in Peking (Dimanche à Pékin)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 1955, 16mm, color, 22 min.
French with English subtitles

After World War II, Marker traveled across the world as a journalist and still photographer and as editor of a series of French travel books that combined personal impressions with facts—a style that would come to inform his own highly personal film essays. This was his first solo film (after collaborating with Resnais again, as assistant director on Night and Fog) and must be one of the first accounts by a western filmmaker of Mao’s China. The film gives us plenty of Beijing city life and glimpses of a China unknown in the West, all set to a witty voiceover commentary that delights in the oddities and contradictions of Chinese society.

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June 19 (Monday) 9 pm

The Koumiko Mystery (Le Mystère Koumiko)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 1965, 16mm, color, 54 min.
French with English subtitles

The peripatetic and famously elusive Marker created this film essay, his first account of Tokyo, during the Olympic games, acting as usual in the triple role of cameraman, scenarist, and editor. The tour of Tokyo is conducted by Koumiko Muraoka, a young Japanese woman the director claims to have discovered in the crowds at the games. Mixing elements of the city symphony—street scenes, neon signs, crowds, the monorail—with fragments of comic books and other cultural materials, Marker creates a rich portrait of modern-day Tokyo.

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June 20 (Tuesday) 7 pm

Le Joli Mai (Lovely May)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 1963, 16mm, b/w, 123 min.
With voiceover commentary read by Simone Signoret
French with English subtitles

This grand-scale, beautifully photo-graphed study of Paris and its people during the month that marked the end of the Algerian War presents interviews with an assortment of citizens and then broadens out to consider the physical setting and political context in which they live. The film has been compared to Jean Rouch’s cinéma vérité classic, Chronicle of a Summer, made the year before. Marker begins and ends Le Joli Mai with meditative, poetic voiceover commentary as only he can write it, but otherwise yields to the sounds of Paris and the voices of a slum dweller, a merchant, an African student, an Algerian worker, a priest turned militant communist, and others. Winner of the International Critics’ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

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June 21 (Wednesday) 9 pm

Muriel (Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour)

Directed by Alain Resnais
France/Italy 1963, 35mm, color, 116 min.
With Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Nita Klein
French with English subtitles

In a technical tour de force, the story of Muriel emerges gradually from the nearly thousand discrete scenes Resnais weaves together with an innovative sound track. Not surprisingly, memory and its emotional undercurrents form the film’s thematic core. Hélène (Seyrig) has a gambling problem. Alphonse (Kérien), an old lover from the past, shows up with a young woman (Klein) he claims is his niece. Hélène’s stepson, Bernard, is obsessed with memories of the war in Algeria, a young girl named Muriel who was tortured to death there, and his friend Robert, who is possibly responsible for the tragedy. Cutting constantly from one character to the next, from night to day, and from location to location, Resnais sculpts a story of deep passion and humanity. His first film in color, Muriel took the International Critics’ Prize at Venice in 1963.

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June 22 (Thursday) 7 pm

Lion's Love

Directed by Agnès Varda
France/US 1968, 35mm, color, 110 min.
With Viva, Shirley Clarke, James Rado, Jerome Ragni

Varda spent three years in Los Angeles in the late 1960s with her husband, Jacques Demy, and in addition to filming a pair of documentaries—one about the California uncle she discovered and another on the Black Panthers—made this feature film about sixties’ hippie culture and the political chaos surrounding it. The story, which verges on documentary, concerns an independent filmmaker (played by the doyenne of American independent filmmakers, Shirley Clarke) scrambling to develop a project with Warhol star Viva and Hair authors Rado and Ragni. Freely mixing improvisation, scripted material, and television footage covering events such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the shooting of Warhol, the film merges its style with the spirit of the times.

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June 23 (Friday) 7 pm
June 26 (Monday) 7 pm 

(NOTE: Agnès Varda will NOT be appearing.)

Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7)

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1961, 35mm, b/w and color, 90 min.
With Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothée Blanck
French with English subtitles

This unusual, funny, and emotionally affecting film made Varda famous. We spend ninety minutes—in this film, screen time equals real time—with a beautiful young pop singer (Marchand) as she awaits the results of a doctor’s report that may indicate cancer. She visits a fortune teller, spends time in her apartment, rehearses songs, deals with a lover and with songwriters who are beginning to exasperate her, and has an adventure with a soldier, home from Algeria, whom she meets in the street. As the film proceeds, revealing Paris of a certain time and milieu, we experience with Cléo the beginnings of a transformation that brings new perception to her world.

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June 23 (Friday) 9:30 pm

Guernica

Directed by Alain Resnais, with Robert Hessens
France 1950, 16mm, b/w, 13 min.
French with English subtitles

Resnais made a number of creative documentaries on art in the late 1940s. This small but powerful film opens with a photograph of the destroyed town of Guernica, a casualty of the Spanish Civil War, and uses fragments of Picasso’s epic painting, together with other works by the artist and a passionate poetic text by Paul Éluard, to create a moving protest against war and a hymn to the possibilities of humanity. Characteristic elements of Resnais’s style are already in evidence in this early work: the use of editing to project a new vision of reality and the subtle and surprising interplay of images with a literary text.

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June 23 (Friday) 9:30 pm

La Guerre Est Finie (The War Is Over)

Directed by Alain Resnais
France/Sweden 1966, 35mm, b/w, 122 min.
With Yves Montand, Ingrid Thulin, Geneviève Bujold
French with English subtitles

One of Resnais’s most stylistically accessible and politically committed films, La Guerre est finie tells of an aging Spanish leftist (Montand) who travels between Paris and Spain as part of a clandestine group dedicated to the overthrow of the Franco regime. Torn emotionally between his long established mistress (Thulin) and a young student (Bujold), and challenged by younger revolutionaries to realize that the center of the political struggle has moved away from him, he is forced to make choices about his life and his political ideals. A series of premonitions told in “flash forward” near the film’s conclusion make powerful statements about memory and aspiration, commitment and faith.

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June 24 (Saturday) 3 pm

A Grin Without a Cat: Scenes From the Third World War 1967-1977 (Le Fond de l'Air Est Rouge)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 1977/1988, video, b/w and color, 180 min.
French with English subtitles

After a number of years working anonymously with a filmmaking collective dedicated to activist production, Marker reemerged to make films under his own name again. Here he surveys the rise and fall of the worldwide revolutionary movement of the 1960s and 70s, encompassing France in May of 1968, U.S. anti–Vietnam War riots, the Czech uprising and its encounter with the Soviet military, and much more—all through a montage of anonymous footage by others that had never entered the public view. There is even an intriguing analysis of the Odessa steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Potemkin, which leads us to consider the mythology of image-making and the role it has played in history. The version we screen is a revision of the 1977 film, which originally ran to four hours.

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June 24 (Saturday) 7 pm
(NOTE: Agnès Varda will NOT be appearing.)

Plaisir D'Amour en Iran (Delight of Love in Iran)

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1976, 35mm, color, 6 min.
With Valérie Mairesse, Ali Raffi, voice of Thérèse Liotard
French with English subtitles

This brief fictional sketch draws on the actors and characters from Varda’s award-winning 1976 feature L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), which stirred controversy in feminist and non-feminist circles alike.


June 24 (Saturday) 7 pm

Le Bonheur (Happiness)

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1964, 35mm, color, 82 min.
With Jean-Claude Drouot, Claire Drouot, Marie-France Boyer
French with English subtitles

In this acclaimed but controversial film, the Drouots and their real-life children portray an idyllically happy family residing in the suburbs of Paris. The artisan husband decides to increase their happiness by incorporating his young mistress (Boyer) into the family unit. An ensuing tragedy is followed by a strange resumption of happiness. Opulently photographed in Impressionist tones by the cinematographer of Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg and set to strains of Mozart, the film was a major hit of the 1960s French New Wave and took the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. And yet its portrait of boundless joy continues to disturb.  In Varda’s words, it is “a beautiful fruit that tastes of cruelty.”

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June 24 (Saturday) 9:15 pm

The Last Bolshevik (Le Dernier Bolchevik ou le Tombeau d’Alexandre)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 1993, video, b/w and color, 120 min.
French with English subtitles

Marker’s video is a tribute to the Soviet director Alexander Medvedkin, who operated the famous “agitprop” train in the 1930s and made the classic comedy/allegory Happiness (1935), a remarkable fantasy on the theme of collective farming. Marker presents the film in the form of letters to his now deceased friend, with words and images that evoke the man, his works, the history of the Soviet Union, and the disciple’s own tender interest in the subject. The film includes rare footage from Medvedkin’s works, which were surely a model for Marker, especially during the years of his own collective filmmaking activities.

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June 25 (Sunday) 7 pm (NOTE: Agnès Varda will NOT be appearing)
June 27 (Tuesday) 9 pm

L'Opera-Mouffe

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1958, 35mm, b/w, 17 min.

Music (hence the “Opera” of the title) links these documentary scenes from the vegetable-market on the rue Mouffetarde in Paris. Varda herself was pregnant at the time she made this film, and the images and moods reflect the subjectivity, the peculiarly heightened senses, of her condition as she seeks out symbolic reinforcement in the objects and people around her. The director insisted that this work was neither reportage nor documentary but a special genre she preferred to call “neighborhood cinema.”

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Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1985, 35mm, color, 104 min.
With Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril, Stephane Freiss
French with English subtitles

Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi)

Directed by Jacques Rivette
France 1988, 35mm, color, 140 min.
With Bulle Ogier, Benoit Regent, Laurence Côte
French with English subtitles

Vagabond remains Varda’s greatest critical and box office success (it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and earned its young star a French César award). The film follows, through flashbacks, the last weeks in the life of a leather-jacketed, alienated teenage drifter (Bonnaire) who has been wandering the south of France in the cold autumn, interacting with an array of various locals, sleeping where she can, trying at times to embrace life, and eventually giving up on it. The film’s use of location and its peppering of nonactors among the professional cast give it a documentary feel, though everything has been carefully crafted and set to masterful rhythms and exquisite cinematography. Varda presents a cross-section of provincial French life and demonstrates how deeply at odds it is with the free spirit of her protagonist.

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June 25 (Sunday) 9:30 pm
June 27 (Tuesday) 7 pm

Providence

Directed by Alain Resnais
France/Switzerland 1977, 35mm, color, 107 min.
With John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn

In his first English-language production, Resnais employs a script by the British playwright David Mercer, an outstanding ensemble cast, and an effective score by Miklos Rozsa in a reflection on the creative process that rivals Marienbad in its audacious structure. A renowned but aging writer (Gielgud), facing illness and writer’s block, works through one mad night on a new novel as he reflects on his past and his fears—rendered in a pastiche of vivid imagery and sounds. The setting is a beautiful country house, which provides a counterpoint of calm to the writer’s turbulent mental world and the assortment of family members and acquaintances who impinge upon it.

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June 28 (Wednesday) 7 pm
June 29 (Thursday) 9:30 pm

Jacquot de Nantes

Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1991, 35mm, b/w and color, 118 min.
With Philippe Maron, Edouard Joubeaud, Laurent Monnier
French with English subtitles

Interviews with the director Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Young Girls of Rochefort), a recreation of his childhood in Nantes, and wonderful clips from his films make up this loving and intelligent tribute by Varda to her recently deceased husband. This film, which hovers between fiction and nonfiction, is one of the great screen biographies and a compelling example of the creative documentary. Varda’s personal relationship to both the man and the work emerges powerfully, and Demy’s artistry is newly edified by the filmmaker who understood it best.

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June 28 (Wednesday) 9:15 pm
June 30 (Friday) 9:15 pm

HFA Archival Print

Mon Oncle D'Amerique (My Uncle in America)

Directed by Alain Resnais
France 1980, 35mm, color, 110 min.
With Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, Roger Pierre
French with English subtitles

Richard Roud characterized this work as “one of the greatest films about the human condition ever made.” The film’s engaging structure brings the theories of the French behavioral scientist Henri Laborit (who actually appears in the film to provide exegesis) together with the stories of three ordinary French citizens (each with a cinematic alter-ego): a Parisian actress, a media executive with political aspirations, and a farmerturned textile-plant director. Each responds to pressures, as Laborit’s theories would predict, through flight, struggle, or inhibition—and each takes solace in the hope that the proverbial “uncle,” made good in America, will come through to save the day. An unqualified commercial success, the film was awarded a special Critics’ Prize at Cannes.

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June 29 (Thursday) 7 pm
June 30 (Friday) 7 pm

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch (Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch)

Directed by Chris Marker
France 2000, video, color, 55 min
French with English subtitles

One Day in the Life . . . is a study of Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian romantic/metaphysical filmmaker, by the very different but admiring Chris Marker, an ironic, critical artist with a lively sense of humor who, of course, also has his romantic and lyrical side. The film begins with moving footage in Paris of Tarkovsky’s reunion with his son, who had been held back in the USSR for a time after the director’s exile. Marker presents clips from the films, offering shrewd commentary on Tarkovsky’s use of fire, earth, and water; on the carnality of his mysticism; on his links to Kurosawa, and much else. We also see him at work filming The Sacrifice and speaking his considered last thoughts from his deathbed.

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June 29 (Thursday) 7 pm
June 30 (Friday) 7 pm

An Approximation of Alain Resnais, Discreet Revolutionary (Une Approche d'Alain Resnais, révolutionnaire discret)

Directed by Michel Leclerc
France 1980, video, color, 58 mins
French with English dubbing and English subtitles

Through excerpts from his films and testimonies from friends, actors, and collaborators (including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jacques Sternberg, and Jorge Semprun), this documentary attempts to draw a portrait of the notoriously shy filmmaker Alain Resnais.

Uncle Yanco

(22 min, 1967, color, 35mm)

Daguerrotypes

(80 min, 1974-75, color, 16mm)

 

 

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