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Les Années Noires: French Film during the Occupation, Part 1

Between the glory of poetic realism of the 1930s and the emergence of the New Wave in the late 1950s, French film entered into what is considered by many historians to be a dark period. Crippled by the occupation of the Germans in 1940, the Vichy government’s censorship of film content caused filmmakers to avoid contemporary realist expression in favor of historical subjects, mythology, and symbolism. Through the remarkable vision of such masters as Carné, Grémillon, and Clouzot, however, the French film industry produced a body of work that, despite such limitation, managed to speak through allusion to an audience irrevocably changed by the consequences of war.

The films for this series were selected by renowned filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who will join us on Saturday, March 8, during the continuation of this series, for a screening of Safe Conduct, his new film that focuses on the French film industry of the 1940s.


February 3 (Monday) 7 pm
February 22 (Saturday) 7 pm

Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis)

Directed by Marcel Carné
France 1945, 35mm, b/w, 187 min.
With Pierre Brasseur, Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault
French with English subtitles

A powerful romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Parisian stage in the mid-nineteenth century, Children of Paradise remains one of the most beloved films of the French cinema. Jacques Prévert’s screenplay fleshes out the demi-monde realm of actors and courtesans, cutthroats and aristocrats with the naturalistic vitality of a Victor Hugo or Honoré de Balzac. The central action takes place in a small theater on the infamous "Boulevard du crime," where Baptiste Debureau (Barrault), a sensitive mime, falls hopelessly in love with Garance (Arletty), an actress who is courted by three more successful suitors. From this enchanting love story, Prévert and Carné weave an imaginative web of reality and artifice, using the stage as a metaphor for life.

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February 4 (Tuesday) 7 pm
February 21 (Friday) 9 pm

The Raven (Le Corbeau)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
France 1943, 16mm, b/w, 92 min.
Pierre Fresnay, Pierre Larquey, Ginette Leclerc
French with English subtitles

A series of poison-pen letters raises the suspicions of the residents of a small French town as rumors of abortion and drug addiction lead to tensions and suicide. Based on a true story, the film was banned for two years in France following the Liberation for its cynical portrait of provincial France as constructed by the controversial Vichy-controlled film studio, Continental. Visually striking for its German Expressionist style, Clouzot’s ingeniously suspenseful whodunit pessimistically reflects on the conflict between good and evil in all humans.

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February 4 (Tuesday) 9 pm
February 21 (Friday) 7 pm

The Devil’s Envoys (Les Visiteurs du soir)

Directed by Marcel Carné
France 1942, 35mm, b/w, 110 min.
With Arletty, Marie Déa, Fernand Ledoux
French with English subtitles

This flight of fancy from director Carné and his frequent collaborator, writer Jacques Prévert, was emblematic of the escapist style of the period. Set in the fifteenth century, the film features Arletty as one of a pair of deceased lovers sent back to earth by the Devil to intervene in the courtship of two aristocrats. Complications arise as one of the envoys falls for the betrothed princess, much to the Devil’s discontent. Prévert intended the character of the Devil to be a direct representation of Hitler, a veiled allusion that necessitated the period setting. As a result, Carné was able to employ a lavish visual style while remaining critical of contemporary politics.

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February 5 (Wednesday) 7 pm
February 23 (Sunday) 9 pm

The Light of Summer (Lumière d'été)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France 1943, 35mm, b/w, 112 min.
With Pierre Brasseur, Paul Bernard, Madeleine Robinson
French with English subtitles

Banned by the Vichy authorities for its allegorical attack on the decadence and corruption of the ruling classes, Grémillon’s socially conscious drama, written by Jacques Prévert, focuses on good and evil in a small Provence town. Michèle (Robinson), a naïve young woman, travels to meet her dissolute fiancé, Roland (Brasseur), a drunken artist, and encounters in his world an assemblage of unsavory characters. Disappointed in the soullessness of this society and disillusioned by Roland, she is drawn to a young engineer whose values eventually inspire her to love. Often compared with Renoir’s Rules of the Game for its mordant indictment of corruption, this lyrical and courageous commentary on German-occupied France envisioned a return to sanity and freedom.

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February 5 (Wednesday) 9 pm
February 23 (Sunday) 7 pm

The Sky Is Yours (Le Ciel est à vous)

Directed by Jean Grémillon
France 1943, 35mm, b/w, 105 min.
With Madeleine Renaud, Charles Vanel, Jean Debucourt
French with English subtitles

The alternate English title for Grémillon’s film, "The Woman Who Dared," suggests the political message the director was aiming at the citizens of an occupied, wartime France. Based on a true account from the 1930s, the story concerns an ordinary woman who overcomes the pettiness of provincial views to break the women’s world distance-flying record, with the aid of her mechanic husband. This radiant and empowering masterpiece is less about aviation than about the average Frenchman’s (and, indeed, Frenchwoman’s) wartime potential. But for the disorganization of the French film industry in the late wartime years, The Sky Is Yours, with its beautiful and direct imagery, might have become the seminal film of a French neorealism.  

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