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Les Années Noires: French Film During the Occupation, Part 2

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, for a discussion of the films of this period and a screening of Safe Conduct, his new film that focuses on the French film industry of the 1940s. For all other screenings in this series, students can buy a ticket and present their student ID to receive a complimentary ticket to that same film for a guest.

March 3 (Monday) 7 pm

Le Bossu

Directed by Jean Delannoy
France 1944, 16mm, b/w, 110 min.
With Pierre Blanchar, Edmond Beauchamp, Yvonne Gaudeau
French with English subtitles

Jean Delannoy enjoyed a long career as the standard bearer of traditional qualité française, creating a string of "well made" films (L’Eternel retour, La Symphonie pastorale) starring the top actors and actresses of the day (Michèle Morgan, Jean Marais, Jean Gabin). For this he became the principal target of a new generation of young cinéastes who would reject the director’s highly crafted adaptations and create a more vital and engaged French New Wave. In this adaptation of a historical novel by Paul Féval (also the source of Phillippe de Broca’s recent film On Guard!), Delannoy tells the story of a man who cares for his murdered friend’s wife and daughter, disguising himself as a hunchback to avenge the friend’s death.

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March 3 (Monday) 9 pm

The Murderer Lives at No. 21 (L’Assassin habite au 21)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
France 1942, 16mm, b/w, 84 min.
With Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier
French with English subtitles

In Clouzot’s debut feature, Pierre Fresnay stars as a detective investigating a series of murders who disguises himself as a clergyman to locate a suspect believed to be residing in a boarding house. A comic whodunit in the vein of The Thin Man series, but with touches of black humor, Clouzot’s oddball effort provides a healthy dose of escapism from the trials of the period. Although much lighter in tone than his later works such as Les Diaboliques and Le Salaire de la peur, Clouzot’s dark wit is unmistakable in such moments as the scene in which the detective discovers working toy models of the killer made by one of the suspects.

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March 4 (Tuesday) 7 pm

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Directed by Robert Bresson
France 1945, 35mm, color, 95 min.
With Paul Bernard, Maria Casarès, Elina Labourdette
French with English subtitles

Based on a story from Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste, Bresson’s film is arguably one of the great curiosities of the Vichy era: updated to a contemporary setting and employing a fairly conventional narrative setup, the film is resolved in a series of surprising plot twists. A woman scorned takes revenge by befriending a former prostitute and arranging for her to marry her ex-lover. Eschewing the minimalism for which Bresson’s later works came to be known, the film is more indicative of the style of Jean Cocteau, who wrote the film’s dialogue, with bravura camera movements and stylized costumes and set design. Despite these flourishes, the film fits well into the Bressonian canon for its exploration of the darker side of human nature, particularly evident in the reserved performance of Maria Casarès as the quietly vengeful socialite who exudes a frank sexuality atypical of many of the films of the period.

March 4 (Tuesday) 9 pm

It Happened at the Inn (Goupi mains rouges)

Directed by Jacques Becker
France 1943, 16mm, b/w, 104 min.
With Fernand Ledoux, Georges Rollin, Blanchette Brunoy
French with English subtitles

Like Clouzot, Jacques Becker incorporates the pervasive malaise of the period in a work that examines the impact of a murder on an isolated rural community populated with an eccentric cast of characters. In this noirish comic thriller, the Goupis, a hard-working family with a deep-seated distrust of outsiders, find their world turned upside-down following a visit by the youngest family member, who makes his living in Paris. The family’s ancestral treasure disappears, the housekeeper is found dead, and the eldest Goupi is rendered mute after being knocked unconscious. Among the ensemble, Rollin is particularly effective in his sympathetic characterization of the young Goupi-Monsieur, providing a welcome counterpoint to the overwhelming societal cynicism displayed by the rest of the family.

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March 8 (Saturday) 8 pm
Advance Tickets
Special Event – Tickets $12
Director Bertrand Tavernier in Person

Safe Conduct (Laissez-Passer)

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
France/Spain/Germany 2002, 35mm, color, 170 min.
With Jacques Gamblin, Denis Podalydès, Charlotte Kady
French and German with English subtitles

Drawing on the director’s well-documented passion for film history, this latest work from Bertrand Tavernier is an homage to the filmmakers of the 1940s, who struggled to keep the French film industry alive under German occupation. Tavernier developed his screenplay from conversations with two key figures of the era, who become the protagonists of his dramatic film: Jean Devaivre, a champion cyclist who worked as an assistant director for Maurice Tourneur at Continental Films, the Nazi-run film studio, and Jean Aurenche, the acclaimed screenwriter of Occupe-toi d’Amélie and Forbidden Games who was instrumental in helping to launch Tavernier’s career in the 1970s. The two figures provide the film with an apt moral ambiguity as they struggle, alternately, with their complicity and resistance to the German occupiers and create a delicate narrative balance that is played out in the contrast between Aurenche’s free-wheeling womanizing and Devaivre’s compromised loyalty to family and country.

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