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September 20-November 22, 2004

Cinéma Français

Drawing from the syllabi of two current Harvard courses (Contemporary French Cinema and Cinéma et culture français, de 1896 à nos jours), this series provides a curious (yet hardly comprehensive) overview of French film history. Mixing classic works by Renoir and Truffaut with modern masterworks by Carax and Denis, this program provides a unique opportunity to see many aspects of this diverse, constantly changing national cinema.

Special thanks to Dominique Bluher and Tom Conley.


September 20 (Monday) 9 pm

The Lovers on the Bridge (Les amants du Pont Neuf)

Directed by Leos Carax
France, 1991, color, 125 min.
With Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Klaus-Michael Grüber
French with English subtitles

Director Leos Carax earned the title of enfant terrible with this ambitious love story set along the banks of the Seine. Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche portray the two lovers from very different walks of life drawn together by l’amour fou. Of course, Carax was not allowed to film on the actual Pont Neuf bridge so he elected to build a set to scale outside of Paris, causing his film’s budget to skyrocket. The end result was deemed a scandalous failure in Europe and was not released in the U.S. for another seven years. Only recently has Carax’s wild vision become recognized as one of the great works of the new French cinema.

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September 27 (Monday) 9 pm

Pola X

Directed by Leos Carax
France, 1999, color, 135 min.
With Guillaume Depardieu, Yekaterina Golubeva, Catherine Deneuve
French with English subtitles

Based on Herman Melville’s Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, Leos Carax’s most recent feature continues the director’s journey through obsessive, fatalistic relationships. A young aristocrat (Depardieu, son of Gerard) who has just written a best-selling novel lives in a grand estate which he shares with his mother (Deneuve). The sexually charged mother-son relationship is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious stranger, with whom the young writer escapes to the industrial streets of Paris with plans to finish an autobiographical novel. Carax avoids convention at every turn, allowing his film to be driven by the mad passion of his characters rather than a desire for narrative clarity.

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October 4 (Monday) 9 pm

Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite)

Directed by Jean Vigo
France, 1933, b/w, 44 min.
With Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Gérard de Bedarieux
French with English subltitles

Banned by state censors until 1946 for its purportedly malicious attack on the French educational system, Zero for Conduct is certainly one of the masterpieces of the French cinema. Drawn from Vigo’s own childhood experiences, the film is situated at a dreadful boarding school in a Paris suburb where petty restrictions imposed on the students cause four schoolboys to organize a revolt. With its blend of poetry and realism, its psychological depth, and its profound sense of anarchy, Zero for Conduct has exerted an influence on many directors, from François Truffaut and Lindsay Anderson to Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax. One of only four films made during Vigo’s brief career (he died at age 29), Zero for Conduct remains one of the great subversive works of the cinema, an eloquent parable of freedom versus authority.

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October 4 (Monday) 9 pm

Beau Travail

Directed by Claire Denis
France, 1999, color, 90 min.
With Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin
French with English subtitles

In this loose adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd, Claire Denis takes a captivating look at the rituals of life in the French Foreign Legion, an army with no real purpose anymore. Denis Lavant stars as Galoup, a mercenary who remains emotionally isolated from the men with whom he rigorously trains, exercises and drills. His quiet existence is disrupted by the arrival of a promising recruit who draws the attention of the troop’s commanding officer. Focusing on the beauty of the human form and with a clear nod to Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Denis presents life in the barren North African landscape (familiar territory for the director who was raised on the continent) with haunting intensity.

October 18 (Monday) 9:15 pm

Trouble Every Day

Directed by Claire Denis
France, 2001, color, 101 min.
With Vincent Gallo, Tricia Vessey, Béatrice Dalle
French with English subtitles

 

Recent French cinema has been marked by a startling move toward more graphic depictions of sexuality and violence as witnessed in works by Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat and Marina de Van. Claire Denis joins the fray with this controversial work which tracks two parallel stories. One involves an employee of an American pharmaceutical company (Gallo) honeymooning in Paris with his new bride (Vessey), whom he neglects in favor of more grisly pursuits. Meanwhile, a French scientist (Alex Descas) tries desperately to contain the cannibalistic desires of his wife (Dalle). A director best known for her forays into the banalities of the everyday, Denis uses the vampire genre to explore the complex politics of desire.

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October 25 (Monday) 9:15 pm

The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu)

Directed by Jean Renoir
France, 1939, b/w, 113 min.
With Marcel Dalio, Nora Grégor, Jean Renoir
French with English subtitles

In his stinging appraisal of the erotic charades of the French leisure class before World War I, Jean Renoir satirizes the manners and mores of a society near collapse. Banned on its initial release as "too demoralizing" and made available again in its original form only in 1956, The Rules of the Game has come to be regarded by many as one of the greatest films ever made. Centering on a lavish country-house party given by the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Dalio) and his wife (Grégor), the film follows the complicated intrigues of the upper-class guests, which are mirrored by the activities of the servants. Alternating between farce and melodrama, realism and tragedy, Renoir’s masterpiece was described by director Alain Resnais as "the single most overwhelming experience I have ever had in the cinema."

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November 1 (Monday) 9 pm

Friday Night (Vendredi soir)

Directed by Claire Denis
France, 2002, color, 90 min.
With Valerie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon
French with English subtitles

Claire Denis conjures up a spellbound night in Paris. Laure, having packed up her possessions to move in with her lover, is more unsettled about this new commitment than she appears. Heading out for a last dinner with friends, she becomes stuck in a terrible traffic jam. As she takes in the sights and sounds around her—the blare of horns and arguments, the shimmer of lights and camaraderie—Laure encounters a stranger who will change her life. Intensely erotic and romantic, Friday Night is a lyrical ode to unexpected pleasures, to the independence of self, and to the most beautiful city in the world.

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November 8 (Monday) 9:15 pm

Irma Vep

Directed by Olivier Assayas
France, 1997, color, 97 min.
With Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard
French with English subtitles

In this clever, self-reflexive work, a neurotic, idealistic director (Léaud) attempts to remake Feuillade's Les Vampires, but his plans quickly unravel. Assayas partly improvises the film, which charts the experiences of Hong Kong actress Cheung (playing herself) who arrives in Paris to take the lead role of Irma Vep in the doomed project. Crew members come on to her, journalists lecture her on the future of cinema, Léaud cracks up and Cheung starts having strange dreams. This delightfully nonchalant yet sharply satirical film takes direct shots at contemporary French film culture and features fine performances throughout.

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November 15 (Monday) 9 pm

The 400 Blows (Les 400 coups)

Directed by Louis Malle
France/Italy, 1967, Color, 120 min.
With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Geneviève Bujold, Marie Dubois
French with English subtitles

The 400 Blows is a vision of childhood unequalled in the history of the cinema for sensitivity, humor, poignancy and respect for children themselves. With neither sentimentality nor condescension, Truffaut captures the need for freedom and tenderness, the spontaneity and frustrations of being a child in a society made by and for adults. “Making films with children is a great temptation before, something of a panic during, but a great satisfaction after. Even when everything seems to be coming adrift, there’s always something worth saving, and the child is always the best thing on the screen. A child’s truth is something I think I feel absolutely.” (François Truffaut)

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November 22 (Monday) 9 pm

Demonlover

Directed by Olivier Assayas
France, 2002, color, 129 min.
With Connie Nielsen, Charles Berling, Chloë Sevigny
English, French and Japanese with English subtitles

A French corporation seeks to purchase TokyoAnime, a producer of three-dimensional internet software designed to revolutionize the online porn industry. Rivals emerge both within and outside the corporation, complicating the motives and morality of the merger. Assayas finds a way to both indulge in and critique the excesses of sex and violence in the growing new media culture. Intentionally disjointed, the film is structured like an internet browse, in which episodic experience rather than linear narrative progression is the norm.

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