A triumvirate of early sound comedies—Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À Nous la Liberté (1931)—made René Clair’s reputation as France’s master of modern screen comedy. They explored the possibilities of the new audio dimension as an expressive element without sacrificing the fluid style and creative imagery of the height of the silent era. To American audiences, it was like Clair burst forth upon the international scene fully formed. But that’s because his final silent film—and his first comic masterpiece—The Italian Straw Hat (1927) did not arrive stateside until much later, and then in a version cut by an entire reel.
Filmmaking was not Clair’s original ambition. He intended a literary career and didn’t consider film a serious undertaking. When he took bit parts in a few films as a lark (including a couple of late serials by the great Louis Feuillade), he changed his name to separate it from his journalism and writing, from Chomette (his given name) to Clair (“light”). But he got bitten by the film bug and started rubbing elbows with the artists of the avant-garde, which led to an invitation to direct a short film to play between the two acts of a Dadaist ballet by Francis Picabia. Entr’acte (1924) is filled with cinematic tricks and playful imagery and it features appearances by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Auric and a score by Erik Satie. Those are impressive credentials and Entr’acte is a landmark of avant-garde cinema of the twenties but apart from a brief revisit to non-narrative filmmaking in La Tour (1928), his love letter to the Eiffel Tower, it’s not where Clair’s heart lay. For that, look to his directorial debut Paris qui dort (1923), a comic fantasy set in a Paris that has been frozen in time by a science fiction ray gun (a prototype for Dr. Horrible’s freeze ray?).
René Clair’s playful take on the Faust legend stirs whimsy into the classic tragedy of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. As the film opens, the great Michel Simon is the frumpy old Professor Henri Faust, a sheepdog of a scholar disappointed in himself as he prepares to retire without making his mark on the world, and the young and handsome Gérard Philipe is the seductive devil Mephistopheles. But fear not: To prove his power, the devil gives Faust youth and the actors swap roles, with Philipe’s young Faust the rejuvenated romantic discovering everything he’s missed in a life of scholarship and Simon playing the devilish clown as Mephistopheles, scheming to compromise and corrupt Faust at every turn.
You might say that Simon is the whole film. He was a giant of French cinema, and not just because of his big, bearish screen presence. After opening the film as the hangdog Faust, he fires to life as Mephistopheles, tempting the newly youthful Faust with a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye. Simon makes Mephistopheles into a black-hearted trickster behind the manner of a clown, taking pleasure in corrupting what was once a soul dedicated to truth and discovery. As played by Simon, he appears more mischievous than evil, even as he delights in destruction of things and people alike, but in key moments he channels the devil himself, as when he pleads with Satan to grant him power to corrupt Faust once for all. When Clair brings the camera close in for a one-sided conversation with Satan, Simon’s shifting expressions and intensity play across his face like multiple personalities phasing in and out of his body. His performance drives the drama.
La Notte (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the second film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation” (it’s bracketed by L’avventura, 1961, and L’eclisse, 1962, both on Criterion DVD), stars Marcello Mastroianni as a celebrated novelist in Milan who has nothing left to say and Jeanne Moreau as his quietly unsettled wife who can’t seem to express all the disappointment building up behind her unfazed expression. Their marriage is inert at best but they seem resigned to their roles, at least until a hospital visit to a friend dying of cancer (he has champagne delivered by the nurse for the visit – but of course) shakes up Moreau.
The film covers just under 24 hours of their life together, not that they ever seem “together” even when they go out to a nightclub and, finally, an all-night party at the mansion of an industrialist who wants to hire Mastroianni to write his biography and run the public relations of his company. It all plays out in sculpted landscapes and creamy, austere modern spaces filled with reflective surfaces, but these rarified oases of affluence are no less alienating than the crush of traffic in downtown Milan. Mastroianni is so at home in the crowds that he just flows with the current like driftwood in a slow stream while Moreau, shaken by the visit to their terminal friend, wanders away from the crowds, braving the current in the streets or simply watching the rituals from afar. Just like Antonioni, who dispassionately records every nuance of the rituals and flirtations and seductions and watches Mastroianni’s fascination with an enigmatic beauty played by Monica Vitti, a jaded-before-her-time young brunette who see-saws between childish playfulness and world-weary commentary.
This was one of the films that inspired Pauline Kael’s “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties” essay, a portrait heavy on the Antoni-ennui of beautiful people narcotizing themselves on small talk and cocktails and sex. Antonioni strips Mastroianni of the winking charm he brings to even his most rakish characters and turns him into an empty shell (“I know longer have ideas, only memories,” he tosses off with a self-effacing half-grin) with a self-awareness that suggests a desperation to lose himself in meaningless activity. Moreau is more haunting and less passive, her eyes and signature frown carrying a disappointment she shrugs away with a flash of a smile. It’s a portrait of lives disconnected from feeling or passion and a marriage that has slipped into mere routine, and you may find it mesmerizing and sophisticated, or merely elegantly-sculpted tedium amidst the idle rich and empty intelligentsia. I’m not an Antonioni fan – give me the strangled yearnings and corrupted societies of Visconti any day – and I find this among his more mannered and calculated films, so take my complaints as you will. I dare say it won’t convert any new fans, but if you love the sick soul of Europe in sixties cinema, this is quite the modernist contemplation of abstracted lives in the new urban world.Mastered from a new digital restoration from a 4k film transfer and it looks beautiful, clear and clean and sharp. You’ll notes stray hairs present in a couple of shots; I don’t believe they are print issues but artifacts from the camera negative or the editing process. Both Blu-ray and DVD editions include two original interview featurettes (one with film critic Adriano Aprà and film historian Carlo Di Carlo, the other with professor Giuliana Bruno discussing the role of architecture in the film) and a booklet with an essay by critic Richard Brody and a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Beauty of the Devil (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is René Clair’s playful take on the Faust legend, which stirs whimsy into the tragedy of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. As the film opens, Michel Simon is the frumpy old Professor Henri Faust, a sheepdog of a scholar disappointed in himself as he prepares to retire without making his mark on the world, and the young and handsome Gérard Philipe is the seductive devil Mephistopheles, but fear not. To prove his power, the devil gives Faust youth and the actors swap roles, with Philipe’s young Faust the rejuvenated romantic discovering everything his missed in a life of scholarship and Simon playing the devilish clown as the bearish Mephistopheles, scheming to compromise and corrupt Faust at every turn with a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye.
G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the Centerpiece screening on Saturday night, is a landmark drama of social commentary, a savage portrait of Germany after World War II, when rampant inflation and record unemployment plunged an entire class into poverty and widened the gulf between rich and poor into a veritable ocean. Decadence and desperation and degradation: this has it all, and with a drumbeat of social drama drawn in stark images and situations.
Greta Garbo takes her first role since being “discovered” in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924) and is marvelous as the devoted daughter of a widower civil servant, basically taking care of her father and her little sister while he gambles their entire future on a stock market bet (a rigged game that we know is doomed to ruin them). Endlessly nurturing and sacrificing herself for others, we know where she’s headed when she ends up in hock to Frau Greifer (Valeska Gert), the neighborhood clothier with the secret club in the back and the procurer who turns desperate women into hookers for her male clients. Garbo is elegant and dignified without tipping into the Hollywood glamour that would soon define her (and fix her teeth), the honest working class innocent about to be savaged by the economic piranhas circling the stream.
The ostensible lead, however, is Asta Nielsen, the thirtysomething German superstar playing the teenage daughter of an impoverished and pious war veteran who accuses her of prostitution and essentially pushes her to it out of necessity. Dressed to the hilt by a smitten banker in fashions that make the Ziegfeld Follies look restrained, she goes through the movie like the walking dead, numb with shock at her station, which apparently her foreign fat cat client finds alluring, if confusing. Werner Krauss plays the butcher, who hordes his products to trade for sexual favors and wields the power of his position like a petty tyrant, and there’s an American aid worker, an aspiring young banker trying to follow in his market-manipulating boss’s footsteps, and a decadent young woman ready to trade her affections for the richest beau, plus there’s a couple of murders, a fiery suicide, a healthy dose of madness, and lots of lurid spectacle.
And yet watching the film is tough. Manny Farber’s designation of “elephant art” came to mind while working through the screening. This is long (over 2 ½ hours), important, heavy, full of social commentary and dreary lessons, and it goes on and on, teasing us with the threat of degradation of its struggling characters while showing damaging actions of the rich. It’s also overloaded with storylines, top-heavy with major characters (some of whom suddenly disappear for long periods, perhaps due to missing footage), confusing and complicated and at times clumsy in its storytelling.