The period between 1945 and 1959 was for long stigmatised as what TrufFaut called the cinema de papa ('daddy's cinema'), a sneering reference to the supposed political and aesthetic paralysis of the Fourth Republic; his vitriolic 1954 article lambasts a cinema locked into tedious literary adaptations (see TrufFaut, 1976). Squeezed between the heyday of the classic cinema and the burgeoning of the New Wave, it remains, in both senses of the word, largely invisible. Not a single film by Claude Autant-Lara, Jacques Becker or Christian-Jaque, three of the period's major directors, is available on video in the UK, and only one example of those directors' work - Becker's Casque d'or (1952) - has been shown on British television. Such neglect, while comprehensible, is scarcely justifiable.
The period in question also marked the beginning, or culmination, of three of the major post-war directorial careers. Robert Bresson's eschewal of professional actors and refusal of psychological depth in favour of an austerely materialist Catholic spirituality first becomes marked in his Bernanos adaptation Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951). This account of a young priest's suffering, clearly an analogy for the holy agony of Christ, derives much of its force from the doubling of its narration; we see the priest writing his diary at the same time as we hear him reading from it, emphasising how he is 'the unwilling (at first) victim of an overwhelming
and self-mortifying passion' (Schrader, 1972: 73). Bresson's second feature, Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956), details the escape (based on real life) of a Resistance detainee from Montluc prison in Lyon, presented as a sustained and suspenseful exercise in the operation of grace.
Jacques Tati once said that he would like to work with Bresson - an odd remark considering the conspicuous lack of humour in the latter's films, but less anomalous than it might appear if we bear in mind the meticulously choreographed style and innovatively dislocatory use of sound that characterise Tati's work. His three features of the period - Jour de fête (1949), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon oncle (1958) - are among the most acute satires of the galloping modernisation that in some 30 years transformed France from a largely rural into a primarily industrial economy. The cults of speed (explicitly linked with the USA), the seaside holiday and household gadgets are his targets in the three features; to describe M. Hulot as a 'reflection of the increased standardization of daily life in France' (Ross, 1995: 174), however portentous it may sound, says a good deal about his enduring appeal and relevance.
Cocteau's two best-known films are La Belle et la bête (1946) and Orphée (1950), imbued with the spirit of what, in a doubtless conscious response to Carné and Bazin, he dubbed 'magical realism'. The earlier film's evocation of the world of Dutch painting and Orphée's sumptuous special effects have lasted rather better than the matinee-idol narcissism of Jean Marais in the leading roles. The 'real objects' in these films may appear to be very far removed from the France of the time at which they were made, but this would be to disregard the strong homosexual element in La Belle et la bête's 'love that dare not speak its name', or the allusions to the heavily coded world of the Resistance in Orphée's abundance of seemingly nonsensical passwords. The fantasy/reality antithesis, yet again, turns out to be more illusory than real.
Jean-Pierre Melville in 1950 directed (by all accounts with considerable interference from the author) the cinematic adaptation of Cocteau's best-known text, Les Enfants terribles. Melville's place in the history of French cinema, however, rests less on this or his earlier literary adaptation, of Vercors's Le Silence de la mer (1949), than on the influence of Hollywood 'action cinema' on his work. The work of directors such as Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller, with its stress on laconic, often violent action and its narrative terseness, was to have a major effect on the New Wave filmmakers of the succeeding generation - an effect for which Melville was in large part responsible. He was also the first major French director (after Pagnol) to set up his own production company, operating artisanally on the fringes of the industry. This enabled him to reconcile financial autonomy - if he and the New Wave directors so admired the 'action cinema' school it was largely because it had been able to produce memorable films often on very low budgets - and a degree of artistic independence that for his critics verges on the mannered. Bob le flambeur (1956) was the first of his gangster movies, a stylised riposte to the production-line série noire films, often starring Eddie Constantine, that constituted the French mainstream cinema's first response to the influx of American productions after the war.
The film-makers so far mentioned in this section are all in greater or lesser degree atypical of the dominant Fourth Republic cinema. That cinema's frequent recourse to literary adaptation, its reliance on careful scriptwriting (often by the duo of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost), its general air of businesslike professionalism and supposed unadventurousness, were all laughed out of fashion by the New Wave, but have in the past decade or so staged a resurgence through the popularity of the 'heritage film'. The strictures ofTruffaut may well have been applicable to the journeyman work of such as Jean Delannoy, who signed forgettable adaptations of Cocteau (L'Eternel Retour, 1943) and Sartre (Les Jeux sont faits, 1946), but two filmmakers of the period at least display subversive and ironic qualities that should not pass unnoticed. Claude Autant-Lara's move from Communist Party activist after the war to Front National MEP in the mid-1980s scarcely did him credit, but the dozen or so films he made under the Fourth Republic often give a mordant portrayal of the suffocating pettiness and hypocrisy of the time. Le Diable au corps (1947) and Le Ble en herbe (1954), adapted from Radiguet and Colette respectively, both deal with burgeoning adolescent sexuality and caused scandals through their depiction of relationships between a younger man and an older woman. Le Blé en herbe was among the first post-war films to fall foul of the power exercised by French mayors to ban from their cities films that had received the national censor's authorisation. La Traversée de Paris (1956) teamed Gabin and Bourvil in a tale of black-marketeering in occupied Paris - the forerunner of the determinedly unheroic view of the Occupation years that was to come to the fore in the 1970s.
More bilious and misanthropic still is the work of Henri-Georges Clouzot, who found himself for a while banished from the industry at the Liberation because of the harshly cynical view of provincial life in his poison-pen drama, Le Corbeau (1943). Le Salaire de la peur (1953) sustains for more than two and a half hours the suspense of its tale of European expatriates driving lorryloads of nitroglycerine over treacherous Central American roads to quench an oil-rig fire. Yves Montand, first drawn to public attention in Carné's Les Portes de la nuit (1946), gives one of the defining performances of his career here. Most frightening of all his works perhaps is Les Diaboliques (1955), with Simone Signoret in one of her best-known roles. The film's sadistic martyrisation of the character played by Véra Clouzot (the director's wife) becomes even more chilling when we know that she suffered in real life from a weak heart that was not long afterwards to kill her. The film's ending clearly inspired that, more than 30 years later, of Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction, but in its manipulation of actors and audience alike is surely closer to Hitchcock - a major influence on the New Wave, present here too in what it would be quite unjust to dismiss as cinéma de papa.
René Clément is the other directorial name most often associated with the cinema of this period. Jeux interdits (1952) tells of the impact of the war on two young children who create an animals' cemetery before being roughly separated from each other. The film's view of childhood, while less barbed than that of Vigo, is nevertheless a determinedly unidealised one, a very long way from the Hollywood of the time. Clément's other major work of the period took the form of literary adaptations, from Zola (Gervaise of 1956) or Marguerite Duras (Barrage contre le pacifique of 1958).
Carné proved unable to sustain his pre-war popularity after the Liberation. Les Portes de la nuit was severely criticised as déjà vu, the doom-laden Prévert script and heavy fatalism with which it is imbued not suiting the more upbeat expectations of the post-Liberation era. Thenceforth his career tailed off sadly, the Zola adaptation Thérèse Raquin (1953) being his most successful later film, thanks largely to Simone Signoret's vampish performance in the title role. Becker produced at once his most lyrical and his most doom-laden film with Casque d'or, a reconstruction of the nineteenth-century Parisian underworld, as well as such realistically observed dramas as Rue de l'Estrapade (1953), a forerunner of the New Wave. Signoret gives what is probably the performance of her life, and Serge Reggiani as her doomed young lover exudes tragic intensity. Becker went on to give Jean Gabin one of his great post-war roles as the portly gangster yearning for retirement in the série noire Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). This director's reputation is less by some way than it deserves to be, for he died prematurely in 1960, just before the release of the prison escape drama Le Trou, which remains among the finest French films of its period.
Industrially and aesthetically alike, the 'Fourth Republic years' were, it is now beginning to be recognised, richer and more complex than might at first appear. Yet - with the handful of exceptions already mentioned - it lacked the innovative verve of earlier and later periods. It was a time of reconstruction and consolidation for the industry, which for most of the period succeeded in attracting more spectators to French than to American films. The seeds of innovation were being sown elsewhere, in the pages of the new cinematic journals that appeared during and after the war. L'Ecran français began clandestinely in 1943 and lasted ten years, during which it brought to the fore notions of the cinema as a vehicle for ideological engagement and as a language in its own right. Alexandre Astruc's 1948 'Naissance d'une nouvelle avant-garde' ('Birth of a new avant-garde') inaugurated a mode of writing on the cinema which the journals Positif and Cahiers du cinéma were to continue into the 1950s.
It is in a sense provocative to bracket those names together for, in their earlier days at least, the two journals cordially detested each other. Positif was sympathetic to Surrealism and to the French Communist Party, while among the major influences on Cahiers was the existentialist Catholicism of André Bazin. Haifa century on, both journals still exist and thrive, albeit with much ideological passion spent. If Cahiers remains to non-French audiences at least much the better known, this is because so many of those who wrote for it went on to direct films in their own right. Chabrol, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut - the patron saints of the New Wave - all began as Cahiers critics in what remains the most striking mass migration from writing-about to writing-in film history has to offer. Their interest in low-budget American cinema led them to pursue with zeal the politique des auteurs - a pantheonisation of figures such as Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller, whose individuality in making 'their' films in the teeth of studio-imposed constraints was lauded in a sometimes extravagant manner. Positif s favourite sons, such as Otto Preminger and Raoul Walsh, have lasted somewhat less well by comparison.
The Cahiers/Positif antithesis is important for a number of reasons. It exemplifies a tendency in French cultural life - illustrated at very much the same time by the work of such 'new novelists' as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute - for critical and theoretical reflection to stimulate and feed through into artistic production. It illustrates the importance of political loyalties, or their absence, already marked in the cinema of the Popular Front era, in informing aesthetic and cultural debate. Finally, it stages the love/hate relationship with the United States that has been so crucial a factor in French artistic and cultural as well as political and economic life throughout the post-war years. For reasons we shall now explore, 1959 was the year in which all these trends converged to inaugurate what was rapidly recognised as a new era for the French cinema.
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