The War Years

To speak of the Occupation as having positive effects on the French cinema industry may appear perverse, even seditious, but it is a position increasingly widely accepted by film historians. The unavailability of American films meant that the French industry had the field to itself far more than in normal circumstances; a character in Jean-Pierre Melville's Resistance epic L'Armée des ombres (1969) says that France will know she is free when it is possible to watch Gone With The Wind on the Champs-Elysées, which poignantly suggests the cultural deprivation of which French film-makers were able to take (often against their will) advantage. The Occupation cinema was brought under central - i.e. German-dominated - control in a way that severely restricted freedom of expression, but also introduced the first system of advances to producers and made the industry much more efficient. If this sounds suspiciously like a variant of 'Mussolini made the trains run on time', it should be borne in mind that many of the structures of post-war state aid to the cinema were modelled on those imposed under the Occupation. The legal requirement to lodge a copy of any new film was introduced in 1943, and the following year saw the foundation of the IDHEC (now FEMIS), France's first national film school.

Against this has to be set, of course, the loss of key personnel to the industry. Many of the leading producers, being Jewish, were not permitted to work. Renoir left for the USA where he was thenceforth to spend most of his time; Clair and Duvivier, more briefly, did likewise. Renoir's American work is by common consent less outstanding than his great films of the 1930s, not least because he was working within the constraints of the Hollywood system and had lost the acute sense of French society that makes La Grande Illusion or La Règle du jeu so remarkable. Even so, the moody evocation of the Deep South in Swamp Water (1941) and the black comedy of The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) remain powerful. His work of the 1950s and 1960s, less mordant than that of the pre-war years, is nevertheless recognisably by the same hand. Le Carrosse d'or (1953) and French Can-Can (1955), both in what was known at the time as 'glorious Technicolor', feature in more historically remote settings - respectively, colonial Peru and belle époque Montmartre - the stress on the interplay, and ultimate indistinguishability, of theatricality and 'real life' so important in the earlier works. Clair enlisted Marlene Dietrich for The Flame of New Orleans (1941), while Duvivier's post-war career reached its height with the sour and misanthropic Voici le temps des assassins (1956), starring Jean Gabin. The loss or diminished glory of these figures, and of others, was in a sense replicated on a smaller scale at the Liberation, when such figures as Guitry, Arletty and the actor Robert Le Vigan - a prominent collaborator who was never to work in France again - were tried and briefly imprisoned.

The leading pre-war director to remain in France was Carné, who worked in the Victorine Studios in Nice - thus within the Vichy zone. The first of his two wartime films, both scripted by Prévert, Les Visiteurs du soir, is a surreal medieval fantasy, featuring Arletty as the duplicitously androgynous emissary of Jules Berry's camp Devil in knee-breeches. This film, for all its visual extravagance, is alas characterised by some rather listless acting - something that is emphatically not true of Carné's best-known and most ambitious work, Les Enfants du Paradis (released in 1945 though shot in 1943-1944), set in the Paris theatre world of the 1830s (see Figure 1.1). Superb performances from such as Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur have helped to make it probably the best-loved of French film classics, along with the richness of its mise-en-scène of the world of popular entertainment, which owes much to the magnificent sets designed by the Hungarian Jew Alexandre Trauner, working for obvious reasons clandestinely. Its at first tenuous-seeming relationship to the society of its time has of course to do with the omnipresence of censorship, but Edward Baron Turk finds liberating possibilities in its sexual politics: 'By calling into question the authority of the family, the repression of sexual deviance, rigid gender roles, and the dependence of women on men, Les Enfants du Paradis assailed the foundation of Vichy's social order' (Turk, 1989: 268).

Two of the outstanding film-makers to have made their mark under the Occupation were Jacques Becker (whose Goupi Mains Rouges of 1943 is an almost Gothic drama of peasant life) and Jean Grémillon, for whom Prévert scripted Lumière d'été (1943). This film, about a Règle du jeu-like tangle of love and class relationships in the Midi, was along with Grémillon's aviation drama Le Ciel est à vous (1944) among the few major Occupation films to present a critical view of contemporary society. Le Ciel est à vous, indeed, has often been seen as a parable of the solidarity of the Resistance. Grémillon's post-war career was a sorry catalogue of aborted or curtailed projects; he was to make only three feature films between 1945 and his death in 1959, and remains an unjustly little-known director.

Figure 1.1 Les Enfants du paradis

Image Not Available

The Liberation proved barely less disruptive to the cinema than the Occupation. Collaborators, as we have seen, found their careers blighted or destroyed, while the disappearance of the protected domestic market seemed briefly to threaten the very foundations of the French industry. The Blum-Byrnes agreement of May 1946 allowed American films unrestricted access to the French market, but also introduced a quota of French films to be screened - initially 30 per cent, rising to 38 per cent in 1948. The agreement, widely denounced at the time as an act of treachery, appears in retrospect not only highly realistic, but premonitory of subsequent French cultural and cinematic relations with the USA, seeking accommodation of the 'cultural exception' within an American hegemony the French industry could not hope to vanquish. Along with the nationalisation of large exhibition circuits at the end of the war and the continuation of 'outrageously protectionist' (Crisp, 1993: 77) government advances and funding, the agreement protected the industry far more effectively than might have been thought at the time. The Centre national de la cinématographie (CNC) was set up in 1946 to oversee film finance - a striking example of the readiness the French state has always shown to intervene in cultural matters - and in 1948 established a fund to assist French film production and distribution, which has been largely responsible for the industry's high international profile ever since.

0 0

Post a comment