Absurdist Themes in Claude Berri’s Films
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes about the absurdist nature of former-king, Sisyphus, who was punished for eternity by being forced to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down each time. “He is, as much through his passions as through his torture,” Camus writes. “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” Upon pondering the use of similar absurdist themes in cinema, Claude Berri’s 1986 Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon des Sources were the first films that came to mind. In Jean de Florette, which serves as part one in the story’s entirety, a man named Ugolin desires to start a carnation growing and selling business with his uncle who he calls “Papet.” To successfully accomplish this goal, they scout out a piece of land with a spring, only to be met with three different heirs of the land, all of whom eventually tragically perish in the midst of Ugolin and Papet’s unforgiving, absurd persistence to get what they believe will fulfill them. They put their pride and selfish desires ahead of others’ and finally obtain the desired land at the end of Jean de Florette. In the sequel Manon des Sources, the uncle and nephew’s carnation business is bustling. Ugolin becomes obsessive again, not with land, but with a woman named Manon. Her father, Jean, happened to be the man who was killed while attempting to build a well on the coveted property. This was the incident that occurred right before Ugolin and Papet inherited the land for good. Manon blatantly rejects Ugolin out of anger. As a result, the third prominent example of absurdism in this story is unveiled when Ugolin commits suicide over his rejection. At the end of the film, Papet realizes that the deceased Jean was his biological son, making Manon his granddaughter. Brokenhearted over this surreal twist in his life story, he dies alone in his sleep. These tragic, lonely deaths represent an absurdist outlook on life, and how indulging in fleshly desires to chase fulfillment will only leave you empty and even tormented.
The Evolution of Gangster & Crime-Centered Films
From Jean-Pierre Melville’s Noir film Bob le Flambeur to his 1967 New Wave film Le Samouraï and Alan Resnais’s 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, the evolution of gangster and crime-centered French films both evolved in some instances and maintained some similar themes, as well. Though the use of hand-held cameras and jump cuts is technically classified as a New Wave film technique, Bob le Flameur uses this throughout. A second similarity between the Noir and New Wave gangster films is the dark lighting. Noir films like Bob le Flameur are known for their “stark lighting effects (1).” In fact, “Film noir” literally translates to “Dark film” in French. All three of these films are black and white and certainly make use of this trait, a prominent example being the beginning of Hiroshima mon amour where a passionate, rather abstract scene between the two main characters takes place. Within this scene are also integrated clips of war in Japan and a dramatic monologue given by the woman in the background. A third trait these three movies share is the commonality of the films’ protagonists being portrayed general as loners. This is especially true of Bob in Bob le Flambeur and Jef Costello in Le Samouraï. Of course, the evolution of gangster films at this time marked stark differences between older Noir gangster films and the New Wave films from the late 1950s onward. In general, Bob le Flambeur is a fairly straight-forward film with a linear storyline. In contrast, films like Hiroshima mon amour cuts back and forth between the present and the past as conversations of specific memories are recalled and described in vivid, somewhat post-traumatic detail. Another difference is the degree of importance in the female characters in these movies. Though there is one, named Anne, in in Bob le Flambeur, there is little effort in portraying her as anything more than a general love interest. In the New Wave film Hiroshima mon amour, one of the two main characters is a woman, though essentially nameless, as is the man. There is effort put into her character. She is emotionally complex and three-dimensional, making her accessible to the film’s audience. There are two main female characters in Le Samouraï and though one of them is the lover of the main character, the other one, Valérie, is a black woman who makes a living as a pianist in the nightclub where many scenes take place. She is made to be an integral part of the story’s plot. A third difference is the varying degrees of the glamorization of the gangster lifestyle. In Bob le Flambeur, there are the typical inclusions of nightclubbing scenes, prostitution, gambling. In Le Samouraï, there does not seem to be much dialogue and/or enjoyment among the characters who are living that kind of lifestyle. Jef Costello is a rather stoic character as opposed to Bob.
“Film noir.” Britannica, 2017 Sep. 26. https://www.britannica.com/art/film-noir. Accessed 3 May 2018.
There is a prominent use of foreshadowing within the plot of Louis Malle’s 1987 French historical drama, Au revoir les enfants. An instance of this taking place is when, upon leaving the woods, two German soldiers spot Jean Bonnet and Julien. When Jean, living undercover as a Jew, tries to run away from them, they lend him a blanket out of kindness. While Jean’s interaction with German officers reminded friendly for the time being, it is not a sign of things to come in the future. A second example is the number of raids by German officers that happen in the film, which is foretelling when one takes the historical accuracy of the final scene into consideration. “Are you scared?” Julien asks his Jewish friend and schoolmate, Jean. “All the time,” he responds. A final example is the last scene where a handful of the Jewish children, including Jean, are being led away by German officers after the closure of the boarding school. Foreshadowing is clearly implied because it is likely that most audience members will know the unjust fate of these Jewish kids during World War II. This suspicion is confirmed by the closing monologue when Julien reports that they eventually died in Auschwitz. Ultimately, Pére Jean’s final line in the movie, “Au revoir, les enfants!” holds a painful irony.
New Wave Angst
Luc Besson’s 1990 action thriller, Nikita, is widely considered to be a popular representative of the Cinema Du Look genre within the broader French New Wave film category. Emerged in the 1980s, this movement introduced a specific set of angst-ridden traits that became identifiable. The subject of marginalized, alienated youth is a prominent Cinema Du Look characteristic within Nikita. Nikita herself is a troublesome, disobedient youth and, at the beginning of the film, commits two heinous crimes alongside her gang. While robbing a store, she murders a police officer. Notably, the considerable number of police deaths in this film seems to relate to the anti-authoritarian views that the Cinema Du Look genre represents. Also relating to this characteristic is the initially defiant and cynical attitude that Nikita displays towards the trainers who are preparing her to become a professional assassin. Similarly, the prevalence of the Paris Metro used to symbolize underground society relates to the underground society where Nikita is secretly taken after her captors fake her execution and trained to be a professional assassin. A final example of a Cinema Du Look trait being present in Nikita is its inclusion of a doomed love affair within the plot. After Marco discovers Nikita’s secret double life, he lets her go, knowing that their love can no longer be. Bob, who also clearly felt affectionate towards Nikita, does not end up with her either. At the end of the film, they both concur that she will be missed.
Essays for French 410 in May 2018