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Friday, 16 December 2011

Vive la France

It sometimes feels as if the majority of the foreign language films I view are French, but this is really not the case, since I also seem to be attracted by many Far Eastern movies in a variety of languages plus a fair assortment of flicks from other nations.  The French factor is also slightly on the wane at the moment since the CineMoi channel that I have raved about previously has not managed to premiere more than two new offerings since the summer -- and yes, I have had a moan at them for their very boring schedules.  However today I shall be considering two wonderfully entertaining French films made, as it happens, some eighty years apart!

Le Million (1931):  This film from director Rene Clair has been on my 'must see' list forever and fortunately friend Richard got hold of a copy for a showing in his wee garden cinema.  As with a number of movies that had become legendary to me without having ever seen them, including previously Clair's silent "The Italian Straw Hat", the eventual viewing was a little anticlimactic. One is expecting so much more than the film actually provides.  This is not to say that it was not a jolly affair and quite advanced in many ways for an early talkie studio-bound production.  The plot concerns a poor artist (Rene Lefevre) beset by his creditors who discovers he has won the lottery, making his creditors his new champions.  Unfortunately he has left the winning ticket in the worn jacket that he has left with his fiancee (Annabella) to mend; piqued by his flirtation with one of his sultry models, she gives the jacket to a crook called Grandpa Tulip who is on the run from the police. And so begins a merry chase across Paris as Tulip sells the jacket to a visiting opera singer who needs the tattered rag for a role.

Clair plays on the merry mayhem that ensues as Tulip and his mignons, Lefevre and his best pal, and an assortment of opera hangers-on chase the elusive jacket, ending up at one stage in a frantic rugby match with the jacket as the ball, reminiscent of a Marx Brothers farrago. Throughout, the various characters break into song without rhyme or reason; there is one lovely bit where the estranged lovers hide in the scenery echoing the words that the opera singer and his Wagnerian partner are spouting in a cod grand peformance -- consistently a virtuoso early use of sound. I felt that the film was slow to get going, but was still enchanted by the opening rooftop scramble, achieved through forced perspective and miniatures, finally focusing on the celebrating dancers below a skylight who relate the night's adventures.  This was a remarkably flowing bit of camerawork, quite uncommon in such an early film.  Despite some clever bits of business, the story is more farcical than funny, but in the end it leaves one with a bouyant feeling of bonhomie.  However, Clair certainly went on to make a number of more interesting films.

I was unfamiliar with all of the cast apart from Annabella -- here a brunette rather than the platinum blonde of her later Hollywood roles.  She started in movies when selected at the age of sixteen to appear in Abel Gance's "Napoleon" (1927) and tried her luck in America in the mid-thirties.  Her 'luck' included marrying my handsome hero Tyrone Power for a while, so she didn't do too badly all things considered.  Clair also settled in America during World War II, a period which produced some of his most memorable movies.

Romantics Anonymous (2010):  Clair actually shot "Le Million" in 1930 and here we have, 80 years on, another charming French trifle.  This movie reunites the lovely Isabelle Carre with Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde -- last seen together as Carre's estate agent finds a flat for serial killer Poelvoorde in an earlier film.  Here they play emotionally stilted chocolatiers, bound together by their love of chocolate-making but tongue-tied and socially inept in romance.  Their mutual attraction is blatant, but each of them does their best to avoid commitment.  In one scene on their first dinner date, Poelvoorde excuses himself every ten minutes to change his sweat-soaked shirt for a fresh one from a suitcase that he has stashed in the mens' room, re-appearing at one stage in a frilly dress shirt completely at odds with his earlier garb.  The movie plays with their romantic constipation to the extent that Carre attends a self-help group of other emotional cripples.  However the viewer knows full well that these two charmers will find a way of getting it together by the end of the movie.  Mind you the film's final shots let us know that their way will never be quite the expected way of coping with life.  All in all this was a slight but throughly enjoyable movie thanks to the sweet playing of its leads (with their believable chemistry) and the strong supporting cast of chocolate lovers.

For the last six years I have tried to give some viewing tips from the Christmas television schedules, but the terrestrial choice is so dire this year that there is not much to say.  If I can raise myself from the despair that they have created in me, I will try to make a few more positive recommendations in my next pre-Christmas entry.
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