Les Biches (1968) *****

Innocence and experience alike are corrupted by the destructive power of love in this elegant and compelling early masterpiece from French director Claude Chabrol. Although he owed much of his later fame to slow-burning thrillers, this is more of a three-hander drama with a twist and it says much for his skill that we sympathize in turn with each of these amoral characters.

Wealthy stylish Frederique (Stephane Audran), in an iconic hat, picks up younger pavement artist, the artistically named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) in Paris. They decamp to St Tropez where Audran keeps a rather discordant house, indulging the antics of two avant-garde house-guests. Sassard loses her virginity to architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who soon abandons her in favor of Frederique. Each is guilty of betrayal and although a menage a trois might have been one solution instead the lovers dance from one to another with Frederique apparently in control, in one scene stroking Why’s hair with her hand and caressing Paul’s face with her foot. In an attempt to win the man back, Why dresses like her rival down to hairstyle, make-up and even the older woman’s beauty spot.    

At no point is there angry confrontation, nor does Frederique simply dismiss Why from the household, but the story works out in more subtle insinuation, Frderique clearly expecting either that Why makes herself scarce or, alternatively, make herself available for whenever the bisexual Frederique tires of male companionship. The movie’s focus is the baffled Why. When the older pair disappear to Paris, the camera follows Why through off-season St Tropez, chilly weather replacing glorious sunshine. Frederique and Paul are the sophisticates who expect Why to know how to play the game. The younger woman has wiles enough to see off the avant-garde irritants.

It looks for a while as if it might be a coming-of-age tale or of young love thwarted but every time Frederique enters the picture her dominance is such that proceedings, no matter how deftly controlled, have an edge and so it becomes a study of something else entirely. At one point, each has power over the other. What appears on the surface, how each character is initially represented, disguises their interior lives. If Why has learned anything it is restraint, so the movie never descends to tempestuous passion. She also learns, in a sense, to submit, since the impoverished can never compete with the rich. In the end her revolt takes the only other option available, against which even the wealthy have no defense.

Not that it makes much difference unless you were going to analyse the picture to the extreme but clearly the names have significance. Frederique is a feminization of a male name, Paul Thomas is two male names (perhaps indicating alpha male) while Why is obviously not a real name, and either meant to represent anonymity or intrigue. Luckily, the acting is of such a high standard we are not left only in thrall to the intricacies of naming characters.

Jean-Louise Trintignant was the best known of the stars following the international success of A Man and a Woman (1966). Stephane Audran, wife of the director, had been in movies for a decade, this her best part to date. Jacqueline Sassard had broken through with Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967). Claude Chabrol, a driving force behind the French New Wave, had enjoyed conspicuously less success than compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut until finding his metier in crime thrillers The Champagne Murders (1967) and The Road to Corinth (1967) but it was Les Biches that marked him out as a sensational talent.

Is Paris Burning? (1966) ****

Paris endured a four-year “lockdown” during the Second World War, under a brutal Nazi regime, and this is the story of the battle to lift it.

Politics didn’t usually play a part in war films in the 1960s but it’s an essential ingredient of Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris had no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings the Allies intended to bypass the French capital and head  straight for Berlin. Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after the attempt on his life, ordered the city destroyed.

Resistance groups were splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, wanted to wait until the Allies sent in the troops, the Communists planned to seize control before British and American soldiers could arrive.  When the Communists begin the fight, seizing public buildings, the Germans plant explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, other famous buildings and the bridges across the River Seine. 

The German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost. The Gaullists despatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Sorry for the plot-spoiler but as everyone knows the Germans did not destroy the city and the liberation of Paris provided famous newsreel and photographic footage.

Line-drawings from the extended poster – the all-star cast included Orson Welles, Glenn Ford, George Chakiris, Yves Montand, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon. At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made. It had a six-month shooting schedule and was shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. It was a big hit in France but flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

Director Clement was also aware he could not extract much tension from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button, so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry. The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes.

Like The Longest Day (1962), the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking a herd through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street, enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank. And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Anthony Perkins, as an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see – before he is abruptly killed.  Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones. Gore Vidal and Francis Coppola fashioned the screenplay with a little help from French writers whom the Writers Guild excluded from the credits.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika. Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, Glenn Ford (as Bradley), Kirk Douglas (General Patton) and Robert Stack (General Sibert) making fleeting glimpses. But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965) , Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Orson Welles, in subdued form, appears as the Swedish ambassador. Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon.

The score by Maurice Jarre is one of his best. The overture at the start is dominated by a martial beat, but snuck in there is the glorious traditional theme that is given greater and greater emphasis the closer the Parisians come to victory.

The Greengage Summer (1961) *** aka Loss of Innocence

The alternative title assumed nobody in America knew what a greengage was – it’s a type of plum – but it was actually pretty apposite.

Until then director Lewis Gilbert had been known mostly for Second World War pictures like Reach for the Sky (1954) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1955) so this was a considerable change of pace, and filmed on location.

Susannah York, who had sparkled in a small role in Tunes of Glory (1960), now took center stage as a girl on the brink of womanhood who experiences powerful emotions for the first time – love and its perpetual bedfellow jealousy – as well as rite-of-passage experiences like getting hammered on champagne.

She is the oldest of four siblings stranded in a French chateau when their mother takes ill. Left to her own devices, she promptly falls for the suave and much older Kenneth More who is having an affair with chateau owner Danielle Darrieux (another of Darryl F. Zanuck’s girlfriends).

By modern standards, this is a gentle tale, but not without some harsh moments and York is superb as she undergoes a transformation from uncertain schoolgirl to a woman realizing the power her beauty can exert. She flares from child to adult and back again in seconds. York was headstrong in real life and insisted on being drunk during the drunken scene, which ruined a day’s work.

That was not the only crisis – there were no greengages due to poor weather so they had to be flown in from Britain and sewn onto the trees. Jane Asher plays the more sensible younger sister who is not above violent emotion herself such as fisticuffs with a local lad. Kenneth More is at his charming best in the kind of affable role he had generally moved away from.

The dialogue is surprisingly good and Darrieux is convincing as an aging beauty willing to do anything. The scenery is a bonus as are the snatches of provincial French life. All in, an engaging piece of work, with York delivering a star-is-born kind of turn.      

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