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French Cinema Before the New Wave

9.01.2011

Numerous other directors were active during this period in France. Jacqueline Audry worked as an assistant to directors Jean Delannoy, G. W. Pabst, and Max Ophüls before moving to the director’s chair with Gigi (1949), L’Ingénue libertine (Minne, 1950), and Mitsou (1956), all based on novels by the French writer Colette. Minne was heavily censored because it depicted a young woman’s sexual exploration outside of wedlock. In 1951, Audry directed her most famous film, Olivia (a k a The Pit of Loneliness), the story of a lesbian relationship, based on an autobiographical novel by Dorothy Stra-chey Bussy that examines life at an all-girls’ boarding school, in which two girls compete for the love of the headmistress. René Clément’s antiwar parable, Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952), is set in France in June 1940.


A young girl’s parents are killed in an attack on a bridge, along with her pet dog. The girl, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), picks up the dog’s body and meets the son of a local peasant couple, Michel (Georges Poujouly). Together, the two children conspire to create a graveyard for all the animals killed in the war, much to the displeasure of Michel’s parents, who have taken Paulette in as a war orphan. But the improvised animal graveyard, decorated with crosses stolen from headstones of the graves of the town’s dead, pushes Michel’s parents over the edge. Angrily consigning Paulette to the authorities, Michel’s mother and father essentially abandon the young girl to the fates of war, as she cries piteously for her dead mother. This moving and deeply troubling film won an Honorary Academy Award in 1953 for Best Foreign Language Film, and it retains much of its power to this day.


Easily the most bizarre film of 1950s French cinema is Isidore Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité (Venom and Eternity, 1950), an experimental work of which only 111 minutes survive from a reputedly much longer film; it caused a scandal when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951, where it won the Prix de l’Avant-garde as the most original and audacious film of the exhibition. The omnipresent Jean Cocteau, who once again found himself on the vanguard of cinema, awarded the prize. Isou’s film, a product of the Letterist Movement, consists of randomly edited sections of blank film, “countdown” leader (also known as “Academy leader”), upside-down footage of military vehicles, scratched and out-of-focus stock footage, as well as commercials for Isou’s numerous books, which interrupt the film at regular intervals.


 On the film’s sound track, Isou insults the viewer, saying that he “wants to make a film that hurts your eyes,” while a nearly thirty-minute section of the film offers heroic, angled shots of the director ambling around the streets of Paris, meeting various artistic luminaries at cafés and bars. The film ends with a long section of Letterist poetry, which takes the form of howls, grunts, screams, and guttural noises. Once seen, Venom and Eternity is never forgotten, one of the most confrontational films ever produced by the international avant-garde, and a testament to the continuously adventurous nature of the French cinema, even during the Cold War era.



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