In France during the war, with Paris under the Nazi occupation and the puppet Vichy government, only a few major filmmakers chose to stay behind and create a series of very subtly subversive films; otherwise, much of the Vichy cinema was sheer escapism. Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945), from a script by Jacques Prévert, was unquestionably one of the major films of the Resistance cinema, using the story of a group of theatrical performers to highlight the resilience of French national culture in the face of the occupying forces.
Henri-Georges Clouzot created Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), a memorably vicious film documenting the effects of a series of “poison pen” letters on the inhabitants of a provincial French village. Like all of Clouzot’s work, The Raven has a bleak view of humanity, and the town and its citizens in the film are viewed as a gallery of unscrupulous, gossiping, even drug-addicted miscreants. The film was viciously attacked in the Resistance press for its unflattering view of French society, and after the war Clouzot and the film’s screenwriter, Louis Cha-vance, were banned from making films for a time, as retribution for their deeply misanthropic work. But the ban was soon lifted, and as later Clouzot films make clear, the director’s pessimism was not directed at French society so much as against the human predicament in general; Clouzot was clearly a fatalist who saw life as a continuous battle. He would go on to create two of the French cinema’s most acidulous films of the 1950s: the stunning Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), about a group of down-and-out expatriates stranded in a South American hellhole who are hired to transport unstable nitroglycerine on a tortuous back-road route to help put out an oil well fire, and Les Diaboliques (Diabolique, 1955), a suspense thriller centering on murder and deception at a rundown French boarding school.
A more humane vision emerged in the superb Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Park, 1945), which Robert Bresson, one of the most important postwar directors, created in collaboration with Jean Cocteau, who wrote the dialogue for the film, with the story based on Diderot’s classic “Jacques le fataliste et son maître.” Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is essentially an allegory centered on a young woman, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), whose economic circumstances have forced her into a life of high-level prostitution with her mother effectively serving as her pimp, but who is then “saved” by Hélène (María Casares), a wealthy woman who takes over her life, pays her debts, and installs her in a fashionable apartment. The luxurious domain, however, is really a prison. Hélène’s true design is to marry off Agnès to her ex-lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), who has jilted Hélène after a long affair. Hélène wants revenge, and Jean’s arranged marriage to a “fallen woman” will suit her purposes.
Throughout the film, Bresson’s impeccable camera movement and editorial style, coupled with Cocteau’s sparkling and sardonic dialogue, bring this story of moral consequences into sharp detail, and the plight of Agnès is seen as emblematic of France’s position under the Nazis; the illusion of freedom is present but at a terrible cost. Bresson’s later films would be far more minimalist than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, but in this early masterpiece he created one of the treasures of world cinema.
Other notable films created under the Vichy regime include Jean Del-lanoy’s L’Éternel retour (The Eternal Return, 1943), a modern variation on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, with screenplay and dialogue by the ubiquitous Jean Cocteau. Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil’s Envoys, 1942) used life in fifteenth-century France to create a striking allegory on the predations of the Nazi regime, while 1943 also saw the creation of the In-stitut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC), the French national film school, which was founded by the French director and film theorist Marcel L’Herbier.
After the war, the French cinema would go through a cataclysmic period of rejuvenation and change, spearheaded by the critical journal Cahiers du Cinéma (literally, “the notebooks of cinema”). Cahiers demanded an end to what it viewed as the “literary” nature of classical French cinema, and with the help of such theorists as Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard (often writing as Hans Lucas), Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and others, set the stage for the creation of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) film movement in the late 1950s. All these critics would later become key directors in the New Wave movement, which would utterly transform the face of international cinema.