Anthology Film Archives
JACK SMITH SELECTS (FROM THE GRAVE): Les dames du Bois de Boulogne
November 14 at 5:15 PM
November 27 at 9:00 PM
November 29 at 3:00 PM
On June 18th, 1940, General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, gave what would become one of the most important speeches in French history. Broadcast over France via BBC Radio in London, de Gaulle’s famous Appeal of 18 June urged the people of the recently fallen France to rise up in support of the Resistance in order to fight German occupation. Gaulle’s resounding call to resist rang throughout the remainder of the war until the Liberation of Paris in 1944.
While René Clément’s La bataille du rail (1946) and Titus Vibe-Müller’s La bataille de l’eau lourde (1948) are perhaps the most commonly cited Resistance films, French director and film critic Jean Luc Godard argued that a truer representation of the Resistance can be found in films such as Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946) and Robert Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945). During his presentation of Histoire(s) du cinéma at Cannes in 1997, Godard says of Bresson’s portrayal of Agnès (Elina Labouradette), the seemingly unfortunate cabaret dancer and foil of Hélène (María Casares), in the film’s final scene:
I ask which character in a French film in 1942, at the time of de Gaulle, said, ‘I’m fighting.’ There’s only one: Elina Labourdette in Les dames de bois de Boulogne…If there’s a moment of resistance in French cinema, it’s not in La bataille du rail and later, and it’s not in Les visiteurs du soir. It’s earlier: it’s here.
Indeed, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is a film of resistance, as evidenced in Cocteau’s stabbing dialogue, the characters’ fight against a fate inspired by Diderot’s Mme de la pommeraye from Jacques le fataliste et son maître, and the steadfast stare of María Casares as she pursues revenge. Even Bresson’s directorial decision to avoid the extravagant mise en scène usually associated with studio productions signals his attempt to break away from the industry’s oppressive standards.
Watching this poetic and quietly political film, one experiences the thrill of a redemption never quite satisfied. An anomaly in Bresson’s oeuvre, the melodrama of the film rests in the fact that there is no release, no ending that suggests the fight against fate is over.
Les dames du bois de Boulogne screens at Anthology Film Archives November 14 at 5:15 PM, November 27 at 9:00 PM, and November 29 at 3:00 PM as part of their JACK SMITH SELECTS (FROM THE GRAVE) series, running November 13th–December 1st.
Aesthetics of Poverty: Italian Neorealist Film: Paisan
November 20 at 1 PM
Most war movies depict how dire circumstances can break down but also ennoble a character or group to surpass their normal abilities. Paisan (1948), the second of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, does not present a linear story of battles fought and enemies defeated with an optimistic outlook for life after war. As a series of six episodes linked only by the backdrop of WWII, Paisan grapples with the atrocities of totalitarianism and genocide and the fallout of poverty, oppression, and prejudice.
I first viewed Paisan at my university’s cinematheque as part of a series of war movies that did not showcase epic combat sequences. Just as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) explored the relationships between social classes during the First World War, Paisan illustrates how ideologies influenced social norms during WWII. While Grand Illusion radiates superb performances, Paisan, with its ensemble of nonprofessional actors, emits a raw arrangement of different characters swept up in terrible wartime circumstances. Instead of offering another permutation of good versus evil, these films revealed war’s ripple effect on social order across class, age, and race.
While the language barrier is certainly a pivotal communication issue in Paisan, the subtle display of one character listening, sensing, and sympathizing with another infuses the film with real human moments and not cinematic virtuosity. With newsreel and a narrator as a transition between each episode, the movie blends documentary with fiction and love with politics while it rolls onward to an ending in which the war may cease but the suffering persists.
Lacking a climax, the film instead builds with a climate of deprivation and despondency. While the authentic settings range from a ruined seaside castle to the bombed-out city of Naples, from the desolate Po River delta to an emotionally-tense Franciscan monastery, Paisan consistently exhibits a sense of futility and emptiness in the wake of war and dictatorship. These aspects made the film a benchmark of Italian Neorealist Cinema.
The screening of the film accompanies the Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting exhibit at the Guggenheim. Burri, a former army medic and prisoner of war, had firsthand experience with the havoc caused by WWII and the rebirth of society in Europe. His work displayed at the Guggenheim embodies visceral qualities similar to those in Italian neorealist cinema. As part of an “aesthetic of poverty” film series, Paisan exhibits its own aesthetic freedom as Rossellini rebelled against critics, political figures, and other filmmakers who tried to impose conventions on how to portray reality in the cinema.
Paisan screens at the Guggenheim on Friday, November 20 at 1 PM.