"Foreign Film" at Film Forum
Cinema lives?every time a link is made with film history, every time you can see a classic (old or new) that recalls why this medium matters. In Film Forum's current program, "The Golden Age of the Foreign Film," the film culture we used to know?but that certainly died along with regular repertory houses?is temporarily reborn (the series runs through Sept. 14). Reviving foreign language films in America is a noble, fun task; it establishes where American film lovers and makers learned to take movies seriously, to realize there was art in this popular, pleasurable entertainment form.
Contemporary cinema is like a prodigal child who has forgotten his roots. Film Forum traces the family tree of movie achievements that make the best new films possible. Here's the lineage: from Fellini to Carne, Godard to Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray to Truffaut, Bergman to Cocteau. There are lots of omissions (only one Renoir! No Murnau, no Ophuls, no Vigo, no Lean, no Powell, a questionable but rare Malle?and no Lola!), but you can still get the basics.
Shocking thing is: most of today's moviegoing audience don't know the basics. It's little fault of their own (blame trendy critics and wary exhibitors, also victims of Hollywood cultural chauvinism). But that ignorance is the reason the best movies of the past decade (Nouvelle Vague, Short Cuts, Naked, The Long Day Closes, Wild Reeds, Hamsun, Beloved) not only failed to win wide reception but, worst of all, were largely misunderstood. And the disaster continues. It's a bitter joke to see critics apply mandarin boilerplate to praise each new Iranian film when they haven't fostered a readership ready to appreciate the contemplative lack of violence, scatology and sarcasm. (If critics who praised The Wind Will Carry Us were also the ones who praised The Blair Witch Project, who's a reader to trust?)
Life experience is the greatest foundation for appreciating works of art but recognized, innovative great art counts, too. You may not know how bad The Usual Suspects is if you haven't seen Band of Outsiders, but you're also unlikely to appreciate how fine Time Regained is if you don't know The Rules of the Game.
That latter pun is aimed at the bizarre twist in modern film smarts where viewers and critics seem to deliberately renounce the humanist lessons of the great classics. What we were fascinated to understand about human experience from Diary of a Country Priest (Aug. 28) and The Passion of Joan of Arc was unaccountably forgotten when Beloved appeared. Ray's "The Apu Trilogy" (Parts 1 and 2 on Aug. 27) revealed the essence of both family life and worldliness that defenders of American Beauty defiled. Modern filmmakers don't have to reinvent the wheel. They have to recover the road map.
It's as if there were a hidden political resentment behind the currently propagated idea that there never was a golden age. This obstinacy isn't simply a matter of shoring up current fare so much as contemporary critics aggrandizing their own sense of importance?hoping that by praising Hou Hsiao-hsien, maybe they can be Agee to his Dreyer. (Resenting the past as "an unfair reproach to the present" is how Phillip Lopate judiciously paraphrased this bullheaded position, but still he carefully, knowledgeably, made the case for 1945-'65 as a golden era.) It's not snobbish or conservative to refer to a golden age?The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jules and Jim (Sept. 1-2), The Golden Coach (Sept. 7) and L'Avventura (Aug. 23) are as formally and morally daring as it gets. Fans of hoodrat movies will envy the audacity and political insight about youth gangs and social deprivation in Los Olvidados (Aug. 31). Neil Labute's antisex charades are exposed by the sexiness and pity of Les Bonnes Femmes (Sept. 11). The juvenile confusions of Chuck and Buck shrivel next to the emotional compulsions of Rocco and His Brothers (Sept. 6). The contemporary disavowal of philosophical tradition is critiqued by the spiritual power alternately dredged up by The Seventh Seal (Sept. 8-9) and Paisan (Aug. 29).
A key to why this series matters can be found in Film Forum's own promotional brochure description of Nights of Cabiria as "the rediscovered Fellini masterpiece." Since when? It's doubtful that film's greatness was ever forgotten. It's the culture's attention deficit disorder that's been discovered. Because Nights of Cabiria's rerelease two years ago was less than world-shaking, "rediscovery" seems more wishful than accurate. Film Forum recognizes that what's needed is an atmosphere where new viewers can shake off their resistance to the past and accept age-old revelations as their own. That was true for the now-ascendant generation of film critics and curators who weren't jealous or afraid of the past but took inspiration from it.
Yet some terrible insecurity?I figure a skepticism about the humanist virtues shared by artists as distinct as Renoir, Buñuel and Kurosawa?happened in recent years. Embarrassed by emotion, late film culture rejected golden age sincerity. How else to explain the bloodless bad taste of critics praising Todd Haynes' Safe as if Antonioni's Red Desert (Aug. 23) never existed! This signaled a breakdown in cultural continuity as well as a frightening dismissal of the political inquiry inherent in golden age movie art. It's what made Antonioni's remarkably stylized, metaphysical view of a housewife's anxiety not only superbly esthetic but forensic?an unabashed argument for potential human progress. Such grave ambitions make the word "masterpiece" seem a worthy description and goal. It's scarcely earned these days?and not because people aren't making great films anymore. We've somehow lost the parameters to recognize magnitude. Get your bearings now.
"The Golden Age of the Foreign Film" runs through Sept. 14 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 727-8110, [www.filmforum.com](http://www.filmforum.com).
Patrice Leconte always struck me as a fraudulent artiste?the arduously forlorn M. Hire, the drably whimsical The Hairdresser's Husband. And Ridicule? Well, you know. This time, with The Girl on the Bridge, he almost got me. The widescreen, black-and-white photography (by Jean-Marie Dreujou) illustrates the glory of film! In this awful period of digital transition, it's brassy for Leconte to extend his highbrow artifices into (of all things) a Claude Lelouch movie. The Girl on the Bridge is not as genuinely erotic as A Man and a Woman (a kitsch masterpiece that, in its day, had much to do with getting audiences accustomed to other French films). But sometimes Leconte's loony story of suicidal tramp Adele (Vanessa Paradis) and creepy cabaret knife-thrower Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) sublimating their neuroses in public demonstrations of l'amour fou becomes damned wondrous.
For about the first 40 minutes an illusion is sustained primarily through golden age reverb. The story and setting suggest Bergman's The Naked Night, Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes, Ophuls' Lola Montes and La Ronde, too. Yet the rifling is Leconte's own. This romantic pastiche may come closer to personal expression for this usually impersonal modern auteur than the films that previously won him middlebrow acclaim (such as those at his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art).
Leconte, clearly, savors romantic tropes from the movies' golden age. It may be impossible to resist all his reminiscences. Crazed Adele and hangdog Gabor may be incredulous ("Ever felt fear and pleasure at once?" Adele asks with a straight face) but they have depth of a kind. Leconte has synthesized his lovers from a long cinematic legacy (though not out of pure imagination like the waifs in Leos Carax's superb Les Amant du Pont Neuf). As much as Leconte evokes the widescreen silver-and-shadow of the French New Wave (Lola, Shoot the Piano Player) and the stark tragedies of Italian Neorealism (White Nights, Nights of Cabiria, Variety Lights), he plumbs even further to the roots of film history. Adele's leap off the bridge and Gabor's offer of a second chance at life (love) rework the setup of Von Sternberg's powerfully erotic 1928 The Docks of New York and splashes the water imagery and romantic anxiety of Jean Vigo's 1934 L'Atalante.
The swirling imagery and romantic poses work a spell. (It's only broken once?when Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" punctures several characters' dreams.) Dreujou charges his black-and-white palette, befitting the evanescent emotions. Every one of Adele and Gabor's lovelorn gestures?on the bridge, in a casino, in Greece and Turkey?looks singed. It's as nostalgic as it is romantic. He even dares feature a rainbow and fireworks in black and white. The audacity prods the imagination. It's like the horizontal sun glare that goes right across Gabor's eyes?dazzlement. Auteuil's haunted look gives this nonsense intermittent gravity and gap-toothed Paradis has some of Bardot's pluck.
Fess up: In addition to the truths golden age cinema has taught, it also leaves a wellspring of ersatz wisdom?it's what people fall for in Woody Allen's no less derivative "serious" films. Gabor advises Adele, "We always think luck is what we don't have." And Leconte should know. Despite a heavy-handed sense of humor, he here deftly uses a score of Arabic and big-band music to balance the Gallic melancholy. So it's not Demy's The Bay of Angels. The film student in me will take it over the more solemn but dull An Affair of Love.
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