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Out of the Past – Three French Films released on DVD reveal a pristine glory

As far as I know the first screenings in Australia of Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu took place at the 1961 Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals. Around that time the film had been “restored” to something near its original length of 113 minutes. This restoration took place because the film had been cut at the time of its first release in Paris. The cutting was done by Renoir himself in the face of a what he called “a kind of loathing….the public as a whole regarded (the film) as a personal insult”[1]

Renoir goes on to record how “at every session I attended I could feel the unanimous disapproval of the audience. I tried to save the film by shortening it, and to start with I cut the scenes in which I myself played too large a part, as though I were ashamed, after this rebuff, of showing myself on the screen. But it was useless. The film was dropped, having become ‘too demoralizing’”.[2]

So began the journey of La Regle du Jeu into obscurity. It lay there for more than twenty years – an inert work known to few. All along it had its champions. Prior to his death in 1958, Andre Bazin in his book on Renoir, published only posthumously in 1971, called it the director’s “masterpiece” and “a work that should be seen again and again…because it is a work that reveals itself only gradually to the spectator”[3] By 1962 it featured high up Sight and Sound’s poll of the ten best films of all time. Renoir himself recalls a moment when “a quarter of a century later I gave a lecture at Harvard University. La Regle Du Jeu was showing at a nearby cinema. There was burst of cheering when I appeared on the platform. The students were applauding the film. Since then its reputation has steadily grown. What seemed an insult to society in 1939 has become clear-sightedness.”[4]

The film’s restoration and its reclamation by another generation began in the late 50s. I don’t know the story of how it was re-assembled but what is now on show after further restoration work on the sound surely finally brings the film back to something very close to what those unsuspecting spectators would have seen when the film was released. That restoration work can be seen on the magnificent DVD issued in France in 1998 by Editions Montparnasse. The DVD lists the film at “about 110 minutes” which would be about right given the television screening at 25 frames a second would account for the difference. It is issued in Pal format and may be played in regions 2,3,4,5 and 6.

The spectator embarking on the DVD should take Andre Bazin’s advice and see the film again and again but, in between any viewings, should also watch the 42 minute television program about the film which the disk also contains. Using a script by the eminent critic Jean Douchet the program provides more insight into the construction of the film, its meaning and Renoir’s art than one should dare hope for. It is film criticism of the highest order and uses the technology to break down scenes and illustrate the critic’s view with a quite dazzling facility. Douchet for instance points out Marcel Dalio’s over made up face in the final speech on the stairs after the shooting of Jurieu. I confess to never having seen the image with this clarity and thus never having got the point of one particular element of how Renoir makes his films.

I’ve seen La Regle du Jeu in its reconstructed prints since the 60s. IÕve seen the tape that SBS TV has shown but I have not seen the film in anything like the clear crisp images and sound contained on the DVD. It comes with a menu of English, Spanish and German subtitles. This is still a little unusual for French DVD releases. The large majority of these have so far been released with either no foreign language subtitles or subtitles only in French for use by the deaf or the hard of hearing. This latter form of titling can be quite elaborately done on French films.

The French DVD of Et Dieu …Crea La Femme (Roger Vadim, 1956) contains only French titles but uses the space below the wide screen to place the dialogue below the character speaking the lines. This is easy to manage for the film’s cinemascope shots has a lot of scenes containing only a few characters. As well there are colour coded words also included to show that, say, a gun has been fired. Interesting but probably not always possible or practical. The material used for the DVD of Et Dieu…Crea La Femme is also of stunning quality. I don’t recall ever seeing the images of San Tropez, and of Brigitte Bardot in such intense colour. My memory of the images is closer to the quality of the original theatrical trailer, scratched and faded, which is also included on the disk.. For the curious I can report that the famous love scene between Bardot and Christian Marquand has no extra added footage beyond that seen when the film was originally released in Australia. Bardot aficionados will still have to make do with the stills of the scene which seem to indicate that at least what was shot was rather raunchier than what has ever appeared on the screen. (Rene Chateau Video, Region 2 only, Pal format)

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I first read a critique of Marcel Carne’s Drole de Drame (1937) in the sixties. It was written by James Stoller and appeared in the short-lived journal Moviegoer. It made me want to see a film that only now have I finally managed to catch, more than three decades later. (I’m not aware of a print ever being in circulation here nor am I aware that SBS has ever screened it. I can stand correction on this.) Now however it is available on a French DVD with English subtitles (Editions Montparnasse, 2000). The DVD is in the NTSC format and plays in Regions 2,3,4,5 and 6. Drole de Drame was Carne’s second film and already he was using some of those actors who worked with him throughout the golden era of his collaboration with Jacques Prevert, a streak that reached its apogee with Les Enfants du Paradis (1945).

The material must not have looked promising. In a set of written notes that can be accessed on the disk, the critic Jacques Siclier explains that the source material. Carne was offered one of two projects by a produced named Coniglion-Molinier. One of them was a mystery but is described by Siclier as a “roman d’humeur anglais”. The title of the book was “His First Offence” by J. Clouston Storer and it had been published in French under the title “La Memorable et Tragique Aventure de Mr Irwin Molyneux”. One wonders whether consideration was given to transferring it to Paris but finally a decision was taken, probably by Carne and Prevert to retain the London setting. The incongruity must have appealed. Carne used the Alexandre Trauner for the fanciful London sets and Eugene Shufftan for the photography.

Carne and Prevert may not have found the material wildly promising but when you are making your second film you may not have too much choice. The script employs much bustling in and out of rooms and many coincidences. The heavy scripting, which sets up the difficulties between the censorious bishop, his cousin Molyneux, who writes detective stories under a pseudonym, and the cousin’s society wife, seems closer to Feydeau or West End farce than to the poetic and doom laden work most associated with the director and writer. But in the end they produced this quite bizarre film set in London wherein all the characters have British names. Part of the fun is the strangled attempt at pronunciation of names like McPherson and William, both of which are difficult for the French accent. Jean-Louis Barrault, already a Carne fixture, plays the mass-murderer William Kramps, but he only murders butchers. Louis Jouvet plays the suspicious bishop who first comes to stay with Molyneux, played by Michel Simon, then suspects his cousin of murdering the cousin’s wife. He later returns to the scene of the alleged crime done up in the “disguise” of a Scotsman in a kilt. Siclier reports that Jouvet did not appreciate having to wear the costume. He thought it made him look ridiculous. He was right but it adds to the general hilarity.

Part of the film is set in a very weird Chinatown. At one stage Barrault and Simon are both drunkenly heading home unbeknowing that the “different” women each have been talking about is the same person. The place they arrive at seems vaguely familiar to Simon. Barrault explains that “in Chinatown all these places look the same”. Hmm.

Drole de Drame is very, very funny and Richard Roud summed it up exactly when he described it as “the Carne film (along with Les Enfants Du Paradis) that has dated the least. Its whacky anarchy is still irresistibly funny, and its cardboard London entertainingly surreal”.[5]

Finally there is one interesting feature of all three titles mentioned here. All acknowledge the assistance of the Centre National de la Cinematographie. It would appear that the French Government agency established to support French cinema is, in some form, subsidising or funding the release of French titles on the DVD market.

[1] My Life and My Films, Jean Renoir, Collins, London, 1974, p.172

[2] Ibid

[3] Jean Renoir, Andre Bazin, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973, pp82-3

[4] My Life and My Films, p173

[5]Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Richard Roud (ed), Martin Secker and Warburg, London, 1980, vol 1, p191