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December 8 - January 27, 2018

Rediscovering Jacques Becker

Jacques Becker is a vital but unsung protagonist of the post-WWII French cinema. A precise stylist and insightful moralist, Becker’s meticulously detailed films subtly measure the narrative and ethical dimensions of the everyday lives of their unusual heroes; a diverse cast that includes eccentric peasants, obsessive artists, gangster dreamers and hardened convicts. Becker’s refusal to smooth the rough edges of his characters can be traced to his early work as assistant to childhood friend Jean Renoir on classic films such as A Day in the Country and Grand Illusion, complexly humanist tapestries that use a theatrical mise-en-scene to stage the ever-changing dynamic of the tight-knit ensembles studied within them. Becker’s films share with Renoir a rich specificity of place and assigned roles that are performed, but also resisted, by characters whose penchant for betrayal and sudden violence threaten to tear asunder the intimate worlds they invent and inhabit. One abiding theme traced across Becker’s cinema is the fragile uncertainty of human relationships and the mercurial energies that can cement or instantly destroy the intimate bonds of friends, lovers and cellmates alike. Becker’s experience of the Occupation and as a prisoner-of-war no doubt influenced his compassionate yet unflinching insight into human weakness and treachery.

Becker’s versatility as a director allowed him to work successfully across a wide range of genres, styles and milieu; from the dark naturalism of Goupi Mains Rouge’s study of a decadent farming family to the kitchen-sink moral tales of the “Quartet of Young Love” (Antoine and Antoinette, Édouard and Caroline, Rendezvous in July and Rue de L’Estrapade), from Falbalas’ anxious melodrama of a Parisian couturier to the secret back rooms of the comic inflected heist thriller Touchez pas au grisbi. The stark architectonic rigor of Becker’s last film and crowning masterpiece, the prison drama Le Trou, declared a bold new direction cut tragically short by his sudden death at the age of fifty-three. This same versatility is perhaps one reason Becker is constantly overlooked, especially outside of France, and rarely heralded as a quintessential French auteur. Better known for revered films such as Casque d’or and Le Trou than his larger oeuvre, Becker is rediscovered every ten years or so to great critical acclaim, only to be gradually forgotten once again. This retrospective goes a step further than past efforts by including the rarely screened early works Dernier atout, Rue de L’Estrapade and The Adventures of Arsène Lupin.

Experiencing the full arc of Becker’s impressive but sadly foreshortened career makes clear his close affinities to such great fellow filmmakers as Renoir, Grémillon, Bresson, Clouzot and Melville. Like Clouzot and Melville in particular, Becker occupies an inbetween place; between generations, between the Occupation and the post-war, between cynicism and optimism. With their richly three contradictory characters and rare ability to linger meaningfully on seemingly inconsequential moments Becker’s films also possess a spontaneity and awkward grace equally born from bursts of lyrical camerawork as remarkable plot turns. Becker’s ethical and stylistic rigor, reinvention of genres, and talent for cementing a scene and place in a vivid and unexpected gesture (the doorman collecting butts to make a new cigarette in Falbalas, the aging gangsters munching on foie gras toasts in Touchez pas au grisbi), makes him more than an interstitial figure but rather a crucial bridge and conduit between his generation and the spirited Nouvelle Vague who followed closely in his footsteps. – Haden Guest

Special thanks—Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum; Amélie Garin-Davet, Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

Film descriptions by Haden Guest and Brittany Gravely.

        


Saturday December 8 at 7pm
Saturday December 15 at 9pm

Antoine and Antoinette
(Antoine et Antoinette)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Roger Pigaut, Claire Mafféi, Noël Roquevert
France 1947, DCP, b/w, 84 min. French with English subtitles

Becker opens his celebrated quartet with a disarmingly frank yet tender story of a young couple—a factory laborer and department store clerk— buffeted by the daily bustle and struggles of urban life and, it seems, still learning to live with each other. The film marvelously captures the mercurial turns from affection to petty squabbling to jealous rage to passionate lovemaking regularly enacted within the couple’s crowded garret apartment. Together Antoine and Antoinette embody contradictory approaches to human relationships explored across Becker’s cinema, with the forgiving and wide-eyed Antoinette counterbalanced by the petulant, distrusting Antoine whose ceaseless jealousy correctly hones in upon the lecherous grocer who has clear designs upon his comely wife. While unfolding turbulent and telling scenes from a still early marriage, Antoine and Antoinette also offers an affectionate portrait of the working-class Parisian neighborhood where the two are part of a close community. Indeed, Becker is clearly fascinated by the film’s distinctly local setting and carefully stages all principal action in the quotidian spaces of the couple’s cramped rooftop and the nearby corner bistro, metro station and grocery store. Offsetting the film’s captivating realism is a touch of magical anarchy reminiscent of Rene Clair and set into deliciously tragi-comedic motion by the appearance (and disappearance) of a winning lottery ticket.

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Saturday December 8 at 9pm
Sunday December 16 at 7pm

Édouard and Caroline
(Édouard et Caroline)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Daniel Gélin, Anne Vernon, Elina Labourdettel
France 1951, DCP, b/w, 88 min. French with English subtitles

Over the course of a single night a young couple’s marriage and future is set into increasing uncertainty by a highly charged event, an evening concert about to be given by Édouard, a gifted but still unknown pianist, in the gilded home of Caroline’s wealthy uncle before a select audience of wealthy and influential potential supporters. In response to the unspoken but overwhelming stress placed upon the performance, comic moments tumble into a sharp-edged duel between the couple—exposing the potentially irreconcilable differences rooted in their distinct backgrounds and world views. Designer clothing once again plays a crucial role—in this case an evening gown—and the different opinions about presentability and class that it releases. Daniel Gélin, in the first of three films for Becker, is the slightly gruff musician while the spirited Caroline is played with screwball verve and deep emotion by the talented Anne Vernon, most recognizable to US audiences as Catherine Deneuve’s mother from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Completed on a relatively short production schedule in a burst of combined creative energies, Édouard and Caroline was inspired by Becker’s own relationship with Annette Wademant a twenty-year-old aspiring actress for whom Becker recently had left his wife and with whom he wrote the film’s energetic and insightful screenplay. (Wademant would continue as screenwriter on Becker’s next film Rue de L’Estrapade before going on to work with Max Ophuls.) Édouard and Caroline was shot entirely on two Ballencourt sound stages transformed into contrasting worlds that embody the social polarities explored by Becker; the cramped and threadbare couple’s studio and the palatial apartments of Caroline’s aristocratic extended family. Becker makes dynamic use of the studio sets by turning one wall into an unseen mirror, allowing the couple to stare directly at the viewer as they examine themselves.

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Sunday December 9 at 4:30pm

Dernier atout (The Trump Card)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Mireille Balin, Raymond Rouleau, Pierre Renoir
France 1942, 35mm, b/w, 105 min. French with English subtitles

Becker’s first film is a stylish gangster fantasy set in a fictional Latin American country and centered on the rivalry between two aspiring detectives and recent graduates from the police academy locked in a fierce competition to solve the headline murder of a notorious American gangster in the prominent resort hotel Babylonia. Some have read in Becker’s debut feature the traces of his close study of Hollywood cinema, especially the celebrated cycles of gangster films and screwball comedies that were among the studios’ more popular international exports. Others have found in Dernier atout’s moody scenes and brooding characters the seeds of his later crime and prison dramas, Touchez pas au grisbi and Le Trou. Although clearly escapist fare, Dernier atout nevertheless effectively captures the paranoia, frustration and tense intrigues that held nerves and lives in suspense throughout the war years.

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Sunday December 9 at 7pm
Friday December 14 at 9pm

Rendezvous in July
(Rendez-vous de juillet)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Daniel Gélin, Brigitte Auber, Nicole Courcel
France 1949, DCP, b/w, 112 min. French with English subtitles

With Rendezvous in July Becker widened his horizon from young couples to offer a vision of an entire generation, weaving a bold and choral tapestry of post-WWII Parisian youth culture as embodied by a group of twentysomethings each struggling differently to choose their individual paths in life. Becker’s lifelong love of jazz is given fullest reign here, with extended performance scenes in the underground grotto clubs capturing the energy, close community and poignant transience of friendship as the youth start to move in different directions. Daniel Gélin is announced right away as a kind of a group leader, a proto-Jean Rouch like anthropologist filmmaker who abandons his suffocating family in an opening scene, driven by his hope to travel far away and never compromise his ambitions. Vividly capturing love on the Left Bank years before Ed van der Elsken, Rendezvous in July offers a touching homage to youth sensitive to the doubts and vulnerabilities shared, but rarely spoken.

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Friday December 14 at 7pm
Monday December 17 at 7pm

Casque d’or (Golden Marie)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin
France 1952, 35mm, b/w, 94 min. French with English subtitles

Opening onto a pastoral setting worthy of both Renoirs, the Impressionist painter and his filmmaking son with whom Becker worked on many occasions, Casque d’or delicately glitters with all of the finely wrought detail of a master artisan’s work. Becker respectfully departs from the Reniors, however, by revealing the underpainting of a Belle Époque Paris, one whose waltzing couples are gangsters and prostitutes, yet in his sensitive construction, they are not defined by their profession but by their complicated humanity. Magnetically drawn to the hypnotic eyes and golden tresses of Simone Signoret’s kept Marie, the recently reformed Manda—played by a laconic Serge Reggiani—swiftly steals her heart, thus enraging another of her admirers, the local crime boss. Marie shares with her lover an intelligent, fearless independence and devotion to authentic human connection. Locked—and briefly lost—in an utopian passion, the heroic couple are not above duplicity or depravity; nor are Becker’s unscrupulous criminals beneath vulnerability or empathy. The dangerous terrain of Becker’s fin de siècle landscape encompasses both the sublime and the stark; Becker blends them with a heart-shattering seamlessness.

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Saturday December 15 at 7pm
Sunday December 16 at 4pm

It Happened at the Inn
(Goupi Mains Rouges)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Fernand Ledoux, Blanchette Brunoy, Geroges Rollin
France 1943, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. French with English subtitles

Whether the comical nicknames of the rural Goupi clan signify cartoon archetypes or are a cue to the film’s hidden-in-plain-sight politics or both, Becker’s second feature successfully skirted censorship during Occupied France with its ambiguous depiction of a “return to the land.” When the prodigal “Monsieur” arrives from the city, he is welcomed by a cruel practical joke, an arranged marriage, a double murder mystery and a legend of buried treasure. Perhaps Becker’s tactics are as secretive and comically puzzling as the rustic Goupi family whose tight bonds are laced with greed, violence, madness and treachery. Evading any easy reading, the film switches from expressionistic horror to romantic pastoral interludes to rambunctious comedy while maintaining a compelling suspense throughout. Perhaps it is this complicated, satirical ambidexterity that gave birth to such a captivatingly eccentric entry in his oeuvre and in the history of cinema. Print courtesy Institut Français.


Monday January 14 at 7pm
Sunday January 20 at 7pm

Touchez pas au grisbi
(Hands Off the Loot)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau, Lino Ventura
France 1954, DCP, b/w, 94 min. French with English subtitles

Becker’s smart, subtle film unfolds with the same undetectable skill and ease that Jean Gabin’s gangster Max conducts his ambiguously unsavory business. At this point, Becker was also—unknowingly—nearing the end of his career, and the wise filmmaker, like Max, sees that everything is well-planned and well-executed, no flash or flamboyance, unless absolutely necessary. Though just as riveting and romantic as any action-packed noir, Touchez pas au grisbi tenderly lingers on the more mundane moments in the lives of aging gangsters. And even the normalcy may not be what it appears; it could be a grounding ritual or a protective front. For Max, it might be indistinguishable. Whether taking out his reading glasses, putting on his pajamas, romancing a beautiful woman or killing a duplicitous partner in crime, Max is calm, charming and indecipherable. He has settled into a comfortable life, hopefully secured by a last big heist committed before the film begins, yet his loyalty to his best friend could compromise this retirement. With its melancholic air, the complex bouquet of Becker’s modern masterpiece slyly catches its audience off-guard less with ambushes of a violent nature, but an emotional one.

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Friday January 18 at 7pm
Saturday January 19 at 9pm

Falbalas (Paris Frills)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Raymond Rouleau, Micheline Presle, Jean Chevrier
France 1945, DCP, b/w, 111 min. French with English subtitles

A fascinating exploration of obsessive desire, Becker’s early masterpiece takes place in a privileged sphere he knew all too well from his childhood: the cloistered world of an exclusive Paris fashion house not unlike that directed by his mother, although this haute couture hive of seamstresses and models is ruled over by an obsessive and capricious designer, Philippe Clarence, brilliantly portrayed by Raymond Rouleau, with veteran actress (and close friend to Coco Chanel) Gabrielle Dorziat as his sternly matronly deputy. The film begins with a stunning opening credit sequence, a glittering montage of beautiful models gliding dramatically through swinging doors, dramatically set to lush music that announces Falbalas as a sweeping melodrama about a quenchless thirst for beauty that renders women as fragile and interchangeable vehicles for the garments that briefly adorn them. So all-consuming is Clarence’s passion to give “a soul” to his creations that he treats human interactions as mere folly and takes cruel delight in denigrating his minions and toying with other’s affections. His attraction to a comely new arrival from the provinces, played by a radiant Micheline Presle, thus seems more as an excuse to betray her lover, his trusted fabric supplier and, supposedly, best friend. This time, however, the torturous game turns against Clarence as the young woman’s pure love begins to melt his icy heart. A breakthrough after his first two apprentice films, Falbalas anticipates important later directions in Becker’s career, with a brilliantly structured and kinetic scene of a ping-pong tournament in Presle’s boarding house, for example, announcing the fascination with postwar youth culture that would find full flower in Rendezvous in July. Among Becker’s most daring films, Falbalas is shockingly unknown today and has, indeed, been only barely acknowledged as a clear inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s celebrated Phantom Thread.


Friday January 18 at 9pm

Rue de l’Estrapade

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Daniel Gélin, Louis Jourdan, Anne Vernon
France 1953, 35mm, b/w, 98 min. French with English subtitles

The threat of adultery hovering over Becker’s “Quartet of Young Love” rears its full head in the final and least known entry of the series, a droll study of matrimonial disfunction gamely played by Anne Vernon as a vain housewife and Louis Jordan, between Hollywood pictures, as a rakish and philandering racecar driver. The film’s unexpected opening image finds the couple slovenly devouring their lunch in a kind of a speed competition, a comic yet cutting summary of their descent into bad manners and mutual indifference. Rue de L’Estrapade extends the tendency of Becker’s cinema to burrow into seemingly trivial incidents by making constant sidetracks to follow secondary characters and linger after the expected end of a scene. Notable here are the extended scenes with Rififi’s Jean Servais as an openly gay couturier still compelled to aggressively flirt with Vernon in response to her overzealous entreaties for work in his exclusive boutique. Written by Édouard et Caroline actress turned screenwriter Annette Wademant, Rue de L’Estrapade shares with that film an acerbic undertone and critique of delusional bourgeoise aspirations. In Rue de L’Estrapade the target, more specifically, is the easy appropriation of bohemianism by the middle-class, a gesture embodied by Vernon’s shallow attempt to reinvent herself by moving to a garret apartment besides a moody and self-absorbed chanteur played with comic inflection by Daniel Gélin. Print courtesy Institut Français.


Friday January 19 at 7pm

Montparnasse 19
(Les amants de Montparnasse)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Gérard Philipe, Lilli Palmer, Gerard Sety
France/Italy 1958, DCP, b/w, 108 min. French with English subtitles

Terminally ill and fated to die only months before production began, Max Ophuls selected Becker to take his place as director of an important project, a portrait of Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani starring Gerard Philippe in what would tragically be the legendary French actor’s final role. Uncannily the film itself focused on the last year of Modigliani’s own foreshortened life before his death by tuberculosis. Determined to make the film his own, Becker rewrote Ophuls’ screenplay to open new dimensions that speak directly to Becker’s interest in the fragility of human relationships and local communities. Cast alongside Gerard Philippe as rivals for his affection are the Anouk Aimée as a bewitching and muse and Lili Palmer as a masochistic lover. Montparnasse 19 remains a divisive film for Becker fans, with some declaring the film unable to escape its compromised origins and overpowered by the aura of its tragic star. Jean-Luc Godard, on the other hand, singled out Becker’s film as a crucial work about the artistic process.

Montparnasse 19 is a film of fear. For in unwittingly investing Modigliani’s unbalanced mind with his own perturbation, Jacques Becker—clumsily, admittedly, but infinitely movingly—allows us to penetrate the secret of artistic creation more effectively than Clouzot did in filming Picasso at work. After all, if a modern novel is fear of the blank page, a modern painting fear of the blank canvas, and modern sculpture fear of the stone, a modern film has the right to be fear of the camera, fear of the actors, fear of the dialogue, fear of the montage. I would give the whole of the postwar French cinema, for that one shot, badly acted, badly composed, but sublime, in which Modigliani asks five francs for his drawings on the terrace of the Coupole.” – Cahiers du cinema, n. 83, May 1958, translated by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne

DCP courtesy Institut Français.

Sunday January 20 at 4pm

The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Robert Lamoureux, Liselotte Pulver, O.E. Hasse
France/Italy 1957, DCP, color, 104 min. French, English, German, Italian with English subtitles

Becker’s witty, stylish and sumptuously detailed adaptation of Maurice Leblanc popular exploits of master thief and deceiver Arsène Lupin adds a new dimension to the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The film weaves together several adventures to follow Lupin as he dons different guises, artfully robbing the wealthy and powerful across whose polished floors he steals and dances with incomparable ease. Theater actor Robert Lamoureux brings out the amorous and vulnerable side of Lupin’s elusive Robin Hood, leaving him open to the wiles of the elegant German aristocrat Mina von Graft who pulls him into a dangerous mission for none other than the Kaiser Wilhelm II. While set in a lighter tone than his better known titles (and the second of only two color films directed by Becker), The Adventures of Arsène Lupin also extends the critique of class stratification that weaves across such diverse works as Casque d’or and Édouard and Caroline.


Monday January 21 at 7pm
Sunday January 27 at 7pm

Le Trou (The Hole)

Directed by Jacques Becker. With Marc Michel, Raymond Meunier, Jean Keraudy
France/Italy 1960, DCP, b/w, 132 min. French with English subtitles

The summit and endpoint of Jacques Becker’s cinema is the uncompromising yet strangely uplifting prison break drama Le Trou, a distillation to a pure essence of dominant themes and strategies of his cinema. Becker’s realism, his fidelity to the specificities of place and terroir, is focused now on a seeming abstraction, an obdurate concrete cell whose every inch and cranny is, almost magically, revealed gradually to be charged with singular meaning, patiently discovered and tested by the prisoners measuring a path to the outside. The stakes are raised as well for Becker’s ethical humanism—his willingness to forgive human weakness and even, moreover, to declare it a cornerstone and proof of trusting relationships—here given the ultimate test by the ambiguous figure of the young prisoner thrust into the cell just as four veteran cellmates are preparing to break free. The new prisoner played by Marc Michel (the slightly villainous mustached jeweler from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is suave, lithe, cautious, but possessed by a spark of hunger in his eyes, a searching for friendship, love, escape. He is a cipher of need, a void, a hole. Le Trou is given further ambiguous meaning by its source in a novel by José Giovanni, the controversial crime writer and Nazi collaborator who was charged but released from Death Row only to produce a string of masterful and autobiographically inspired novels that he quickly transformed into sang froid underworld screenplays, beginning first with Becker’s final masterpiece. Every gesture and object in Le Trou is rich with ambiguous potential as a signal, a threat, an expression of love. As a tool, a gift, a weapon, a sign. As a revelation of cinema’s potential to invent narrative from even a single moving image. Hauntingly echoing Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Becker’s fable of human endurance discovers in human captivity a strange route towards transcendence through the stony soil of measured time. Becker's final film returns, subterraneously, to the roots of his cinema in his early work as assistant to Jean Renoir on Grand Illusion where Becker, revealingly, appears in an autobiographical and predictive cameo as a British prisoner of war (his father was English) unable to understand the French prisoners telling him about the tunnel to freedom they dug in the soil beneath them but were unable to use because of their sudden transfer to another prison.