The characters in French films usually know what life is worth and the cost of their own choices. The best French films seem to gesture toward greatness.
I’ve been listening to Rosie Ledet (Show Me Something, Maison de Soul Records), the Louisiana singer and accordion player I first saw and heard last year in a film documentary on southern music shown in Manhattan’s Film Forum. Her sultry looks and soulful sound left me enthralled then, and now I love her voice—low, full, sensuous, feminine—on her song “Days Gone By,” a ballad. Hearing her up-tempo zydeco accordion music reminds me of seeing and hearing Clifton Chenier on television when I was a boy growing up in Louisiana. (Louisiana has a cultural heritage that includes the French, native Americans, Africans, and even the Spanish, a Creole culture of language, food, and music in a state that also produces salt, sugar, pepper, and industrial oil.) When I was growing up, art to me was song, drawings, old black-and-white films—a feeling, a sound, unusual words, and a certain look or view.
There are words I used a lot when I was younger, beginning at around age 15; and they were words as ideas and beliefs, words as incantations, words as beloved faculties and objects: art, beauty, civilization, heroism, intelligence, profundity, and transcendence. Then of course I went through a period, a long period, when I found reality more amorphous and amoral than I hoped and I used most of these words hardly at all. Now, I find myself using them again. This describes not simply the rise and fall and rise of a particular vocabulary, but also the movement of a particular journey in life—in business, in friendship, in love and sex, and in politics: it is a movement from drift and meaninglessness to defined hopes and aspirations to doubt and attempted adaptation and evident failures to what may be at least philosophical renewal. I find myself thinking of such things after seeing two French films that seem very much both about civilization and also themselves refined objects of civilization. Here civilization is thought, sensitivity, tradition, and concern for beauty, manners, morality, and whatever might be of lasting use. Les Destinees, by Olivier Assayas, is (with the possible exception of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park) the best film I’ve seen in several months. The Lady and the Duke, by Eric Rohmer, is a story of a friendship’s endurance despite conflicting politics and it is also a history lesson and an overt work of art.
(From a technical point of view, Les Destinees and The Lady and the Duke are exceptional. The first is a large-scale film full of details of town and country, leisure and work, peace and war, with good acting, especially from Charles Berling and Emmanuelle Beart. The Lady and the Duke, apparently recorded on digital video, with painted backdrops before which the actors perform, looks like great European paintings and story book illustrations come to life. The artifice of the film only contributes to the sense of the film as an intended object of contemplation—it gives us history and life as art.)
Les Destinees is about a late19th-century/early 20th-century minister from a porcelain producing family, Jean Barnery, who suspects his wife of an improper relation with another man. (We see the other man insistently address a young woman at a fancy ball and sense his relation to the minister’s wife was one-sided.) The minister exiles his wife, invites her back, and then realizes this won’t work and gives her his share of the family stock and divorces her before remarrying another woman, Pauline, an imaginative and spirited woman, he then lives with in love, trust, a bit of boredom, and relative poverty in Switzerland. After the principal manager and designer of the family factory dies, the ex-minister Jean is asked to return and take over—he has shown a talent for the work in the past and he does return with his wife and young son. The bulk of the movie then is about work, its influence on love, family, ethics, and how work is affected by economics, politics, time, and war. (The low wages of the factory workers and their subsequent living conditions—deprivation—is not ignored.) The creation of porcelain becomes an allegory for art and civilization—and in the end, though the former minister says the greatest value in life is love, what we see is that his wife’s love for him is shown through what becomes their shared work.
In The Lady and the Duke, British lady aristocrat Grace Elliott, played by Lucy Russell, is an intimate of the king and queen of France, Louis XVI and Antoinette. The lady stays loyal to them in attitude and conversation, despite the charges against them, the developing French revolution (1789-1799), and the threat of the guillotine. The lady’s friend the Duke of Orleans, played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus, is part of an assembly that will decide the king’s fate, and the duke’s politics are different from the lady’s though the king is his cousin. “The revolution will be of great benefit to our children,” says the duke. The lady hides a marquis, an enemy of the duke, from those who would arrest him, and it’s a sign of the trust between the lady and the duke that when the duke finds out he betrays neither the lady nor the marquis. The duke, against the lady’s wishes, votes for the king’s execution, and later himself becomes a victim of the increasing suspicion of Robiespierre and the revolutionary forces. Robiespierre was for the end of monarchy and the equality of man, and supported citizenship for Jews and an end to African slavery, but became notorious for his prosecutorial zeal (that zeal is all we see of him in The Lady and the Duke). “I am no longer master of my name or my person,” says the duke. Clearly during times of social turmoil and change, good and evil can become blurred—and then, one’s own instincts, values, and personal loyalties may be the best or only guide.
Whereas Les Destinees emphasizes the value of a public effort—a factory’s production of porcelain, the making of beautiful objects for use that keeps many employed—The Lady and the Duke shows how public goals—the desire for liberty, political change—can indiscriminately destroy lives. In one the best effects are brought about by collective efforts and in the other it is in the constancy of loyal private feelings and the decent behavior that follows.
How do the ideas we hold about ourselves, community, culture, and morality become behavior? How does our behavior in turn create our lives and the larger world? When things go well—when people are cared for, when good work is done—this is what is called civilization. When things go badly, we usually refer to a return to barbarity—to chaos, immorality, selfishness, and war. However, there is usually some barbarity in civilization, just as there is sometimes hate in love, and also aspects of other apparent opposites within each other.
It’s not unusual for French films to deal with such large ideas—it is what French films are both loved and mocked for—and part of why I return to them. There’s sophistication (yes, inescapable word) in French films. In addition to the search for the daily bread, the toil of work, the requisite glass of red wine, the erotic temptations, the outdoor lunches, the family pressures, the odd transgressions, the lessons of history and more, there is some sense of what connects all this and what might be won or lost in all our choices. Awareness—constant awareness—is key: the characters in French films usually know what life is worth and the cost of their own choices. The American spirit is often one of directness, practicality, and simplicity (though our gadgets and technology are complex), attended by fairness and pleasure—though sometimes that practicality is attended not by fairness and pleasure but instead brute force and stupidity.
French films speak a certain truth. If one tells a truth, and that truth is heard as a contradiction, it could indicate that the hearer is ignorant, a liar, or is living out a very different truth.
I do not speak or read French, so I read the English subtitles, but am inclined not to remember this reading but to instead remember the eloquence of the characters’ language, the understanding of existence, aspiration, complexity, longing, and values spoken in the film(s).
(Creole French was spoken in my grandmother’s house and my mother’s house, and it was the language of adults, the language of discussion, gossip, and secrets. I wonder now if I might have been better prepared for life if I’d learned that language early. Although school, church, and family attempted instruction, I didn’t always pay attention in school, which was partly my fault; and church was more ritual than resonance. Family, an African-American southern Catholic family, was sometimes oddly opaque, and sometimes full of competing gestures and facts, both folkloric and modern, involved in physical labors while committed to acquiring a full set of encyclopedias, and inclined to believe in spirits and ghosts as well as acute psychological self-analysis. It’s also true that I was told then some things I understand differently now—sometimes people cannot tell you how to be free but they can tell you what freedom is not, where some of the traps are. Yet I know that knowledge, especially intellectual knowledge, precious and freeing, can also disturb and disrupt; knowledge can subvert one’s hopes—one can over-interpret, be too suspicious, use strategies that kill in situations that merely require a show of ordinary confidence and sensible procedure. I saw the painter David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) last week at the Metropolitan Museum, a painting depicting Socrates, talking to friends and about to drink the cup of poison, the state’s death sentence following his being accused of denying the gods and corrupting youth with his arguments, a painting implicitly about the fear of knowledge by a painter sympathetic to the French revolution. What we make of knowledge is not simple. And, although the very green French countryside and outdoor meals in French films sometimes remind me of the landscape and social situations in the mostly flat lands of Louisiana, it is not resemblance but difference I value most, a preferred otherness, a France of the mind.)
Les Destinees and The Lady and the Duke motivated me to think about what makes a film or a text great, as the best French films seem to gesture toward greatness. I imagine that part of what makes a film or text great is its form, a form that has its own logic, even if it’s idiosyncratic. The subject of the film is also large—power, birth, illness, death, love, sex, work, art, exploitation, enslavement, theft, loyalty, disloyalty, friendship, community, individuality, morality, personal trials, knowledge, education, ignorance, innocence—strengths and weaknesses, structures and lack of structure, obligations and liberties, and their interaction. The film or text is dynamic, and it entertains even when its deeper message is not pursued. When its deeper content is pursued, that content is rich, both specific and suggestive. One senses a mastery of language that indicates a pleasure in and a passion for the subject. The story told is full of incidents that provide a picture of life in society, but these incidents do not seem sampled or imposed but organic to the story. There are insights and revelations that take the viewer/reader and even the art-maker beyond what was anticipated—yet one can see the foundations and the rightness of these insights.
Film, both celebration and elegy, is seductive. Art is seductive, but for many it is not as important a matter as business, ethics, love, philosophy, politics, religion, or war—though for others art is all these things—and yet we must live: make choices, fail or succeed, and go on…