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Becker and Bresson Festivals: Too Good to Be True

Commentary: L.A. will be the home for retrospectives of two of the greatest directors

in French filmmaking.

May 10, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

It's little more than fate that's thrown unlikely companions Jacques Becker and Robert Bresson together on this page. But with major retrospectives on both their careers due to open in Los Angeles within a week of each other, determining how much or how little these two giants of mid-century French filmmaking had in common was all but inevitable.

At first the parallels are striking. They were born in September, only a year apart, and each completed a baker's dozen 13 features in their careers. Also, both directors were among the few from the older generation who impressed the young firebrands of the French New Wave. "Before us, the only person who tried to see France was Jacques Becker," wrote Jean-Luc Godard, and Louis Malle said simply of the other man, "We all wanted to be Bresson."

There the similarities end. Bresson (whose unprecedented complete retrospective, with all films in newly struck 35mm prints, begins Friday at the L.A. County Museum of Art) is considered a great artist of the most rarefied kind, a veritable saint of cinema whose work is all but worshiped. "Robert Bresson is French cinema," Godard wrote, "as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music."

If Bresson, still living in his 90s, has a style so distinctive it's impossible to mistake his films for anyone else's, Becker (whose nine-film tribute, his first major retrospective in L.A., begins May 20 at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater) has suffered critically because of the opposite problem.

Becker, who died in 1960 when he was only 54, was a master craftsman whose lack of notice outside of France was due in part to lack of anything completely distinctive in style or subject matter. "There are no theories about Jacques Becker," is how Francois Truffaut, a major fan, put it, and critic Philip Kemp, writing in a recent Film Comment, admitted that while he felt Becker's films had a distinctive quality, "just what that quality consists of isn't easy to pin down."

Yet those visiting the Egyptian during the series will be in for memorable experiences. "Touchez Pas au Grisbi" ("Don't touch the loot" in underworld slang), for instance, was voted the best French crime film ever in a film critics poll in the magazine Positif and inspired a whole series of Gallic noir classics. And then there is "Casque d'Or," an unforgettable fatalistic romance starring Simone Signoret in her signature role as Marie. It's a film so beloved in France that they put it on a stamp--and whose lack of visibility in this country is just short of criminal.

While details of Bresson's personal life tend to be opaque and hidden, Becker's is wide open. His family and the Cezannes were friends, and as a young man he met the son of another painter, filmmaker Jean Renoir. Becker worked as the latter's assistant for seven years in the 1930s (Renoir called him "my brother and my son") and he had cameos in some of Renoir's films, most memorably as an English prisoner of war who destroys a watch rather than turn it over to the Germans in "La Grande Illusion."

"Casque d'Or," released in 1952, opens in a Renoir fashion in turn-of-the-century Paris, with a boatload of young toughs and their women rowing to a riverside boite. There the blond Marie (the title, translated as "helmet of gold," refers to her hair) meets dark, intense Manda (Serge Reggiani), a former tough himself now gone straight. The yearning looks they exchange pierce the heart, and their ill-starred romance, complicated by crime, jealousy and the code of the underworld, ends with one of the most memorable reveries in French cinema.

Two years later, Becker came out with "Grisbi" (the title has in fact been reduced to one word on the new Fox Lorber video release, one of the few Beckers on tape). The film follows a world-weary gangster (it's apparently the only kind they have in France) as he tries to balance the demands of loyalty to his pals with his interest in millions of dollars in stolen gold.

Played with fine sang-froid by French superstar Jean Gabin, "Grisbi" is set in a near-mythical French world of chic cabarets and elaborate wrought-iron elevators. It also stars a young, raven-haired Jeanne Moreau, whose scenes with Gabin have an affecting, passing-the-torch quality to them.

Becker's last film, "Le Trou," is also one of his most interesting. Located in Paris' Sante prison, and with an ex-convict named Jean Keraudy, "the King of Escapes," playing himself in a supporting role, it details an elaborate attempted prison break with the concern for character and attention to detail that were Becker's hallmarks.

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