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The French, masters of life

Romantic, with a touch of evil

April 09, 2006|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

THE impact of watching Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise" for the first time, alone in a dark theater in 1964, was so overwhelming in its passion, vitality and grandeur that it forced me to reevaluate all the other movies I considered masterpieces. With the elusiveness of love as its theme, the 1945 film creates a glittering world of backstage life, peopled with performers who discover themselves the heroes and villains in the tragicomedy of their lives.

In one of cinema's most breathtaking opening sequences, the camera pulls back to reveal the vast, crowded Boulevard du Temple lined with sideshow attractions, sweeping the viewer into a carnival in the Paris of 1840 -- the circus acts, the barkers and the pickpockets. As the camera moves down the street it introduces the beautiful Garance, billed as the Naked Truth, and some of the men who will enter her life: the actor Frederick Lemaitre, the talented mime Baptiste and the thief Lacenaire. One is immediately ensnared.

The French are terrific at carrying off romantic gallantry but equally unsparing at laying bare the nastiness, the dankness and pure evil that can consume the human spirit. While French cinema is hardly free of mediocre movies, it has been sustained, like that of the Japanese, by a continual flow of gifted filmmakers grappling honestly with the human experience. At their best, French movies, past and present, remain essential viewing.

The French have made their share of epics and spectacles, but the best -- Sacha Guitry's 1954 "Royal Affairs in Versailles" comes to mind -- have been marked by a sense of intimacy that may be the abiding hallmark of the fine French film. Beyond the narrative storytelling, the technology of the cinema to a large extent evolved in France, where its potential as an art form was explored more seriously than elsewhere, and the tradition of quality and innovation endures.

Arguably the milestone event in world film exhibition occurred in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895, when Louis and Auguste Lumiere presented a program of shorts, such as the literally titled "A Train Arrives at the Station." Leon Gaumont and Charles Pathe were soon pioneering production companies, and in 1896 Gaumont's secretary, Alice Guy, suggested the company start telling stories instead of turning out what were essentially newsreels. Guy quickly became the world's first female director and maker of the second known narrative film. The industry developed rapidly, and by 1902 Georges Melies culminated six years of fanciful shorts with the whimsical "A Trip to the Moon."

By 1908 Pathe was involved in the Film d'Art Company, formed to film the classics of the stage as performed by major stars. Sarah Bernhardt remarked that "This is my one chance at immortality" and in 1912 made "Queen Elizabeth," a decidedly static business but sufficiently prestigious to enable Adolph Zukor to secure Paramount's fortunes with his roster of "Famous Players in Famous Plays" productions. French cinema got a shot in the arm with the arrival of comedian Max Linder, to whom Chaplin acknowledged his indebtedness, and the World War I era serials of Louis Feuillade -- "Fantomas," "Les Vampires" and "Judex" -- notable for the style, atmosphere and wit Feuillade brought to his mystery adventures featuring elusive master criminals.

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BOLD INNOVATIONS

IN the years after World War I, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc and Germaine Dulac would pursue experimental cinema with enduringly impressive results while Abel Gance would bring bold innovative techniques to such epics as "La Roue" (1923) and "Napoleon" (1927), with its awesome triple-screen sequences expressing the headlong rush of warfare and history. Meanwhile, Jean Renoir and Rene Clair launched their careers, with Renoir's "Grand Illusion" (1937), which looked back to World War I, and "The Rules of the Game" (1939), which evoked the coming of World War II.

A number of French filmmakers responded to the German Occupation heroically, with "Children of Paradise" and Henri-Georges Clouzot's daring and controversial "Le Corbeau" ("The Raven") (1943), about a small provincial town experiencing a rash of poison pen letters, representing dramatically different responses to dire wartime conditions.

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