"Nuit Fantastique" will screen at LACMA. (LACMA )
Maybe it's the hint of Bastille Day in the air, or perhaps it's just an opportunity to use some playful alliteration, but Film Independent at LACMA is going all Gallic on us in July with a series cheerfully titled French Film Fridays. Whatever the reason, it's a pleasure to welcome these screenings to town.
The eight rarely seen movies spread over four Fridays are not only a tonic to experience; they also remind us of how strong and wide-ranging the French passion for film has been.
It was in France, after all (1895 Paris, to be specific), that the first public screening of a motion picture at which admission was charged took place. And the French have made some of the world's greatest films in every decade since.
The French consider cinema to be one of the most important expressions of their cultural identity and feel — as fully as Americans do — that film would not exist in its present form if not for their creative input. They have the same sense of ownership of the medium that we do and, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art series shows, they have the films to back up their claim.
It all starts Friday night with one film each by two of the great names of the 1960s New Wave, Jean-Luc Godardand Francois Truffaut, here represented by films that are not exactly what you might be expecting.
The vivid 1963 "Contempt" is more linear in its storytelling than Godard is generally known for. And as shot by the great Raoul Coutard, the film's use of major stars in an inside baseball look at the movie business is a treat. Who can resist Brigitte Bardot as a major star, Fritz Lang as her old-school director and Jack Palance as a relentless American producer who drives a red Alfa Romeo?
Truffaut's "Mississippi Mermaid" has the director in one of his neo-noir moods. Based on "Waltz Into Darkness," a novel by Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish, it stars Jean-Paul Belmondoas a tropical plantation owner and Catherine Deneuve as a mysterious woman who enters his life.
The following week is an excursion into unreality, with LACMA screening one of the great fantasy films of all time, and another that is almost never seen.
The classic is Jean Cocteau's rapturous 1946 version of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," as delirious a love story as has ever been filmed. Cinematographer Henri Alekan's images are simple but crystalline, and the film's numerous heart-stopping moments, such as the magical way white curtains billow in the wind, are always welcome.
Once, as the fairy tale mandates, Beauty takes her father's place at a castle in order to spare his life, Cocteau shows us a Beast with a soul, crueler to himself than to humans and with a somber, heartbreaking voice that the director described as that of "a monster in pain." Tortured by a compulsion to kill that leaves his hands literally smoking, this Beast is sensitive enough to be capable of dying of a broken heart.
"La Nuit Fantastique," by contrast, is rarely seen in 35mm — the print that's showing at LACMA is the only subtitled one surviving and had to be brought in from France.
Directed by Marcel L'Herbier, made and released during the German occupation, "La Nuit" is classic escapism, an unapologetic fantasy in which a young man named Denis retreats from reality to his dreams in order to chase a woman who lives nowhere but there. "Everything is allowed in dreams," someone tells him, and that is pretty much the case.
One thing France is not lacking for is visionary directors who see the world in their own particular way, and the LACMA series features two of the most individualistic.
On tap July 20 is "The Devil, Probably," one of the later films by the rigorous purist Robert Bresson. According to the program notes, this 1977 film about a young man thinking of ending his life was off-limits in France to viewers under age 18 out of concern that it would encourage suicide. On the same bill is Luis Buñuel's 1974 film "The Phantom of Liberty," the director's free-ranging and surreal satire on everything that is not nailed down.
The series closes with little seen performances by two of France's most beloved movie stars, Jean Gabin and Yves Montand, working in their prime.
Almost unknown in this country is the 1941 "Remorques" (Stormy Waters), screening July 27 and directed by the underappreciated poetic realist Jean Grémillon. A vibrant Gabin stars as the captain of a Brittany-based rescue boat whose happy marriage is threatened when he saves Michele Morgan's beautiful stranger (is there any other kind?) during a terrible storm.
Closing out the series is a film every bit as tense and suspenseful as its title,"The Wages of Fear,"would indicate.