by Frako Loden
This past week has been an exhilarating and deeply moving experience for me as I’ve explored the films of French director Jacques Becker for the first time. For my teacher I have another French writer/filmmaker, Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon, Life and Nothing But, The Princess of Montpensier), whose 2017 documentary My Journey Through French Cinema has been an absolute gift.
If you missed the first screening on July 12, make a point of seeing it on Friday, August 17. Grateful thanks to the Pacific Film Archive for bookending the 11-film Becker series with Tavernier’s delightful overview of French cinema. The three hours will simply fly by as you drink in his rich and personal history.
Tavernier’s tributes to canonical French artists such as Renoir, Gabin, Carné, Melville and Godard are appreciated and spiked with insider intel—Renoir and Gabin’s wartime “betrayals” are especially fascinating. But I’m also thankful for his introducing to me composers Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma and showing how creatively independent they were compared to American film composers; the early preoccupations of Edmond T. Gréville, “the prince of fringe directors” (The Silk Noose, The Hands of Orlac), whom Tavernier helped financially in addition to publishing his memoirs and novel; and Tavernier’s work experience with Jean-Pierre Melville as well as his spell as a film press agent. Tavernier’s background as a film critic is invaluable, and his ability to remember the exact time and theatre where he saw certain films endears me to him. He’s a perfect film nerd who knows French cinema from every angle.
The first 20 minutes of My Journey distill what he loves about Jacques Becker: the serene assurance with which he created a tragic climate, his striking formal and visual command, his narrative elegance and lack of plottish clutter, his emotional intelligence, his mastery of pace and other lessons from American cinema, and perhaps most importantly the common working-class decency of his vast panorama of characters.
It’s true that everybody works in Becker’s films: the peasants in Goupi Mains-rouges (1943), the seamstresses in Falbalas (1944), the ex-con trying to reform in Casque d’Or (1952). The Lovers of Montparnasse (1958), which portrays the drunken failed painter Modigliani’s wife as a saint, shows her own work painting postcards to sell for food.
The group escape attempt in Le Trou (1960) is ennobled by the men’s digging shown in real time.
French cinema isn’t known for feminism, but Becker expressed it implicitly. To stay straight, the ex-con in Casque d’Or is engaged to his carpenter boss’s plain daughter. He may not love her, but she at least gets to express her opinion of the whore he does love without being ridiculed. Sexual harassment on the job is not treated jokingly or as proof of a cad’s desirability. In Antoine et Antoinette (1947), things don’t go well for the black-market grocer who takes for granted that his women employees will have sex with him out of economic desperation.
And the seamstresses and models have the final word over the womanizing fashion designer in Falbalas.
Among French directors, Tavernier says, Becker best understood and mastered the conventions of American filmmaking. He assimilated American movies without copying them. His gangsters are nothing like American gangsters in film noir, for instance. Jean Gabin’s Max in the highly influential post-heist masterpiece Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1953) is seen brushing his teeth in his pajamas after offering his partner a late-night dinner of cheese, crackers and a wine from Nantes. His generosity and loyalty to his troubled friend only enhances Max’s manly stoicism and world-weary fatalism.
Becker also brought to French film an understanding of the American precision, speed and crispness in pacing. An admirer of Hawks and Lubitsch, he showed his passion for them in his films. The economy and starkness in scenes of violence are seen in Le trou and Casque d’Or, as well as comical domestic squabbles in Edouard et Caroline (1951) and Antoine and Antoinette (1947). His love of jazz is evident in Rendez-vous de juillet (1949).
Tavernier applies to Becker what Jacques Rivette said about Hawks: that he put the camera at eye level.
This is what makes Jacques Becker’s films such a pleasure to watch. Ordinary human beings’ common decency, tragedy served frontally without contrivance, style that develops from a character’s feelings—thanks to Tavernier, I am just beginning to learn about this brilliant filmmaker.
Join me on this journey at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive during their summer celebration of a French master whose work deserves (re)discovery.
Check out our Jacques Becker Poster and Trailer Show.
Frako Loden is a free-lance film writer and contributing editor to Documentary.org. She teaches film history and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College. She doesn’t like anyone messing with her assigned seat at the Pacific Film Archive. Frako has written for EatDrinkFilms about Japanese film master director Kenji Mizoguchi, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and Polish animation. Her Twitter page is a good way to keep up with her current writings.