Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Auteur's Revenge

I had the pleasure to see a brief documentary produced by Criterion for the 2014 release of their DVD of Serge Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybele (Cybele, ou Les Dimanches de Ville-d'Avray, 1963). Bourguignon, speaking English throughout the short film, recalls the making of the his first feature film, the preparation of the script, the casting of the two leads, Hardy Kruger and Patricia Gozzi, the discoveries and difficulties during shooting, and the release of the film and its phenomenal success. But the critical reaction to the film, as Bourguignon recalls, wasn't unanimously positive. One specific group of critics that might have been relied on by a young French filmmaker making his first film as a source of support, the critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema that included Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, and Truffaut, attacked the film and, according to Bourguignon, their disapproval cast a shadow over the rest of his career.

Having been an admirer of Bourguignon's film since I first saw it forty years ago, I always wondered why he didn't have as full and rewarding a career as some other French directors. In his Dictionary of Film Makers, Georges Sadoul encapsulated Bourguignon's career:

"BOURGUIGNON, Serge Dir. France/USA. (Maignelay Sept 3,1928- ) Studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC). He is passionately devoted to the cinema, delighting in beautiful images and the exotic, but he is sometimes a little mannered. His Sundays and Cybele won an Academy Award."

That last sentence. How final. In the Criterion documentary Bourguignon tells how Cybele was released in France and abroad in the same year as Truffaut's Jules and Jim, one of the great films of the Nouvelle Vague, and, it turned out, Truffaut's last great film. Cybele was entered in competition for the Cannes Palm d'Or against Jules and Jim, and Cybele won. And since France could enter only one film in competition for the American Academy's Best Foreign Language Film, Cybele was entered instead of Jules and Jim. So, what could have been Truffaut's Big Break, a break that might have changed the direction of his whole career, became Bourguignon's.

A common mistake made by critics is to call every French filmmaker whose first film was made between 1958 and 1965 a member of the Nouvelle Vague. Alain Resnais, for example, who saw his first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, released in 1959, is often - incorrectly - labelled a member of the New Wave. The Nouvelle Vague belongs to the group of former critics writing for Cahier du Cinema, the film magazine founded by Andre Bazin. Unlike Bourguignon, who was a graduate of IDHEC, the world famous French film school, the Cahiers critics who created the New Wave made their first films with no prior technical knowledge of how films are made. Bourguignon knew all about lenses and focal lengths and about all the established rules of filmmaking like line-of-sight and reverse angles. The Cahiers critics went to the film school of the Cinematheque Francaise, and their professor was Henri Langlois, who advised them all to consume films at a profligate pace.

For their first efforts, Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer had to rely on the technical knowledge of their collaborators, most notably cinematographers like Raoul Coutard and Henri Decae. One of the reasons why they became filmmakers was so they could express more directly their hatred of the Old School of French filmmaking, represented by directors like Rene Clement and Marcel Carne. Their condemnation of this generation was both deeply political and psychological. The Cahiers critics had all grown up during the German Occupation of France (1940-1944), and had inherited the guilt of the generation of Frenchmen that preceded them. But they also had to kill the old in order to establish the new - kill the old kings of French cinema so that they could supplant them.

The irony was that the two most successful directors of the New Wave, Chabrol and Truffaut, to a large extent became what they had once hated. It was almost inevitable. Entering the industry against the mainstream, they forced the stream to change course, and their films became the mainstream; their work was the new status quo. Godard could see it happening to his old brothers in arms, and he tried to point this out to them. His famous falling out with Truffaut was a direct result of Truffaut becoming a commercially successful film director, of growing comfortable in his position and of his wanting to remain there. Chabrol's work, which had started out with two or three honest and personal films, was, by the mid-60s, almost entirely given over to potboilers redeemed only by their elegant style. Truffaut tried to return to his lost innocence with more Antoine Doinel films and with a more direct retelling of the story of Jules and Jim, in which the two men become Two English Girls. But he never recovered the nerve that had made his first three films so challenging and original.

In the Criterion documentary, Bourguignon lamented that his career subsequent to Cybele was made up of promising projects that never got off the ground, films that he never had an opportunity to make. He suggested that the negative appraisal of Cybele by the Cahiers critics had a negative influence on film producers. But he hoped, in the charming last moments of the documentary, that - who knows - his career might yet get off the ground again. (Bourguignon was 86 when the interview was conducted.)

The fact is, Bourguignon's career wasn't the first that was sabotaged by the Cahiers critics. When Bertrand Tavernier wanted a collaborator to help him writer the scripts for his first films, he located an old French script writer, Jean Aurenche, whose impressive career as a successful script-writer in the 1940s and 50s was brought to an abrupt end by an attack in the pages of Carhiers du Cinema on a script he had written in collaboration with Pierre Bost. They had been hired to write an adaptation of the Georges Bernanos novel, The Diary of Country Priest. The filmmaker who was directing the film was Robert Bresson, who rejected the Aurenche-Bost script and eventually wrote one of his own. Since Bresson was not in any sense a mainstream French director, making only thirteen films in a forty year career, his work was held in highest esteem by the Cahiers critics. Bresson's reasons for rejecting the Aurenche-Bost script were due to their approaching the novel as just another work of literature, instead of some sort of spiritual masterpiece by a devoutly Roman Catholic novelist.

But Bresson's rejection of the Aurenche-Bost script was used as an example to illustrate how ossified French film had become, of how even important works of literature had been adapted in the same dull manner year after boring year, mostly by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The result of the Cahiers dismissal of their work effectively ended their careers. Tavernier saw this as an injustice, and worked with Aurenche on the scripts for his first three, highly celebrated films, The Clockmaker, The Judge and the Murderer, and Let Joy Reign Supreme. He would later adapt a novel by Pierre Bost for the film A Sunday in the Country.

Sundays and Cybele remains an effective, off-beat tale of innocence destroyed. It is a remarkable achievemnt for a first-time filmmaker. But compared to Jules and Jim, it looks awfully tepid. Of course, if compared with Jules and Jim, just about every film would look second-rate. The savants on the Cannes jury made a mistake. (The Oscars probably didn't.) Maybe if Truffaut had won, he would've felt comfortable enough to avoid being compromised, and his friendship with Godard might never have ended.

By now, all this is nothing but an anecdote in the history of film. After Cybele, Bourguignon would make only four more films, the only one of which I've seen was The Picasso Summer, a fascinating portrait of a young architect's efforts to meet an elusive Pablo Picasso in the south of France, using brilliant animation sequences of Picasso's paintings coming to life. (There was a dispute between Bourguignon and his producer during filming that precipitated his quitting the location.) I was always curious to know why Bourguignon seemed to vanish after that. But this is too often the fate of filmmakers who choose to go their own way. The fact that Bourguignon momentarily answered the call of Hollywood (something that Truffaut managed to resist) might also explain how Bourguignon somehow lost his way. I can name several talented filmmakers who suffered the same fate.

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