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Forbidden Games And Beyond: René Clément On DVD
Anthony Nield , January 7th, 2013 05:10

Anthony Nield delves into the eclectic filmography of unfashionable French director René Clément, the subject of four new home entertainment releases. Still from And Hope To Die

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This week sees the arrival of four films onto DVD from the French filmmaker René Clément. They're a diverse bunch because Clément himself was something of a diverse talent. This particular quartet takes in a WWII tale as seen through the eyes of children (Forbidden Games), a prestige literary adaptation (Gervaise, taken from Émile Zola) and a pair of crime thrillers that positioned their director as something of a French Hitchcock late in his career (The Deadly Trap, And Hope To Die). Yet while Clément made his share of classics, Oscar winners and film festival favourites, his name isn't perhaps the most readily identifiable of French auteurs. He had the misfortune of being born into the wrong generation of his nation's filmmakers: too young to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the poetic realism of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, but also too old to sit alongside the nouvelle vague. Consequently, the latter dismissed his output as the cinéma du papa (a blanket phrase with which to denigrate the entire post-war French cinema, save for a few telling exceptions) and his reputation has arguably suffered – or at least been stifled – ever since. As such a re-acquaintance, and something of a re-introduction, is in order.

Clément's first encounter with the director's chair came in 1936. Soigne ton gauche (Watch Your Right) was a 13-minute short designed to show off the talents of a then-unknown comedian by the name of Jacques Tati. Made some years before his foray into much more famous features (by which point Tati was directing himself), it nowadays fascinates primarily as a prototype. The comedian's familiar tropes are all there – an emphasis on mime and small town idiosyncrasies – albeit in miniature. Nevertheless, Tati was pleased enough with the end results ("It made me laugh in the right way") to ensure that he continued pursuing the moving image as a means of expression. Clément, meanwhile, continued with short films but made the shift to documentary. During the next eight years he would make ten such efforts, oftentimes in France and occasionally abroad, with a left-wing bent and humanist outlook.

The key title was Ceux du rail, a 1942 record of a locomotive journey from Nice to Marseille which earned Clément his first feature. The short had been viewed by the National Council of the Resistance, who were suitably impressed with the manner in which it caught both life on the rail and the lives of ordinary men. Thus they had their ideal man for La Bataille du rail (1946), a film that would celebrate the efforts of the French Resistance movement – specifically those brave men and women who sabotaged the rail network as a means of hindering Nazi occupation – and do so in wonderfully cinematic fashion. For his director of photography Clément retained the talents of Henri Alekan, who had spent much of the last few years also working as a war correspondent, and therefore maintained the documentary qualities. La Bataille du rail remains astonishing for its lack of sentimentality and tough, stripped-down approach to narrative. The filmmaking world took notice, awarding Clément with three prizes (including Best Director) at the very first Cannes Festival, whilst French critics named it their film of the year.

Clément had arrived, and arguably found himself typecast as a result. World War II movies, and especially French resistance movies, would become a mainstay in his filmography for years to come. His next feature, Le Père tranquille (also released in 1946), was a vehicle for popular comedian Noël-Noël in which he played the head of a secret sabotage group. Soon afterwards came Les Maudits (1947), about a group of Nazis escaping Germany in a submarine, while 1963's Le Jour et l'heure found Simone Signoret escorting British and American pilots into Occupied Paris during the spring of 1944. In-between times Clément also produced one of his most celebrated and widely-seen war pictures, Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits) in 1952. Is Paris Burning?, another of his most well-known features, would arrive in 1966.

The latter was an attempt to do for the liberation of Paris what The Longest Day had done for the D-Day landing. In other words it was a true epic, right down to the excessive length and the impressive international cast list, one in which French stars such as Leslie Caron, Yves Montand and Jean-Paul Belmondo rubbed shoulders with the likes of Kirk Douglas, Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles. Is Paris Burning? also had a screenplay from Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola at its disposal, though it's entirely fair to say that the sheer size of the thing, not to mention all of that star wattage, effectively rendered this an anonymous project for Clément with too little wriggle room in which to make his own mark. It's solid, certainly, though hardly stands comparison with La Bataille du rail.

Forbidden Games, on the other hand, was a genuine masterpiece. It came with the clarity which Is Paris Burning? lacked and maintained that gritty, often brutal lack of sentimentality which typified La Bataille du rail. The movie opens with its central character – a five-year-old girl – losing not only her parents thanks to the German Luftwaffe, but also her dog. Finding refuge with a family in rural France and friendship with their 10-year-old son (who soon loses a brother as a result of the same attack), the film details their attempts to understand and come to terms with these deaths by constructing a cemetery in an abandoned barn. Amazingly, such a bleak set-up earned Forbidden Games an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film despite the Academy tending to favour the schmaltzier, more populist side of world cinema. Perhaps they focussed on Brigitte Fossey's remarkable child performance in the lead role (she was the same age as her character), which also demonstrated another side of Clément's talents: he was always very good with actors.

The Oscar for Forbidden Games was the second to be won by a Clément picture (Jean Gabin vehicle, The Walls of Malapaga, had previously done so in 1950), a trick that would almost be repeated by Gervaise in 1956 only for it to fall at the last hurdle to Fellini's La strada. Such favour from the Academy only goes to show just how much international recognition Clément was gaining. Film festival awards were becoming a regularity, while the pictures themselves were also branching out. Gervaise travelled back in time to the Paris of the 1850s for a sumptuous black and white Zola adaptation. Monsieur Ripois (1954, aka Lovers, Happy Lovers!) was filmed in England, and in English, whereas This Angry Age (1958) relocated Clément and crew to Thailand. No wonder François Truffaut and other members of the nouvelle vague were so willing to dismiss the man: he'd become a member of the establishment as they saw it – a purveyor of 'quality' in inverted commas to be swooned over by the Academy and other indicators of the mainstream.

There is, perhaps, a little truth in such a statement, but also a great deal of snobbery. Indeed, Plein soleil (1959, aka Purple Noon), which Clément made just as the new wave was making its initial impact on cinema screens, more than holds its own in such company. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (and far superior to the Matt Damon version which appeared in 1999) this was a taut psychodrama of the highest order and, with Alain Delon in the lead role, also came with something of a hip cachet to rival the early Godards and Truffauts. Unsurprisingly, its success also prompted a working relationship between Clément and Delon that would extend to a further three features. Unfortunately, the end results weren't especially impressive. 1961's The Joy of Living was an overlong and very broad comedy, while 1964's crime flick Joy House (Les Félins) had the enticements of shooting in Nice, a Lalo Schifrin score, some impressive set-pieces and Jane Fonda in various states of undress, but lacked Plein soleil's vice-like grip. Delon also popped up in Is Paris Burning?, but had to contend with all of those other famous names.

Post-Delon, Clément returned to the Plein soleil formula in another way. As the '70s approached, he reinvented himself as solely the maker of crime pictures, seeing out his career with a quartet of twisty-turny little thrillers. The last of them, 1975's Scar Tissue (aka La Baby sitter), is a tough one to track down, but the remaining three all deserve a look. Rider on the Rain (Le Passenger de la pluie), released in 1970, is perhaps the best-known thanks to Charles Bronson occupying the lead role. It begins as one picture and ends as another, initially suggesting some kind of rape-revenge construct, but slowly twisting itself into something more complex and less predictable. Clément clearly enjoyed the rug-pulling tricks and did much the same with The Deadly Trap (La Maison sous les arbres) the following year. Here Faye Dunaway and Frank Langella play a married couple with two young children who have relocated to France, only to find their lives falling apart. Dunaway suffers from memory lapses and Langella is being pursued by a mysterious outfit known only as 'the Organisation'. Clément builds the disquiet – thanks, in part, to Andrés Winding's understated cinematography and Gilbert Bécaud's off-kilter score – and the mistrust and clearly has a great time doing such. Yet there is also a Hitchcockian poise and precision to these pictures, making them just as entertaining to this day and fully deserving of a rediscovery.

And Hope to Die (1972, aka La Course du lièvre à travers les champs), however, is the most playful of them all. Adapted from a David Goodis novel (a regular source for film noir and other crime flicks, including Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player) by French author Sébastien Japrisot (who had previously scripted Rider on the Rain), this film throws its protagonist from one crime movie scenario – on the run after shooting a cop during a hold-up in Paris – into another – getting caught up in Robert Ryan's Montreal outfit after he accidentally witnesses a murder – with an infectious abandon. The fact that he's played by the ever-excellent Jean-Louis Trintignant hardly hinders the situation either.

Clément was, by this point, coming up to retirement age and it's apparent that he was spending his final working years by simply enjoying himself and translating as much of that enthusiasm as possible onto the screen. (He would pass away in 1996, at the age of 82, having not made a movie in almost two decades, but instead having opted to retire to the French Riviera.) After all, he'd made his masterpieces and his established classics, earned himself numerous awards in the process and forever made his mark on cinema – why not bow out with a bit of fun?

Many of those masterpieces and established classics are now available in the UK. Forbidden Games, Gervaise, The Deadly Trap and And Hope to Die are released this week onto DVD by StudioCanal, with Forbidden Games also available in a Blu-ray edition. Plein soleil, Is Paris Burning? and Rider in the Rain can also be found on disc, while Soigne ton gauche appears on the BFI's Dual Format Edition of Jacques Tati's Jour de fête.