French cinema: A short history

I. Jean Epstein’s La Glace a Trois Faces (1927) is the cinematic equivalent of a piece of modernist fiction by Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf: jagged, angular, elliptical.  Epstein, whose most famous film remains his evocative adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), was one of the key figures of the French avant-garde; slightly less well known than Usher but just as striking in its design, the forty-minute La Glace premiered at Paris’ Studio des Ursulines, a salon for Surrealist cinema.  Based on a story by Paul Morand, it’s comprised of three movements, each one a flashback, in which a vain young lothario reflects on three lovers he has used and discarded as he hurtles toward his death (a suicide?) while driving down a country lane.  Epstein’s experimental use of editing and scrambled chronology produces a dizzying series of narrative refractions—hence the film’s title, which translates to The Three-Sided Mirror

The ladykiller: René Ferté with Jeanne Helbling.

II. Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950) is an experiment of an entirely different sort, a twenty-five minute wet dream of a movie and probably one of the most erotic films ever made.  Its sexual intensity has as much to do with the context of its making (as a film that flagrantly depicts male nudity and gay sex, it had to be smuggled into the U.S.) as with its setting, a male prison in which the inmates seethe and writhe in solitude, their only form of exchange being the cigarette smoke blown back and forth through a tiny hole in the wall that separates their cells.  In the film’s more lyrical passages, the men escape into romantic dreams of horseplay in the woods.  Meanwhile, their actions are policed by a voyeuristic prison guard with frustrated sexual needs of his own (after spying on various inmates as they masturbate, he commands one of them to suck his...gun).  The entire atmosphere of this film is suffused thick with desire, especially as the men lie panting on their prison cots, their hands moving restlessly over their own bodies.  Genet would exploit such scenarios of incarceration and rough trade throughout his literary career, though Un Chant d’Amour marks his only known attempt at filmmaking (Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes would go on to try their hands at adapting his work in Querelle and Poison, respectively).      

Male eros: Un Chant d'Amour.

III. Re-watching Chris Marker’s classic La Jetée (1963), the influence of which can be found in everything from 12 Monkeys to the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, it occurred to me that perhaps David Fincher was also trying to channel its air of doomed romanticism in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, his own tale of lovers thwarted by the dictates of space and time.  But La Jetee says more about the ephemerality of experience and the mysteries of death in twenty-nine minutes than Benjamin Button was able to say in five times that length.  Ostensibly a philosophical sci-fi movie (it’s set in a post-nuclear future in which, having been driven underground, a group of survivors conduct experiments in time travel), it’s as a love story that La Jetée feels most resonant.  Our Hero and the object of his obsession—elusive, beguiling, a mysterious vision out of time, or maybe out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—enjoy a few brief moments of happiness together before the sway of time brings down its hammer upon them.  (So it goes.)  As conceived by Chris Marker, the pulp-fiction/Twilight Zone premise of La Jetée really only exists as a means for him to explore his pet themes—memory, history, subjectivity, and, of course, cats—as movingly as he ever would again in his career.      

Love and death: an image from La Jetée.  The film, which is actually billed as a "photo-roman", is composed almost entirely of still images.

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