The Pacific Film Archive Celebrates Jacques Becker

by Peter Wong on July 31, 2018

Jacques Becker

Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive is currently celebrating the great French director Jacques Becker with a month-and-a-half long retrospective.  The occasion for the Becker celebration is the Archive’s theatrical screenings of the charming Bertrand Tavernier documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” (about which see below).  Tavernier’s interest in cinema got sparked at age 6 thanks to a screening of Becker’s official directorial debut, the 1942 crime drama “Dernier Atout.”

That film is part of the Archive’s current retrospective as is the Becker masterwork  “Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Don’t Touch The Loot),” which screens August 10 and 18. Castro Theatre screenings of that film provided many San Francisco cinephiles’ first taste of Becker.

But the auteur’s directorial talents weren’t confined to contemporary crime dramas.  As the retrospective shows, he could ably handle romantic comedies, high fashion drama, and even a political film.  The two Becker films reviewed here are historical dramas blended with other genres.

“The Lovers Of Montparnasse” follows the painter Modigliani’s last few months of life.  Here, bourgeois homilies about love conquering all and hard work being eventually rewarded get shown to be hollow lies.

In the year 1919, Modigliani (known to friends as Modi) considers himself an artistic failure.  The uninterest of art collectors in paying even a sou for his work convinces Modi that he’s a poor artist.  Consequently, he drinks heavily. The enabling behavior of English writer and on-again/off-again girlfriend Beatrice doesn’t help the artist’s sobriety.  When Modi falls for bourgeois aspiring artist Jeanne (Anouk Aimee), he feels emotionally and artistically renewed. But even Jeanne’s support does not suffice to permanently dispel Modi’s emotional darkness.

The film’s opening theme sets the appropriate doom-laden tone for Becker’s drama.  It conjures images of someone fighting to not get sucked down a strong whirlpool to their doom.  Despite the occasional respite, the theme’s frequent return throughout the film suggests that even in post-World War One Paris fate is still inexorable.

Modi certainly doesn’t set out to be either a drunkard or someone who doubts his own talent.  In a memorable sequence where Modi draws a portrait of Jeanne, the sacred music playing in the background underscores how this artist treats the work of making art as a holy undertaking.  However, the failure of others to buy his work rattles Modi’s faith in his worship of his muse.

This antagonism between aesthetics and monetary survival come to a head with a climactic meeting with a rich American.  Having seen Modi and Jeanne’s extended hardship, the viewer prays for Modi to not screw up the deal with his loose lips.  Yet that attitude means the viewer has to quell their unease over noticing the rich American’s treatment of art as solely a luxury commodity.  Then again, at least the rich American is willing to compensate Modi while he’s alive. Morel the vulture-like art dealer conditions compensating artists on their becoming carrion.

“The Lovers Of Montparnasse” captures the sad cruelty of Modi’s life through Becker’s marriage of Hollywood directorial craft to a portrait of life alien to Hollywood sentimentality.  Continual financial rejection of Modi’s paintings alludes to the devaluation of workers’ labor by the rentier class. Modi’s association with pimps and prostitutes doesn’t signify his unfortunate station but his camaraderie in living on the edge.  Jeanne’s love for Modi gives way to a memorable extended silent glare that suggests suffering’s power is greater than love.

Yet despite some memorable moments such as a night-time walk into fog that foreshadows Modi’s demise, “The Lovers Of Montparnasse” never feels sufficiently game-changing to transcend the suffering artist genre.  However, the film’s still worth watching for Gerard Philipe’s scruffily handsome Modi, Lilli Palmer’s morally ambivalent Beatrice, and Aimee’s innocent Jeanne.

***

Inevitable fate also overshadows the Becker classic “Casque D’Or” (aka “Golden Marie”).  As the film’s a Doomed Romance story, this should come as no surprise. What makes “Casque D’Or” more than a typical genre outing is its ambiguity about the cause of the romance’s demise or indeed whether all romances are inherently doomed.

Its turn of the century Paris setting may suggest a supposedly more culturally innocent time.  But from the opening frames, Becker slowly reveals the period’s utter lack of innocence. A group of supposedly ordinary couples out for a Sunday boat ride turn out to be the members of Leca’s gang with their women.  Leca’s chumminess with the captain of the local police precinct has dire consequences. A landlady presumes she’s renting a room to a prostitute and her john.

The film’s central ill-fated romance is between Manda and Marie.  Manda’s an ex-convict trying to go straight by becoming an honest carpenter.  Marie begins the film as gang member Roland’s woman. But she doesn’t regard that title as a binding obligation.  Her attitude towards men attracted to her is to keep them at a distance. With Manda, though, Marie wants to catch his eye and keep his romantic attentions on her.  Needless to say, Roland and even gang leader Leca aren’t shy about displaying their own possessory interest in the beautiful blonde.

Simone Signoret makes Marie more than a period hard-boiled dame with a secret romantic heart.  The sight of Marie’s emotional vulnerability doesn’t make her weak. Instead, it shows how few men she truly trusts or will make sacrifices for.  But on finding such a worthy man, the famous shot of Signoret’s warmly smiling face framed by the sunlight shows what the real Marie looks like.

Marie’s decision to sleep with Leca shows her willingness to make sacrifices for Manda.  Yet when the ex-con discovers Marie’s slipper in Leca’s bedroom, Becker leaves ambiguous the motivation behind Manda’s final confrontation with the gang leader.  Is it revenge for Leca’s set-up? Or is it an act of nihilism, a knowing by Manda that he has nothing left to lose in life since his affections for Marie have just died?  Tellingly, the final onscreen encounter between Manda and Marie is a fantasy sequence.

Becker’s film questions whether long-term romances or relationships are inherently futile  goals. The pinched personality displayed by Manda’s fiancee feels like an inadequate reason to stay on the straight and narrow compared to being with the life-filled criminal moll Marie.  But the most memorable put-down of long-term relationships comes when Marie and Manda drop in on a church wedding. From the vantage point of ex-con and moll, the event looks like a happy occasion.  Yet Becker’s camera pans to a medium shot of the bride and groom, which captures the absence of joy and happy anticipation from their faces.

Doomed romance stories assume that a romance would be eternal if only some single external problem such as a fatal illness didn’t exist.  Becker’s film transcends the genre by showing that there are many equally valid reasons for Manda and Marie’s love to be doomed. It’s just a question of which romance-killing cause comes to fruition first.

Despite “Casque D’Or”’s gloomy denouement of Manda and Marie’s relationship, the film itself never feels oppressive when the lead characters are together.  They live to celebrate life’s moments as a series of Beautiful Nows which in reality or in the mind feel everlasting.

***

As mentioned above, Becker’s “Dernier Atout” planted the cinephilia seed in young Bertrand Tavernier.  So it’s not surprising that Tavernier’s personal documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” is dedicated to directors Becker and Claude Sautet.  That dedication also captures the structure of this utterly enchanting three-hour documentary, which begins with Becker and ends with Sautet.

Between those two auteurs, Tavernier’s film celebrates neither French cinema’s chronological march nor its popular highlights.  The Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies are absent from this documentary’s running time. Popular French comedian Fernandel gets quickly dismissed.  Sadly, though, the only French female filmmaker mentioned is Agnes Varda. That sting gets mollified a bit by realizing that Tavernier’s film focuses on the cinematic touchstones he discovered before becoming a professional director himself.

If the documentary cites such familiar world cinemas names as Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Melville, it’s not for the purposes of slavish worship.  Their cinematic talent is admired and praised onscreen. A long tracking shot from Renoir’s “The Crime Of Monsieur Lange” or a servant’s quarters scene from the Renoir classic “The Rules Of The Game” have their craft entertainingly explained by Tavernier.  But the documentary doesn’t ignore that Renoir apologized for the Vichy regime in Hollywood or that Brigitte Bardot’s nude scene in Godard’s “Contempt” was a bow to an Italian co-producer’s demand. Melville’s mentoring of the young Tavernier doesn’t prevent the latter from slagging “Bob Le Flambeur” or pointing out some of the older director’s personal shortcomings.

The major riches for the viewer of Tavernier’s film comes from learning about relatively unknown (to Americans) French cinematic talents.  Aside from Becker, there’s the amazing film composer Joseph Kosma or a dive into Eddie Constantine’s hard-boiled Lemmy Caution that will give context for what Godard did to the character in “Alphaville.”  Even familiar actor Jean Gabin gets an in-depth look that celebrates his acting style and his working class hero image.

It can’t help to wonder if the Archive will draw on Tavernier’s documentary again as inspiration for future Archive film series.  Clips from such obscure films as a 1930s-ish drama about male impotence or the von Sternberg-like adventure “Macao, L’infer du jeu,” or the war refugee drama “Menaces” tantalize the viewer.  Alternately, a couple of the film composers Tavernier extols may merit a retrospective of films highlighting their music especially since recordings of these composers’ work don’t exist.

Viewers swept along by Tavernier’s entertaining cinematic tour may understandably feel disappointed by its abrupt ending after the Sautet segment.  But the desire for a journey summation shouldn’t stop viewers from joining Tavernier on his personal trip into the past of his country’s cinematic history.

(“The Lovers Of Montparnasse” screens at 7 PM on August 2, 2018.  “My Journey Through French Cinema” screens at 7 PM on August 17, 2018.  Both screenings take place at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  “Casque D’Or” is still available via Criterion Collection home video or through streaming on Film Struck.  For further information about the films and to order advance tickets, go to www.bampfa.org .)

 

“Dark Money”–Review

 

It’s tempting to consider strapping retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy into a chair and forcing him to repeatedly watch the new Kimberly Reed documentary “Dark Money.”  Kennedy did author the deservedly reviled Citizens United Supreme Court decision.    Reed’s film would show this judicial Pandora the mischievous consequences (he said politely) of his blinkered action.

Viewers who do not swear fealty to the well-being of the .1% and 9.9% will have a different reaction to this political version of the notorious Ludovico Technique from “A Clockwork Orange.”  Reed’s film offers an alarming rebellion-inducing portrait of a modernized way to buy elections and shape public policy to fatten a corporation’s bottom line.

Given the film’s subject matter, some viewers might see its opening image of a sky filled with geese in flight as a non-sequitur.  However, Reed skillfully shows how the death of such geese was part of the toxic legacy of the Anaconda Copper Mining Corporation. The copper kings who profited off Montana’s rich reserves of that metal used their wealth to buy the state’s political system for years.  Judges and state legislators were easily bought. Laws that unduly favored Anaconda’s interests passed as a matter of course. Unsurprisingly, the state gained an unwelcome reputation for political corruption.

The final straw, a copper king who blatantly bought a U.S. Senate seat, led to Montanans passing in 1912 an incredibly strong campaign finance law which curbed corporate contributions to elections.  The law endured for decades until the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision gutted such restrictions.   Reed’s film mainly focuses on what happened next in Montana.

Guiding the viewer through those developments is John S. Adams, an investigative reporter for the Great Falls Tribune who covers state government developments in Helena.  It seemed very suspicious to Adams that some Republican legislators running for re-election became the target of slick and expensive campaign mailers claiming that said politician favored protecting child predators or flooding Montana with abortions. Montana is a sparsely populated state whose legislators serve in office for 90 days in alternating years.  When they’re not in Helena, these legislators return to their day jobs as farmers, teachers, and even a porta-pottie business owner. Yet John Ward, the porta-pottie businessman, was not the only legislator who lost their re-election bid thanks to expensive last-minute character assassination mailers.

Adams’ search for answers soon becomes tied in with the Montana Commission of Political Practices’ investigation of a complaint brought by small businesswoman Debra Bonogofsky.  Her 2010 bid for a seat on the Montana State Legislature was narrowly torpedoed in the Republican primary thanks to an attack ad and mailer campaign claiming she was anti-gun and pro-Obama.  Then Commissioner Jonathon Motl used the Bongofsky complaint to investigate the non-profit Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), which sent out several of the hit pieces.

Nonprofit organizations such as WTP are “social welfare groups” under 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code.  Such groups are major recipients of what’s known as dark money. Money in politics is nothing new. Local ex-politico Willie Brown called money politics’ “mother’s milk.”  Dark money, however, should be better likened to politics’ poisoned infant formula.

The appeal of dark money political donations to 501(c)(4)s is twofold: limitlessness and anonymity.  501(c)(4) organizations can receive politically targeted sums up to infinity and beyond. Equally importantly, the recipient organizations can use this money to influence elections without being obligated to reveal their donation sources.  501(c)(4) organization influence is supposedly never exerted to promote a particular candidate. But if a particular candidate just happened (wink, wink) to benefit from the negative campaigning of WTP or similar organizations against a candidate’s opponents, that’s borderline legal.  This setup is ideal for rich and powerful people or corporations who want to sabotage elections without sullying their public reputations or goodwill. Such donors are simply the well-heeled versions of Internet trolls.

Reed shows dark money groups’ democracy subversion tactics go beyond court battles such as WTP’s successful scuttling of Montana’s 1912 campaign finance law.  The aforementioned campaign hit pieces range from slick paper slanders to a machine-generated “handwritten” note. An alleged town hall debate actually bombards concerned citizens with dark money propaganda.  In a wonderfully serendipitous moment, Reed captures a Montana legislator publicly calling out one faked town hall as a scam.

Some names do get connected in the film to the dark money world.  These guilty parties include the vile Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and the National Right To Work Coalition.   But the film doesn’t disguise the truth that getting this identifying information or fighting such moneyed interests figuratively involves marching up a slope of suddenly increasing steepness.

Reed uses a couple of nice visual cues to characterize Adams’ and Motl’s struggles to find the truth.  As mentioned above, WTP’s mystery backers have hefty financial resources. By contrast, Adams is frequently seen driving a truck because he eventually literally lives out of it.  Instead of a modern office building, Motl and his tiny campaign finance tracking team operate out of a small cottage.

Fortunately, the forces supporting citizen democracy display heroic dedication in holding the beneficiaries of dark money accountable.  A serious reversal of professional fortune slows but does not stop Adams’ literal years of effort to report the truth about dark money in Montana.    Attorney Gene Jarussi comes out of retirement to spend literally 2,000 hours working with Motl to prosecute someone whose candidacy benefitted from allegedly coordinating with WTP.

Given current political tribalism, the viewer isn’t certain WTP’s alleged beneficiary Art Wittich will ever face punishment,  This powerful Montana Republican state legislator pulls the sympathy card in court by being painted as a soccer dad who just wanted to serve the public.   His attorney has successfully beaten back dark money cases in the past,

But there’s little doubt that a couple of very lucky breaks affect the trial’s outcome.  Neither of those breaks will be directly spoiled here. Let’s say putting country over party still matters.  Also, disrespecting private property can sometimes serve a civic good.

“Dark Money” shows through Adams’ efforts that a good watchdog media offers great aid to the public.  Such media ask the questions that dark money donors prefer not be publicly raised. These questions include who these donors are and the nature of their interest in seeing a particular candidate get elected.  More importantly, was a particular government action or judicial decision honestly arrived at…or is essentially a covert kickback to the forces that put the decision maker in power? This last query leads to an issue that doesn’t get its due in Reed’s film, the question of how deeply dark money activity erodes public trust in government institutions.

Perhaps it’s beyond the scope of Reed’s film to wonder how deeply Washington D.C. political gridlock is tied to dark money.  A stab is made through relating Federal Election Commissioner Ann Ravel’s frustrating story of how Republican commissioners’ bloc voting essentially neutered any federal oversight of dark money.  But could dark money organizations’ candidate vetting also explain the Republican Congressional activist gridlock of the Obama era?

Bill Moyers famously said that possessing great wealth should not entitle its possessor to buy more democracy.  Alerting the public when such attempts at buying government occur is precisely part of the news media’s watchdog job.  Trump may condemn the news media as the enemy of the people all he likes. Given Trump’s fondness for public corruption, it’s likely the people he’s probably defending are those who utterly coincidentally enrich the Trump family coffers with Mar-a-Lago or the Trump International Hotel rentals prior to performing official business with Trump Administration officials.

(“Dark Money” opens at the Opera Plaza Cinemas (601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco) on July 27, 2018.  For further information about the film, go to www.darkmoneyfilm.com .)

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