The name René Clément is one synonymous with French filmmaking, however, you would be forgiven for not being overly-familiar with his work. He was declared in a 1957 Cahiers du Cinema article as “the greatest living director”, however, the cinéastes and iconoclasts associated with the journal deemed his work too inconsequential to the French New Wave movement, labelling him, old fashioned, banal and, even, a “sell-out”. A great director he was, in his day, but not an auteur according to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard et al. To mark Clément’s centenary, Studio Canal are releasing, individually, Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits, 1952), Gervaise (1956), The Deadly Trap (Maison Sous les Arbres, 1971) and And Hope to Die (La Course du Lievre a Travers les Champs, 1972). This package of films displays Clément’s versatility and evolution as a director, showcasing his obvious Neo-Realist influences and interests of the fifties and the mysterious crime-thriller generic amalgam of the seventies. It must be said that while most may not have seen his films before, these Studio Canal releases do serve as an educational quadrilogy to Clément’s detailed and observational style of filmmaking.
The Deadly Trap opens with melodramatic nuances; soft focus, water-coloured effects amid a dreamlike sequence. Clément has been described as the French Hitchcock but this film is more reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with Venice substituted for Paris and the red colour motif replaced by yellow. A young couple Jill (Faye Dunaway) and Phillip (Frank Langella) have moved to France for his work, a job seemingly in jeopardy. Their marriage is in crisis and she appears to be literally losing her mind: replicating dress purchases, losing car keys and nearly killing their two children. Clément’s cleverly paced direction builds tension and takes the viewer through a taut espionage-cum-mystery thriller. The two leads work perfectly, childlike, carefree Jill played by Dunaway is clueless to the events unfolding around her and Langella’s Phillip who is brooding but gentle with his shock of unruly black hair and penetrating brown eyes. His magnetism is still as present forty plus years later.
Another screen veteran, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who can currently be seen in Amour (2012, dir. Michael Haneke), stars in And Hope to Die alongside Hollywood stalwart, Robert Ryan. Part Western/gangster/crime caper, this is the worst of the bunch, over-acted and badly dubbed, specifically Ryan, the weak script and pretentious visuals, unfortunately, add weight to a director coming to the end of his career. Like this, based upon the novel Black Friday by David Goodis, Gervaise is also an adaptation. Inspired by Émile Zola’s L’assommoir (1877), depicting an uncompromising look at the rise and fall of a washer-woman played beautifully by Maria Schell, struggling to raise her three children, torn between her alcoholic husband, the business she owns and the other man she is in love with. Much like Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952), this vivid portrayal does not seek to manipulate or incite sentimentality or sympathy but displays the suffering of an ordinary woman who never complains but “fights back” and survives. This film has more fluidity to it than the afore-mentioned, in all aspects, and appears lovingly crafted making its BAFTA awards and prizes at the Venice Film festival all the more deserved.
The true gem of this collection, Forbidden Games, is shot in a realist style and appears to be the director at his most creative. Refused at Cannes for being an “insult to peasants” Forbidden Games has been beautifully restored depicting children’s happiness during a time of misery. Set during World War II, five year old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) watches her parents and pet puppy die while they shield her from flying bullets. Not completely aware or understanding of her predicament she is taken in by the Dolles family and quickly becomes the charge of a surrogate big brother, in the form of Michel (Georges Poujoly). The two children grow to love each other with complicity, aggression and innocence through a mutual fascination and morbidity of death. They create their own pet cemetery; a place where they can play and look after the “souls” that are laid there. It becomes a game; they watch mourners in church to garner tips for their own staged funerals and then start stealing from places of worship and even the graves of the deceased villagers.
The two adolescent leads are wonderful, especially Fossey who plays Paulette, she often is lit with an extra halo of light adding an angelic quality to an already beautiful performance. The true meaning of death eludes the character, after all she is only five years old and with Michel’s prompting she learns her prayers and becomes transfixed by the sight of a cross. This lack of Catholic knowledge could be an allusion to the child’s Judaism and by the film’s dénouement the viewer can see the enormity of Michel’s love and attention; he saves her life in more than one way. There is purity and power to Clément’s direction here, the notion of grief is never fully explored and it does not incite emotion as expected but observes; never manipulating. It is clear, in this film, that Clément was greatly influenced by Vittorio De Sica through the Neo-Realist style.
One trait evident through these four films is all scenes are filled with interchangeable images which are rendered with diligent and deliberate care; they are there to be observed. His deft uses of verisimilitude make for an unpredictable and diverse collection of films and while he may not have contributed to the “new soul” of French cinema, historically, Réne Clément was certainly a talented old soul of cinema and deserves to be re-visited and explored. Banal and old-fashioned this collection is not.