Tag Archives: Les Films de la Pléiade

Les surmenés (1958, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze)

Les surmenés answers the burning question: What if the French New Wave directors made a sitcom? In this sitcom, country girl Yane Barry comes to Paris. She’s won a typing contest, so she’s able to be a… typist, but she’s also engaged to her sister’s boss (Jean-Pierre Cassel), which is funny since they have no chemistry. Of course, she also doesn’t have any chemistry with Jean-Claude Brialy, who plays the other guy. She meets Brialy in the first scene, on the train ride in. Now, it’s not clear if Barry doesn’t have any chemistry with Cassel or Brialy because of some acting deficit because the short is committed to not letting her have any actual scenes. Either there’s narration explaining everything or Barry’s getting chastised for not being serious enough. Any scenes where she seems to have agency quickly turn into montage sequences.

See, Barry doesn’t want to live in Paris and not have any fun. She wants to live it up, all night, every night. Just like her brother-in-law (Jean Juillard) does. Excerpt Juillard is just working (he works nights and he’s addicted to that work). Barry’s addicted to partying. Cassel doesn’t want to party because he works. Will horny guy Brialy want to party with her?

Throw in a lot about Juillard working and his wife—Barry’s sister—Chantal de Rieux not liking him working all night and there’s the short. There’s not a lot to it. Certainly nothing dramatic and not much filmic either. The most creative thing in the film is the animated opening titles. I guess Jacques Letellier’s photography is fine, but director Doniol-Valcroze’s composition is (apparently intentionally) boring. Got to have the boring shots to make the montages work with the narration. But none of it actually works so… Les surmenés is just tedious. It doesn’t help the script—by François Truffaut, Michel Fermaud, and Doniol-Valcroze—is really hostile to Barry for some reason. Well, not some reason. It’s because Barry’s a young woman who wants to have fun in the big city. They could tell the exact same story, hit the same beats, same “emotional resonances” (quotations because no), and not be jerks about it.

I suppose the attitude does give the short some personality. Unpleasant personality, but personality; nothing else in it has any.

Wait—except Georges Delerue’s music, which starts fun and ends up being a sitcom score.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze; written by François Truffaut, Michel Fermaud, and Doniol-Valcroze; director of photography, Jacques Letellier; edited by Marinette Cadix, Albert Jurgenson, and Francine Vainer; music by Georges Delerue; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Yane Barry (Catherine), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Bernard), Chantal de Rieux (Solange), Jean Juillard (Étienne), and Jean-Claude Brialy (Jimmy); narrated by Monique Chaumette.


The Laboratory of Fear (1971, Patrice Leconte)

The Laboratory of Fear is all about expectation. For the short’s eleven minutes, writer and director Leconte wants the audience to expect something. Lots of foreshadowing. Some of it matters, some of it is red herring.

The short opens very documentary-like, with a voice over explaining the modern (for 1971) laboratory. The lab’s so hip they’ve even got a woman scientist (Marianne di Vettimo); better yet, she’s actually good at her job (just ask any of the fellows, says the narrator). Cue opening titles, which end with a disclaimer: don’t expect too much scientific accuracy. So why open with the documentary style? To control the audience’s expectations.

There’s no way to predict, from that opening tag, Fear is actually going to be about lovesick custodian Michel Such going from annoying crush to possibly dangerous stalker. di Vettimo, however, doesn’t seem to notice his escalation. She doesn’t know she’s in the Laboratory of Fear, she just thinks she’s at work, trying to make some silver iodine and getting messed up because Such needs constant attention from her. He even tries to show off for her, sticking his hand in various kinds of dangerous chemicals. Presumably the actor didn’t have to do it, but who knows… di Vettimo is manipulating the spilled mercury by hand without a second thought (because 1971).

The short seems to be a race—will di Vettimo take notice of Such’s possible threat before Such escalates to the point of being dangerous? But the race is yet another of Leconte’s manipulations. The punchline, which is excellent, is as unpredictable as the setup. Though Leconte has been building to the punchline since after the opening titles; should it have been expected? Probably not. Not even if one is familiar with di Vettimo’s experiments, since Fear’s not about the hard science.

Good creeper performance from Such. Decent one from di Vettimo, who doesn’t really get anything to do. Leconte’s direction is fine, save the occasional visual flourishes. They’re to play with expectation too, of course.

Fear’s a competently executed narrative with a nice kicker.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Patrice Leconte; director of photography, Jean Gonnett; edited by Marguerite Renoir; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Marianne di Vettimo (Clara) and Michel Such (Antoine)


Le coup du berger (1956, Jacques Rivette)

I wish Le coup du berger had some kind of subtitle, like An Experiment in Head Room. Something to acknowledge the short’s constant issues with framing. It’s not clear who’s responsibly for the lousy head room. Director Rivette is the obvious culprit; there are a lot of shots where people move into better (and sometimes out of) better framing. But the frequent camera tilts are artless and rough, so maybe it’s cinematographer Charles L. Bitsch. But the tilt was presumably Rivette’s bad idea in the first place. And then there’s Denise de Casabianca’s editing, which is at best rhythmless and at works inept. The cutting on Anne Doat’s big scene arguably ruins the effectiveness of her performance.

Then again, who knows how good the performance would be with better editing.

The film’s about Virginie Vitry. Doat’s her sister. Married Vitry uses Doat as cover for going to see her lover, Jean-Claude Brialy. Brialy hangs out in his apartment and… does little else. Vitry’s husband, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, is an aloof Renaissance man. He plays the piano, he sketches, he paints. I think one of his nude subjects is supposed to be someone in their circle of friends. Of course, Brialy is also in that circle but it’s never explained. He’s just Vitry’s lover. And Vitry is just an adulterer. Three screenwriters—Rivette, producer Claude Chabrol, cinematographer Bitsch—and nothing in the way of character. For anyone. Doniol-Valcroze does the most at implying character and not when he’s supposed to be doing the big reveal. It’s when he’s sick of talking to Vitry after a few minutes. Coup runs thirty minutes. Vitry gets tiring by her third scene.

There’s story in those thirty minutes: Doniol-Valcroze gives Vitry a fur coat because they smash. Only she can’t bring it home because her husband doesn’t know she’s smashing one of their friends (who it turns out she doesn’t even like very much—I’m not sure if coup’s got enough energy to be misogynist; if it doesn’t, it’s just misanthropic). So Vitry has this plan to put the coat in a suitcase and put it in storage at the bus (or train) depot. She’ll “find” the ticket and send Doniol-Valcroze to get it. What could possibly go wrong? Well, you’ll probably be able to guess before the short even hits the halfway point. Maybe not all the details, but at least the plotting ones.

The music’s nice? It ought to be; it’s Baroque composer François Couperin’s work. Otherwise… Le coup du berger is far from the best way to spend a half hour.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Rivette; written by Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Charles L. Bitsch; director of photography, Bitsch; edited by Denise de Casabianca; produced by Pierre Braunberger and Chabrol for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Virginie Vitry (Claire), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (Jean), Jean-Claude Brialy (Claude), and Anne Doat (Solange)


The Song of Styrene (1959, Alain Resnais)

The Song of Styrene is gorgeous. The way director Resnais showcases the plastic press-styrene becomes plastic through chemical processes (Song of is an industrial promotional film)—it’s a solitary object, removed from the factory setting and just amazing and new looking. Even when something’s weathered, like the industrial plants, it all looks new. Very futuristic, very clean. When there’s the eventual shots of coal, it’s stunning how much it contrasts with the very clean, very futuristic look of everything else. Coal is elemental, even as the narrator talks about its mysterious origins (Song is from 1959).

You’d think someone might notice how the story of a created plastic whatever going backwards to being coal gas is visibly clean to dirty; there’s not a “look how this dirty rock turns into something beautiful” sentiment either. Song has narration. A lot of narration and narrator Pierre Dux goes from being excited about plastic being pressed to excited by the power of fossil fuels. Song is a very obvious promotion, albeit a visually impressive one.

It’s not an intellectually impressive one. Not even for 1959. Maybe it’s Dux’s narration or Pierre Barbaud’s music. Until the fossil fuel blathering starts, the Barbaud’s music is Song’s biggest problem. It doesn’t not match Resnais, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and editor Claudine Merlin’s visual charting of an industrial plant, it just doesn’t add anything to the visuals. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin have it covered. The music and narration are just noise, disingenuous noise.

During that visual survey of plants, tracking the pipes and so on, Song hits its peak, which is something given how cool the opening with the plastics gets. But Song tells the story backwards, which Resnais doesn’t—it’s not like visual sequences play in reverse—and it hurts the potential. For a 1959 energy company promotional video about the wonders of fossil fuel and how it makes everything clean and modern… Song’s pretty good. The visuals engage enough the narration and intent don’t really matter. But it doesn’t transcend that intent. The attention Resnais places on the solitary plastic press doesn’t carry over to the industrial plants; such a feat would be outside the technological capabilities of a 1959 promotional short. But it’s also what Song would need to be anything more. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin letting loose instead of dancing in place, the script, narration, and music moving the film along instead of the actual filmmaking.

And opening with a Victor Hugo quote about the human condition is, in the end, a little much.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Alain Resnais; written by Raymond Queneau; director of photography, Sacha Vierny; edited by Claudine Merlin and Resnais; music by Pierre Barbaud; produced by Pierre Braunberger; released by Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Pierre Dux.