A Cinephile’s Pick of Top French Films

Uri Klein
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From Maurice Pialats 1991 film "Van Gogh."
Uri Klein

“The best French films over the years were created by outsiders,” maintains Serge Toubiana, former editor of the influential movie periodical Cahiers du Cinema and currently the director of the French Cinematheque. Toubiana, a Tunisian-born Jew, is in Israel for the screening of eight French films, to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Toubiana says that the French Institute in Israel suggested that he choose eight films that would reflect his own tastes as well as the achievements of the French Cinematheque, which labored to reconstruct several classic French movies. His list includes two of these movies, Marcel Carne’s “Port of Shadows” from 1938 and Jean Gremillon’s “Summer Light” from 1943. To these were added six others, produced between 1967 and 2011. The films will be screened at the Cinematheques in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.

Toubiana’s selection is eclectic but interesting, presenting to Israeli audiences movies and filmmakers that are not well known here. “I wanted to present the Israeli public with films I love that are less well known, such as ‘Pillaged’, an excellent crime drama from 1967, or ‘Everything is Forgiven’ by Mia Hansen-Love from 2007. Many of the best French films were produced by or dealt with outsiders, which is why I chose films that reflect this. That’s why out of all the films made by Maurice Pialat, whom I admire, I chose ‘Van Gogh’, from 1991. The newest one on my list is ‘Tomboy’ by Celine Sciamma, from 2011, which is a film about a girl whose sexual identity is fuzzy. The main characters in the movies I chose are loners, from the army deserter who is the hero of ‘Port of Shadows’ to the hero of ‘Liberte, la nuit’, a film by Phillipe Garrel from 1983.”

The list also includes films by Marcel Carne, known to Israeli filmgoers from some of his films from the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as ‘Daybreak’ from 1939 and ‘Children of Paradise’ from 1945, as well as films by Jean Gremillon, one of the giants of classical French movies, who is much less familiar here. ‘Summer Light’ is one of his masterpieces. This film, which was banned by the Vichy authorities, is one of the fiercest cinematic attacks on the corrupt and hedonistic lifestyle of the French upper classes.

Toubiana also wanted to illuminate two important French directors who came after the “New Wave” -- Phillipe Garrel and Jacques Doillon, whose 2008 film “Just Anybody” will be screened here. His list also includes two of the more esoteric French filmmakers: Maurice Pialat, creator of “Loulou” and “Under the Sun of Satan,” who died in 2003 but still exerts significant influence on French films; and 82-year -old Alain Cavalier, who progressed from making commercial movies to more personal and ascetic ones.

In our conversation Toubiana expresses great respect for these two. Pialat was known as a difficult and brutal man, who bullied his actors. Although he was also hostile to Jews, the Jewish Toubiana managed to get along with him. He relates how he once told Pialat that he (Pialat) was the Jew of the French film industry since he always stayed on the sidelines and everyone was hostile towards him. “He didn’t react,” laughs Toubiana.

Toubiana was born in Sousse, Tunisia in 1949. Already as a child he loved movies, in particular Westerns and Jerry Lewis films. When Tunisia gained independence in 1956 his family moved to Grenoble in France. He studied film at the Sorbonne in Paris, starting to write about movies until in 1973, at the age of 24, he was appointed editor of “Cahiers du Cinema” alongside Serge Daney, the highly acclaimed French film critic who died in 1992.

In the 1970’s the Cahiers underwent Maoist political radicalization. The periodical started to write only about movies that toed the line, ignoring contemporary films unless they conformed to its ideology. As a mark of these changes, it stopped printing pictures. Toubiana relates that he and Daney fought against these changes for years. “It wasn’t an easy struggle. Many people opposed us and wanted to continue with the new ideological line. We wanted to return to writing about movies.” While they were joint editors, the Cahiers became less ideological and returned to reviewing contemporary movies as well as the history of film, including American classics. It also re-introduced pictures on its pages.

Toubiana was sole editor of the Cahiers from 1979 until 1992. In 2003 he became the head of the French Cinematheque, a position he still holds. He has published several books, including a comprehensive biography of Francois Truffault, which he wrote together with Antoine de Baeque; a book on the making of John Huston’s 1960 film “The Misfits;” and a book on Amos Gitai, the Israeli filmmaker he holds in high esteem.

What do you think of current film criticism, in the era of Internet and social media, where everyone feels that they can be film critics?

“In France it’s not as bad as in some other countries. We still have the traditional film periodicals such as the Cahiers and Positif, with significant readership. Newspapers such as Le Monde and Liberation still devote a lot of space to film criticism. They understand that in this day and age one should not compete with the Internet, but rather try and pose an alternative to it in interpretation and in probing and learned criticism. Only in this way can movie criticism survive. Filmmaking itself cannot survive without penetrating criticism.”

The French Cinematheque which Toubiana directs is a legendary institution, a model for all those that followed. It owes its prestige to its founder Henri Langlois, an obsessive collector of films who saved many of them from destruction at the hands of the Germans. He started out modestly after the war, with the Cinematheque serving as a meeting place for movie-loving young people such as Truffault, Goddard, Chabrol and others.

What is the role of the Cinematheque today, when you can watch nearly every film on a DVD, a computer or even a tablet?

“It enables one to see films as they should be watched,” says Toubiana, “not only on a big screen but also with the ceremony associated with watching them. Cinephiles love the ceremonial aspects of seeing movies on a big screen in a darkened auditorium. Paris still has many such people of all ages. We still dare and hold comprehensive retrospectives for less well appreciated directors whom we think deserve further consideration.”

The impending death of cinema has been touted often. One hears of the low quality of contemporary American movies as compared to TV.

“I’m optimistic – movies are not on the verge of dying out,” says Toubiana. But in order to keep it alive, critics and film historians must cooperate. A good film critic must be a good journalist who successfully reports on a movie he saw, placing it in the right context, giving readers the essence of the experience of seeing it. Paris is still the film capital of the world, even if many young people don’t remember who Jean Gremillion was.”

Serge Toubiana, director of the French Cinematheque. Credit: Gali Eitan
Marcel Carnes 1938 classic Port of Shadows.

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