The Marshall Plan, a 1948 American initiative to aid European recovery following World War II, brought much-needed relief to the continent, but carried with it an assurance of greater U.S. involvement. Help was on its way, but that help would also be telling them how to use it. This brought the world closer together, aided business and partnerships, and created an environment ready-made for the soon-to-boom tourist industry. But it also caused beliefs, customs, and social structures to collide, and what once could be shrugged off as a cultural difference was now plopped down in the backyard. The postwar European cinema contends a great deal with this rush of modernity, and the sudden closeness of a country that was nearly isolationist just a few years prior. This American influence can be felt strongly in the "French Favorites for Bastille Day" series, coming up at the Aero Theatre.
In Jacques Tati’s outstanding debut film, The Big Day (Jour de fête; 1949), he plays a postman in a small town whose lackadaisical approach to mail delivery is called into question when a documentary on the American postal industry is shown in town. These titans are delivering by airplane and helicopter, sorting letters by machine, and even competing in strongman competitions. “Yes,” the narrator declares, “Americans are turning postmen into acrobats!” Meanwhile, poor François keeps losing control of his modest bicycle, killing time between hazard-ridden deliveries with a drink at the bar, and mismanaging the few additional responsibilities he takes on. The townsfolk wander out of the screening amazed at what they’ve just seen and dismayed at what their local representative has to offer. “What would the Americans do with a postman like you?” one asks. “You’re not about to fly with that piece of junk,” another observes as François inflates his tire.
So he decides to deliver the mail “American style!” No obstacle too great, no maneuver that could not be more efficiently-executed. He’s still limited to his bicycle, but he weaves through traffic with great speed and efficiency, hitching himself to the back of flatbeds to sort the mail as he rides. Inevitably, this being a Jacques Tati movie, it all comes unspooled in a hilarious fashion, leading him to ride along with an old woman on her wagon, who reminds him, “Americans can do what they want, but they can’t make the crops grow any faster.” Everything has its own rhythm, and François is happy to return to his. But this ideology is easier for Tati to espouse than follow. In an excellent video essay included on Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film, film scholar Stéphane Goudet notes how much Tati owed to the American slapstick comedians who came before him, often riffing on premises they employed (broken-down vehicles, inept servicemen, machines gone haywire) and feeling that he had to top them, since he was starting so long after their heyday.
In that same piece, Goudet speculates that “the specter of an economic, cultural, and ideological occupation of France by the US doubtlessly crossed Tati’s mind,” a thought we see manifested in M. Hulot’s Holiday (Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot; 1953). While there is no direct mention of America, the influx of a certain consumerist attitude towards vacationing is at the fore. The film opens with a large set piece of travelers rushing between constantly-changing train platforms, desperate to hold onto their schedules and purchased tickets. Throughout the film, strict planning and organization are the name of the game - outings are carefully organized, and activities at the seaside resort are carefully separated and maintained. Most of what goes awry comes about by someone (usually Tati’s Hulot character) stepping out of bounds or not executing a supposedly-playful activity “correctly.” Whereas the French vacation in earlier films such as Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country suggest it as a place of freedom, the time in M. Hulot’s Holiday hews closer to a more American tradition of devouring the sights. Even at their most leisurely moment - listening to the radio in the hotel lobby - vacationers are faced with the reality that their national economy is on shaky ground. “The latest statistics show that our imports exceed our exports,” the announcer states. Economic occupation, indeed.
And lest one think that Tati’s comedy has become any freer from American influence, the 1978 re-edit of the film that the Aero is showing (which the filmmaker prefers and has been the official version ever since) includes an extended gag involving a shark that features additional footage shot to capitalize on a certain 1975 beach-set American blockbuster. Cultural occupation, indeed. Still, there’s a buoyancy to these films, a certainty the French spirit will carry on despite changing customs and attitudes. François ends his big day working the land with his fellow man; Hulot ends his holiday with a couple more friends.
By the 1960s, the story has changed, at least for some filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard shows a French people under direct attack, staving off the near-apocalypse. The screening at the Aero reverses their chronological order, diving us headfirst into the crime-laden nightmare world of 1965’s Pierrot le fou, which takes the familiar setup of a man and woman on the run from the law and perverts it at every turn. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a bored husband, Anna Karina his ex-girlfriend who suddenly re-enters his life right as he’s ready to throw it all away. Their experience as outlaws is not the classy vision of roadside motels, false names, and short cons. They spend most of their time driving around or camping in the woods, stuck in the same clothes for days (weeks?) on end and scrapping for food. Godard said he often tried to make a normal gangster movie like the Hollywood imports he saw, but inevitably fell into telling something a little more autobiographical about violent, cruel men and distant, cruel women. Pierrot le fou may be the most obvious example of this, a film forever at odds with its director’s cinephilia and the extent to which his life couldn’t live up to it. Karina was Godard’s wife from 1961-1965, and by all accounts their relationship was a tumultuous one.
The caustic American influence comes in many forms. At one point, two hired goons (“Just like in a Raymond Chandler novel," Belmondo reminds us) come not just to beat him up, but full-on waterboard him. This form of torture goes back centuries, and is hardly a practice exclusive to America - the French employed it during the Algerian War, of which Godard had been critical. Thanks to that and its use in the Vietnam War, it was a debated, if relatively unpublicized, human rights violation that’s shocking to see onscreen in the 1960s, especially as unadorned and directly as Godard presents it. The stable camera and lack of cuts puts us directly in Belmondo’s shoes (the character and the actor). Earlier, the couple, in an effort to make a little money, put on a play for some American tourists (“Damn! Americans!” Belmondo curses by way of introduction). Stuck on what to make their subject, Karina decides on something they can relate to - The Vietnam War. “That’s damn good!” one of the Americans exclaims in excitement over the genocide the outlaws present it to be. If the Americans are going to invade, Godard suggests, we might as well make a bit of money on them.
There is no escaping their invasion in Contempt (Le mepris, 1963), even if it is only a one-man army. An American movie producer (Jack Palance), disappointed with German director Fritz Lang’s adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, hires French screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) to do some rewriting. Paul is against the idea, but recognizes someone will make some money here and it might as well be him. He also, as the producer reminds him, has a beautiful wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), to support. Camille is so beautiful, the producer decides to take advantage of his position and cart off with her for a half-hour one afternoon. Lang plays himself, but Piccoli and Bardot have been widely interpreted as standing in for Godard and Karina. A large chunk of the film’s midsection takes place in their apartment, wherein Paul tries to get Camille to admit what happened with the producer, and admit that she’s mad at him for not stepping in to stop it. They bicker and make plans and talk about everything except what they’re actually talking about. It’s a pure, beautiful marriage of Godard’s avant-garde sensibilities and a more classical melodrama scenario.
In many ways, too, this is the inevitable result of the American occupation to which Goudet referred. It’s bad enough that this clueless American, so giddy at the sight of naked women onscreen and without an ounce of sense about the art of cinema, is dictating the work of someone as accomplished as Lang (who, by this time, had left Hollywood and returned to Germany for a few final films). The Americans have come for the economy, industry, culture, and entertainment complex, and now they’ve come for the wives. And the effect of that invasion is present even without a direct interference, and it permeates that final barrier - the bedroom. The Americans, truly, have taken over, and through the course of this film will ruin everything they touch. What will they come for next, now that there’s nothing left? See Godard’s Weekend for the true decimation of Western society.
These films - and several others worthy of your time and attention, including the new release Mon Roi - will screen at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica from July 14 to July 28.