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Mixed fare

The recently-concluded French film festival organised by the Hyderabad Film Club lacked a central theme - in terms of both the genre and the subject. In essence, it was a random selection of a few 16-mm films.

IT WAS a random blend of the old and new at the recently-concluded French Film Festival organised by the Hyderabad Film Club, in association with the Embassy of France in India - from April 7 to 12 at Sarathi Studios. In all, six films were screened to a remarkably modest audience. Films in black and white, dating from 1930 to 1967, and a colour film of 1967 made by directors Rene Clair, Andre Hunebelle, Andre Michel, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri Verneuil and Jean-Luc Godard respectively were screened at the festival.

The festival however lacked a theme - in terms of both the genre and the subject. Nor was there any chronological order in terms of film-making. In essence, it was a casual selection of 16-mm films by the Embassy. It did, however, manage to show the wide canvas of French films made in the 1950s and 60s - comedy (even those bordering on the slapstick), melodrama, political, and thrillers -- both in rank commercial and serious cinema.

It was a feast to watch Rene Clair's first talkie film, Sous Les Toits De Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris), made in 1930. The film was about a street singer Albert and his friend, a gangster Louis who fall in love with the same woman Pola- a Romanian; and how the woman makes her final choice between the two men. This was the first time Rene Clair used sound technology, and music; and the film was a great success in its times. The film also depicted sensitivity to human emotions in the lives of people `down under'.

Hunebelle's commercial film, Ma femme est Formidable (My Wife is Wonderful) was the most disappointing of the lot. The movie was about misunderstanding that threatens to end the marital relationship of a sculptor Raymond and his wife Sylvia. Director Hunebelle mainly worked on mainstream cinema for the commercial circuit and his better known (and controversial) films included The Twilight Girls (1961) and The Two of Us (1968). The former, touched the subject of lesbian relationship in an all girls school and was originally banned in New York for its explicit scenes.

Sans Famille (Without Any Family) by Andre Michel could have been a film out of our own archives, or the old Christmas time movies from the stables of Hollywood in terms of its use of melodrama in excess. The film, made in 1958, centred on the story of a young boy sold off by his guardians to a street performer. The young boy Remi is the lost child of an heiress, with an envious uncle who wants him killed. The young boy develops a strange bond with the performer, a kind, old man from Italy, who ultimately dies, leaving the child to his fate. How the child meets his mother finally - as usual during Christmas - after the baddies have been done away with, forms the rest of the rather sedate narrative.

The engaging films in the festival were, Verneuil's Melodie en Sous-Sol (The Big Grab), a classic film about the well-planned loot of a casino, with an amazing anti-climax, and of course, the presence of an elderly Jean Gabin and the awfully handsome Alain Delon.

In 1996, Verneuil was awarded an honorary Cesar, France's equivalent of the Oscar, for lifetime achievement in film. His other films included, La Vache et le Prisonnier (The Cow and I) which is about a man's journey with a stubborn cow, made in 1959. Mayrig, in 1991 (with Omar Sheriff as its star) was also one of his big hits.

The Big Grab is the story of a just-released gangster (Gabin) planning his last major loot of more than a million Franc, at Palm Beach Casino, with a small time rowdysheeter (played wonderfully by Alain Delon). Everything goes off smoothly and the money is safe and snug in Francis (Delon's) hands, until a last moment guilt and fear makes the loot go down the pool. Classic build-up of suspense, good music and drama till the end made this film an absolute delight.

Another film of the same genre, Samourai, - starring Alain Delon is the story of a ruthless killer, Jef Costello (Delon), on the run after he had been identified. Delon goes to the depth of the character portrayed - an almost dispassionate recluse. His character in the film is defined by the caption at the film's beginning, "perhaps only a tiger is lonelier than a Samurai". A film without much dialogue, and classic close-up shots of characters highlighting their tension in the police station, Delon's momentary `giving in' to the fear of being caught (the monochrome enhancing the effect) are beautifully captured by the film-maker of classics, such as Les Enfants Terribles (1950) and Le Cercle rouge (1970) among others.

The only film-maker of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave cinema) represented at this festival was Godard, whose political satire made in 1967, La Chinoise was part of the package. The film was about a group of students picking up the more attractive elements of Mao's political ideology, through a situational context.

Anne Wiazemsky, who married Godard, plays the character of an enthusiastic Maoist, a philosophy student. With a group of campus Maoists, she picks on the more obvious tokenisms of Mao thought. The group of students, barring one (who is excommunicated) do not understand the real implications of the kind of violence they believe in, and the professor travelling in a train with the young woman becomes, almost, the spokesperson for the film-maker. The film rushes through extreme close-ups (with the actor speaking to the camera) and symbolisms - the use of the colour red and an enactment of the Vietnam war. The film is highly textual, with too many movements happening simultaneously around a central theme.

The flipsides to this festival were - the constant hitches, including bad prints, recurring snags in the projector and an almost lackadaisical touch to the whole thing - which is a rarity for the HFC.


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