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Good French Movies (1970-75): Blow-Out!

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GJ Cole itcherCapitalizing on the new-found creative freedoms of the preceding decade, as the seventies began, France continued to lead the world in making avant-garde but accessible movies. Rather than sink into complacency, some filmmakers fought hard to push the medium further – creating angry, transgressive works more shocking than chic, more revolutionary than romantic. Here’s a fistful of extreme, intense or genre-defying Gallic flicks. ~ GJ Cole

Too Hot to Handle

In May ’68, France erupted in a series of strikes, riots and creative protests against the status quo: capitalist values, consumerist trends, and stultifying elements of traditional culture. It lasted just a few weeks, before the reigning Gaullist party resumed control. Although the social effects of the near-revolution – largely a cry for action from student and youth groups – left a long term impact, many more liberal and progressive folk were disappointed by the limits of what was achieved, and the haste with which the country returned ‘to normal’.

Meanwhile, in cinema, the New Wave had run its course as a coherent movement. While some individual filmmakers continued to experiment and push the form, for others the new ideas of the Nouvelle Vague became a template or go-to style rather than a means of continuing to revitalise cinema.

The hope of the sixties proved short-lived and a sense of stagnation and futility was in the air. But French cinema was still due one last burst of wild creativity, as an indignant set of directors capitalized on the new freedoms to create unsettling works, bold in voice and radical in form.


Extreme French Movie Recommendations

‘La Grande Bouffe’ / ‘The Big Feast’ (Marco Ferreri, 1973)

Wanting to be Marlon Brando is vanity…

Crude, obnoxious and bloated, the four male leads of ‘Blow-Out’ (more literally translated as ‘The Big Binge’) gather in an old villa to eat themselves to death. What follows is a 90-minute orgy of food, farting, sex, and death that somehow legitimizes itself through not trying to be anything more.

A kind of physiological tragedy, Ferreri’s nihilistic tale hints at the restrictions that the corrupt patriarchy have inflicted upon themselves, but asks only to be received in the manner of surreal art: stream of consciousness, a primal spew whose catharsis is tied up in the impossibility and necessity, and the revolt against the human condition.

So it’s funny, and Phillipe Noiret and Michel Piccoli are legendary performers as ever, but those with a faint stomach might prefer not to dine directly before watching. (And probably won’t want to eat some time after).

‘La Maman et la Putain’ / ‘The Mother and the Whore’ (Jean Eustache, 1973)

I’m often in love. I get involved with people quickly, and forget quickly. People don’t matter…

When parodists try to conjure the clichéd idea of a French art film, they may be unconsciously channelling Eustache’s ‘The Mother and the Whore’. At nearly four hours long, in grainy black and white, and largely made up of long conversations about love and existence between the three participants of a romantic triangle, you can see why it was a hard sell, even to French audiences, when it came out.

But Eustache capitalized on and revitalized some of the discoveries of his recent predecessors in French cinema, exploiting the intimacy offered by turning the camera, metaphorically, on himself and his lovers: semi-autobiographical, the trials and emotions of the characters are crafted with such nuance that the atmosphere of the film’s universe soon becomes enveloping.

The beating heart of the film is new wave mainstay Jean-Pierre Léaud, who is charismatic and tragic as the wise but naïve young Alexandre. Sensitive performances from Bernadette Lafont and Françoise Lebrun as the lovers deciding whether to share or fight for him complete a beguiling cast of heavyhearted characters.

‘Themroc’ (Claude Faraldo, 1973)

A frustrated worker in the suburbs of Paris is finally pushed over the edge and decides to revolt. But revolution for Themroc (Michel Piccoli again) means reverting to a kind of neo-primitivism: returning to the apartment he shares with his mother and sister, he bashes out the external wall and begins to live as a caveman.

When the authorities try to put a stop to it, Themroc’s neighbours are inspired to follow his example. Soon, an urban war rages between the neo-primitives and the cartoonishly stupid cops. Incest, cannibalism and getting high on tear-gas are all on the menu for the rebels – but might their revolt be futile?

Superficially raw and violent, ‘Themroc’ is, in fact, a carefully constructed, humorous and thought-provoking slab of extreme cinema with an impeccably crafted soundtrack – including, most notably, the fact that the characters all speak in incoherent grunts.

‘Céline et Julie vont en bateau’ / ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ (Jacques Rivette, 1974)

It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon…

Part Lewis Carroll, part David Lynch, ‘Céline and Julie Go Boating’ remains a unique and special film: Rivette loves to play with time, false appearances and alternate realities, giving his movies a unique flavour amongst the new wave directors. ‘Boating’ is his greatest film, tempering the self-indulgence of his other works with humour, movement, cabaret and an otherworldly murder mystery.

The film opens with Julie following Céline, white-rabbit-like, into the latter’s existence. They quickly form a strong and silly bond, before being drawn into a strange copycat murder scenario at a mansion.

Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier form a memorable duo as the title characters, and their comic invention matches Rivette’s narrative ingenuity at every turn. A three-hour trip through an alternative perception of life, ‘Boating’ is a dream within a dream, that’ll keep you daydreaming long after.

‘Les Valseuses’ / ‘Going Places’ (Bertrand Blier, 1974)

Messing around, always messing around… I am fed up of messing around!

Sticking two firm fingers up at the sixties, ‘Going Places’ (the French title is slang for testicles) is a rollicking – and troubling – romp following two young criminals in their selfish quest to rob and assault their way through an irredeemably bleak post-’68 France.

Harassing women who are, by turns, resistant, reluctant, and repentant, Blier’s movie is all about the men (specifically related to the socio-economics of the day). While the narrative is undoubtedly tough on concepts of masculinity, there’s a boyish simplicity in its reduction of the genders (man bad, woman good).

Accepting the film on those terms, though, it becomes a crucial, critical and unnerving cultural artefact that never pulls its punches. Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere make for another engaging dynamic duo, though you’re unlikely to invite either around for tea any time soon.


What a Riot

With their uncompromising ideals and visceral passion, some of these films were destined to offend more viewers than they impressed. But rarely has an era in cinema produced such a unique and vibrant expression of the human spirit and its violent desire for freedom, equality and fraternity.

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