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Good French Movies (1975-80): Un Monde Étrange

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GJ Cole itcherFrench cinema is known for its originality and taboo-busting narratives, but some films go further than others. Following the liberating years of the sixties, independent filmmakers with a taste for the unusual had more freedom to let their imaginations roam. From erotic fairytales to absurdist thrillers, here’s a handful of French flicks from the late seventies that either show us a strange new world or put an absurd spin on the one in which we live. ~ GJ Cole

Smart Trash

Having emerged from a golden age with many of its great filmmakers and ideas intact, French cinema was able to enjoy an element of freedom in the 1970s – for better or worse, it could be considered the prog rock era of the art movie. With many directors enjoying a new-found respect in light of the New Wave and its genius-theory of ‘auteur’ filmmakers, it was time to stretch their muscles and test the limits of their imaginations – and their audience’s sensibilities.

At the same time, audiences were changing and economic factors demanded more derrières on cinema seats. Some filmmakers were able to keep working – and exploring their thematic obsessions – by making erotic movies, whose narrative content didn’t matter too much to the distributors so long as there was a strong flesh content.

Others capitalized on new audience niches in world cinema where there was still a taste for fresh ideas and a spin on classic genres. Perhaps there was even a sense of competition between some filmmakers, ever keen to out-weird each other to establish their voice and appeal to a healthy counter-culture of bizarro movie fans.

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Surreal French Movie Recommendations

‘La Bête’ / ‘The Beast’ (Walerian Borowczyk, 1975)

Often dividing audiences – who variously saw him as a director of art movies, trash, or pornography – Borowczyk’s work was always rich in gothic and fairytale mythology, dream logic, and transgressive eroticism. Which is maybe a polite way of saying that those who don’t think they can bear to watch the heaving animatronic genitalia of the titular ‘beast’ of his 1975 cross-breed fairytale, may want to give this one a miss.

Those who brave it, though, will discover a surreal masterpiece: the tale of a wealthy heiress who is contracted to marry the deformed son of her father’s best friend, should she want to claim daddy’s estate. On arriving at her fiancé’s remote farm, however, Lucy finds a houseful of family mythology, conniving backstabbers, and a hubby-to-be who seems to exhibit certain… transformative tendencies. Which is not to say that the young lady is not curious.

Erotic, charming, silly, and picturesque, it is not a film you will quickly forget.

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‘Black Moon’ (Louis Malle, 1975)

The most beautiful things in the world, are the most useless. Peacocks and lilies for instance…

Noveau Vague filmmaker Malle’s English-language art film is a peculiar apocalyptic fairytale with hints of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Borowczyk’s ‘Beast’. The opening minutes contain some of the purest narrative cinema ever made, roving through the countryside in the movie’s perpetual twilight, flowing from image to image, each otherwise a banal visual element made strange and symbolic by the context and tone.

‘Black Moon’s’ Alice – in fact, named Lily – is a refugee from a worldwide war between men and women. But when she hides out in a remote country house, her safety is by no means assured. The cast of locals, including an old lady having lucid conversations with a giant rat, a gaggle of naked children, and a unicorn, interact in a strange micro-society into which Lily is slowly indoctrinated.

It’s not perfect, but ‘Black Moon’ is a unique vision with moments of pure fantasy brilliance: any connoisseur of weird/fantasy/French movies needs to have it among their references.

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‘India Song’ (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

Duras’ notoriously difficult cinema found its biggest commercial and critical success (except her work as a writer on Alain Resnais’ films) with this elegiac tale of a consul’s wife driven by worldly dissatisfaction to take a series of lovers in full view of her tolerant husband.

The filmmaker’s literary approach (the only words spoken are in voiceover) finds an effective counterpoint in the almost dummy-like visual portrayal of her characters: dressed and made-up expensively, they stand nearly stock still as the camera breezes around Anne-Marie’s Bengalese ambassadorial mansion.

It’s an extreme vision, though formally echoing much of Duras’ work to date, and it will be a bit dry for many viewers. But the purity of Duras’ vision remains a singular achievement, and ‘India Song’ remains a film better haunted-by than ‘enjoyed’.

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‘Série noire’ (Alain Corneau, 1979)

Adapted from a Jim Thompson thriller (‘The Killer Inside Me’, ‘The Grifters’, and ‘The Getaway’) by experimental writer Georges Perec, ‘Série noire’ (more or less meaning ‘pulp fiction’) relocates the action to the glum Parisian suburbs of the late seventies, and the tone becomes more absurd and playful – and all the more tragic for it.

Down-on-his-luck salesman Franck Poupart happens upon a beautiful teenage girl whose aunt pimps her out in return for everything from a luxury bathrobe to handywork around the house: genuinely desperate to save young Mona from her plight, Franck also sees her (and their eventual robbery plot) as a way out of his humdrum existence.

Every single character is portrayed with such nuance, insight and cruelty that it’s difficult to keep track of who to love: but, needless to say, their competing needs and emotions interfere in the most unexpected ways with Franck and Mona’s plot. The grim, painterly pseudo-realism is lifted by Patrick Dewaere’s inspired, unhinged lead performance as a fantasist for whom it’s all too much and it’s never enough.

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‘La Nuit des Traquées’ / ‘The Night of the Hunted’ (Jean Rollin, 1980)

A rare urban outing for erotic vampire specialist Rollin, the master of French trash benefits here from the discipline of tight locations and a simple plot.

Driving along a country road at night, a young man rescues a pretty amnesiac on the run from who-knows-what. After making love (of course), he goes to work and Elizabeth is coerced into returning to the clinic from which she escaped. Supposedly, her fellow patients are being treated for a strange new memory disease, but the creepy management seems to be up to something more.

Playing like a super-simplified early Cronenberg flick with added (actually, very awkward) erotic scenes, ‘The Night of the Hunted’ may not sound super-appealing, but the film has a strange sense of the uncanny, a peculiar atmosphere, and stylish minimal art design that make it minor masterpiece. Bizarre, nasty, and so serious it’s funny, ‘Hunted’ belongs high on the list of France’s alternative cinema canon.

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Open Your Eyes

A few moments of these films may be too much for some people, but after the playfulness of the sixties and the frustration and anger that soon followed, a period of unharnessed imaginative expression was healthy for French cinema. Just around the corner, the eighties was about to deliver the region’s ‘cinéma du look’ – a super-stylish, avant-garde but popular slew of movies that might not have been inspired were it not for the outrageous efforts of earlier, wilder filmmakers.

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