To Reality and Back: Classic and Contemporary French Documentaries


Prefacing the Walter Reade’s annual French cinema “Rendez-Vous,” this mini-retro of classic and modern docs must begin inevitably with Jean Vigo’s À Propos de Nice (1930), a Vertov-inspired meander through the Riviera hot spot that evolves into a vicious bourgeoisie lampoon and ends up in the land of the dead, suggesting without a word a state of apocalyptic emptiness. From there, French docs got only more personal, here leaping ahead to the Rive Gauche contemplations of Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnés Varda. The world’s first and greatest Holocaust doc, Night and Fog (1955), bumps up against Marker and Resnais’s anti-colonialist art-history j’accuse Statues Also Die (1953), Marker’s epochal portrait of French society in the sudden, guilty peace of 1962, Le Joli Mai (1963), and Varda’s menopausal hit The Gleaners and I (2000), but not, unfortunately, any of her many earlier essays.

Alain Cavalier continues and explodes his intermittent auto-cine-biography withThe Filmer (2005)—compiling 10 years’ worth of footage, documenting multiple cancer surgeries and uncountable whims—but most of the newer films aim outward. Clare Simon’s observational record of playground behavior Recreations (1993) is a harrowing analysis of group aggression and epic victimization. Hervé Le Roux’s well-celebrated Reprise (1996) begins with an iconic student film shot on the streets after the strikes of May ’68, and then launches into a three-hour where-are-they-now detective odyssey that focuses on one recalcitrant woman who would not re-enter her wage-slavery role. More prosaic, Jean-Louis Comolli’s The Sofri Affair (2001) looks at not only a notorious Italian assassination case but its own re-examinations in the Italian media, and one intrepid scholar’s assessment of it all. Veteran American outsider, global everyman and doyen of meta-vérité, the late Robert Kramer began Starting Place (1993) with a Marker quote (and with French funding), initiating a passionate act of memory and regeneration in contemporary Vietnam, where he’d shot film 23 years before. It’s a pensive portrait of the war’s legacy as much as a point-of-view capture of the man’s sympathetic righteousness.