Like all critics, the presenters of the Prix Louis-Delluc periodically screw the pooch. Prime example: 1967, when period titillation Benjamin nudged out Belle du jour, Play Time, Week End, and Mouchette. BAMcinématek’s 12-film roundup of honorees, however, is practically propaganda for the French cine-muh.
The prize—named in honor of a proselytizing critic, experimental filmmaker, and ciné club founder—was inaugurated in 1937. Every December, the 14-head, elected-for-life jury meets at the Paris restaurant Le Fouquet’s to coronate, with scant fanfare, the year’s best French film.
While hopefully avoiding the great Franco-American tradition of exchanging banal generalizations, we can say that this film culture’s relative historical sophistication has incubated some heterodox talents into miraculous careers. From the ’50s: Diary of a Country Priest, where Robert Bresson definitively chisels the definition of “Bressonian,” and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, a Jacques Tati comic panorama. Also here is Otar Iosseliani’s 1999 Goodbye, Home Sweet Home, in which degenerate aristocracy and plain degenerates intersect in mutual yearning for phantom freedom. It fits the evocative prewar description, “Poetic Realism,” just as well as Marcel Carné’s 1939 Quai des brumes—bone-tired, tumbledown atmospheric, imminently quotable, and the last Delluc recipient before an Occupation hiatus.
Maurice Pialat didn’t deal in lyrical lace, but for those who take their Art as life played on a sharper scale, there’s his mighty À nos amours (1983), debuting a sullen, savage teenaged Sandrine Bonnaire, whose puberty hits her family apartment like napalm. First seeing Pialat’s scenemaking—how did he bottle those kamikaze blowups, those tender lulls?—delivered a cinematic concussion from which I’ve never recovered.
Leading recent recipients is Magnum photojournalist-cum-documentarian Raymond Depardon’s La Vie moderne (2008). It’s the last and most despairing of his Profils paysans triptych (begun in 1991), formal interview films that ennoble the anachronistic and mostly ancient native farmers of the rugged Cévennes. The image of 88-year-old shepherd Marcel Privat, with bloodshot stare, in a wind-harassed field, declaring, “It’s the end,” will outlast whatever some academy is throwing statuettes at this year.