The popular idea of French cinema, if it reaches back further than Amélie, usually begins somewhere around Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. This amnesia is no accident, as a New Wave requires an Old to discredit, and Truffaut climbed into the director’s chair over the bodies of elders he had tomahawked as a critic, some of whom have never recovered.
Older and granted the equanimity of success, Truffaut introduced a collection of his criticism, The Films in My Life, quoting Jean Renoir: “I considered that the world, and especially the cinema, was burdened with false gods. . . . My perseverance during a half-century of cinema has perhaps helped to topple a few of them. It has likewise helped me to discover that some of the gods were real and had no need to be toppled.”
Film Forum’s 53-movie blowout “The French Old Wave” invites new worshippers to meet those old gods of French cinema. The bill of fare spans from the dawn of the sound era (René Clair’s 1928 The Italian Straw Hat being the lone silent) to the watershed year 1960, and an uninitiated visitor stands to discover a whole terra incognita of French cinema.
There are works by undisputed masters like Cocteau, Ophüls, and Renoir, represented by his 1938 Zola adaptation La Bête Humaine, which stars Jean Gabin as an engineer running the Le Havre train who gets derailed by an affair with Simone Simon. There are also films credited to once-illustrious names since effaced by the passage of time, like that of Jean Grémillon, an emotionally potent filmmaker and sensitive director of women due for a reappraisal with the forthcoming arrival of a three-disc box set from Criterion imprint Eclipse. Grémillon is represented by five films, including 1941’s Remorques, with Gabin, the captain of a Breton salvage tug, drifting toward infidelity.
In La Bête Humaine and Remorques, we can detect certain tendencies of the Old Wave, among films frequently grouped under the evocative catchall “poetic realism.” There is an implicit esteem for labor in Renoir’s attention to the engineer’s station rituals, as in the work of Grémillon, who satisfies his documentary impulse through a detailed rendering of the tug’s operations in Remorques, or through the details of a dam’s construction in 1943’s ambitious Lumière d’été, which, like all great films, creates its own contained world, a birdcage inn in the French Alps. (If occasionally schematic in its opposition of a vitiated aristocracy and good, doughty laboring class, Lumière provides Pierre Brasseur a career role as the wild card, melodramatic, self-hate-immolated painter Roland.)
Such attention to the nuts and bolts of the workaday world, and the way in which life takes place when labor permits, shows a fellow feeling for the working class, whose on-screen avatar was Gabin, as near a thing as Film Forum’s series has to a single star. To say that Gabin was Bogart and Tracy intersecting in a single actor would still not come close to encapsulating the importance of this extraordinary performer, who conveyed an entire philosophy in his carriage, as essentially French as the Parisian shrug. In efficient motion, Gabin was at once dainty and solid, brisk yet resigned, not particularly handsome yet capable of breathtaking close-ups. “One eye smiles; the other frowns,” Jacqueline Laurent observes of Gabin in Marcel Carne’s Le Jour se Leve (1939), epitomizing the actor’s dichotomy—the line is from Jacques Prévert, the screenwriter and poet responsible for many of the greatest works here, including both Grémillons mentioned (Brasseur in Lumière d’été: “Of course I love you, but I prefer myself”).
The ideal of unflappable-but-not-insensitive sangfroid is older than Gabin and can, in fact, be seen in Antonin Berval’s playing of the title role in Maurice Tourneur’s splendid 1935 gangster pic Justin de Marseille. It is the defining note of classical control that runs through this absolutely vital series, which recedes the historically necessary romantic flood of the New Wave and reveals an intact Atlantis.