Trevor’s Film Recommendations: The First Mini-Canon: French Language (Part 1)

Dennis suggested that I post a few recommendations for films that readers of the blog might find fruitful. I hope that others here will find this helpful or at least of interest. I often post different lists (my own favorites as well as those of critics I admire and loathe) on my blog Toward an LDS Cinema.

I will give a disclaimer that may seem obvious to some and outrageous to the rest: we all have (thankfully) very different and (hopefully) active moral sensibilities, especially when it comes to media. This is healthy and a very good thing, in my opinion. However, this also means that if you read this list thinking that, because I consider myself a devout Latter-day Saint, you will not be offended by movies on my lists, you may be mistaken, just as I might be offended by movies on your lists. For example, I wrote in my last post here that many Disney movies and the messages they purport are offensive to me, and I’d never allow a great deal of them in my home.

I’ll give a short example. One of the most devout films I know of (American or not) is Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart. It speaks of a Christianity so purely visually that it is an example of the pinnacle of what the medium can accomplish if only placed in the hands of a devoutly gifted artisan. The film doesn’t flaunt Christianity, it rather cannot escape it. It is built into every shot and every situation. And its PG rating reminds us that parents should watch it with their children (it is a film that will lead to very powerful and needed questions from 6-year-olds and teenagers alike). Yet when it was shown several years ago for the example of ‘Transcendence in Cinema’ in BYU’s Intro to Film class, one person complained and called it vulgar and wrote several angry letters about it to the president of the university. There may be no other mainstream film (though you may not have heard of it — it stars Sally Field, among several others) more innocuous (even Ben Hur is described as homo-erotic) or more powerful to have ever shown Christianity. Yet this person called it vulgar. Why? Because Sally Field’s shoulders were showing while bathing in the film.

Now the first reaction is to judge or criticize. I hope we avoid that. This person’s mode for expressing their disapproval should be criticized and not their sentiment. Could Sally Field be considered immodest in this scene? I wouldn’t want myself or my wife to be in a scene this way, so I can’t criticize this person, though I strongly disagree with them. I just want to make it clear that I am not taking responsibility for you feeling ‘safe’ with these movies.

Here is the French Language List. (Several of the films are not from France or some are from France but made by directors from other countries.)

Rosetta (1999) — This Palm d’Or winner (the most prestigious award in the world) is unlike anything that you have ever or will ever see in you life. It is a thriller of the highest order but in the grittiest realism I know. The filmmakers, the Dardennes Brothers from Belgium, spent the first 20 years of their career making documentaries. The thing that sets this thriller apart from anything else you’re likely to see (ever) has nothing to do with the intensity felt throughout or the (COMPLETE!) lack of music throughout the film or the refusal to demonize any single character or group of people. But what truly sets it apart is instead the fact that the main character’s goal is simply to find and keep a job. It is honest, fulfilling work that is praised above all else. It has not only impacted me but also legal officials in Belgium to such an extent that labor laws were actually changed as a direct result of them seeing the film. Can you say that about ANY other work of art? Please email me if you know of any.

The Son (2002) — Following suit with yet another Palm d’Or, the Dardennes Brothers made, in my opinion, an even more moving film that would make any psychologist/moralist/humanist take interest. The topic? Fatherhood — in one of the most unassuming and passionate displays of complex Christianity I know of. Attention lovers of Ayn Rand and Dickens alike. (I’ll also say that I spent the evening periodically weeping after my first viewing of this utter masterpiece).

A Man Escaped (1956) — This film is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made by one of the greatest filmmakers ever to have lived: Robert Bresson. The story tells of the escape of one man from a WWII prison. The film embodies simplicity, the definition of the modernist credo ‘less is more.’ Perhaps the easiest introduction to ‘transcendentalism’ in film is also the most profound illustration of a Catholic orientation toward the body and spirit — and the escape of the latter from the former.

To Be and To Have (2002) —A year spent filming in a French primary school reveals Nicolas Philibert to be by far the most Christian of all living filmmakers. A must-see for anyone interested in education, children, selfless devotion, or kindness, for that matter. The film imposes no emotion whatsoever; instead we are left with the images of the everyday goodness of one man. I’m convinced that no one can leave this film without becoming a better person. All the better to watch it often. Nearly inexhaustible.

The Gleaners and I (2000)Agnes Varda is most often associated with the directors of the French New Wave and known as one of the world’s premiere female directors, yet in the United States she is mainly known as the widow of Jacques Demy and responsible for the restoration of his masterpieces (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort). This film, however, will make you wonder why you haven’t heard more about her. It’s true that Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, but it received relatively little press in the States. Shot on hand-held video cameras, the film is a travel log of sorts and a philosophical meditation on gleaning, waste, poverty, and art. Varda’s film is filled with the observations of a mature artist in her fifth decade of film production. Yet her genius lies in her honesty about herself and her ability to relate to every one of her subjects, be they homeless, philosophers, lawyers, fanatics, rappers, punks, or psychoanalysts. Anyone concerned with law, poverty, inequity, French culture (or world culture for that matter), metaphysics, or political structure should take note. Perhaps my list is a bit long, but I truly love this film.

Beauty and the Beast (1946) — Visual splendor unlike anything else I know. This film, by poet, artist, as well as filmmaker Jean Cocteau (yes, The Cocteau Twins are named after him), is the truest example of a fairytale.

Time Regained (1999) — This film by Chilean political refugee Raul Ruiz is perhaps the greatest literary adaptation I’ve yet encountered. I’ll admit that I have yet to read Proust’s monolithic work, but sources I trust claim this to be the most faithful and artistic adaptation possible. For a large part of his career, Ruiz, whose films were only recently made available in the United States (despite his use of American actors like John Malkovich), averaged something like six films a year — a massive output only possible in France. This is a towering feat of mise-en-scene; not only is the graceful camera movement enchanting, but the set elements (lighting fixtures, furniture pieces, walls) refuse to stay put as well. This is not a fantasy, horror, or any other supernatural-based genre. The space in this (as well as others of Ruiz’s films) is simply constantly expanding and contracting. The scene is always swelling and brooding to compliment its high literature foundation.

Caché (2005) — Though this is Micheal Haneke’s most commercial release, I consider it to be his finest to date of the features I’ve seen. His view of the social-class rift seems most fair to me here though still stilted. His characters are most developed and his camera is most disciplined in this film. I’ve written much more about it on my blog, but it is my favorite commercial/mainstream release of the past several years.

Notre Musique (2004) — Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Colonization of American Indians, Destruction of Culture, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Levinas, War, Cinema, Heaven, Beauty. Jean-Luc Godard‘s film is as coherent as my sentance was: at times it seems to lack action, yet it’s wrought with ideas. It is filled with beauty and profundity — but only for the extremely attentive. By far the most difficult film on my list by the world’s most difficult director. (This also means, at least at times, the most rewarding, in my mind.) On your first viewing, you probably won’t know what the film was about. It may seem like you get next to nothing, but it is a challenge well worth it, and its images will stay with you for a very long time. To view it and reap its fruits, you must either be extremely well versed in cinema or extremely intelligent. I’m closer to the first, so I don’t feel too bad about not being the second. But then again, it helps to be both.

The Children of Paradise (1945) — The textbook example of complexity of emotion. Both the literary classicist and passionate illiterate will find something here to fill the soul. Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python as well as the director of films such as Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Tideland, and The Brothers Grimm, has claimed it to be the greatest movie of all time. Its epic nature and delicate intimacy are as astounding today as they were 60 years ago.

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5 Responses

  1. Trevor, thanks for the list. This might help motivate us to open a Netflix account.

    Do you have a short list of French language comedies you like? (If you’re not into that or don’t have time, don’t worry about it).

  2. (How am I supposed to have a part 2 if I give you the list now?)

    I have to say that its hard for me to think in genre, and if I did, I wouldn’t be a large fan of comedies (meaning movies which are designed to make you laugh). The idea that something is designed to illicit a response is really uncomfortable for me (in light of the discussion on Dennis’ last post on Bergin, I guess that this stance, at least in part, is tied to my deep loathing of Behaviorism. It seems, at its roots, Anti-Christian). That being said, there is a great number of films which completely and repeatedly have delighted me to laughter. However they may not delight you in the same way as I know they wouldn’t have done anything for me a few years ago.

    I’d say start with Jacques Tati’s movies. The titles currently available are as follows:

    Jour de Fete, is only available on VHS in the States though the British film institute has a great region 2 version. (Terry Jones of Monty Python listed this as one of the 10 greatest films ever made in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll, though its generally regarded as Tati’s weakest feature. But his weakest is far ahead of other bests).

    Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. The Criterion collection version is rent-able and its described as his most popular feature. This won best foreign film from the American Academy the year it was made. The vast majority of his remaining films build on the character he develops and plays here. There are monuments in France erected to this character’s honor.

    Mon Oncle. The next film is one of Dean Duncan’s (of BYU’s film faculty) favorite films. He often says that you have to be a Phd or a child to enjoy Tati’s films. There are several of the funniest scenes which I have seen him constantly well-up at for their humanity. Definitely not “There’s Something about Mary” but you leave this being more kind. Its also a pretty fierce indictment of modernity.

    Playtime. I’ll admit that it is better to watch this on a big screen than a small one. Its really hard to laugh at on a small screen. However there are scenes you’ll never forget, even on a small screen. This is either called his greatest, or the stupidest thing ever made. I would suggest reading about the philosophy behind the film first. Whether you disagree with it or not, his notion of ‘democratic comedy’ is astounding. I’d put the link here, but I’m new to wordpress, and my usual tricks aren’t working.

    Trafic. This is a continuation of the Hulot character as well. I haven’t seen it as the world first release is coming out on Criterion in a month or so. I’ve heard great things.

    Parade. I don’t know of anywhere in the world that has this on DVD yet, but from my VHS copy I am convinced that it is one of the greatest films ever made. Thus far whenever I’m asked for my personal top ten this is on it. He simply films a circus, and for the most part he doesn’t even have any animals. He even mimes riding a horse for about 4 or 5 minutes. There is a little muddled dialogue, but he never allowed it to be translated. So no dialogue, no animals, no subtitles. But I find it dazzling, and love it dearly.

    I just realized that you might have meant comedy in the Aristotelian sense of the word. If so, I’m sorry, but I also couldn’t have given you anything better.

    I know this isn’t exactly what you were looking for, but there you are anyway.

  3. Trevor,

    I’m sure I speak for many readers of the blog in thanking you very much for this list!

    I’ll have to let you know what I think after I watch…

    Looking forward to more recommendations…

  4. The only film I’ve actually seen from this list is “The Son”. I would highly recomend it.

  5. Thanks for the recommendations. Based on my experience with a couple on your list, The Son, which really startled me in how good it was, and To Be and To Have, I’ll add some of the others to my Netflix queue.

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