The style is poetic realism, but viewers will be forgiven for confusing it with film noir, which followed a few years later in America. The "realism" can be hard to spot amid the clouds of man-made fog, street sets built in forced perspective, and heavily stylized exteriors; the word here refers less to the look of the film than to the fact that its characters were criminals and its "heroes" of dubious moral standing. (Contrast the outsiders of Port of Shadows with screen contemporaries such as, say, Astaire and Rogers, done in up in evening wear, dancing the night away at a glittering Art Deco nightclub, and the difference becomes clear.) The "poetry" figures into both the exquisitely evocative feel of the film and its writer's and director's conviction that even ordinary lives - that of their deserter hero, his licentious young love, a suicidal artist - sometimes traffic, however transiently, in the sublime.
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Everything about French Cancan is, in fact, exquisitely French. (In this the film echoes its director's wish to reconnect with his public, having left France for America following the public vilification of 1939's Rules of the Game and having returned to his homeland with this film.) The movie tells the fictionalized story of the opening of Paris's notorious Moulin Rouge, an event marked by the rehabilitation of the scandalous cancan, a dance of a previous era that revealed rather much more of the dancers' lower halves than was deemed proper. In this fantasy Paris, an impresario named Danglard (Jean Gabin), magically gifted with the ability to spot talent among common working men and women and steer them toward their deserved fame, happens upon a young woman named Nini (Françoise Arnoul) who exhibits no aspirations, few inhibitions, and a real gift for dance. His attention to - and subsequent affair with - Nini arouses the mercurial jealousy of the statuesque belly dancer Lola (María Félix), whom he previously nurtured and with whom he is currently sharing a bed; add Danglard's money man, also in love with Lola, Nini's working class boyfriend, a prince who loves Nini, and assorted dancers, mothers, rival artists, and best friends, and you have a love roundelay of operatic breadth.
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1937's Pépé le Moko was directed by Julien Duvivier and was an immediate critical and box office success. Viewed in hindsight it's easy to see that the film captures a few stylistic aspects important to the French cinema and stands as a major influence to Hollywood in the 1940s; particularly poetic realism, crime noir, and the policier genre (i.e. cops and robbers). Poetic realism in this case is closer to fatalistic romanticism, which never really got a foothold in Hollywood, but the noir characteristics and the policier aspect was played out throughout the 1940s and '50s and goes on straight through to today. The film spawned two Hollywood remakes and there are also obvious parallels with Casablanca, which came out in 1942.
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Adapted from Maxim Gorky's original play, The Lower Depths follows the tawdry goings-on of a group of flophouse denizens whose lives are complicated by love, crime, a pair of unsavory landlords, and above all poverty. The primaries in this cast of miscreants are the thief Pépel (Jean Gabin), a baron whose taste for games of chance has stripped him of his wealth (Louis Jouvet), the miserly landlord and sometime fence for Pépel's goods (Vladimir Sokoloff), his shrill wife (Suzy Prim), and her beautiful and available sister (Junie Astor). An alcoholic actor, a prostitute with a longing for true romance, and a pilgrim of questionable sagacity function as secondaries. Driving the action is a complicated love affair being conducted by Pépel and the landlady; she's in love, he isn't. Or rather, he is, but not with her. The object of his true affections is her lovely sister Natasha.
Continue reading: The Lower Depths (1936) Review
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