French Lessons, by Rachel Kushner

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The optimists went to the gas chambers (or so it’s been said). The pessimists went to America. The collabos went to Maxim’s (for steak). The orphans went to the country (for safekeeping). De Gaulle went to London. Pétain went to Vichy. Some (not that many) joined the Resistance. When the Allies landed, crowds flooded the streets, cheering. But some fled. A few even put on German uniforms. Céline camped out with doomed Vichy elites at Sigmaringen, a tacky Swabian castle without proper heat. De Gaulle returned to Paris, walked the Champs-Élysées in his stiff kepi. The children of this history, raised on its myths, ran toward riot police on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. They retreated. They ran again. Emboldened, they asked their elders devastating questions about the war. A spirit was in the air. French intellectuals went to Cuba. Che went to Bolivia. Soviet troops went to Prague. De Gaulle, defeated, went to his country estate. The rest of us went to the movies.

Especially those of us born at the end of these histories (or after), destined to sift their debris. Sure, we read things too. History books, novels, a newspaper, a poem. But it is only movies that uncannily preserve, like time travel, like science fiction, the sedimented layers of faces and scenes and events, the deeper story of people living in a present, and what those people were like.

My son says French films come in two types: the story of the poor and unhappy childhood, which plays as tragedy, and the story of the bourgeois neurotic, which plays as comedy. But there is a third and crucial category: the epic account of History, which plays as truth—films that show us the full grand flow of history as it passes, or as it has passed. There are many that fit this genre, but three fundamental works, like three great rivers, form its core: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) by Marcel Ophuls, A Grin Without a Cat (1977) by Chris Marker, and The Mother and the Whore (1973) by Jean Eustache.

On the eve of a presidential election in France, which will be called before you read this, I decided to rewatch these films. Perhaps, like Marker, I’m interested in history more than politics. “Politics only interests me,” he has said, “to the degree that it represents the mark history makes.” He goes on to explain that this is his “mania,” to see how people manage the conditions of their existence. “How people manage” is a casually perfect summary of what can be absorbed from these twelve hours of film.

At an appearance with Ophuls in 2009, Jean-Luc Godard, in an unusually polite mood, paid him high praise for The Sorrow and the Pity, which explores the German occupation of France through a portrait of one city, Clermont-Ferrand. While most films tell small stories, Godard said, few tell “la grande histoire,” and even then they do it metaphorically. Ophuls, he said, does both. Tells a story, and is a great historian.

The film’s inquiries into the ugliest aspects of wartime France were a direct result of the spirit of May 1968, and thus it includes two histories, one manifest and one latent. French national television, which had originally commissioned the project, refused to air it. De Gaulle, informed that the film contained “disagreeable truths,” wanted those truths suppressed. Francois Truffaut, a close friend of Ophuls, helped arrange cinema screenings. Twelve years later, after the Socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected president, he kept a campaign promise to air the film on TV.

Still controversial in France, The Sorrow and the Pity features all kinds of people, from peasants to statesmen, who speak frankly about the occupation: what they did, what they remember. The prevailing mood is not condemnation, but nor is it moral relativism. The stories must be regarded case by case. Ophuls stays in the background. He has a nasal but plangent voice, a bumbling manner that’s deliberate, a bit like Peter Falk as Columbo: he relaxes people enough that they skewer themselves. A Nazi once asked him, when the camera stopped rolling, “Was I good?” Ophuls interpreted this as “human frailty.” He told Phillip Lopate that he never underwent psychoanalysis because the analysts were cinephiles: they almost thought he was their psychoanalyst, having seen his films and enjoyed his authority, and he couldn’t let them down.

The film creates its own pantheon: the most memorable figures are obscure ones, not from history books. Like the German officer who puffs on a fat cigar at his daughter’s wedding. He displays his Nazi medals and says the reason others don’t display theirs is that they weren’t awarded any. Madame Solange, a Pétainist hairdresser, is still upset about the reprisals she suffered after the liberation. Elegant, soft-spoken Christian de La Mazière, interviewed at Sigmaringen as tourists shuffle past, explains that he joined a French division of the Waffen-SS in August 1944, just as the Allies entered Paris. La Mazière had kept this hidden. By the time he spoke on camera, he was a movie promoter of Jewish employ. He’d dated the bohemian chanteuse Juliette Gréco and the pop star Dalida. I was so compelled by these contradictions that I put him in a novel, sent him to Cuba as a military adviser to rebels in the Sierra Maestra. I thought I was pretty clever to give this guy a mercenary’s afterlife. It turns out he was just as clever: he went to Togo as a military adviser to General Gnassingbé Eyadéma. He wrote that he liked May ’68. What he liked was pretty girls throwing Molotovs. He was what André Malraux would deem an adventurer: a man without ideals, hot for insurrection.

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There are heroes, also, in The Sorrow and the Pity: the Grave brothers, farmers who fought in the Resistance, and tend to their crops, without recriminations for what they suffered (one was sent to Buchenwald). And more ambivalent figures, like Colonel du Jonchay, a Resistance commander and Catholic anticommunist. Asked by Ophuls whether he believes in the French Republic, he replies, “Not so much.” What we learn about these people is personal. What we grasp are details: the tight look on Madame Solange’s face, the earthy manner of the Graves, the smug hospitality of the Nazi patriarch in a smoky room. Boy, is that guy long dead. And yet he lives on.

Marker’s Grin Without a Cat, an essay-film about revolution and counterrevolution in the Sixties, is almost as long as The Sorrow and the Pity but denser and more fast-moving. The title of the first half, “Fragile Hands,” refers to hands holding cameras during riots. “Why, sometimes, do images begin to tremble?” the narrator asks. The question is taken to suggest that the trembling isn’t only from nerves, but that the potential for violence can somehow be seen as a shake. The film turns to Vietnam, the late Sixties, and, as the narrator puts it, “the question of space,” a gap between the state and the unions, into which protesters lunge, engaged in brutal combat with police. It’s in this space that a New Left is formed, of students and workers. “Perhaps what people noticed less at the time was the emergence of the New Right.” The film cuts to the right-centrist soon-to-be president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing careening clownishly on skis, in a race bib. (Marker, who excelled at gravity but also joy, couldn’t resist the occasional joke.)

There’s a long sequence on Fidel Castro and his break with the Communist parties of Latin America. Later we see him in Moscow, attempting his “signature gesture” of demonstrating ease and control by adjusting microphones as he orates. He wears a fur hat and looks out of his element. The Soviet microphones, Marker points out, are rigid and fixed. The second half of the film, “Severed Hands,” becomes funereal. Replete with literal funerals, it is an inquiry into the failure of the New Left, whose collapse marked an era “of bitterness and madness, from which some people would never emerge.”

After a crisis it’s important to forget quickly,” Alexandre, the protagonist of The Mother and the Whore, tells the lover who rejected him, “like France after the occupation, like France after May ’68. You’re rallying like France after May ’68,” he says. “You’ll be an executive’s wife. . . . Chaban can be godfather to your first child.”

If Marker and Ophuls illustrate history explicitly, with voice-overs, juxtaposition, and montage, Eustache creates a portrait of almost real life, a fiction in the classical territory of cinema. Still, “the mark that history makes” scores his characters.

Chaban, for instance, was prime minister under the conservative president Georges Pompidou. Alexandre is calling his ex-lover a sellout, mapping her private choices to the public humiliations of a nation defeated in war, to the disillusionment after a consequential stretch of civil unrest. She looks at him, maddeningly impassive like an actress in a Bresson film, which she actually had been. “You’re building on decay,” he says to her. “Families always lose.” Do they? Three hours into the film, we see her again, with the supposed executive she has married. It’s Eustache in cameo, pushing a grocery cart in a shop aisle.

Alexandre, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, prizes elegance. He laments the lost dignity of soldiers and wishes he were one. But he strenuously does nothing, lives off women, opts for performance over candor. His movements are fussy, deliberate, annoying. He lounges with his boots on the bed, spritzes his complexion with eau thermale, petulantly sips from whiskey bottles. But he begins to reek so strongly of despair over the course of the film that you cannot help caring.

I saw this movie for the first time in 1997, at Film Forum in New York. Maybe there’s even a cohort of us from those screenings . . . the quatre-vingt-dix-septards. I walked in with no sense of what I was in for. I left depleted, too sad to speak, certain this was the best movie I’d ever seen. It has not been an easy film to study in the years following, because it is not available on DVD, though this should finally be remedied soon. I have the VHS and a ripped DVD, and as guest director at the Telluride Film Festival in 2015, forty years after Eustache appeared there, I was able to screen it, along with his other feature, My Little Loves (a classic of the unhappy childhood genre).

The Mother and the Whore was shot in black-and-white by Pierre Lhomme, who had worked with Marker. It has the silken glow of early cinema. The script was three hundred pages. Not one word is improvised. The contradictory sentiments pile up, only to burn like kindling. Nothing is simple in the world of the dandy, either for tormented Alexandre—who torments two women, Marie, the “mother” (Bernadette Lafont), and Veronika, the “whore” (Francoise Lebrun)—or in the life of Eustache, who was known to carry a gun around Pigalle, was a decadent, heavy drinker, and gambler, wanted cinema to turn back to Lumière, had royalist leanings, and maintained a trace of an accent from the south, from his roots as an electrician for the national railway. “Jean de France,” his friend the writer Jean-Jacques Schuhl called him.

It’s curious that the most anguished of these three films that show us France, that teach it, is also the most old-fashioned, and the most beautiful. Marker’s film is grave, but the montaged style has a pragmatic quality and the narration is poised, ironic, and wise. In Ophuls’s portraits, there’s a feeling of goodness, of succor, coming from the man behind the camera. Eustache, meanwhile, creates a glossy world: pure art, maximum bitterness. There’s humor in The Mother and the Whore, but it’s aggressive. Alexandre, to his ex-lover: “I lied to you a few times, but never to myself.” To Marie: “My only dignity is my cowardliness.” To Veronika, when she says not all men like her: “You have to turn some people off to turn others on.” There’s nothing funny about the women. Veronika has the melancholy face of a saint, but the humped posture of someone who doesn’t yet know she’ll get old. Marie is all body, proud, fragile, enraged.

The good-natured farmer Louis Grave, in The Sorrow and the Pity, says those who cried at Buchenwald “wouldn’t make it.” Those who survive have inner strength. None of these three, in The Mother and the Whore, stands a chance. (The woman to whom the film was dedicated, and on whom the character of Marie was based, killed herself after attending its first screening; Eustache killed himself in 1981.) So much sorrow and so much pity, even as the Germans are gone.

At the end of the film, Veronika unleashes her feelings about love, loneliness, and the horrors of casual sex, the nihilism of the new freedoms. Alexandre frantically asks Veronika to marry him, and as he slumps to the floor of her miserable garret, she turns, nauseous, probably pregnant, to vomit in a basin, but first scolds him not to look.

“You have to record things, whether they’re pretty or not,” Eustache told his grandmother before filming her life story. Here, he cuts to an abrupt end before Veronika is sick.

While I was in Paris last fall to promote a book, I asked people about the political situation in France. They all responded with some combination of malaise and revulsion. One acquaintance went into a story about Mitterrand’s friendship with the war criminal René Bousquet and how they ate songbirds together, by way of a longer account of how France got from World War II to May 1968 to today.

As I write this, the Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel’s defense of meat and nuclear power is comically unpromising. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist, is polling neck and neck with Roussel at 2 percent. This is shocking: five years ago, the president of France was a Socialist. The only left candidate with momentum, the idiosyncratic populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who broke with the Socialist Party long ago), is trailing third behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron, almost sure to win another term, promises to complete the job of retrofitting France for globalism, plus fund more police. Macron plays with various images and pretends to want to honor certain aspects of the spirit of ’68, but he represents the obliteration of whatever vestiges have lingered. He might spritz with eau thermale like Eustache’s alter ego, Alexandre, but Macron is an ex-banker, not a dandy. Unlike Alexandre, he’s not caught between two archetypes (he’s clearly chosen the “mother”—perhaps the most likeable thing about him). Finally, he would never put boots on the bed. Unless, maybe, they were a policeman’s boots.


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