First Shorts: Pialat, Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais
December 6, 13 and 20 at the French Institute Alliance Française
In interviews, François Truffaut has dismissed his earliest short films as pretentious wastes of celluloid. Like so many amateurs of many generations, he had simply shot and experimented with friends, not bothering with a story, an approach which he considered, in hindsight, the height of novice arrogance. He was mostly referring to A Visit, a never-released lark made in 1955 with a crew that included Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais. Only two years later, the great, lyrical The Mischief Makers showed the improvement that would make another leap with his feature debut.
Between those two films, Truffaut had the idea to make an off-the-cuff comedy about a girl trying to make her way to Paris through flooded suburban streets, an idea simply inspired by the fact that the streets were flooded at the time, which must've struck Truffaut as cinematic. He shot plenty of footage of actress Caroline Dim maneuvering over logs and bogs and fording messy ponds with boyfriend-type Jean-Claude Brialy, but he became unhappy with the project and dumped it all on friend Jean-Luc Godard, who made it his own by writing most (or all) of the allusion-infused dialogue, dubbing Brialy, and editing it to his own distinctive meter. Dedicated to Mack Sennett, A Story of Water is a pun-heavy pop experiment with references that range from Poe and Nicolas II to outmoded British slang and a discussion of the popular Ford Taunus model. I think it's fair to call it a Godard film with cinematography by Truffaut.
A Story of Water is one of the selections in the French Institute Alliance Française's three-week series First Shorts: Pialat Truffaut, Godard, & Resnais, in which early short films are paired with so-rare-I-haven't-seen-them documentaries about each director. You could argue that the series doubles as a tribute to crucial French producer Pierre Braunberger, who had worked under Irving Thalberg, collaborated with Jean Renoir, created a production company, and reestablished the Pantheon Cinema before he had turned 25. A lifelong active supporter of French film, he underwrote all but one of the shorts here.
The two "proper" Godards in the series are All the Boys Are Named Patrick (1957) and Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1958). Breezily minor, both, but the films already show the break with traditional structure and adoption of a new kind of slangy, rule-breaking freewheelingness that Godard would develop in Breathless and beyond. Cahiers buddy Eric Rohmer wrote Patrick, about the pushy titular pick-up artist (Brialy again) who charms and sets a date with pixyish Charlotte (Anne Collette) before doing it again, using some reshuffled whoppers, with her roommate Veronique (Nicole Berger). The setup is bad sitcom, but the girls are funny, and there are inside jokes like the crank in the background reading Arts, the culture paper edited by Truffaut and Godard in turn, with one of the former's vitriolic pieces on the cover ("French Cinema is Dying Under the Weight of False Legends").
Collette's character returns in the overlapping Charlotte, a virtual test-run for Breathless dedicated to Jean Cocteau, and shot almost entirely in Godard's hotel room. The dialogue is clever, erudite, and constant, and Godard dubs it again, this time into the mouth of Jean-Paul Belmondo, who belittles, criticizes, and lectures Jean Seberg stand-in Collette for the short's entirety. The "cinematography" is expectedly artless, but Belmondo's misogynist rant has a full arc, roping in denunciations of cinema ("an illusory art... just a big head making faces in a little room") before devolving into a pathetic plea for Charlotte to stay ("If you go, I'm finished").
The strangest short is Resnais's—a 19-minute industrial-educational-art film hybrid called Le Chant du Styréne. He shot it at a polystyrene factory right around the time of Hiroshima mon amour, though he'd been making short films for years, most notably Night and Fog in 1955. The aluminum conglomerate Pechiney commissioned it to promote awareness of plastic. It's unclear if they expected such an abstract mood piece, which tells the story of production backwards starting with the final plastic mold and ending with the raw materials of coal and oil. Poet-novelist Raymond Queneau wrote the cryptic narration. With its slick, vivid colors and swooning George Delerue score, it's surprisingly emotional, and undoubtedly subversive, though I'm not exactly sure how. Perhaps because its audio-visual beauty anticipates 2006's lulling/upsetting Manufactured Landscapes, about the industrial landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky.
Though Truffaut helped him produce his first feature, Maurice Pialat's career existed a little after and outside those from the New Wave and Left Bank groups. Slower to take up moviemaking—he was 43 when he made 1968's Naked Childhood—he similarly cut his teeth on short subjects, beginning with this burst of angry (but sensitive) misanthropy whose title (Love Exists) is either bitterly ironic or a desperate wish. Because the only hope or love in this essay-poem about the bleak lives of citizens in outlying commuter towns on the Marne exist in the past, before the towns became anonymous, cultureless Metro stops. Like the Resnais, it's scored by Delerue, but it could be a Smiths video—the angst is the generalized despair of a young adult stuck in a humdrum town where "boredom is the principal erosive agent," residents "buy retail and sell themselves wholesale," and museums close for the day before anyone with a job can go. Pialat doesn't pussyfoot, at one point comparing such town life to concentration camp living. By Naked Childhood, this didacticism had become more carefully integrated, but in 1960, this was an early identification of geographic unluckiness as a fatal oppressor and irritant. Uncompromising, it's a rough draft career thesis statement.