Olivier Père

Artistic director, Festival del film Locarno

France

Voted in the critics’ poll

Voted for

Ludwig

1972

Luchino Visconti

mépris, Le

1963

Jean-Luc Godard

Partie de campagne

1936

Jean Renoir

Règle du jeu, La

1939

Jean Renoir

Searchers, The

1956

John Ford

Sunrise

1927

F. W. Murnau

Testament of Dr Mabuse, The

1933

Fritz Lang

To Be or Not To Be

1942

Ernst Lubitsch

Ugetsu Monogatari

1953

Mizoguchi Kenji

Vertigo

1958

Alfred Hitchcock

Comments

Murnau is one of those rare total geniuses of cinema and made some of the finest films in the world. Sunrise, alongside Tabu, may be his masterpiece. Dying in a car accident before the advent of sound and the talkies, Murnau was undoubtedly the first major genius of cinema, and the last of the great German Romantics. His vast knowledge of painting, theatre, architecture and philosophy enabled him to realise a perfect work of art that is complete at every level, both in terms of formal execution and thematics, yet it is a purely cinematic creation, in no way dependant on the pre-existing arts. Murnau was a filmmaker whose intelligence enabled him to combine the idea of cinematic movement with that of pictorialism to utterly compelling effect. Made in the US, Sunrise transcends the Manichean games of expressionism through the magical fluidity of its lighting. The Testament of Doctor Mabuse belongs to a transitional phase in Lang’s filmography: he made only three films between his great silent period and his exile to Hollywood. As with M, we are confronted with an impressive mastery of the dramatic use of sound elements and an incredible feeling for action and suspense. The supernatural sequences still retain all their terrifying dreamlike precision. A filmmaker who was a master of portraying men as victims of their destinies, Lang also introduced the most omnipotent of criminal characters. A Day in the Country is an unfinished film (it lasts only 40 minutes), Partie de campagne is, however, an exemplary literary adaptation, as well as an audacious and free cinematic masterpiece. It is easy to understand what appealed to Renoir in Maupassant’s short story: a young woman’s entirely natural awakening of the senses, the sensuality that breaks out of the stifling confines of the family, and above all the river, sweeping its characters before it like logs pulled along by the current, to more or less happy outcomes. Only Renoir has managed to express on film the most elevated notion of naturalism, examining this world from a perspective that is dark, cruel but objective, before going on to achieve the serenity of the work of his old age, joyously pantheistic, such as Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, an optimistic and late counterpoint to Partie de campagne in which eroticism is finally seen as a source of happiness. And then there is Sylvia Bataille, an unearthly eruption whose angelic aura transcends the bourgeois mediocrity that surrounds her. She is on the verge of womanhood, floating between earth and sky – the scene in which the two friends watch her on the swing has a vertiginous effect on the viewer that is not wholly attributable to the speed of movement – with the most staggering look into the camera in film history. She has that modernity of an instinctive actress, whose performance immediately dates that of her fellow actors. With Renoir, one has no qualms about using superlatives: if great films are always documentaries about actors, Partie de campagne is his greatest film. La règle du jeu is quite simply the greatest French film by the greatest of French directors. Jean Renoir shot is between the Munich Agreement and the start of the war, wanting to give an account of the state of mind of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. “It seemed to me that one way of interpreting the state of mind of society at that moment was to deliberately not talk about the situation but to tell an entertaining story, and so I sought inspiration in Beaumarchais, Marivaux, in classical authors, in comedy.” Even if he subscribed to the pessimistic trend in French cinema of the time, La règle du jeu was, for a long time, a ‘film maudit’, subject to a stream of abuse and cut to ribbons. Through its sudden changes of tone, its complex structure and above all the diversity of the cast and their performances, this masterpiece, which is both serious and lighthearted, was rejected by critics and audiences alike. It was not until the 1950s that cinéphiles voted La règle du jeu one of the greatest films in film history. Renoir uses the mechanisms of vaudeville to portray a moribund society, filming the dance of desire that drives its characters, who represent the different social classes, gathered in a château in Sologne. The “little catastrophes”, betrayals and cuckoldries lead to the death of one of the protagonists, an outsider to this mouldering world. This almost ridiculous social upset prefigures that of another on a far bigger scale: the collapse of pre-Second World War society. Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece To Be or Not to Be differs from all the anti-Nazi propaganda films made in Hollywood in the wonderful subtlety of its script and the numerous issues raised, including that of the couple and the theatre. The most famous Shakespearean soliloquy, of crucial importance to the narrative, gives Lubitsch’s film its true meaning. It is a matter of being (or not being) free, being intelligent or not, resisting or not. Here Lubitsch delivers his hedonistic philosophy of life. Freedom of desire, freedom of ideas and political freedom are inseparable; love for women and the theatre are set in opposition to the Nazis’ barbarity and stupidity. Via several dramatic and fantastic stories set in 16th century feudal Japan, Ugetsu monogatari is a film of extraordinary power and accuracy about the human condition. The greatest of Japanese filmmakers, in his films Mizoguchi expresses perfectly the universality of an art that is however rooted in Japanese culture and history. It is the apogee of film classicism. John Ford, beyond a doubt the greatest of American directors, (and one of the greatest in the world) produced a body of work of incredible scope and richness. The elegiac The Searchers is one of its high points. Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s finest cinematic poem and a seminal film in cinema history, both an anomaly in terms of Hollywood production and an infinite source of wonder and inspiration for future generations. In Le Mépris, during the shooting of a film adaptation of Odysseus, directed by Fritz Lang in Italy, the wife of a French screenwriter becomes increasingly alienated from her husband and admits to him the contempt he inspires in her. One of the finest films ever made about both coupledom and the cinema, Le Mépris is also – with good reason – Godard’s most mythical film, in which he allows himself a degree of lyricism that was only to resurface again in much later work (Nouvelle vague, 1990). In 1973, following The Damned and Death in Venice, Luchino Visconti concluded his German Trilogy with Ludwig, about Louis II of Bavaria, from his coronation (1864) to his death (1886). Ludwig has a deconstructed narrative and offers multiple perspectives on a central protagonist who is both historical and secret, enigmatic, elusive (even if, in the end, the film establishes the director’s viewpoint). Visconti steadily brings out from the shadows those who promulgated the official discourse on Ludwig after his death (mad, ill, irresponsible, unfit to rule, decadent), but the filmmaker implicitly designates them as assassins of the monarch, who was found mysteriously drowned. Helmut Berger, Visconti’s lover and the lead actor here, embodies a poetic Ludwig who is a dreamer and a visionary, and conjures the performance of a lifetime. The titanic shoot delivered a monster of a film, without a doubt the director’s most brilliant work, but which proved to be, once again, a financial disaster. The film suffered drastic editing for international distribution and it was only after Visconti’s death that we were able to see this spectacular film in its full four-hour version.

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