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A Rare Source of Contempt

By Miriam Bale

The highpoint of recent screenings of Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum was the trailer for Contempt, so gorgeous and so droll. This writer anticipates every day of that upcoming two-week run. Contempt is cinema (as the film's director Jean-Luc Godard might have obnoxiously declared if he were preaching about some odd Hollywood construction) -- cinema dreamed about and discarded. This Tuesday, Feb. 12, as part of the Rare Treasures of French Cinema series at FIAF, film fans in New York have an opportunity to see a gorgeous print of a scarcely seen melodrama from 1958, Une Vie, that feels foundational to Contempt. It's the set-up for which Contempt is the punch line, about what happens when Hollywood Technicolor anxiety meets a sensual, self-hating French doom.

You should see it in color: Maria Schell in Une Vie, screening Feb. 12 in FIAF's Rare Treasures of French Cinema Series (Photo: Continental Motion Pictures Corp / Courtesy Photofest)

Une Vie is about a man who marries a woman for her money and then, because of his mutual disgust at their situation, tries to destroy her. The content is based on a Guy de Maupassant story, but as director Alexandre Astruc declared in a 1958 interview with Godard in Cahiers du Cinema, the tone of the film comes more from the influence that Maupassant had on writers like Hemingway, Steinback and Turgenev. "In rereading him," Astruc said, "I tried to discover what it was in him that gave birth to this bitter, violent, anguished and yet poetic literature in other countries."

There is a reverse of this, a luxe French interpretation of bitter Americana, in the look of the film. There's the menace of John Ford's The Searchers in the rich blues with shadows, and blond star Maria Schell wears cool gray with pink as well as any anguished Hitchcockian ice queen. The colors in the film are incredible, gorgeously shot and tightly controlled. (The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, who also shot most of his uncle Jean's best color work.) Black, white or gray are the focus of each scene, with jewel tones -- violets, crimsons or gilt-edged greens -- serving to further dramatize these. "I do not believe that some subjects are suitable to color and others to black and white, because color can just as well be used dramatically," Astruc told Godard.

With just color and movement, what Godard called "abruptness of gesture," the film shifts mood from sex to sadness to sensuality to fear to violence and back all within a two-minute silent scene. "It is of no consequence that the montage has systematically cut off the scene in mid-flow," wrote Godard in his review of Une Vie. "One thought one knew Astruc, and had already constructed theories without realizing that the sequence was over and had already taken off in another aesthetic or moral direction."

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at February 7, 2008 11:51 AM

Comments (1)

"...influence that Maupassant had on writers like Hemingway, Steinback and Turgenev."

Wasn't Turgenev on his deathbed by the time Maupassant's first stories were published?

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