Film and Television Features

René Clément

RenéClément is best known as the director of Forbidden Games (1952), a perennial title still used as a teaching tool in film schools. However, Clément's remarkable range of work is underappreciated. A good example of this collective blindness is Purple Noon (1960), which went off the radar for years until a crisp restoration brought raves from critics and top filmmakers like Martin Scorsese. If we take Purple Noon as a signpost, there's a rich body of work yet to be appraised.

When Purple Noon came out, Clément was a successful writer-director in peak form. Paradoxically, he was also a man out of time, his working methods anathema to the rising stars of the French New Wave, who had lumped him with the "tradition-of- quality" directors that got a monthly drubbing in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma.Though André Bazin, its founder, had admiration for Clément's work, staff writers like François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol were in an iconoclast mode, bent on thinning the list of worthy auteurs. Though these young Turks were often correct in their appraisals, they were wrong about Clément. Worse still, their influence has brought forth a critical consensus that has robbed Clément's of a place among our most respected directors.

To understand Clément's trajectory as a filmmaker, we have to look beyond the kerfuffle about auteurs. This value system is still used today, but the standards behind it are often used arbitrarily. In hindsight, Clément's films blurred the lines drawn by film snobs because he couldn't be grouped with directors who came before or after him. Like Jean-Pierre Melville, he was an outsider charting his own course with no concern for trends or film movements. If anything, Clément was consistent in his vision. Therefore, his artistic sensibility and personal philosophy of life can't be dismissed.

As a young man, Clément studied architecture, developing skills that translated readily to his work as a filmmaker. His meticulous planning helped him surmount technical problems before sets were built and cameras rolled. However, his approach to filmmaking wasn't rigid; for instance, he allowed breathing space for his actors, something that set him apart from technical-minded directors such as Hitchcock and Kubrick. This openness was there since the beginning. It must be pointed out that Clément's first short film gave free-reign to the observational comedy of Jacques Tati, and that his documentaries display a curiosity about human behavior that would take center stage in his feature films. Take for instance The Battle of the Rails (1946), his first feature, which has a great deal in common with the nascent Italian neorealism movement, to the extend that he used real-life railway workers to enact real events. While the documentarian side of him depicts the complex system of railway lines, he's also engaged in telling a story of human sacrifice that pits resistance workers against a formidable German Army. He makes the most of these elements to build a realistic war film.

Clément's next credit would be as a technical advisor to Jean Cocteau during the production of Beauty and the Beast (1946), though he actually co-directed the film. Be that as it may, his visual style and recurring themes are in full display on films like The Damned (1946) and The Walls of Malapaga (1949). The former is a suspenseful thriller set during the last days of WWII that follows a group of Nazis aboard a submarine bound for South America. Its main character is Doctor Guilbert (Henri Vidal), a Frenchman who's been kidnapped to save the life of a sick female passenger. In the tight quarters of the submarine, Doctor Guilbert is forced to mix with the doomed passengers, his fate now tightly bound with theirs. The doctor is an ordinary man trapped in a web of evil. Consequently, his basic human decency will be confronted over and over by the prerogatives of survival. This internal conflict recurs in The Walls of Malapaga, where an ordinary man has become a criminal on the run after a crime of passion. Played by Jean Gabin, Pierre Arrignon has found refuge as a stowaway on a ship.A painful toothache forces him to leave the ship in Genoa, where he meets and fallsin love with a waitress. The woman shelters him from the police, but his instinct for survival fades away as his affection for her grows. Clément replays this quandary in films like The Day and the Hour (1963) and Joy House (1964), where the main character spends a great deal of time hiding, love brings tragic consequences, and escape sets in motion new traps.

In mood and style, Malapaga finds a common ground between French poetic realism and Italian neorealism. This intermingling of film styles, joined at the hip by fatalism, would pave the way for hard-hitting dramas like Forbidden Games (1952) and Gervaise (1956), films that cemented Clément's reputation as an award-winning director. What confuses film scholars is the fact that Clément was also an adept action director, which doesn't fit at all with the "tradition-of-quality" tag. For instance, The Damned is famous for its long tracking shots inside the submarine and claustrophobic set ups. This technical knowhow makes Purple Noon a better thriller than The Talented Mr. Ripley. Consider, for example, its intense sailboat scene, which would still be hard to pull off with today's gear. Clément could also rely on his skills as a documentary filmmaker, which paid off handsomely on Is Paris Burning?  (1966), where the battle scenes are blended seamlessly with stock footage. In Gervaise, there's a fight between two washerwomen that is as brutal as any found in his genre films. Even in The Joy of Living (1960), a political satire, there are tense action scenes mixed with the comedy.

For the most part, Clément's characters are far from admirable, either ruled by self-interest or seduced by risky schemes. Some of them are charmers, like the philanderer played by Gérard Philipe in Monsieur Ripois (1954) or the rogues played by Alain Delon in Purple Noon, The Joy of Living, and Joy House. Others are dreamers stumped by overpowering circumstances, like Gervaise (Maria Schell), whose plans of financial independence are sabotaged by an alcoholic husband. Judging from films like Rider in the Rain (1969) and Wanted: Babysitter (1975), modern women don't fare better in a world where sexism and violence work in tandem. However, cruelty is meted out equally, and the women betray each other as men do. In Clément's films, men and women alike yearn for a freedom that is seldom found. Moreover, the worse traps are the ones they set for themselves. We find an apogee of this in And Hope to Die (1972), where Cardot, a man on the run, blows every opportunity of escape, his Sisyphean efforts drawing him ever closer to death. As Clément sees it, fate is inescapable; however, the struggle for survival is what defines his characters. Whether they meet their fate with gallantry, despair, or resignation, the choice is individual.

Clément's fractious relationship with the French press often reaped bad publicity. Ignored by his own countrymen, he was better appreciated abroad, drawing admiration from directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. Though some critics were brutal in their initial reviews, his films have stood the test of time. His most famous critic, François Truffaut, felt compelled to write a letter of apology to Clément after rewatching The Day and the Hour on TV. He saw in the film something meaningful that he'd missed the first time. That realization could be applied to Clément's entire body of work, which deserves another look.