When French actor and director Gérard Blain died in 2000 at the age of seventy, Ronald Bergan suggested in the Guardian that he was “the first face of the New Wave.” In the late 1950s, Blain appeared in early works by such nouvelle vague pioneers as François Truffaut (Les mistons), Jean-Luc Godard (Charlotte and Her Boyfriend), and Claude Chabrol (Le beau Serge), the latter of which gave him a breakthrough role that would later lead to stints in Italy and Hollywood. Still, his name is relatively unknown to contemporary audiences. Starting today, New York’s Metrograph will be remedying that with a series that features eight of the nine films he directed and three of the more than sixty he appeared in.
The series is organized by Brad Deane of the TIFF Cinematheque, and when these films screened in Toronto, Deane’s program notes drew particular attention to Blain’s work as a director. During the making of Howard Hawks’s Hatari! (1962), Blain became more serious about shooting his own vignettes with a 16 mm camera, and he made his directorial debut nine years later with Les amis (1971), which won the Golden Leopard in Locarno. Deane notes that Blain drew inspiration from “the transcendental trio of Ozu, Dreyer, and Bresson . . . Eschewing a mere mimicry of Bresson’s ineffable style, Blain developed a sober, precise, minimalist approach that shared the principles and sensibilities of his idol’s cinema.”
The Metrograph has posted Deane’s interview with Blain’s son, Paul, who played the lead role in his father’s final film, Ainsi soit-il (2000). “Bresson became a personal friend, you know,” says Paul Blain, recalling visits to Bresson’s home in the country, where he found the elder filmmaker “very sympathique.” The younger Blain also remembers one evening when, over dinner, his father mentioned that he was having money troubles and Maurice Pialat “signed him a cheque, just like that.”
Deane’s also spoken with Olivier Assayas, who cast Gérard Blain in his second feature, Winter’s Child (1989). “The French would say he was a right-wing anarchist, meaning he was an individualist, at war with both society and liberal conformism,” says Assayas. Blain and Pialat “had a lot in common” in that they were both angry at “everybody, including the nouvelle vague,” finds Assayas. Pialat, though, had stars such as Gérard Depardieu and a strong producer in Daniel Toscan du Plantier, who was director-general of the Gaumont Film Company. The French never knew what to do with Blain. “Maybe the work of Gérard Blain needs an international perspective,” suggests Assayas, and perhaps some day he’ll be recognized as “one of the great, underrated, unknown, under-recognized filmmakers of his time.”
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