Goings On

The Versatile Classicist: Jacques Becker

Jacques Becker with Anouk Aimée on the set of The Lovers of Montparnasse (1958)

Ever since the landmark repertory theater Film Forum shut down for renovations in May, New Yorkers have been missing its eclectic programming, a year-round selection of local theatrical premieres and Hollywood and world-cinema classics. After three months and five million dollars spent, the venue is finally reopening today with new seating, improved sightlines, a fourth screen, and a comprehensive retrospective of Jacques Becker, whom critic and curator Dave Kehr has called “one of the best French directors to emerge after the occupation.” Under the leadership of Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein, the program will screen in various forms at a number of venues nationwide. A smaller version has been playing at the Berkeley Art Museum. And eight titles will screen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in September.

Raised by well-to-do parents in Paris, Becker was still a teenager when he was first introduced to Jean Renoir. By the early 1930s, Becker was working as an assistant director to his mentor on such classics as Boudu Saved from Drowning, A Day in the Country, and Grand Illusion. The younger filmmaker wouldn’t make his first feature until he was thirty-six. Dernier atout (1942) is a comic thriller that, as Max Nelson points out in Film Comment, Bertrand Tavernier “considers one of his first memorable encounters with the movies.” Tavernier spends the first twenty minutes of his 2016 documentary My Journey Through French Cinema discussing, as Frako Loden writes at Eat Drink Films, “what he loves about Jacques Becker: the serene assurance with which he created a tragic climate, his striking formal and visual command, his narrative elegance and lack of plottish clutter, his emotional intelligence, his mastery of pace and other lessons from American cinema, and perhaps most importantly, the common working-class decency of his vast panorama of characters.”

Last summer, Christopher Small pointed out in the Notebook that Tavernier also draws parallels between Becker and Howard Hawks. Small observed that both filmmakers “are fascinated by genre, by the way that they can seemingly countermand inbuilt expectations by cultivating an atmosphere of life-like behavior that at least appears to undercut the revolving gears of plot.” Glenn Kenny, too, admires Becker’s mastery of each genre he took on, and writes in the New York Times that “whether it was the period drama, Casque d’or of 1952, the 1954 aging-gangster picture Touchez pas au grisbi, or the prison-break movie Le trou (Becker’s last work; tragically, he died in 1960, the year of its release, at age fifty-three), his pictures always felt authoritative to the point of being definitive.”

The centerpiece of Film Forum’s retrospective is the U.S. theatrical premiere of a new restoration of Rendezvous in July (1949), the second film in a trilogy depicting the lives and loves of young people in France after the Second World War. The first of these, Antoine and Antoinette (1947), centers on a happily married working class couple and features, as Bill Weber writes at Slant, “a lively gallery of supporting characters worthy of a Preston Sturges farce.” Writing for the Notebook in 2013, Dan Sallitt found that “Becker’s control of tone in Antoine and Antoinette is masterful, with emotionally full-bodied scenes growing naturally from light-hearted setups.”

Rendezvous, an ensemble portrait of young friends who like to party in jazz clubs on the Left Bank, is “superabundant in charm, wit, and soul,” writes Kenny back in the NYT. By contrast, the third film of the trilogy, Édouard and Caroline (1951), in which a struggling pianist is hired to entertain at his wife’s uncle’s lavish home, is shot through with a tension that, at key moments, threatens to tip over into violence. For Max Nelson, Édouard and Caroline “exemplifies Becker’s sometimes unpalatable vision of what it means to be a couple—his view that romantic alliances between men and women are fluid and volatile . . . This is not a comforting picture, and that Becker committed to it so intensely helps explain why he’s been slow to receive his due.”

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