“That Monday, December 21st, I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Françoise would be my wife,” protagonist Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) declares in voiceover near the beginning of Éric Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night at Maud’s. Unlike the preceding entries in the director’s Six Moral Tales series, My Night at Maud’s — officially the third tale, though it was shot and released fourth due to scheduling conflicts — eschews narration almost entirely, rendering this statement all the more noteworthy. It’s also quite surprising, in that he doesn’t actually know Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault).
Nowadays, actor Amedeo Nazzari may be best known among film fans for his appearance in Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), playing a movie star who picks up the eponymous prostitute after a fight with his girlfriend. It’s no coincidence that the character’s name, Alberto Lazzari, is so similar to his own, because Nazzari himself was a bona fide movie star in Italy. Among his major box office successes were the melodramas that he made with director Raffaello Matarazzo and Greek-born actress Yvonne Sanson, beginning with 1949’s Chains — a film significant enough to be featured prominently in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso some four decades later. In an essay written to accompany the release of four Matarazzo/Nazzari/Sanson collaborations as part of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse line, Michael Koresky explains their appeal:
Though immensely popular, the films were dismissed by the critical establishment of the day: they were unabashedly soap-operatic entertainments, with plots convoluted to the point of near derangement, exaggerated Catholic symbolism, and a dedication to upholding the sacred family unit at any cost. Critics on the left deemed them reactionary; for Catholics, they were too overheated and sexual; and mainstream reviewers thought them frivolous and cheap—a poor man’s neorealist cinema.
That, however, is exactly what these rip-roaring, outrageously fun movies were designed to be: they followed the neorealist vogue for stories about earthy working-class people but were far from gritty and made mainly for suburban audiences, which gorged themselves on their sweeping, sentimental twists and turns. They were also emotionally rich and elegantly woven—captivating tales of crisis that spoke to postwar Italian audiences in need of catharsis. And today, after years of rehabilitation (by a group of French critics in the sixties and by Italian critics in the seventies), Matarazzo’s movies are admired for their gleefully overwrought stories and finely calibrated direction. These are treasures from the golden age of fifties melodrama, deserving mention in the same breath as the magnificent moonstruck movies of the likes of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Luchino Visconti.
“One’s first love is so intense,” the characters in Jacques Demy’s Lola declare again and again. The same might be said of first films — certainly of Lola itself, Demy’s 1961 debut feature. If the fledgling director had had his way, it might have looked a great deal like some of his later works, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), as he explained in an interview included in Agnès Varda’s 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy: “It would have cost 250 million francs, in color and Scope, with lots of dancing and singing and costumes. So [producer Georges] de Beauregard told me, ‘Look, it’s a sweet project, but [Jean-Luc Godard’s] Breathless cost 32 million. If you can do yours for 35, it’s a deal.'” Demy accepted. The resulting film — black and white, with only a single short song — may not resemble his subsequent musicals on a superficial level, but many of their major elements are already present: characters crossing paths, improbable coincidences and, above all, a pervasive air of romance. Perhaps Lola‘s smaller scale, with its relative modesty and lack of frills, actually gives these qualities an added strength and purity.
Leave it to Jean-Luc Godard to make a movie set in outer space that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the average space movie.
Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville, subtitled A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, takes place in the eponymous metropolis, the capital of a galaxy, at some undefined point in what was then the future. To reach it, secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a resident of “the Outlands,” must travel through space — by driving a Ford Galaxie, naturally enough. Godard makes no effort to depict this improbable interstellar journey; it’s merely one of the film’s numerous absurdities, perfectly in keeping with its anachronistic protagonist.
It may be said that Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), based on a series of four novels by Vilhelm Moberg, are not so much two separate films as they are two halves of a single epic, running some six and a half hours in total. Valid as that is, however, the division is hardly an arbitrary one. Each movie has its own focus, its own purpose, complementary to those of its counterpart. The Emigrants deals with the birth of a dream; The New Land sees that dream made flesh, though the reality of it is far more complex than what was imagined beforehand.
“A tontine is, in point of fact, a lottery — a lottery, plain and simple, gentlemen. Into this tontine each parent or guardian has placed for each of you, and in your name, the sum of one thousand pounds sterling. The sum so constituted is to be administered by a self-perpetuating board and held in trust by them for whomsoever survives. This £20,000 will grow and grow under astute management who will charge but a nominal fee, and this — by then — great sum will be handed to the one amongst you who is the last surviving member of the tontine. It is as plain and as simple as that.” So the premise is laid out at the start of Bryan Forbes’s 1966 film The Wrong Box, though “plain” and “simple” are hardly the right words for the farce that follows.
“You don’t seem to care.”
“No. What else can happen to me?”
Upon leaving the hospital after a failed suicide attempt at the start of Alain Resnais’s 1968 film Je t’aime, je t’aime, Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is confronted by two strange men who ask him to get in their car and travel to the Crespel Research Center, a mysterious facility they freely admit that no one has ever heard of, located some thirty miles away. “Let’s go,” he replies indifferently, despite having no idea what they want with him. What initially appears to be a kidnapping or some other crime turns out to be something far more unusual: They want to use Claude as a guinea pig in a time travel experiment.
A city can be a wellspring of wondrous dreams or a desert of unbearable loneliness; for Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), the protagonist of Luchino Visconti’s 1957 film Le Notti Bianche, the city to which he’s just been transferred for his job is both — sometimes simultaneously.
It’s the sort of scene that shows up in a lot of movies, particularly from classic Hollywood: Two people who have spent precious little time together — in fact, this seems to be their first real date after meeting at a party — declare their love for each other. This particular example, from George Stevens’s 1951 film A Place in the Sun, looks and sounds like a true grand passion, with intense close-ups and breathless voices and romantic music in the background. However, the situation is more complicated than it appears on the surface, and not just because George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the man in this pair, isn’t exactly free to start a new relationship.
“Okay. Why yell about it? Moi, j’ai compris. You German. I’m Canadian, he Canadian and he Canadian.”
Johnnie (Laurence Olivier), a French Canadian trapper confronted by Nazi invaders, is making a simple statement of fact, but it also implies something more profound — something, perhaps, that these Nazis can’t even comprehend. After all, the other two Canadians to whom he’s referring are Albert (Finlay Currie), an older man with a Scottish accent, and Nick (Ley On), an Eskimo. Although the three of them may seem to have little in common on the surface, they’re united by the country in which they all live, and their diversity — their individuality — is a key part of that country’s strength.