Thursday, June 28, 2007

Adventures At the French Embassy

Over the weekend, I attended the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington, D. C. For the uninitiated, this is a conference where librarians from all types of institutions gather to discuss goings on in the library world, and visit with a plethora of library vendors. While there I was fortunate to be invited to a special party at the French embassy celebrating the rollout of a downloadable video service for public libraries. The service looks to be extremely cool, and could lead to my never leaving my house again : ) Basically, instead of trotting out to the library to check out DVDs (which may or may not be on the shelf), you can download them and check them out from home. Think library + iTunes. Very cool indeed.

In addition to hearing about the service, the party featured a presentation from legendary film critic Joe Morgenstern (currently the film critic for the Wall Street Journal). As a side note on cult film, he was the screenwriter for the John Travolta classic The Boy in the Plastic Bubble! Mr. Morgenstern screened classic clips from several French films, and discussed the importance of French cinema and its influence on films today. It was a great lecture, and it was really interesting to hear some of his anecdotes about famous French filmmakers he’s dealt with over the years. He told a great story about interviewing Francois Truffaut in a snobby French restaurant in New York, and his horrified reaction to the attitude of the staff (apparently he was a really down to earth sort of fellow).

Anyhoo, most of the films Mr. Morgenstern screened were from the French New Wave period, and are the artsy sort that folks typically either love or are bored to tears by. For myself there are quite a few I enjoy a great deal, but there are some that are the entertainment equivalent of watching paint dry. While watching the films, I began thinking about all of the great cult films that have come out of France, and thought I’d put together a list (in no particular order) of some that any self-respecting Fantasmo Superfan ought to seek out.

1 - Le Dernier Combat (1983): Pictured in the poster above, this is France's answer to the Mad Max films. Director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) tells the story of a loner fighting to survive following the aftermath of a nuclear war. There are no breakneck road chases, but there's plenty of action and suspense in this intense film (that features practically no dialogue)!

2 - Subway (1985): Speaking of Luc Besson, another of his films cult enthusiasts will want to check out is this oddball action/comedy starring a pre-Highlander Christopher Lambert. Lambert plays a thief who flees to the underground of Paris after a daring burglary - and tries to start up a band with the eccentric subway dwellers he meets (with fellow French star Jean Reno) to impress the woman he robbed. A very wild movie that features great performances and a cool opening car chase.

3 - Delicatessen (1991): An early work from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children), Delicatessen is a futuristic, dark comedy about the unusual tenants of an apartment building above a butcher shop that supplies them with the ever so scarce commodity of food. Unbeknownst to them, the butcher/landlord uses a special type of meat (Soylent Green anyone?).

4 - La Jetee (1962): Ever see Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys? So had a lot of other folks about 30 years before it hit theater screens. Gilliam drew the inspiration for his film from this original French outing from director Chris Marker. It's an excellent science-fiction piece, and every bit as powerful, if not more so, than Gilliam's version.

5 - Le Samourai (1967): John Woo fans take note - if you like films such as Hard Boiled, The Killer, etc., then you should waste no time in tracking this one down. Woo drew his inspiration for Chow Yun-Fat's cool-as-ice cop/assassin characters from director Jean-Pierre Melville's hit man classic. Alain Delon stars as the calculating killer-for-hire Jef Costello. When an assignment goes sour, Costello has to use all of his skills to outwit the cops and his employer.

6 - Eyes Without A Face (1960): A Euro-horror masterpiece, Georges Franju's film set the stage for numerous trends, particularly in the area of graphic special effects. A surgeon suffering from guilt over a car accident that disfigured his daughter, goes about luring in subjects to donate "material" for experimental face transplants. Let your imagination run wild. Perhaps the creepiest element is the daughter who wears an expressionless white mask to hide her injuries (the mask just happens to bear a strong resemblance to the one that would show up in John Carpenter's Halloween).

7 - Fahrenheit 451 (1966): Francois Truffaut's adaption of the Ray Bradbury novel that warns of the danger of government limitations on freedom of speech. An important message wrapped up in a cool, Technicolor package! Sci-fi doesn't get any better.

8 - The Wages of Fear (1953): Four down-on-their luck men stranded in a poor, South American village are hired to drive trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin through hundreds of miles of jungle. Extreme tension ensues. Movies don't get any more suspenseful than this one! If this plot sounds familiar, the film was remade in 1977 by Exorcist director William Friedkin with Roy Scheider in the lead. While the remake was not a bad film, there's nothing like the original.

9 - Alphaville (1965): Detective Lemmy Caution is dispatched to the futuristic city of Alphaville to eliminate the evil Natacha Von Braun and his supercomputer Alpha 60. A science-fiction classic from the mind of legendary New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard.

10 - Quest for Fire (1981): When a prehistoric tribe loses their only source of fire, three warriors set out to restore the flame. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, this is one of the coolest fantasy films to come out of the early 80's. As a plus, it also features early performances by genre veterans Ron Perlman and Rae Dawn Chong. Another interesting factoid is that the primitive language heard in the film was created by Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess!

So there's a great list to start off with if you're looking for some French cult films to broaden your cultural horizons : ) Please feel free to comment on these, and add to the list if there are some you think are musts (there are certainly plenty more where these came from)!


meggins/LJ said...

That is a great list...except..."Alphaville"? One of those watching-paint-dry experiences for me. Oh, and sadly I haven't seen "La Jetee" yet.

Jim Blanton said...

I must confess, Alphaville is one of those love it or hate it films. For some reason, I have patience for the "paint-drying experience" with Godard. I enjoy his visual style, and also like how he (in this case) turns the genre on its ear.

I just saw another one of his films recently that I loved, Contempt, that is very cool if you can take the pacing. It features a wild Jack Palance performance in which he plays an egomaniacal movie producer. Great stuff!

Kim said...

I saw "Delicatessen" when I was an impressionable teen, and fell in an awkward sort of love with Dominique Pinon - what a mug!

Jim Blanton said...

Dominique Pinon alone is worth the price of admission to Jeunet's films. The guy is such a great comic actor, and definitely has a unique look! He's part of the charm of seeing a Jeunet film - they just wouldn't be the same without him.