Not much one can say other than providing Godard’s review of the film:
I don’t give a damn about the merry-go-round decorated by Walt Disney, he lunch on the grass with imitation plastic clothes, the chewing-gum green of a ball of wool. I don’t give a damn about any of the lapses in taste piled up by Astruc, Claude Renoir and Mayo.Or about Roman Vlad’s saxophone either. Actually it isn’t bad. But anyhow, the real beauty of Une Vie lies elsewhere.
In Pascale Petit’s yellow dress shimmering amid the Velazquez grey dunes of Normandy. That’s wrong! Not Velasquez grey? Not even Delacroix grey, howl the connoisseurs.To no purpose. Already Christian Marquand is leaning over te break-water, holding out his hand to Maria Schell. The ‘connoisseurs’ are thrown by a film that moves so quickly that the fastest racing cars are those that brake best: Une Vie is like them. One thought one knew Astruc, and constructed theories without noticing that the sequence was over and had already taken off in another aesthetic or moral direction. One talked of Velasquez without noticing that Pascale Petit’s dress was Baudelaire yellow, and Maria Schell’s eyes Ramuz blue. Why Ramuz? Because behind Maupassant’s puppets, behind Jeanne and Julien, it is the face of Aline or Jean-Luc persecute that Astruc is filming. There is nothing surprising about this. His admiration for the author of Signes Parmi nous has long been known.But why a moment ago the author of L’Albatros? Because the first shot of Une Vie stamps the whole film with Baudelarian effigy. Because Maria Schell runs headlong towards the sea and Pascale’s dress is like an echo illustrating the most celebrated verses of the man who said to Manet, ‘You are supreme in the decadence of your art.’ One might mention Thomas Hardy,as well as Faulkner and the Charlotte Rittenmayer of The Wild Palms, here transposed into the character played by Marquand; but Astruc himself has already talked of them so much-too much-that the admirers of Le Rideau are now looking for difficulties and being surprised to find none.All of which proves what? That people talked of painting without noticing that Une Vie was a novelist’s film; and of taste without noticing that it is a barbarian’s film.
My defense of the film against those who admire it for the wrong reasons is now done. Against the rest, the task is easier, for Une Vie is almost the opposite of an Astruc film in the sense that he has been labelled with a prefabricated aesthetic form from which he is now escaping.
It is of no consequence that the version now showing in cinemas does not correspond to the one envisaged in the scenario. It is of no consequence that the montage has systematically been cut off each scene in mid flow. One may admire Une Vie as it stands.And as it stands Une Vie is the opposite of an inspired film. The madness behind the realism, said Astruc in an interview.But this has been misunderstood. Julien’s madness lies in having married Jeanne, and Jeanne’s in having married Julien. Full stop and finish.He was not trying to film La Folie Du Doctor Tube,but to show that for a man of wood and woman of soul to marry is madness. As a matter of fact, Une Vie disconcerts Astruc’s keenest partisans, just as Le Plaisir disconcerted those who thought they knew Maupassant. Where they expected Astruc the lyricist, they found Astruc the architect.
Une Vie is a superbly constructed film.So, to illustrate my point, I shall borrow images from classical geometry. A film may be compared to a geometrical locus; that is, a figure constituted by all points which satisfy a particular equation of relation to a fixed element. This ensemble of points is,if you like the mise en scene, and this particular equation common to each moment of the mise en scene will, therefore, be the scenario, or if you prefer, the dramatic situation. There remains the fixed element, or possible mobile one, which is none other than the theme. But the following thing happens. With most directors, the geometrical locus of the theme they are supposed to be dealing with extends no further than the situation where it is filmed. What I mean is that although the action of their films may take place over a vast area, most directors do not think their mise en scene beyond the area of the set. Astruc, on the other hand, gives the impression of having thought his film over the whole perimeter required by the action-no more, no less. In Une Vie, we are only shown three or four landscapes in Normandy. Yet the film gives an uncanny feeling of having been planned on the actual scale of Normandy, just as Tabu was for the Pacific, Que Viva Mexico for Mexico! The references may be exaggerated.But they are there. But they are there. The fact is too remarkable not to be pointed out, and it is all the more remarkable in that Astruc and Laudenbach have deliberately made difficulties for themselves by only showing, as I have just noed, three or four aspects of the Norman woodlands. The difficulty is not in showing the forest, but in showing a room where one knows that the forest is a few paces away; an even greater difficulty is,not in showing the sea, but a room where one knows the sea is a few hundred yards away. Most films are constructed over a few square feet of décor visible in a viewfinder. Une Vie is conceived, written and directed over twenty thousand kilometers.
Over this immense invisible space, Astruc has established his dramatic and visual co-ordinates. Between the abscissa and the ordinate no curve appears which might correspond to a secret movement of the film. The only curve is either abscissa or ordinate, and therefore corresponds the two kinds of movement, one horizontal, the other vertical. The whole mise en scene of Une Vie is based on this elementary principle. Horizontal, Maria Schell and and Pascale Petit running towards the beach. Vertical, Marquand bending to take his partner’s hand on the harbour jetty. Horizontal, the bridal couple leaving after the wedding banquet. Vertical, the knife stroke which rips open the bodice. Horizontal again, the movement of Jeanne and Julien sprawling in the wheatfield. Vertical again, the movement of Marquand’s hand seizing Antonella Lualdi’s wrists. For Astruc,the mise en scene of Une Vie has simply meant emphasizig one of these two movements, horizontal and vertical, in each scene or each shot having its own dramatic unity, and emphasizing it abruptly, so that everything before or after it which does not form part of this abrupt motion is left in shadow.
In Les Mauvaise Recontres Astruc was still using this sort of effets, this premeditated violence, in the manner of Bardem: as a shot changed,a dorr opened, a glass shattered, aface turned. In Une Vie, on the other hand, he uses it within a shot, pushing the example of Brooks-or, more especially, Nicholas Ray-so far that the effect becomes almost the cause. The beauty is not so much Marquand draggina Marian Schnell out of the chateau as in the abruptness with which he does it. This absuptness of gesture which gives a fresh impulse to the suspense every few minutes, this discontinuity latent in its continuity, might be called the tell-tale heart of Une Vie, to show the kinship of the so-called ‘cold’ film with Edgar Poe, the true master of mystery and the most abstract writer of all.
Une Vie is a wonderfully simple film, exactly like Bitter Victory. And simplification does not mean stylization. Astruc is very different here fore Visconti, with whom it would be silly to compare him. Certainly Maria Schell was more effectively used in White Nights; but in Une Vie she is used more accurately and profoundly. In his time, Maupassant was doubtless a modern writer. Paradoxiacally, therefore, the best way of capturing the true nineteenth-century atmosphere was to give the whole thing a frankly 1958 atmosphere.In this Astruc and Laudenbach have succeeded magnificently. As proof, I needonly cite the admirable line spoken by the admirable Christian Marquand to the woman who has offered him her dowry and her chateau: ‘Because of you, I have ruined my life.’ Another example: whereas Jean-Claude Pascal carrying Anouk Aimee seemed old-fashioned (in Les Mauvais Recontres), here the same gesture with Marquand and Maria Schell seems modern.
Once one has raved about Pascale Petiti (with who Astruc has worked as much of a miracle as Renoir with Francoise Arnoul in French-Cancan), who runs through the forest as gracefully as Orvet and hides under the bedclothes better than Vadim’s girls, one has not said it all. One the threshold of the unknown: this might be a better title for Une Vie than for a science-fiction film. For Une Vie forces the cinema to turn its gaze elsewhere.
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