Jean-Daniel Pollet

New Wave film-maker

Jean-Daniel Pollet, film-maker: born La Madeleine, France 20 June 1936; died Cadenet, France 9 September 2004.

The film-maker Jean-Daniel Pollet was filming a close-up travelling shot of an express train, the sort of sequence common in documentaries like Harry Watt and Basil Wright's Night Mail (1936). But he was standing too close to the track, facing the express as it thundered past, and he was struck from behind by the last carriage, which happened to be much wider than the others. The impetus of the shock swept him scores of metres along the embankment. He suffered multiple serious injuries, but survived, though he was confined to bed for most of the rest of his life. He had 27 fractures.

That horrifying accident took place one day in April 1989. Pollet was to live for another 15 years. But he could not lead the active life he had enjoyed in the creation of a dozen or so remarkable films beginning in 1957 with Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse ("As Long as the Party Lasts").

For his compulsory military service, he worked with the army cinematograph unit. His first professional job was with the great Julien Duvivier as technical assistant on the set of L'Homme a l'imperméable ( The Man in the Raincoat, 1957). He was later to declare: "Duvivier taught me everything about what one must not do."

That was good advice for a young man already involved in the excitements of the nouvelle vague of young cineastes. Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse was his first short: a shy young man tries unsuccessfully to pick up young girls at the local hop at Joinville. During the shooting, Pollet encountered a young apprentice tailor who spent all his free time cruising the local dance halls showing off his wonderful footwork yet always conducting himself in a comically serious, stony-faced manner with his mystified partners. This phenomenon was Claude Melki and Pollet immediately saw in him a French Buster Keaton to out-Keaton the inimitable Buster.

The short, perceived as heralding a new, more direct style of filming ordinary life, won Pollet a prize at the Venice Mostra. It belongs with some of the most enchanting cinematic work about popular dance, from Duvivier's Un carnet de bal (1936, Christine in the UK) that enchanted my dance-driven adolescence to the sublime 1983 Le Bal ("The Ball") by Ettore Scola.

Pollet made several other short but memorable features: Gala (1961), Méditerranée (1963) and Le Horla (1966), a subtle interpretation of Maupassant's story, sympathetically creepy, among them. But it was with the enigmatic comedian Claude Melki that he made five of his best early full-length works.

The first was in fact a short feature embedded in a collaborative effort by other members of the rising nouvelle vague, led by Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jean Rouch and Jean Douchet, and introducing players like Joanna Shimkus, Stéphane Audran, Micheline Dax, Barbet Schroeder: a youthful galaxy in which Claude Melki shone with his own indescribable aura. The actors were presented as tourists in Paris, and part of the interest of this cinematic omnibus - Paris vu par . . . ( Six in Paris) - is its views of the city as it was in 1965, before it was ruined by urban planning and the hideous grandeurs of the Mitterrand regime.

Pollet's next film, the full-length pathetic comedy L'Amour c'est gai, l'amour c'est triste ( Love is Gay, Love is Sad, 1968) starred the divine Melki, who outshone such old troupers as Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bernadette Lafont and Chantal Goya.

Melki was then picked up by several leading New Wave directors, though Pollet claimed his "creature" was never at ease with them. In 1971, Georges Lautner put Melki in Laisse aller . . . c'est une valse ( Take It Easy It's a Waltz). Jacques Demy made full use of Melki's lanky moonwalking elegance in another talkative title, L'Evénement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marché sur la lune (reduced to A Slightly Pregnant Man for the UK, 1973). But he made his best and most individual film with Pollet: L'Acrobate ( The Acrobat, 1976).

L'Acrobate became Pollet's non-commercial masterpiece. Not since Le Horla had he felt such creative self-confidence. Melki still had the slim, elastic body Pollet had discovered at Chez Max, the dance hall on the Marne. Melki was the very soul of the afternoon tango, a divine gift that was still to be made good use of in the 1985 film tribute to Carlos Gardel, Tangos, by a director who really knew the essence of that languorous down-to-earth mating dance, Fernando Solanas. After that success, Claude Melki gradually, with suave indifference, melted away as an actor and dancer. His final screen appearance was in Pollet's Contretemps (1988). He then slipped into oblivion and poverty, and died in a small back room in 1994.

By that time, Pollet had practically given up film-making. His injuries kept him at home, a permanent invalid. But he managed to produce, in 1997, an inspired adaptation in film terms of certain poems by Francis Ponge, Dieu sait quoi ("God Knows What"). His last film, Ceux d'en face ( Those Facing Us), was completed with great difficulty in 2001. It is about absence, solitude, forced seclusion in the chaos of contemporary existence.

He died unwillingly, leaving behind him a number of works that never knew the comfort of a cinema screen. (One of the most impressive is said to be about life in a leper hospital in Greece.) He had just finished a new scenario.

James Kirkup

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