Obituary: Alexandre Mnouchkine
Wednesday 07 April 1993
AS PRODUCER or executive producer, Alexandre Mnouchkine was associated with some of the most memorable French films of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.
Arriving in Paris from his native Soviet Union after graduating, Mnouchkine entered the film industry in 1932, and started his own production company in 1945. He called it Ariane, after one of his two daughters (who was later to gain fame in her own right, as the guiding force behind the influential Theatre du Soleil). Like many small production companies, Ariane often worked in conjunction with others. Mnouchkine was fortunate in acquiring the services of Jean Cocteau in 1948, when Cocteau was still furthering the career of his lover and protege Jean Marais. He had written two plays with that in mind, L'Aigle a deux tetes and Les Parents terribles, which Mnouchkine enabled him to film, respectively in 1948 and 1949.
As on the stage, the former starred Marais and Edwige Feuillere - and it is difficult now to see why, even in a post-war world longing for escapism, this was taken seriously, some high-flown tosh about an anarchist, Marais, who enters a Ruritanian castle to assassinate a queen, Feuillere, but stays to fall in love with her. But the decor, by Christian Berard and Georges Wakevitch, makes up for a lot. Les Parents terribles, based on Marais's stormy relationship with his own mother - on stage and on screen, the magnificent Yvonne de Bray - stands up much better.
Mnouchkine worked with another leading player, Gerard Philipe, when he produced a swashbuckler, Fanfan- La-Tulipe (1951), which the director Christian-Jaque made much more light-hearted than the 1925 original. It was one of Gina Lollobrigida's steps to her rather uncertain stardom, but Mnouchkine had a genuine star when he was executive producer of Babette s'en va-t-en guerre (1959). She was Brigitte Bardot, and she chose to do this mild comedy instead of taking up any of the numerous Hollywood offers.
The emergence of the nouvelle vague shook the French film industry to its foundations, but its producers could decide which of the young Turks they would find financing for. Mnouchkine settled on Philippe de Broca, who had made his name with some charming off-beat comedies. When L'Homme de Rio (1964) opened it was the only picture anyone talked about in Paris; you had to queue to see it even though it was playing at a dozen cinemas, and Paris was plastered with posters boasting '1,000 Exploits Belmondesques]' - for the star was Jean-Paul Belmondo, the nouvelle vague's favourite actor. Mnouchkine was also one of the writers of the film, in which Belmondo escaped death a thousand times, whether teetering on the half-built skyscrapers of Brasilia or hoisting himself out of a river jammed with crocodiles.
Belmondo, de Broca and Mnouchkine were reunited for a follow-up, Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine (1965; Up to his Ears for Britain and the US). Belmondo chose Mnouchkine to be his co-producer of Stavisky (1974), directed by Alain Resnais. Belmondo made it because he believed he owed his acclaim to the directors of the nouvelle vague, of whom Resnais was a leading light, but when he looked at the receipts of his recent films for them he decided to stick with purely commercial ventures.
Belmondo had had one of his biggest hits with Un homme qui me plait, with Annie Girardot, as a French couple uneasily failing in love as they travelled through the United States, a country which fascinated them and appalled them at the same time. It was the first of some dozen movies which Claude Lelouch made with backing partly provided by Mnouchkine, including Vivre pour vivre (1967) and Un autre homme, une autre femme (1977). This last, as the title proclaims, is virtually a remake of Lelouch's Un homme et une femme (1969), set in America's old West. And there is its virtue: Lelouch is not afraid of plagiarising himself. Or of excess. The films of Lelouch, outside France, had critics in despair and audiences indifferent, but they are redeemed by two features, wit (no one can send up Lelouch as well as himself) and a brilliant use of cinema (Lelouch is usually director, writer, cameraman, editor, you name it).
The last two notable films with which Mnouchkine is associated are a far cry from L'Aigle a deux tetes: both are excellent thrillers. Claude Miller's Garde a vue (1981) is a cat-and-mouse cop tale. And Bob Swaim's La Balance (1982) is an account, often riveting, of the double-dealing and double-crossing apparently essential to the drugs trade in Paris.
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