IN AUGUST the National Film Theatre in London programmed no fewer than 26 French films from the last decade because, said the programme, 'it is continually amazing just how few French movies actually make the crossing into British salles'. It was not ever thus, and in the 1930s and the 1940s - until the advent of the so-called Italian neo-realists - 'foreign' cinema virtually meant French cinema. To the minority art-house spectators of that time French movies provided not only a relief from the inanities and frivolities of Hollywood, but both a more poetic and realistic view of life. They were subtle, civilised and witty, not to mention much more adult on that then most delicate of subjects, what people did together in bedrooms. Many of them were written by Jean Aurenche.
Aurenche, with or without his customary collaborator Pierre Bost, has more distinguished credits to his name than any other screenwriter. Looking through the list of some of the 50 or so films on which he collaborated there is only a handful which were not seen internationally. Many of them would be on many people's lists of favourite movies, from Marcel Carne's evocative Hotel du Nord (1938), based on Eugene Dabit's novel about a seedy hotel in the Dixieme, to Jean Delannoy's Les Amities particulieres (1964), based on Roger Peyrefitte's study of special friendships in a boys' school.
If Aurenche and Bost seemed to specialise in literary adaptations, this was because the directors who chose them to work with them - and they were among the leading directors of the period - found it easier to express themselves through the works of others. Their merits are in direct proportion to the originals. Delannoy's La Symphonie pastorale (1946) is as trumpery as the Gide novella from which it was adapted, but Yves Allegret's Les Orgueilleux (1953) is as vigorous as the novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Amour redempteur, which served as its source. The first, admittedly, is not helped by the performance of Michele Morgan as the blind girl loved by the village pastor (Pierre Blanchard), but Morgan is superb in the second film, as is Gerard Philipe, playing unlikely lovers in a flyblown town on the Gulf of Mexico.
Aurenche moved smoothly from one major film to the next, with seldom a setback. One of the latter was Au-dela des grilles (1949), for which he and Bost wrote the dialogue and adapted from a story by two formidable Italian screenwriters, Cesare Zavattini and Suso Cecchi D'Amico. It was meant to re-establish the Jean Gabin image after his wartime sojourn in Hollywood and fighting with the Free French, but to many critics it was a rehash of his pre-war vehicles. However, it stands up well today; it is also an early and excellent example of a Franco-Italian co-production, and it began a rewarding association with Rene Clement. Clement's best and most famous film remains Les Jeux interdits (1952), which Bost and Aurenche adapted from Francois Boyer's novel about a refugee war orphan and the slightly older peasant boy who begins to play 'funeral' games with dead animals. Later they adapted Zola's L'Assommoir for Clement, as Gervaise - because the emphasis concentrated on the heroine - and that contains a portrait of 19th-century Paris the equal of any ever put on film.
Aurenche and Bost first worked together on Douce (1943) for the director Claude Autant-Lara, and this gentle, rather cynical romance was the start of a remarkable collaboration for all three of them.
They followed it with the witty, whimsical Sylvie et la fantome (1946; without Bost) and a deeply romantic version of Raymond Radiguet's Le Diable au corps (1947), touchingly played by Gerard Philipe and Micheline Presle as the lovers. By looking back to the First World War, it managed to exorcise some of the demons raised by the Second. The three films have in common a nostalgia for a past cosier than post-war France; and although Sylvie is set in the present the fantome also belongs to another age. For obvious reasons French cinema of the 1940s was heavy with fantasy and allegory.
Furthermore, the central theme of the three films was that life was only worth living for love, but this was upended in the next collaboration, for Occupe-toi d'Amelie (1949) substituted sex as the be-all and end-all of our existence. It was, after all, based on a Feydeau farce, and it moved from photographed play to film and back again with great ingenuity. It also contains a delicious performance by Danielle Darrieux as the cocotte, while two more stars, Fernandel and Francoise Rosay, were on wonderful form in L'Auberge Rouge (1951), which again proved that this writer-director team were capable of versatility. Travellers to the inn of the title, tended by Rosay and her husband, Carette, tended to arrive but seldom depart; she draws the line at killing a monk, Fernandel, and confesses instead. As black comedy, this is not quite as inventive as Kind Hearts and Coronets, but it is considerably more cruel.
The Aurenche-Bost partnership achieved another triumph in a portmanteau movie, Les Sept peches capitaux (1952). Handed perhaps the deadliest of sins, 'Lust' and 'Pride', they wrote both the funniest episode, for Yves Allegret, and the most touching, for Autant-Lara, an adaptation of a story by Colette, with Rosay and Morgan as an impoverished mother and daughter surreptitiously trying to steal food at a high-society party.
The films the team wrote for Autant-Lara during the next decade tended to be taken for granted, but they include a brave shot at Stendhal, Le Rouge et le noir (1954), with Philipe and Darrieux; another version of Colette, Le Ble en herbe (1954), which was daring then for detailing the seduction of an adolescent by a mature woman, Edwige Feuillere; a light-hearted view of the black market in wartime, La Traversee de Paris (1956), from Marcel Ayme's novel, with Gabin and Bourvil; and Le Jouer (1958), with Rosay and Philipe, which contained most of the ironies of the Dostoevsky original. They also managed to get in on the Bardot craze witn her best film till that time, En cas de malheur, adapted from Simenon, with Gabin and Feuillere as the other sides of the love-torn triangle.
Then suddenly the advent of the nouvelle vague rendered Autant-Lara horribly old-fashioned - wrongly, as it turned out, but he and Aurenche gave ammunition to their critics with an artless historical comedy, Vive Henri IV . . . Vive L'Amour (1961). Bost rejoined them for an episode in one of the now-fashionable compendium films, Le Crime ne paie pas (1962), but Aurenche and Autant-Lara fared no better with their final collaboration, a sequence of another such, Le Plus vieux metier du monde (1967). The oldest profession . . . It was all very sad: Aurenche had not bucked the challenge of putting on screen the vision of such writers as Stendhal, Zola and Dostoevsky, but he was now reduced to being a small voice on a commercial movie about prostitutes and their clients. It was only too clear that his heart wasn't in it. Bost and Aurenche worked together for what seemed would be the last time on Clement's English- language Is Paris Burning?, which they adapted from the best-selling account of the Germans' last days in the city. Credit for the screenplay, however, went to Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, with no mention of the famous team - who must have been grateful, in view of the film's reception.
All things must pass, and so in time did most of the directors of the nouvelle vague, some of them quickly exhausted and some with their reputations in tatters. A new generation of French film-makers looked at the movies which those same directors had so execrated as critics on the influential magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, and decided that they weren't so bad, after all. Among the new, new breed was another former writer on film, Bertrand Tavernier, who got his first chance to direct a feature in 1974, L'Horloger de Saint-Paul, which starred Philippe Noiret in the title-role, a lonely clockmaker trying to come to terms with the fact that his son was a hit-and-run driver. To help him on this adaptation of Simenon he approached the old team of Aurenche and Bost because, he considered, they had crafted some of the best French films of the past 30 years. As a novice director - there were still so many - no one was very interested in him one way or the other or his has-been writers till the film won the Prix Louis Delluc as the best of the year. Why them? he was asked. Why not? he replied.
Unlike the nouvelle vague directors, Tavernier was oblivious of fashion, moving on to a satire of post-revolutionary France, Que la fete commence . . . (1975) to a chilling study of a mass murderer, Le Juge et l'assassin (1976). Aurenche wrote both, the first with Tavernier and the second with Bost. Noiret again gave stunning performances in both films, and Aurenche wrote for this actor again, and Simone Signoret, in another adaptation of Simenon, L'Etoile du Nord (1982), directed by Pierre Granier- Deferre. Other film-makers sought the veteran writer, without memorable results, but meanwhile Aurenche and Tavernier wrote what is probably the best French movie of the last 20 years, Coup de torchon (1981). Taking a serie noire American novel (Pop. 1280) by Jim Hill, they transposed the action to French Equatorial Africa just before the war. It's a tale of lust, lassitude, envy, spite and corruption - life in the colonies as it was. Noiret, as an indolent police chief, again heads a magnificent cast, with Stephane Audran as his contemptuous wife and Isabelle Huppert as his silly mistress.
The characters in sum are as rich as those assembled in Hotel du Nord and Douce, and are capable of the same kind of mordant humour. They will be enjoyed when all but a handful of the nouvelle vague movies have been confined to their humourless tomb.