Obituary: Rene Clement
Wednesday 20 March 1996
Clement stands with Vittorio De Sica as one of the two great enigmas of European cinema. By common agreement the two "great" directors of the immediate post-war period, humanist and uncompromising, they both fell stunningly from grace with films, aimed at the international market, quite unworthy of their talents. De Sica, aware of this, tried to re- establish his reputation towards the end of his career. Clement, unhappily, did not.
He made his first, amateur, film while still a student and he worked as assistant to Yves Allegret - and then to Cocteau on La Belle et la bete (1946). According to an interview in Sight and Sound in 1950 it was he and not Cocteau who actually directed it, though in this case Cocteau is clearly the auteur.
Since it is the supreme example of the many fantasies made in France during the Second World War years and just after, it makes a potent contrast to La Bataille du rail (1946), the full-length documentary which made Clement famous, a study of a nation under stress - and particularly its railwaymen, smuggling across the frontiers of Vichy and Occupied France, always prepared for the sabotage which made professionals of amateurs. It is a film which achieves a tremendous force as the workers unite to a man to prevent German supplies reaching Normandy after the invasion; and nothing in all the many Resistance films is quite as telling as two men in a cafe watching the Germans retreat and murmuring "Ca arrange, ca arrange."
Clement consolidated his reputation with a first-rate thriller, Les Maudits (1947), set at sea and concerning a bunch of Nazis who, deprived of Europe, seek to found a new state somewhere in Latin America.
The major influence on De Sica was his scriptwriter, Cesare Zavattini, who was part of the package put together by the producer Alfredo Guarani for Au-dela des Grilles / La Mura di Malapaga (1949), together with Clement, Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, who wrote the dialogue, and the stars Jean Gabin and Isa Miranda. It sets Gabin down in post-war Genoa, which resembles nowhere as much as the pre-war France of Gabin's films for Carne. Again he is in hiding and again there is a woman to help and succour him. The result is seamlessly done, and it too was rewarded with an Oscar in Hollywood.
Les Jeux interdits, written by Aurenche and Bost from a novel by Jean Boyer, begins with the flight from Paris in 1940; as German planes machine- gun the fleeing crowds a girl (Brigitte Fosey) is orphaned. She meets a peasant boy (Georges Poujouly) whose parents give her a home. In time the two of them begin their secret games - burying the dog, then mice, chickens and insects with, after they have become adventurous, crosses stolen from the cemetery. Despite the subject- matter the trappings of realism and a chilling ending the film hardly disguises its innate romanticism. It was the last French film close to the experience of war: those that came later, whether nostalgic or recriminatory, were historical reconstructions, including Clement's own Le Jour et l'heure (1963), a Resistance drama with Simone Signoret and Stuart Whitman, and Paris brule-t-il? / Is Paris Burning? (1966), an all-star disaster written by Gore Vidal and Francis Coppola from the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
Clement transferred to London even more felicitously than Genoa, with Knave of Hearts / Monsieur Ripois (1954), in which Gerard Philipe, a clerk weary of stamping forms, seduces his boss (Margaret Johnston), a suburban girl (Joan Greenwood), and a smart lady (Valerie Hobson), who is taking French lessons from him. The first reaction of the British press was that the film was a libel on British womanhood, but wiser opinion prevailed. The picture of a London recovering from the war was quite the best on film till then; and beyond Philipe's formidable charm and Greenwood's endearing and touching little silly this is a moral tale and totally heartless. Karel Reisz, then a critic, was not wrong in invoking Preston Sturges.
Clement next turned to Paris in the Second Empire, to Zola's powerful thesis on the demon drink, L'Assommoir, which became Gervaise (1956) as adapted for the screen by Aurenche and Bost - a title-change necessitated (so Clement explained), because they were less interested in alcoholism than in the fate of the heroine. Few urban historical films have had so extensive locations; Rene Juillard's photography makes the most of them and Paul Bertrand's interiors carry the spirit of Daumier. Its major fault is at the centre: Maria Schell in the title-role, smiling constantly like the waifs of the Silent Screen.
Dino De Laurentiis provided Italian-American backing for Clement's next essay into "international" film-making, The Sea Wall / La Diga sul Pacifico (1958), based on Marguerite Duras' novel about colonials in Indo-China - a family weirdly consisting of Jo Van Fleet, Silvana Mangano and Anthony Perkins, all of whom were acted off the screen by Alida Valli, as the rich courtesan who seduces Perkins, and Nehemiah Persoff, as Mangano's unwelcome admirer.
Plein soleil (1960) had some correct notions about the aimless and cynical jeunesse doree who haunted the resorts of the Mediterranean, and a frisson or two as adapted by Clement and Paul Gegauff from a thriller by Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley, but Maurice Ronet and Alain Delon were unlikely Americans. Delon was more effective as a man-on-the-make in Les Felins / The Love Cage (1964), a baroque games-playing thriller with Jane Fonda, at her most stylish, and Lola Albright.
Clement's last few films were also thrillers, but he will be remembered for his early ones, with their truth and their sardonic, subtle grasp of life's contradictions.
Rene Clement, film director, screenwriter: born Bordeaux 18 March 1913; died 17 March 1996.
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