Reports on Today’s Youth:

Jacques Becker's Postwar Trilogy

Made during a four-year period of recovery following the end of the Second World War, director Jacques Becker’s (1906-1960) postwar “Youth” trilogy of Antoine and Antoinette (1947), Rendezvous in July (1949), and Édouard and Caroline (1951) represents one of the most important bridges between pre-World War II realist French cinema and the artistically seismic nouvelle vague (or French New Wave) that emerged by 1959. An assistant director, mentee, and all-around spiritual heir to the great figure of that earlier period, Jean Renoir (A Day in the Country, Grand IllusionThe Rules of the Game), Becker’s trilogy provided a template for what a cinema about and for young Parisians could look like. These films provided a necessary precondition for the future, Paris-based new wave movement, which was dominated in its earliest years by a group of directors more than twenty years Becker’s junior.

Becker’s alive and deeply appealing films from the late 1940s and early 1950s—continuing through Casque d’Or (1952) and Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)—were some of the rare signs of cinematic life for the young filmmakers, along with the wealth of Hollywood studio output that belatedly arrived on French screens after the end of the Nazi occupation. Along with the Americans, Becker and a small number of his countrymen, such as Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati, refuted France’s arid “tradition of quality,” the mode that the future New Wave directors like François Truffaut defined their careers against. Becker’s films abounded with authenticity, intelligence, and most of all an authorial voice that could guide France’s storied next generation of film artists.

But Becker’s cinema must have been more still for these ‘Young Turks’: it offered a reflection of the young, broke, bohemian, Parisian world in which they all found themselves as they began writing film criticism and dreamt more seriously about their future careers as filmmakers. It was a mirror—and a very seductive one at that for the young, male, heterosexual future directors—on their world, the world that they would take over from Becker at around the same time he passed away prematurely in 1960 (though not without leaving one last masterpiece that same year, the all-time great prison drama Le Trou).

Jacques Becker’s trilogy commences appropriately, in Antoine and Antoinette, with a tilt-shot down the Eiffel Tower, the symbol par excellence of the city that will play starring role in all three films. Becker then cuts to a factory floor, with close-ups of the machines being operated by the firm’s workers, before switching locations to a popular department store. With these two locations, we are introduced to the first film’s two namesakes: Antoine (Roger Pigaut), the factory worker; and Antoinette (Claire Mafféi, later thanked in the credits of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, no doubt for her work in this film), the operator of the passport photo booth at the store. They both work for their meager living—though Antoine in particular dreams of more, in his case a motorbike to replace the bicycle that is run over in the film’s opening act. Young and poor, but also very much in love, Antoine and Antoinette exudes the romantic idealism of youth that would be explored in countless varieties by future new wave directors.

Antoinette, meanwhile, is subject to an unending series of sexual propositions, from store patrons, the couple’s boxer neighbor, and most consistently, by the smarmy local grocer, M. Roland (Noël Roquevert, an actor with a very long and varied resume), who attempts to ply the young doe-eyed beauty with the promise of material riches. In this sense, Antoine and Antoinette establishes an anxiety that will come to govern the entirety of the trilogy: a younger, poorer man will struggle with the attention that his wife or girlfriend receives from all the other many suitors who can give her everything the protagonist cannot—whether that’s money or in the case of Rendezvous in July, professional advancement and a more erudite existence; the latter proves the more difficult challenge.

In Antoine and Antoinette, Becker momentarily resolves this anxiety with the couple’s accidental discovery of a winning lottery ticket, before reinforcing and deepening Antoine’s fear with the subsequent disappearance of the ticket. When Antoine wanders the streets after discovering that he has the lost the ticket in the Metro station, his crushed demeanor expresses his failure to find a solution to his great problem—namely, to having the resources to keep his very beautiful wife. For her part, Antoinette seems to understand her husband’s psychology as she sets out to find and console her desperate husband. Antoine and Antoinette confirms the power of their love, but not without cinema’s magical intervention one last time.

Ultimately, it is the life that Becker’s actors give their characters that provides Antoine and Antoinette with its truly extraordinary warmth and charm, qualities in as short supply then as now. The film’s very concrete Parisian setting, meanwhile, lends the film its enduring material interest: we glimpse a newly revitalized city, teeming with life, from the arched underground tunnels to the leafy boulevards. We see a lived-in city, filled with life in the years immediately following the Occupation.

The second film in the trilogy, Rendezvous in July, once again returns to the Eiffel Tower for its opening shot—a horizontal panning take this time—before a series of cuts from end of a phone line to another stitches together the film’s community of young, jazz and theatre-loving bohemians. Positioned once more against the wealthy—embodied, in this case by young Africanist Lucien’s (Daniel Gélin) rigid and insensitive father—Rendezvous in July moves on from the two-person focus of Antoine and Antoinette to a more panoramic portrait of a generation, to the generation again that the future nouvelle vague directors, unlike Becker himself, belonged. As a portrait of a generation or social group, the second film in the trilogy confirms the influence of Renoir, and in particular the older director’s mid-1930s Popular Front cinema—on which Becker collaborated—that construed societies and social relationships through the use of moving camera and depth of field.

Perhaps the most vivid dimension of Becker’s style in Rendezvous in July are the real-world locations and use of non-professionals that once again establish an extraordinary degree of authenticity, a sense that we are seeing Paris as it was inhabited in 1949. From the amphibious vehicle that plunges into the Seine as if it were Renoir’s Boudu to the jazz clubs, filled with dancing twenty year-olds, where American trumpet player Rex Stewart makes a cameo, we are introduced to an open and free Paris that is playground for the postwar generation.

Of course, that both of these examples reveal America’s liberating presence is by no means accidental: Paris, though still defined by the Eiffel Tower, was being remade by a young, deeply American-influenced generation; Lucien’s father, by comparison, very pointedly prefers French cigarettes to American ones. Combating the cinema du papa, it was Lucien’s generation who would develop a cinema that would be emboldened by the energy of American genre and “b”-cinema, while processing the best of its own past (that Becker seemed to uniquely carry forward, in its fullest spirit, into the postwar period, from his trilogy to his own Gallic take on the American crime noir, Grisbi).

In Rendezvous in July, Lucien plans an ethnographic film with the help of his friends—including a graduate cinematographer who complains that the French are not making any films. In this observation and in the new model at which Becker hints with his amateur filmmakers, we see a film that is not only itself trying something new and particular to its postwar moment in time—in its expression of a generational ethos and the free and playful structure that seems to mirror its jazz soundtrack; we also see a film that is aware of the paucity of postwar French film and the necessity of new models. Rendezvous in July is its own “certain tendency” (to reference Truffaut’s anti-tradition of quality diatribe).

As much as Rendezvous in July is remembered for its jazz score and performances, theatre—glimpsed in a series of rehearsals that alternate with the jazz gigs, and conceived in the tradition of the name-checked Sacha Guitry, the theatre and film director who was another essential figure of prewar French cinema—plays as essential a role in the lives of the film’s young subjects. A production authored by the older brother of the film’s focal beauty, Christine (Nicole Courcel), becomes a site of fantasy and anxiety for the women and men respectively, as well as a source again for young male anxiety. In this case we have Christine and her more talented actress friend Thérèse (Brigitte Auber) suddenly the subject of the playwright and director’s attention, much to the consternation of their student boyfriends. While happy endings are not unambiguously forthcoming for all the director’s protagonists, as always, Becker stands on the side of the young in this exquisite generational portrait and city symphony.

Concluding the trilogy, Édouard and Caroline returns to the young-married subject of Antoine and Antoinette, albeit with Lucien’s Gélin returning as the film’s concert pianist groom. In the third film’s opening scene, Becker contrasts the couple’s labor with Édouard behind the keyboard and the comely Caroline (Anne Vernon) scrubbing a toilet. Becker now seems to sympathize more with his female rather than his overly fastidious male lead who soon complains that his wife touched his dictionaries. Of course, we discover that this is true in one of the lightly comical scenes to follow with Caroline using the books as an aid as she works on a dress for the evening’s posh dinner party.

Caroline’s preparations for the party provide not only much of the film’s light comedy, but also facilitate its most surprising visual moments. As she dresses and later ingeniously mends her dress in advance of her very wealthy uncle Claude’s party, she occasionally looks directly into the camera, primping as if she were staring into a mirror. There is a real playfulness in these moments that suits the director of Antoine and Antoinette perfectly, a youthful sense of visual experimentation that we needless should be reminded was adopted by a forty-five year old director less than a decade before his death. Then again, we also see the director’s personality in precisely these moments, in his predilection for actions and gestures that don’t advance the plot, but which merit our attention nonetheless. Becker’s cinema is one that needs to be seen in the truest sense—just like Renoir’s; it lives in the authenticity of actors performing gestures with their own human specificity, in real, recognizable places.

We also see Becker in the film’s politics. Reminiscent of Renoir’s urban interiors in The Rules of the Game, Claude’s posh, well-appointed apartment contrasts strongly with the title couple’s meager flat. Becker therefore reestablishes the wealthy vs. poor dynamic that enlivens all three films. Caroline, in this instance, comes from the better family—having married below her station, to an artist—with her love struck and relentless cousin Alain serving as Édouard’s romantic foil. However, in this case, the male lead has his own admirers to match those of the wife. Wealth attacks their loving marriage from both sides in this ultimate offering in the director’s postwar trilogy. With Édouard and Caroline it does feel that Becker is pushing out of sociological observation and more into biography.

Much of the rest of the brilliance of the third film in the trilogy—and there is no shortage of brilliance—resides in the simplicity of its structure: Édouard and Caroline unfolds comically over a single evening as the pair prepares for a dinner party that could prove professionally advantageous for Édouard. Mishap follows mishap, misunderstanding succeeds misunderstanding as the most minor of problems grow into insurmountable marital issues. By the time they reach the party, there is talk of divorce—absurd in the context of the film, yet an unavoidable conclusion for the offended parties. Suffice it to say that Becker will not allow this romantic injustice to stand.

Following Édouard and Caroline, Becker moved away from the romantic comedy-drama toward two gangster subjects, Casque d’Or and Touchez pas au grisbi, which became more direct inspirations for Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (1960), in particular. However, it is this earlier trilogy that feels closest to, if not the films themselves, the very spirit of a movement that French journalist Françoise Giroud would name in 1957, two years in advance of the new wave’s watershed year. Giroud, as it happens, co-wrote Antoine and Antoinette ten years earlier.

Jacques Becker’s trilogy screens over three successive Thursdays: Antoine and Antoinette plays Thursday, November 1 at 7:30 pm; Rendezvous in July screens Thursday, November 8 at 8 pm; and Édouard and Caroline plays Thursday, November 15 at 7:30 pm.