The Review/Short Read/

How the “French James Dean” became the heir to Bresson

Screen heartthrob Gérard Blain moved behind the camera to direct a series of masterful films

Gérard Blain in Claude Chabrol’s LE BEAU SERGE

by Brad Deane
Jun 13, 2018

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Rebel Without a Cause: The Cinema of Gérard Blain begins Thursday, June 14.

Much like the young protagonist of his film Un enfant dans la foule, Gérard Blain experienced a difficult childhood in Nazi-occupied France. After working as an extra on such films as Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis during the 1940s, in the early ’50s Blain was discovered by director Julien Duvivier, who cast him alongside Jean Gabin in Deadlier Than the Male.

Gérard Blain and Bernadette Lafont in François Truffaut’s Les Mistons

However, it was Blain’s association with the emerging French New Wave that launched him to stardom: after appearing in François Truffaut’s early short Les Mistons (alongside his then-wife, nouvelle vague muse Bernadette Lafont) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Charlotte et son Jules, he starred in Claude Chabrol’s diptych Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, the latter of which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Blain’s powerful performances and brooding good looks caught the eye of Hollywood, and in 1962 he was cast opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ adventure classic Hatari!

Left to right: John Wayne, Blain, and Hardy Kruger in Howard Hawks’ Hatari!

Even as he remained much in demand throughout the 1960s, Blain became disenchanted with the routine thrillers, dramas and romances he was being offered. Inspired by the transcendental trio of Ozu, Dreyer, and Bresson, in 1971 Blain made his debut as a director with Les Amis, which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. Eschewing a mere mimicry of Bresson’s ineffable style, Blain developed a sober, precise, minimalist approach that shared the principles and sensibilities of his idol’s cinema.

Though he was an avowed atheist who proclaimed that he had no interest in politics, Blain, like Bresson, did not hesitate to frame his film as a protest against a world that had lost its way. “We live in an infected age. There is no faith, no morality, no higher sentiments,” Blain proclaimed. “Pleasure, sex, everything that appeals to our lowest instincts, rules. I have always been obsessed by this decline in values, and fundamentally, all my films are about the search to find them again.”

Blain (centre) on set

Famously obstinate as an actor, Blain was no less so as a director, and his refusal to compromise often made it difficult for him to get his films made. Nevertheless, in the eight theatrical features he directed over the next three decades, Blain earned Mia Hansen-Løve’s description of him as “the real inheritor of Bresson” by creating an intense, remarkably cohesive cinematic world, one that hewed to a strict moral clarity in contrast to the corrupt, capitalistic society that he decried. Like Charles, the young protagonist of Bresson’s Le Diable probablement, Blain was afflicted with “the illness of seeing too clearly”; now, North American audiences will finally have a chance to see Blain’s remarkable vision for themselves.

Thanks to Paul Blain, Mia Hansen-Love, and Regina Schlagnitweit of the Austrian Filmmuseum for their help in making this series possible.

Le Pélican

Blain’s achingly moving portrait of paternal love focuses on jazz musician and new father Paul (Blain), who, seeking to satisfy his wife’s upwardly-mobile desires, takes part in an illegal scheme that promptly lands him in prison. Released many years later, Paul discovers that his wife has remarried to a wealthy man. Tracing them to their luxurious summer house in Switzerland, Paul spies on the new family, hoping to one day reunite with his young son.

Un enfant dans la foule

Partially based on the director’s own wartime childhood, Blain’s cruel story of youth takes place in Nazi-occupied France, where young Paul (César Chaveau) is forced to fend for himself after being abandoned by his parents. Struggling to survive and yearning for affection and acceptance, Paul is picked up by men on the street and performs small jobs for German soldiers, his emotional rootlessness leading him from collaboration into the Resistance.

Hatari!

Blain had his first and only Hollywood outing as part of the international cast of director Howard Hawks’ African-set adventure, starring John Wayne as the leader of a colourful group of adventurers in East Africa engaged in trapping big game for zoos.

Le Beau Serge

Gérard Blain cemented his stardom with his unforgettable performance in the prize-winning first film of Claude Chabrol, about a tubercular young theology student, François (Jean-Claude Brialy), who returns to his small hometown and reunites with his childhood friend Serge (Blain), now a hopeless drunk. François’ attempts to save his dissolute friend are moving in ways that Chabrol’s later films rarely are, and the performances by the then-unknown Blain and Brialy are indelible.

Les Amis

Winner of the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, Blain’s assured debut feature focuses on handsome young teenager Paul (Yann Favre), who enters into an affair with a wealthy older man, Philippe (Philippe March), in order to escape his working-class life. While the lovers are on a summer getaway at a fancy hotel in Deauville, Paul falls in with a group of wealthy vacationing teenagers, including the beautiful blonde Marie-Laure (Nathalie Fontaine) — but Philippe refuses to relinquish their bond.

Les Cousins

Reuniting Claude Chabrol and stars Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy less than a year after Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins takes the classic “town mouse and country mouse” story and turns it into a dark study in the venality of virtue, as the pious bumpkin (Blain) uses his outmoded merits of diligence, sobriety, fidelity, and literariness to continually undercut his suave, amoral Parisian cousin (Brialy), whose apartment is rife with drugs, orgies, and fascist regalia. Shot in a showy, expressionistic style that captures the “beat” of late-’50s Parisian bohemia, Les Cousins features as its centrepiece a wild party that culminates in a breathtakingly cruel joke.

Un second souffle

Leaving his loving wife and children, fiftysomething dental surgeon François (played by American actor Robert Stack) tries to recapture his golden years by splurging on sharp clothes, obsessing over fitness, and beginning a relationship with a much younger woman, Catherine (Anicée Alvina). When he learns that Catherine is also having an affair with a young man her own age, François is forced to confront the limitations of his aging body and the reality of his waning youth.

Le Rebelle

After the death of his parents, Pierre (Patrick Norbert) is forced to care for his younger sister by committing petty crimes. In a recurring motif of Blain’s cinema, Pierre is taken under the wing of an older gay man, Hubert (Michel Subor), who offers him work and financial security. When Hubert makes advances to him, Pierre robs him and takes up with a group of radical leftists who are planning terrorist attacks, leading to an act of horrific violence.

Pierre et Djemila

Set in a housing project in the northern French town of Roubaix, Blain’s Romeo and Juliet redux chronicles the star-crossed love affair between sensitive French teen Pierre (Jean-Pierre André) and Djemila (Nadja Reski), the daughter of Algerian immigrants. Separated by both cultural barriers and racially charged bitterness — Pierre’s father is an Algerian War veteran, while Djemila’s older brother despises the French for their brutal repression in his homeland — the young lovers see each other in secret, until the intervention of a family member leads to tragedy.

Jusqu’au bout de la nuit

Following an eight-year hiatus as a director, Blain returned with this subversive thriller that the director dubbed “not a gangster film, but a love story and a relentless tragedy.” Released after serving a 12-year prison sentence, career criminal François (Blain) begins a relationship with a younger woman, Maria (Anicée Alvina), but his need for cash — and his uncompromising opposition to a “normal” society he detests — leads him back to his outlaw ways, and towards an explosive denouement.

Ainsi soit-il

Completed the year before Blain’s death from cancer, the director’s final work stars his son Paul as Regis Vasseur, a grief-stricken young man whose father Georges, the legal director of an engineering firm, has been mysteriously murdered. When a document given to him by the family lawyer seems to link Georges’ death to the corporate malfeasance of the company’s director, the son of Georges’ late partner, Regis sets his sights on vengeance.