A fact and a theory

October 24, 2014

Fact: the Polish word for nightmare is koszmar, a direct borrowing of the French word cauchemar. The idea of Franco-Polish linguistic exchange is an unusual one. It’s quite common for words of local colour to make the journey from one language to another. It’s not surprising, for instance, that the French have borrowed the word goulache from Hungarian, and similarly the Poles talk of brioszka and bagietka; but nightmare? I wonder how the word came to be adopted into Polish, given the unrelatedness of the two languages.


Theory: there is a higher incidence of deaths from heart attack in the circus community than in the world at large.

1. Medical professionals advise that people performing CPR on anyone suffering cardiac arrest should sing in their head a song with a tempo of around 100-120 bpm, to facilitate the maintenance of a steady and appropriate pulse.

2. Popularly recommended songs for this purpose include Stayin’ Alive, the Archers theme, and Nellie the Elephant.

3. Although Nellie the Elephant is generally regarded as a happy and upbeat song, circus people consider it a sad song because it relates the departure of one of their number. As a result, circus people sing the song at a slower tempo (and sometimes in a minor key).

4. When called upon to perform CPR, circus people perform chest compressions at a correspondingly slower rate, which is less effective in combatting heart attack.

5. Therefore people suffering heart attacks while at the circus have a lower chance of survival.

It would be good to see some statistics on this.

Baby Elephant

J’ai du bon tabac

October 22, 2014

You may know the traditional French song ‘J’ai du bon tabac’.

J’ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière
J’ai du bon tabac, tu n’en auras pas.

J’en ai du fin et du bien râpé,
Mais ce n’est pas pour ton vilain nez.

J’ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière
J’ai du bon tabac, tu n’en auras pas.

The thrust of the thing is, I’ve got some good tobacco but you can’t have any.

I first came to know it as a boy, as we had it on a 45 rpm record, performed by the Maîtrise de l’O.R.T.F. Part of the appeal of the song, and many like it, is that the melody, being simple, lends itself to multiple interpretations and reharmonisations.

A few months ago, pondering the validity of a version for piano or piano duet, I did a bit of casual playing around with it on my own piano:

This version by Les Quatre Barbus, whose arrangements I don’t always care for, is attractive and bitonal:

A harmonisation with chords I and V alone might be a pretty tedious thing, but the Québécoise Madeleine Chartrand turns it into something beautiful and exhilarating and enormously cool, and a pop song, which in essence is what it is:

Best of all? This French children’s show (probably late ’60s). Nounours the bear is down. He has many woes and feels misunderstood. But Dada the horse brings him some tobacco and a pipe to make everything better:

Nounours and the Quatre Barbus prefer ‘fichu’ to ‘vilain’, which I fancy is a more emphatic word with which to condemn the addressee’s nose. Too emphatic, perhaps. Bonne nuit les petits.

50 films: #8. Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974)

August 21, 2014

The next feature film Louis Malle made after Le Souffle au Coeur is about as different a film from that social comedy as can be imagined. Lacombe Lucien is an uncompromising drama set in occupied France in 1944 about a peasant boy, Lucien Lacombe, who joins a group of collaborators.


The film opens with the teenage Lucien (Pierre Blaise) working as a hospital orderly. He washes the floors and empties the patients’ chamber pots. A bird tweets innocuously outside the window. Lucien takes a slingshot from his overall, takes aim, and kills the bird. Written down, the symbolism of this act seems heavy-handed, but it’s an effectively concise encapsulation of the paradoxes of this character. His job is to care for people, yet he takes pleasure in destruction. He is neither still a boy nor yet a man. Who carries a slingshot around?

Having finished work, Lucien cycles home to the farm where his mother lives. His father is a prisoner of war, and his mother is having an affair with the landlord, M. Laborit. Lucien brings money to his mother, and performs tasks around the farm. He helps a group of men to attach a dead horse to a cart, and strokes the horse’s head tenderly. He takes potshots at rabbits with a rifle while a younger boy attends him. He catches a chicken and, holding it upside down, chops its head off with his hand. This is all presented in the most unsentimental, matter-of-fact way. We see Lucien as an uncomplicated person, a blank canvas. What occupies his mind? What motivates him?


Laborit’s son has joined the Maquis, and perhaps this plants an idea in Lucien’s head to do the same. Lucien goes to see a schoolteacher, Peyssac, the leader of the local Resistance, and asks to join, but he is rejected as too young. Travelling back to the hospital, his bike gets a puncture. Diverted from his normal route, he happens upon a dilapidated hotel now used as a base by a group of collaborators. Taken in and plied with drink, he is quizzed about the Resistance presence in his home town of Souleillac. Naively, he tells them of Peyssac, who is apprehended the next morning. Lucien falls under the spell of the collaborators. Glamorous and attractive, and including an actress and a cycling champion, they are unlike anyone else he has ever met.

One of the collaborators, Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), takes Lucien to a middle-aged Jewish tailor, Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler), to have a suit made for him. Formerly a friend of Jean-Bernard’s father, Horn now pays Jean-Bernard protection money for not handing him over to the Gestapo. He lives in semi-reclusion with his elderly, nearly silent mother, Bella (Therese Giehse), and a daughter of about Lucien’s age, France (Aurore Clément). Lucien falls in love with France, and, despite her reservations about the people he works for, she finds herself doing the same.

This is a dangerous game for Lucien to play. When he brings France to the hotel for a party, she is viciously abused by the jealous hotel maid, Marie. Meanwhile, the longer he spends at her family apartment, the more intolerable life becomes for her father. Horn calmly hands himself in. When German troops come to take France and Bella away, Lucien intervenes to help them escape to the country. A caption relates that Lucien was later tried and executed.

Lucien and Horn

The phrase that recurs in descriptions of the film is ‘the banality of evil’, a phrase first used by Hannah Arendt in reference to Adolf Eichmann, whose trial for war crimes she attended in 1961. So much of the evil that happens over the course of the film is the result of apathy. Lucien’s heart, one senses, isn’t in helping the Gestapo. He has no interest in their principles. He simply wants something to do, and the Resistance won’t take him. Early on in his apprenticeship, the maid Marie takes Lucien to one side and advises him to abandon the Gestapo, as the Americans will win the war. It’s a test of how far he has been indoctrinated. Will he reject the collaborators as a result of her advice, or will he expose her to them as a traitor? In the event, he does nothing: it’s the easiest course.

That said, Lucien’s involvement with the collaborators gives him licence to exercise the cruel streak shown in the first scene of the film. Most of what goes on at the hotel is bureaucracy — receiving and replying to letters — and the most malevolent character in the film, the humourlessly dogmatic Faure (René Bouloc), is essentially a penpusher — the genuine face, you feel instinctively, of the Gestapo. That makes the rare occasions where the sadism of Nazism is shown explicitly all the more shocking, in scenes of water torture upstairs in the hotel, and in one chilling scene at a doctor’s country house.

Jean-Bernard, aided by Lucien, limps up to the house, feigning a leg injury and asks for Dr Vaugeois, a man he knows to be working for the maquis. The doctor cautiously takes him in. When the doctor removes the bandage from Jean-Bernard’s leg and finds no wound, he knows the game is up. Lucien and others go through the doctor’s trinkets, taking the best pieces; the doctor’s brother phones up, and is told by a collaborator, Hippolyte, that the doctor is going to be shot; Lucien and Jean-Bernard ask the doctor’s teenage son Patrick about an impressive model ship he has made during the past year. Jean-Bernard snaps the mast in two, and Lucien breaks off the upper deck. Throughout this scene, the potential for violence that seethes below the surface is as horrifying, if not more so, than the small outbreaks. As Lucien calmly breaks up the boat, he stares into Patrick’s eyes, his own swimming with malevolence, and also with wonder at the power he is just beginning to discover in himself.


The small act can be as devastating as the large. In a later scene, Lucien visits the Horns’ appartment and finds France playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Horn says he feels that his whole life has been lived to the beat of this music. After France’s departure from the room, Lucien threatens Horn with exposure unless he gives permission for France to attend a party at the hotel, and sits on the piano keyboard. The tiny gesture of sitting on the piano, the huge implication of cultural rape and desecration.

Related to the banality of evil is the element of chance in the film’s plot. A character in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys talks of subjunctive history — ‘moments when history rattles over the points.’ An example given there is that Halifax might have taken over as Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940, but at a key moment went to the dentist. If he’d had better teeth, he might have been made PM, and the Germans might have won the war. Pascal expressed a similar thought: ‘Le nez de Cléopâtre: s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.’

Lacombe Lucien is a huge ‘what if’. Lucien, broadly speaking, is not someone who does things, rather someone things happen to. If he had been taken in by the Resistance, or if his bike hadn’t suffered a puncture, he would not have encountered the collaborators. Late in the film, with the hotel sacked and the collaborators decimated, Lucien comes across a prisoner upstairs in the hotel. The prisoner appeals to Lucien’s youth, and promises that he will help Lucien to escape if he releases him. It’s another turning point: if Lucien lets the man go free, he has a chance of making it out alive himself. Instead, Lucien gags the man and draws on a lipstick mouth. It’s his own pathetic show of resistance.


It doesn’t seem to be until Horn sacrifices himself, maintaining his dignity to the bitter end, that Lucien begins to appreciate the value of life. He redeems his past actions with one heroic act, but too late to save himself. The final scenes of the film, which pulsate quietly with energy, show Lucien, France and Bella establishing a way of living in a deserted farmhouse. Lucien sets traps for food, kills animals, cleans his gun, counts his money, makes love with France; Bella wanders in the fields, watches a cricket on a leaf, plays patience. Lucien’s return to the simplicity of rural life is a return to blamelessness.


I didn’t write about the performances in Le Souffle au Coeur, but one has to write about the performance here of Pierre Blaise, perhaps the most notable of the many non-professional actors Malle worked with. (The performances of Holger Löwenadler and Therese Giehse are also remarkable, to a degree that I am not capable of expressing.) That one feels no sense of justice at the fate of Lucien, just one of pointlessness and pity, is down to the power of this one performance. Malle, quoted in Philip French’s exemplary Malle on Malle:

I could see from the first rushes that on the screen there was something so powerful, so ambiguous about him. In a way, you could look at him as the ultimate villain, but at the same time he was incredibly moving, as he was discovering power and money and how you can humiliate people who have been humiliating you for years. Pierre Blaise was so good, he got me into trouble. A lot of people saw the film almost as an apology for a collaborator because Blaise was so moving and disturbing that you could not completely hate him.

The character of Lucien seems to have been an extension of Blaise’s own. It is clear that his own influence on the film was profound, and welcomed by Malle.

He was very wild, he was seventeen, had left school at fourteen and had gone to work with his elder brother, who was cutting trees in the woods … Something that fascinated me from the beginning — he had a natural culture. He was a passionate hunter; he would talk about birds, about birds in certain seasons, how to find them, how to hide yourself to shoot them. He had this intimate relationship with nature — not only being a peasant, but also he’d spent the last two years of his life in the woods.

I did something that I had already done with Le Souffle au Coeur. We were going through the script and he was reading the scenes, and [Patrick] Modiano and I would listen to him. We adjusted the script because when he had a problem with a line he was usually right and we were wrong. I could see right away that he knew much more about the character than I did; he was not only playing the part, he was also my technical consultant on everything that had to do with the character’s background, his emotions, his behaviour. He agreed to do the film somewhat reluctantly, I think he was interested in the money and I liked the fact that he was not really interested in becoming an actor.

As with Lucien in the film, we can play the ‘what if’ game with Pierre Blaise. He died the year after the film’s release, barely twenty years old, crashing a car he had bought with the money from his acting work. If he’d never met Louis Malle… But there is no what if in life. It’s history — just one fucking thing after another.

I don’t have any grand thesis about this film. Just watch it, is what I say. Alan Bennett again, writing about perhaps the film’s greatest asset, its avoidance of didacticism, in the London Review of Books:

To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as clichés. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien … The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences — witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl — as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront. That would be the convention, and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction in the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.


50 films: #7. Le Souffle au Coeur / Murmur of the Heart / Dearest Love (Louis Malle, 1971)

August 16, 2014

The latest in an occasional series of uninformed essays about films I like. I was prompted to revive this semi-aborted project when I read the published screenplay of Le Souffle au Coeur last month to check whether I could still understand French. The reminder this gave me of my absolute devotion to this film, a devotion that, unlike so many other things, has endured for the best part of twenty years, made me think I ought to dig a little deeper.

In order to distinguish this blog post from everything else that has been written about Le Souffle au Coeur over the years, I will start with my personal discovery of the film. When I reached the age of 13 I developed a passion for foreign films, particularly French films. I loved them partly because watching things with subtitles made me feel mature, however illusory that feeling may have been, but more particularly because I loved the French language and because, largely by chance, the films I discovered happened to be about subjects close to my heart — love, boyhood, growing up (or not). It may be a false memory, but I think I was given a video of Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups on the same birthday that I received my first shaver.

(Digressing slightly, it was Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne that set me off, screened as part of the BBC’s ‘Cinema 100′ season in 1995. I saw many films for the first time then: The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Night of the Hunter. Vertigo too, I think. Every week a new epiphany. Those days are gone. When BBC2 showed Now, Voyager a couple of weeks ago I nearly had a coronary.)

Le Souffle au Coeur

Growing up in unmetropolitan Somerset in the 1990s, the way you got to see foreign films was to check what was on BBC2 or Channel 4 late at night and set the video, and that was precisely how I came across Le Souffle au Coeur, which was broadcast in a double bill with Malle’s Le Feu Follet at some point in February 1997. I think it was then, because I recall it being around the time of my brother’s birthday, and because I remember discussing it with my uncle on the phone, which would have to have been that year, and, most conclusively, because documentary evidence exists that proves I was 13 years old, namely this. I’m amazed it’s still there. I hadn’t perfected my polished prose style by that time, and doubtless what I wrote then was mostly derived from the thoughts of other people; but there it is. It contains spoilers, as will this.

Then, as now, the Radio Times included the film’s BBFC classification in its listings, and while I could generally get away with watching a 15, Le Souffle au Coeur was an 18, though it sounded tame enough to me. I was desperate to watch it. Fortunately the attention my parents paid to what I watched was not so scrupulous that I couldn’t sneak a film like this past them. I was naturally devious, they tacitly condoned my viewing of Eurotrash, and the parental veto was rarely enforced. Better that I should be watching a film about a boy visiting a brothel than that I should be visiting one myself, they might have reasoned, sensible people that they were. I loved the film so much I even showed it to my mother (a not infrequent occurrence, though a bold move in this instance; more on that later), who loved it too.

The film opens in the spring of 1954. The French are at war in Indochina. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and a schoolfriend are stalking the streets of Dijon in pursuit of money, ostensibly for the wounded at Dien Bien Phu. They talk of jazz — Laurent loves Charlie Parker; his friend, less coolly, Jelly Roll Morton — and go into a record shop, where Laurent steals an LP while his friend attempts to butter up the owner. The owner moans that if he gave to every charity he’d have no money left. ‘Mais monsieur,’ pleads Laurent, ‘il s’agit de la France.’ The man puts a coin into the collecting tin, and Laurent and his friend move on. Laurent arrives home. His family house is grand, if a little faded, and doubles as his father’s gynaecological practice. At the door Laurent is greeted by his cat Joseph. ‘I’ll play you a record that’ll blow your mind,’ he says, and they go in.

I love this title sequence, which is an encapsulation in miniature of many aspects of the film: its style (I love the simplicity of the titles — Helvetica, is it?), its wickedness, its good humour, and (not least) jazz. And in barely four minutes, we have come to know its hero, Laurent, an intelligent, playful, cheeky adolescent who loves jazz and reading but doesn’t always play by the rules.

Laurent’s life at home is essentially a happy one. He has two mischievous elder brothers, Thomas and Marc (Fabien Ferreux and Marc Winocourt), who lead him through various rites of passage — smoking, meeting girls, and eventually sex — and lots of records (Parker, Gillespie) and books (Camus, Vian, Montherlant, Proust, Tintin). Laurent’s parents’ marriage is an unexpected one. His father, Charles (Daniel Gélin), is middle-aged and stuffy, his glamorous Italian mother, Clara (Lea Massari), a free spirit, much younger — indeed, she seems to be closer in age to her sons than to her husband. During a discussion of the war at dinner she describes colonial expeditions as ‘démodé’, which earns her a critical glance from Charles. She dotes on Laurent, and calls him ‘Renzino’.


There is a moment in the title sequence where Laurent’s friend spills some of the money he has collected. As they gather it up again, Laurent giggles. This is a sign of things to come. Rarely can a film have been made that contains more laughter. Laurent returns home to find his father ranting at his secretary for having double-booked him. Laurent laughs as he cradles Joseph. He then finds his brothers in conference with his mother. While Marc stands guard, Thomas extracts some money from her purse. The subsequent chase around the room is resolved not in anger but in laughter. A number of scenes in which Thomas and Marc misbehave — getting Laurent’s ruler out to compare penis size (‘Je bande pas, c’est mon état normal!’), playing spinach tennis at the dinner table, getting Laurent drunk and letting a girlfriend teach him French kissing at a party — end by being foiled by the family servant Augusta (Ave Ninchi), but whereas in another film the interruption would have been ominous, in each case here the good humour is maintained. It’s unusual that a film should show people having fun and getting on with each other to such an extent, and unusual that there should be so little threat to the harmony of Laurent’s existence. He doesn’t get on with his father, but there’s no suggestion that he may attempt emancipation. A film with so little conflict might be unspeakably dull, but Le Souffle au Coeur is not.

The film draws heavily on Malle’s own childhood. He grew up in a bourgeois industrialist family, had two boisterous elder brothers, and, like Laurent, was diagnosed with a heart murmur and had to go away to a sanatorium to recover. Malle told Philip French:

During my early years as an adult — not that I had been an unhappy child, actually I had a happy childhood — I rebelled violently against my background and education. I suppressed my childhood and didn’t want to deal with it, which perhaps explains why my early films were not about my childhood the way most first films are. But, after India [where Malle had gone to make documentaries], it came back. I had reached a point where I was beyond rebellion and I was trying to understand what had happened to me and how I’d become who I was. It’s not that I consciously went back to my childhood; my childhood came back to me.

Malle’s early films grew out of collaboration with right-wing writers and actors, but by the 1970s Malle’s own political beliefs had settled into a sort of left-wing libertarianism. Le Souffle au Coeur is a symbol of that, a family drama that subverts the bourgeois morality of his childhood, playfully but (to some viewers) shockingly.


Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur after contracting scarlet fever at scout camp, and is advised by his doctor to visit the spa town of Bourbon-les-Eaux for a cure. The scenes that follow form the most joyous sequence of the whole film: Augusta changes the ice on his chest, which he tolerates grumpily; Clara sits by his bedside and talks of her childhood, singing Italian folksongs with her guitar; his brothers visit to give him presents of music and books and to tell him of their sexual exploits; his confessor, Père Henri (Michael Lonsdale), visits to teach him Heraclitus, and is gently mocked by Laurent and Clara; finally, Laurent and Thomas try to play chess while their parents, uncle and aunt are glued to the television (subversion of traditional roles). Marc comes in to announce he has passed his exams, then in a moment of high spirits attacks a Corot painting on the wall with a knife. We know it is a forgery, but the adults don’t, and the three boys are in hysterics at their outrage. This series of vignettes builds up a picture of Laurent’s life far more effectively than a single, drawn-out scene would, and that is the case throughout the film. Malle is rarely thought of as an auteur, because his style seems to vary so wildly from film to film, but he often shows himself to be a great storyteller. His way of telling this story may appear almost casual, but it masks a great sophistication.


The second half of the film takes place at Bourbon-les-Eaux, where due to an administrative blunder Laurent and Clara have to share a room. Laurent strikes up friendships with the other teenagers staying at the sanatorium, and Clara flirts with a self-satisfied young man, Hubert. Laurent protests this in the strongest terms: Hubert is an idiot, and a royalist! Laurent’s quite right about Hubert, but his objections are a sign of jealousy, and his relationship with Clara often appears to be equivalent to that of a husband and wife, or at least of two close friends. When Laurent discovers his mother is expecting a visit from a man she has been having an affair with, he gives her his blessing: ‘Quoique tu fasses, je t’aime et je suis avec toi.’ After the relationship has ended, he consoles her, acting as her confidant. She expresses a thought that may have occurred to the viewer: that this is an unusual conversation for a mother and son to be having. ‘Pourquoi pas?’ he replies. ‘Je suis ton ami.’ When, both somewhat drunk after Bastille Day celebrations, they fall into bed together and make love tenderly, it feels the most natural thing in the world. Malle again:

When the picture was released, I was standing outside a theatre on the Champs Élysées listening to people’s reactions as they came out. I remember two women, obviously members of the bourgeoisie, coming out of the film. They had wonderful smiles and really seemed very happy. Suddenly one of them said, ‘It was horrible what we just saw.’ Then they started arguing. One said, ‘I thought it was funny and touching.’ Then, ‘No, no, it’s terrible.’ And she suddenly became very pompous. I tried to follow them on the Champs Élysées, but at some point they noticed that I was listening. I think it was a case of double-take for many people; they enjoyed the film tremendously, and then when they thought about it, they said, ‘Hey, this is a very scandalous proposition.’ I really liked that. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked to do, forcing people to reconsider preconceived ideas.

I imagine Malle came under a certain amount of pressure from his studio to end the film differently. If you get busy with your mother, you have to pay the price. Any Ancient Greek can tell you that. And if memory serves there is a moment in the screenplay where Laurent briefly contemplates a razor blade. What happens, though, is that Clara explains to him gently that what has happened will not happen again, but that she will think of it fondly. Laurent goes out, gets into bed with another girl, and returns the next morning, shoes in hand, to find his father and brothers waiting for him. Realising the implication of Laurent returning shoeless, Thomas and Marc begin to laugh. Charles joins in, then Clara, then finally Laurent himself. It is the only way the film could have ended, with the reintroduction of laughter, the dissolution of tension.


When I revisited the film a couple of days ago, I found I hardly needed to. I’ve assimilated it. What is its legacy to me? Laurent’s tastes certainly influenced my reading (I think perhaps I had already read Camus’ L’Étranger, but it inspired me to try Le Mythe de Sisyphe, which I managed about 30 pages of before giving up; later, I fell in love with Montherlant), but the main thing it gave me was jazz. I don’t imagine a day will dawn when I fail to see the point of Charlie Parker. I even share Laurent’s lack of humour about it. At the sanatorium he asks a girl, Hélène, back to his room to listen to his records. When she suggests dancing to them, he retorts, ‘Sont des disques pour écouter, pas pour danser.’



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