A man is formed between seven and sixteen years old; after that, for his whole life, he will live out whatever he has acquired between these two ages.
Interview with Luce Sand, Jeune cinéma, May 31, 1968
Did you really have an unhappy childhood?
No. It was just like that of Antoine in The 400 Blows. The film was not at all exaggerated. In fact, I have a feeling I left out things that might have struck people as unrealistic. What I do regret is not having shown how closely associated my story was with the years immediately following the War. But, it was my first film—I wasn’t yet capable of making a period film. I still have a film to make that will go back to that time, one about a boy under the Occupation. It wouldn’t deal with the Resistance, only the more mundane aspects of life at that time … I have to say that the fact of having grown up during the Occupation gave me a terrible view of adults.
When were you born? What did your parents do?
My father was a young designer-architect who was especially keen on mountain climbing, along with my mother, who was a secretary at the weekly magazine L’Illustration
, rue Saint-Georges, where my grandfather Jean de Monferrand worked—also a mountain climber and an official in the French
Alpine Club. They were regarded as real eccentrics in the quarter, because they would leave in shorts with a backpack every Saturday morning, arriving back on Sunday night. There are people like that whom it is impossible to label …
I was born in Paris, very near Place Pigalle, on the sixth of February, 1932, being immediately handed over to a nurse, then raised until I was eight years old by my grandmother. When my grandmother died, my parents took me back. They were not mean—only highly strung and preoccupied. My mother was embittered. Undoubtedly, she would have loved to have a more dazzling life. I was not sporty; very quickly it was cinema that attracted me. Not to love camping was considered a dubious business in the household.
Do you remember your first experience of cinema?
I don’t have a very good memory of the first film I saw, probably in 1938 or 1939, because of the incompetence of the “permanent” employee in the theater. My aunt took me to the cinema, and we went into the film while a marriage scene was being shown on the screen. Two hours later, the same scene was played again, and my aunt said, “This is the scene that was playing when we arrived,” and we left.
This makes me think of a story, the one about the little girl who saw Joan of Arc
at the cinema, and, when describing the story later, said, “It’s about a lady who is put in the fire and then becomes a shepherdess.”1
My first clear memory of a film was of Four Flights to Love
by Abel Gance, with Micheline Presle and Fernand Gravey, in 1939 or 1940.2
It is a film that made everyone in the theater cry, because of parallels between the periods. It was a film about the war of 1914–1918, and the theaters were full of soldiers on leave, men who were going to leave for the war, or were returning from it, so things were really crazy, I think, throughout the whole of France. I heard my mother weeping by my side; my father had just been mobilized. As for myself, I didn’t cry, probably because I didn’t understand what was going on very well, but I was bowled over; my only fear was that the film would end.
I have often rewatched Four Flights to Love since, and each time I do weep, because it is a really irresistible, brilliant melodrama.
Although they weren’t cinephiles, my parents were keen on entertainments, and discussed important plays and films between themselves. That guided and directed my taste. They took me to see certain films, but I very quickly adopted the habit of secretly going to see ones to which they didn’t take me. When my parents went out together at night, I myself would also leave, ten minutes after them, to go to the cinema, generally at the closest
theater. I didn’t enjoy these evenings as much as I might have, because my anxiety about getting caught, and of getting home after them, was too great. The second half of the film was spoiled, to the extent that fear would make me leave before the movie had finished, because I had to be in bed when my parents came back. I still retain a great degree of anxiety from this period, and films are associated with anxiety for me, with the idea of secrecy. And so I found it more convenient to go to the cinema in the afternoon, skipping class.
What school did you go to?
Up until 1941 I was at the Lycée Rollin. I failed the examination to enter into the sixth grade. And so my parents decided to put me back into primary school.
At primary school, there was no one else who had come from a high school. I was somewhat of a misfit. At high school, no one played hooky. Here, it was an everyday occurrence. I began by behaving well like everyone else, and then I played up. The more I was punished, the more unruly I was. So I was expelled quite often. I went from school to school. I was taught in the local school in rue Choron, then at rue de la Victoire, then at rue Hippolyte-Lebas, then at the École commerciale in avenue Trudaine—you can see the kind of pupil I was! I played hooky in the company of my friend Robert Lachenay. When one of us was made to go back to a particular school, the other would arrange to follow shortly after, so that we were always attending the same one. I don’t know how it happened, but I ended up being placed in classes that were less and less advanced. On one occasion, I found myself in a class I had already taken three years earlier in another school. I attended for some days at the end of the month for compositions. I remember that at one time, we were away so much, Robert Lachenay and I, that we trumped up fake school reports written with India ink on paper folders, which we made our parents sign.
What money did you use to go to the cinema?
When my “pocket money” for the week ran out, I used the money meant for the school canteen, but I also have to admit that I frequented many theaters where it was possible to enter without paying.
How did you do that?
I had a different method for each cinema. At the Delta it required two of us to go: one of us would pay and then let the other in (that was always done
through the toilets). At the Images, we had a different strategy, because the lavatories were in the hall, in the basement; we had to go down the stairs and, when we did, we would always find an old ticket in the toilets, on the floor. Then, all we had to do was sling our jackets over our shoulder to make it look as if we had come out of the theater, have this old ticket to show, and then choose a moment in the intermission, and that worked. Even at the Gaumont-Palace, it was possible to get in, but at the peak time, on Sunday afternoon, at the moment when members of the audience were coming out, because of the immense doors, and the four thousand people who were exiting. It involved pretending to be someone who had forgotten something, and moving back through this flood of people. That was also possible.
At that time there were two cinemas facing each other across the boulevard des Italiens: the New York and the Cinéac-Italiens. Both started up at ten o’clock in the morning. Their patrons consisted almost entirely of school kids and high school students. And we could not all come with our satchels because that would have looked funny. Every morning there would be a group of fifty or sixty children there. They would be waiting, and the first cinema that opened would get all the clientele, because everyone was anxious to get out of sight, because we felt very guilty.
What films do you still remember?
The films that I really admired, obviously, were French films, given that I started to go to the cinema during the War. Films like Le Corbeau: The Raven
, and Les Visiteurs du Soir
Very soon, I had seen them several times. At the beginning, that was an accident, as I had seen them secretly without my parents’ knowing; then my parents would say, “Come, let’s go to the cinema,” and I would be taken to see a film again without being able to say that I had already seen it! But that gave me a taste for seeing a film several times.
The best film of the Occupation—and the one that was most talked about—was Le Corbeau. Les Visiteurs du Soir
provoked arguments at school: there were all those who were critical of the castle, and all those who defended the white castle. But yes, that was all we talked about, even the teacher. He would say, “The castle had to be new at one moment or another, and so it is intelligent to have built a white castle.” There was a strong vein of fantasy in French cinema. At that time I loved any film coming out that was a little bit crazy. In those days I placed quality things on the same level as things that were definitely less good, like La Fiancée des ténèbres
. I adored that. It was very strange—with Jany Holt … Also The Phantom Baron
… I remember one film I saw … I was just a kid, it was at Montauban, it was called Pontcarral
do you remember it?4
At any rate, I was a subversive spectator. Supporting the director, against the audience. Always. Even in the case of films that were being ridiculed, films that people were sniggering at. I was all for the ridiculous, for audacity, cheek … Lyricism, always, always lyricism.
And what did this revolt come from? From your reading? From your temperament?
I think it came from watching films in secret, from the fact that we were playing hooky so often and doing so many stupid things during the war—I identified with every occasion on which someone on the screen was shown to be bored, every time someone found themselves in an irregular situation. Reading Madame Bovary was a shock for me because it offered a parallel to my truancy. So many lovers and so many money troubles! That struck a chord with me; I detested everything that was normal.
What did cinema mean to you at that time?
With the passing of time, it has become obvious to me that cinema has been much more than merely a refuge. I’ll admit now that the neurotic aspect of my love for cinema is unmistakable. In earlier times, I didn’t understand that, I didn’t have any awareness of the fact; today, I know it for sure. At the same time, it is difficult to talk about something that is so intimate and personal! It is no exaggeration to say that cinema saved my life. That’s why I can’t speak about it intellectually. From time to time I would use the expression “drug” before the word became fashionable … The reason I threw myself so avidly into the cinema is probably because I was dissatisfied with my own life during the years of my early childhood—specifically, the years of the Occupation, since in 1942 I was ten years old. Thus 1942 is an important date for me: it is the moment when I began to go and see a lot of films. From the age of ten to nineteen I was obsessed with films. I’m unable to be objective about that.
What kind of cinema formed you?
I often say that the “Minnelli-ites” (fans of Minnelli)5
and the fans of American cinema are people who are not seeking to see themselves reflected in a film in any way. They are looking for total escape, including a change of visual scenery, which is to say, that they would prefer not to see their own town, their own streets, or their own world. Their need for escape is extreme. As far as I was concerned, perhaps because there were no American films during the Occupation, I was first formed by a handful of French films. I say
“a handful” because, between 1942 and 1944, there were no more than forty or fifty, of which the most memorable was definitely Le Corbeau
. Perhaps this was also because I preferred to encounter a world that was not too far removed from my own in real life … I preferred, for example, modern films to period films, and psychological films and crime thrillers to other kinds of films … That’s all that I can say on that subject; anything else would be more appropriate as part of a study of cinema during the Occupation.
In what respects did you see Le Corbeau as reflecting the times?
It’s a film I went to see about twenty times. Five or six times during the War, and then repeatedly when, having been censored at the Liberation, it was once again licensed to be shown. It is a film whose dialogue I have learned by heart, which is not surprising, and happens with all films that one sees enough times to know them intimately. From Le Corbeau I probably learned 150 words of vocabulary that I didn’t know before; it contained a very adult kind of dialogue compared with the other cinema of the time, but also in relation to my own vocabulary. Even today, I still know by heart the text of anonymous letters in Le Corbeau … I had not yet rebelled at that stage, but was on the verge of doing so, and these films presented a picture of society that spoke to me. The whole world was rotten, and there were things relating to love that seemed to me—it would be wrong to say “new,” given that I had not had much experience—at any rate, “original.” Even today, I find that the interactions between Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc are very powerful. They are still compelling, and have not become clichés.
Later, while continuing to love French cinema, I discovered American cinema. To be frank, to a cert...