Monday, September 24

An archetype for the ages


A hundred years ago, Hollywood did not exist, but Gaumont did. This fall, UCLA pays tribute to the world's oldest film company - a cinematic trip through a century of French and European history, from silent movies to 'La Femme Nikita.'

By Lael Loewenstein

In 1895, when future MGM mogul Louis Mayer was in grade school and
Warner Bros. scion Jack Warner in diapers, a young French visionary
named Léon Gaumont took over a photographic equipment firm and
created what was to become one of the world’s foremost film
companies.

A sampling of Gaumont’s films is showcased in the current series
at Melnitz Theater, "Gaumont Presents: A Century of French Film."
The two-month centennial celebration is the result of immense
curatorial efforts. All of the films in the series have been
restored and new 35 mm. prints have been struck, affording viewers
the opportunity to see a number of works rarely screened in the
U.S.

As Nicolas Seydoux, president and CEO of Gaumont, observes, "The
series demonstrates three qualities: continuity, diversity and
evolution. Continuity because of continued quality, diversity
because of the great variety in our films and filmmakers, and
evolution because of the hundred years."

Seydoux does not exaggerate. Today, Gaumont is not only the
world’s oldest film production company, it is also one of the most
prolific. Often credited with the creation of the film industry as
it exists today, Gaumont has produced, distributed and exhibited
close to 7,000 films.

Having started last weekend with the silent films of Alice Guy,
one of the first women writer-directors, and the surreal animated
shorts of Emile Cohl, the series continues all this week with the
melodramatic serials of Louis Feuillade. Feuillade’s controversial
five-part "Les Vampires" (1915), banned by the police as an
"exaltation of evil," was among the first works to glamorize
crime.

Vastly different in tone but also controversial, Carl Dreyer’s
"La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc," (screening Oct. 13) about the life
and death of Joan of Arc, impressed critics but disappointed
audiences when it was released in 1928. History has redeemed
Dreyer, however, and his work is hailed today as a masterpiece of
the silent era.

"I think when they see the early films, people will be surprised
by the experimentation of these filmmakers," Seydoux says. "They
understood how the camera could be utilized." Despite technological
limitations, pioneers like Feuillade and Dreyer explored every
possibility of the camera, introducing surreal dreamlike sequences
and bizarre effects when possible.

Marking the transition to sound, Jean Vigo’s poetic "L’Atalante"
and impressionistic "Zéro de Conduite" (Oct. 23) stand out as
remarkable achievements from a career cut short by Vigo’s untimely
death at 29. Over sixty years after its production, "L’Atalante,"
the story of a newlywed couple’s spiritual and physical journey,
continues to make Sight and Sound’s critics’ list as one of the
greatest films of all time.

Vigo’s films are noteworthy for their evocative treatment of
characters’ psychological states, often infusing poetry, pathos and
passion into the ordinary. "American films tend to express
character relations through action. In European cinema, human
relations are expressed through dialogue and psychological
differences." says Seydoux.

Among the series’ later highlights are works by New Wave auteurs
Robert Bresson and Eric Rohmer (Oct. 27 and 29), comedies by Yves
Robert and Francis Veber (Nov. 3), and films by two of France’s
most celebrated current directors, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc
Besson. Beineix’s "Betty Blue" will screen in its uncut three-hour
version on Nov. 26, while Besson’s enormously successful "La Femme
Nikita" wraps up the series on Dec. 3.

Although "Betty Blue" and "La Femme Nikita" evoked controversies
in the U.S. for their explicit sexual content and violence, Seydoux
is undeterred. "Cinema, as an artistic medium, is the product of
imagination. And what is imagination but the right to be
controversial?"

Whether it is controversy or the encroaching fields of
multimedia, television and home video, Seydoux does not worry that
Gaumont will lose its audience. "I believe that cinema is the
headlamp of audio-visual (media). It is the only thing for which
you still leave your home. You make a choice to go outside and have
this experience in common with an audience, to be cut off from the
world for two hours." As Gaumont has demonstrated for a hundred
years, audiences gladly make that choice. As long as Gaumont
continues making films, they will continue to go to the cinema.

FILM: "Gaumont Presents: A Century of French
Cinema." Presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archives.
Melnitz Theater (Oct. 3 – Dec. 3). TIX: $3, $5; matinee: $1.50,
$3

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