A Propos de deux

By Richard Armstrong


    In a piece on French film education resources recently I included some comments on Jean Vigo’s delightful seaside documentary A Propos de Nice. So I watched the film again. It so happened that the evening before I had watched the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Seeing both of these films in such proximity made me wonder if they had ever been paired in a double bill…

    In the August 2008 issue of Sight and Sound, David Thomson writes: “my favourite double bills are secret, thematic pairings, films where deep below the surface one picture is speaking to another.” Thomson’s suggestion of unexpected relations, an unforeseen conversation, seems a vital aspect of the double bill as practice and as institution. The bringing together of two disparate films can lead to a rethinking of each in ways that encourage fresh associations to be envisaged between hitherto disparate titles and traditions. This ‘collision,’ so to speak, could even be said to produce a third film, or idea of a film, perhaps even prompting us to think anew about genres. Coming into its own during the high days of repertory arthouse exhibition in the 1960s and 1970s, the double bill can be seen as a stage in the historical progression from the classical genre cycle, the Warner gangster programmers, the MGM Freed musicals, Gainsborough melodrama, for examples, through repertory cinema’s excavation of classicism, to the contemporary cinephile’s domestic DVD juxtaposition. In his piece in the 2005 essay collection Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory, Gerwin van der Pol sees the artful pairing as fundamental to the cinephile’s project: “So the ‘Holy Grail’ of knowledge for the cinephile is finding a novel connection.” Jane Giles was a former programmer at London’s Scala cinema. In the August, 2008 Sight and Sound, her testimony reinforces the perception that the inspired double was the special province of post-war cinephilia: “Despite the obvious emphases on director, genre or star, there were no hard and fast programming rules to what made a good double bill…(it was) in the hands of enthusiasts, fired up by audiences who crammed the suggestion box with their dream double bills.”


Above, Paramount’s unusual pairing of The Odd Couple with Rosemary’s Baby: does its ‘third identity’ speak of obsessive-compulsive lifestyles?

Below, Columbia mentions preexisting hits to promote their new releases: Gilda for Lady from Shanghai, Going My Way for On the Waterfront. (Thanks to John McElwee for these two images.)

A_Propos_5_3311.jpg    A_Propos_6_3311.jpg

    Such cinephilia is not limited to the rep aficionado. Artfully pairing films also enjoys currency among industry professionals brought up in the repertory decades. Creative pairing permeates the Hollywood story conference. In The Player (1992), a Hollywood satire balanced stealthily between fiction and verisimilitude, new projects are routinely pitched on the order of Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate, Sunset Boulevard meets Remember My Name. Quality journalism, many of its contemporary practitioners themselves habitués of the post-war arthouse, also colludes with this mentality, proffering a kind of shorthand which simultaneously appeals to the cinephile and to that amorphous consensual film knowledge which exists in the wider culture. The release of Savage Grace (2008) saw Vogue gushing: “Like Death in Venice meets The Great Gatsby on the Psycho lot” (Sight and Sound, August 2008). Formulated within the white heat of film commerce to entice the cinemagoer into the cinema, these examples graphically acknowledge the unexpected and allusive qualities of individual films. But what happens when we root through the back catalogues?

    The double bill has resulted from a plethora of logics and instincts, and the ‘collision,’ so to speak, of two films seen at random, could be said to produce something akin to a third identity. To the degree that a double bill highlights similarities which are not apparent when watching individual films, it may usefully inform a new typological conceptualization both as a method and as a tradition. After decades in which film industries have initiated and reproduced generic rubrics and expectations for consumption in the commercial and critical marketplace, it may be possible to conceive of a ‘bottom up’ model of typological identification and debate whereby a rubric is discerned at the level of spectatorship and then disseminated in critical writings. The DVD era seems ripe for this formulation. More than ever before, domestic delivery systems enable a potpourri of international cinema to be sampled according to personal whim, however well-informed, affording new kinds of association and classification arising from the contingencies of home spectatorship, and prompting a wealth of fresh and fruitful juxtapositions. Meanwhile, the Internet provides a rich set of venues for criticism and analysis far from the constraints and limitations of commercial film comment. My PhD research, for example, arose accidentally out of random viewings of Millions Like Us (1942), Under the Skin (1997) and Secrets and Lies (1995); British films drawn from different contexts and of very differing aesthetic provenance, yet coming together over the issue of grief and mourning, a perception which I initially rehearsed at Bright Light Film Journal (click here).

    Watching Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930) shortly after having seen Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), I was drawn by these films’ portrayal of the Côte d’Azur and their preoccupation with the leisure of the moneyed classes at a particular historical moment. Each in its way, both films deploy the iconography of the interwar Riviera and its social set. In A Propos de Nice Vigo juxtaposes a sequence of scenes on the Promenade des Anglais in which we see be-whiskered financiers in their bath chairs, ageing society matrons and haughty ‘elegants’ taking tea outside the hotels. I fancy these people, caught on film while ‘wintering’ in Nice, hail from all over Europe, a few perhaps from New York, Boston and Philadelphia: Wilhelmine ‘grafs’ eeking out the revenue from their Prussian estates, veteran French generals drinking their pensions away, ‘arriviste’ entrepreneurs watching the markets, a man asleep with his trouser legs rolled up (English?), another napping with his mouth open, an old man in a pedal wagon sells the Daily Telegraph, ancient politicians with white beards… And the women: the lady promenading with the little dogs, the voluble Russian Countess, she in the cloche hat straightening her stocking seam, the lady in the fur coat progressively stripped bare by the camera, a lady objects to being photographed and hides her face beneath the brim of her hat — heiress to a ball-bearing empire perhaps, maybe in the process of eloping from a jealous husband — the lady in silver fox, another in animated conversation with her friend — about the poor room service, the unfortunate weather….the spoilt, the bored, the jaded, the careful, the conscious, the avaricious, the fantastically rich and the desperately lonely….


Above, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and Ernst Lubitsch on the set of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife

Below, Jean Vigo deconstructs the bourgeoisie in A Propos de Nice; image taken from colettesaintyves


    If in A Propos de Nice we are introduced to the habitués of the Côte d’Azur, in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, released eight years later, it is as though we become privy to the pecuniary and sexual intrigues which lay behind Vigo’s Riviera façade. As in Vigo’s film, we begin with an aerial establishing shot of Nice…busy beach …canoes…peddle boats…bathers…rows of ritzy hotels along the palm-lined Promenade, perhaps a glimpse of the famous Hotel Negresco…, before we segue into Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s tight little confection in which an American millionaire, Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper), spars on a bathing table in the marina with a lady from a fading old French dynasty (Claudette Colbert). In this most risqué of ‘30s romantic comedies, the woman will contemplate marrying the man on condition that he will furnish her with FF100,000 if the marriage ends in divorce. At their initial marriage ceremony, we meet Tante Hedwige (Elizabeth Patterson), the matriarch of the de Loiselle family, a scornful haughty matron in a wheelchair from a long lineage going vaguely back to the Bourbons, whom we fancy we may already have met, in slightly better days, taking the sun in A Propos de Nice.

    If the fashionable lady is disrobed by Vigo from her fur coat to her bare skin, during the course of Lubitsch’s film Nicole de Loiselle (Colbert) will go from bathing costume to mink stole in her odyssey up the ladder of worldly riches. In a sophisticated sex game hewn in suggestive and succinct prose, there is little of the bawdy and ludic play of Vigo’s vision of Nice. Yet perhaps the ‘meet-cute’ of Michael and Nicole’s first encounter in the department store, he buying pyjama tops, she pyjama bottoms, retains something of the ‘seaside humor’ which permeates Vigo’s film, Michael provocatively waving the pyjama top at Nicole, she ostensibly without ‘her’ top, or so he thinks.

    Whilst it may be too ambitious to suggest that the similarities I am proposing between A Propos de Nice and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife constitute another genre in the making, place them side-by-side and the thematic, aesthetic and humoristic resonances become increasingly obvious as you watch. For Thomson, the “secret, thematic pairing” seems key to one film’s propensity to ‘speak’ to another. Perhaps the question then becomes: can movies which ‘speak’ the same language be said to be of the same genre? This involves a rethinking of genre. Changing conditions of reception, like differing exhibition practices, encourage another attitude to film classification. In 1998 I worked a stint at the London Film Archive, fielding enquiries from clients seeking footage of 1950s cars, European royalty, Londoners at the seaside or whatever. After a few months, it became evident to me that, aside from the traditional markers of generic kinship existing, say, between Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and All that Heaven Allows (1955), films can relate to each other purely on the level of footage, literally, of what they show, feature, reveal or contain. For film theorist Tom Ryall, commonality of subject matter, theme and iconography already satisfy three stipulations of generic kinship out of his five (Oxford Guide to Film Studies, 1998). As a part-time reviewer in the late-90s, I was watching new films by day and rep cinema by night. Combined with the archive work, this routine made me increasingly sensitive to ‘new’ films, whether actually new or old, singular films which the collision of others ‘bring’ like generic apparitions to the cinephiliac mind.

    Restricted as the movie consumer is by the rubrics — Thriller, Romantic Comedy, Western — of the television schedule or neighborhood rental store, themselves descendants of the lapidary remits of the old studio system and the double feature exhibition protocol, we may overlook just how heterogeneous relationships between movies can be. For example, in a recent article at Flickhead, Irene Dobson has suggested a provocative link between the French arthouse title Cléo de 5 à 7 and the left-field American independent horror film Carnival of Souls (click here). But to venture further than her claims for timely and coincident thematic and aesthetic kinship, we may indulge in an even more adventurous cinematic flâneurisme which one evening brings together A Propos de Nice with Lindsay Anderson’s O Dreamland (1953), for their common interest in seaside leisure, or even their mutual dismay over the class tensions of modern Europe, or perhaps juxtapose Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife with Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939) for their shared images of a morally bankrupt French bourgeoisie, for the tension they share over the specter of class miscegenation, or even, given the role Czechoslovakia plays in Lubitsch’s 1938 film, speculate that both films ‘know’ more than we realize of the looming war, and that deep down both are speaking to one another of histories and reputations yet to be envisaged. At the end of the day confronted with the Criterion box sets and Artificial Eyes of her movie collection, how many secret unholy alliances does the modern cinephile contemplate…