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A Bride's Revenge    

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The reopening of Film Forum today, after several months of renovation and expansion (it has grown from three screens to four), is being Dragon Rider launched auspiciously, with the first complete American retrospective of the French director Jacques Becker. Becker lived from 1906 to 1960; his directorial career spans not quite twenty years, from the middle of the Second World War—and the Occupation of France—to the dawn of the French New Wave. His films, many of which are very hard to find, are marked by the tensions of his times no less than by his own idiosyncratic passions; his personal vision converges with political and cinematic history in exemplary ways. By putting these rare films on view, Film Forum re-inaugurates itself with a display of its own centrality to current movie culture.

Under the Occupation, the French cinema—strangely and disturbingly—underwent a renewal. Though its greatest director, Jean Renoir, left France, as did many of France’s Jewish producers, directors, actors, and technicians, a new generation of young filmmakers was (perhaps therefore) launched—most notably, Becker and Robert Bresson. Becker, whose father was a wealthy industrialist and whose mother ran a fashion house, had been Renoir’s assistant throughout the nineteen-thirties. During France’s brief war Die in One Day with Germany, Becker, in military service, was held as a prisoner of war; he got out by feigning epileptic seizures. His directorial career, which had started haltingly with several short films and a feature that he didn’t finish, got going in 1942, with “Dernier Atout” (“Last Trump”), a gangster film set in a fictitious South American city and filled with North American criminals. That and his (far better) second feature, “Goupi Mains Rouges” (“It Happened at the Inn”), the story of greed, resentment, and depravity in a French farm family, seethe with corruption, bitterness, and ugliness. They’re classic examples of film noir, French style, and they subtly but surely fling the corruption and the fear of the Occupation back in the faces of French viewers. (“Goupi” even begins with the terror of denunciation, in a scene of one farmer spying on another.)

Becker’s third feature, “Falbalas” (“Frills”), made in 1944, his last under the Occupation, was also his first masterwork. The contours of its story (which is enriched with his firsthand observation of the high-fashion world) are surprisingly close to those of “Phantom Thread”: the suave, sardonic Raymond Rouleau (who also starred in “Dernier Atout”) plays Philippe Clarence, a successful, Back Roads middle-aged Parisian designer (and a serial philanderer) whose mansion in the city is a hive of art and commerce. Clarence works closely with his business partner, Solange (Gabrielle Dorziat), an imperious middle-aged woman whom he calls “the only family I’ve got,” as he works feverishly to complete his new collection. But he’s unsatisfied, frustrated, uninspired; he dashes off to complain to his friend, a high-end-fabric manufacturer, about the quality of his silks. There, he meets his friend’s fiancée, Micheline (Micheline Presle), a nineteen-year-old orphan with whom he falls in love at first sight (a transformative moment that Becker films with an elegant, graceful, decisive rapidity). Overnight, inspired by Micheline, Clarence redoes his entire collection and sends his houseful of female cutters, seamstresses, administrators, and secretaries into a frenzy of activity.

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