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LETTER FROM PARIS – The culture feast

"Le Redoutable," "Young Karl Marx" and "Loving Vincent"
All of the above-mentioned films are in theaters in France now

Were I ever tempted to leave Paris and pitch my tent in a warmer city, a city where it doesn’t rain as often, where skies are bluer and inhabitants smile, I only need to look back on this last week to realize that I could never live elsewhere (but I already know that.)
So how did that week go?

I saw three films: “Le Redoutable,” about New Wave cinema founder Jean-Luc Godard, “Young Karl Marx,” an eponymous retelling of the Das Capital author’s early years, and “Loving Vincent,” an animated film in the painting style of the Dutch master. On Saturday, huge cherry on an already gigantic cake, I attended at the Gaumont cineplex (which, along with some forty other cinemas, is about five minutes by foot from my home in Montparnasse) a live transmission of Mozart’s Magic Flute from the Met in New York. This last screening, like the films I mentioned, played to a full house and, as typical in France but not elsewhere, to as many if not more young people than older ones.

Where on earth would I find as much nourishment for heart and soul with as large like-minded audiences?

“Le redoutable”

To go back to the films, seen almost back to back after wrapping up a project which had kept me away from entertainment, I just realized, typing the titles, that they are all about people who transformed their own field of interest in a very specific, idiosyncratic and world-altering way. Also interestingly, none of them was French but all had an enduring relation with France and grew from the mix of culture, knowledge, and thought specific to this blessed country. Didn’t Thomas Jefferson famously say “All men have two countries: their own and France”?

That is certainly true of Swiss-born Jean-Luc Godard, who in the early sixties, with a string of masterpieces such as “A Bout de Souffle,” “Le Mépris,” or “Pierrot le Fou,” created a new cinematographic language before he got caught in too much theorizing. In the first few years, it was a New Wave indeed. Others, of course, swept the public with this tsunami– Rohmer or Truffaud come to mind–but Godard’s name is the one that one thinks of first. I still remember, upon viewing “Weekend,” the utter shock, the trance I fell into, my awareness that not only was this a new language but also an authentic, uncontrived one.

I’ve read that Godard hasn’t liked “Le Redoutable,” (named, for reasons too long to explain, after a famous French war submarine,) by Michel Hazanavicius, author of the lovely “The Artist,” but then I’m not sure he would ever like anything made by anyone, or actually like anyone, period. His famous histrionics, ill-temper and contempt for the world he lived in and still does is in full display in the story of those many decades ago as told by Anne Wiazemsky, Godard’s wife in the sixties and early seventies, in her memoir, Un an après, on which the film is based. The actor and novelist died of cancer on October 5th. One can only hope she saw the film which was in competition at the last Cannes Festival.

Another non-Frenchman who lived in Paris for a number of years, was thrown out, went to Brussels, then Paris again before finally settling down in London is Karl Marx. But for his friend Engels’ financial support, the philosopher/historian would have starved to death with his family, as the author of Das Capital, (his opus that changed humanity with its theories and study of what money is and what it does,) was practically penniless all his life. One of his children actually died of malnourishment– in other words, starved to death.

“Young Karl Marx”

I found “Young Karl Marx,” a Polish-British film, magnificent. It was a thrill to witness the heated discussions about the roiling ideas of mid-nineteenth century, getting glimpses of people like Proudhon and other generous and sometimes fuzzy intellectuals who knew the time had come to stop the horrendous exploitation of humble workers. Another such was Bakounin, founder of anarchism which advocated the end of property and total equality among people, and put fear in the hearts of the public at the time. The fear was not unjustified as some among followers resorted to acts of terror such as the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, in Sarajevo, which set off World War I.) Shivers ran down my spine–I who have never had the least Marxist or dialectical materialism aka diamat leaning–as Marx and Engels attend a gathering in Brussels and a banner regarding the “Justes,” the group who had organized the meeting, is pulled down and replaced by a larger one reading “Proletarians of all countries, unite.” These men and a few women were sincerely hoping to bring down the forces of capitalism, to make equality the law and wages more fair.

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Little did they know. To be sure, Marx and Marxist thought have brought about enormous changes. Nothing like the horror he denounced would be possible today, at least not in Western Europe. The rest of the world is as miserable as ever, including in countries where Marxist words and mindsets are proclaimed. And how to accept the crushing 70 years of communism, the bloody regimes of Stalin and Mao and so many other consequences? Still, Marx’s thought was selfless and the film is definitely worth seeing.

“Loving Vincent”

Then there is that strange “Loving Vincent” where a quest on his suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise by someone close is shown in extraordinary renditions of his paintings. Everything is instantly recognizable, directly from the glorious brush of the destitute Dutchman who, before he killed himself at age 37, could only rely on the generosity of his brother Theo to survive. The artist who would revolutionize painting and whose work is now among the most highly priced on the market sold one painting in his lifetime.

Had I not lived in the heart of Paris, I would have missed these three films. A grand coda was the fourth piece, the Mozart opera the Magic Flute, directed by James Levine, with soprano Golda Schultz, tenor Charles Castronovo, and bass Rene Pape as the great priest Sarastro.

Now, beside the films still playing that I have to catch (with nary a “Blade Runner” or any franchise video game trying to pass itself off as film,) arrives the new week with the cascade of those opening this coming Wednesday. Despite my protests, it might be wise to consider moving to another country or at least another city, duller perhaps but leaving time for my own work and allowing me to catch my breath between superb, overwhelming moments. There is such a thing as overexposure.

Saïdeh Pakravan is Screen Comment’s senior contributor. She is also the author of SC-100 (“100 Years of Must-See Movies”).