Several weeks ago the publisher of my latest book informed me that a well-known fundamentalist periodical had refused to advertise the volume. The reason? I quote directly from the letter my publisher received: “We do not feel we can carry this particular ad, since Dr. Montgomery openly opposes any talk against the movies and dance.”

The charge was not strictly accurate (in point of fact, I oppose immoral and inartistic movies, as well as lewd and cloddish dancing; what disturbed the periodical was simply that I refuse to throw all secular theatrical activities into outer darkness). But the anti-theatrical philosophy of American fundamentalism is sufficiently at odds with my own viewpoint that the letter in question motivated a long-standing intention to survey the current French stage and screen for readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. For years I have had a secret desire to imitate Janet (“Genêt”) Flanner’s “Letter from Paris” in the New Yorker; who would have thought that a certain Tennessee periodical would have turned potentiality into actuality?

First, some words about the cinema. (In my next “Current Religious Thought” column, the stage will be the focus of attention.) For those unacquainted with French cinematography, it is perhaps well to stress at the very outset the radical difference between French films and Anglo-American products. The difference is not (despite opinions in Murfreesboro) sex. Actually, film-makers in Hollywood—and even more so in London—are today producing erotica that cultured Frenchmen regard as trash; interestingly, the French answer to Playboy magazine (Lui) is much milder than Hefner’s product, and the dives in London’s Soho and Charing Cross districts would make an inhabitant of Montmartre blush for shame.

French movies differ from Anglo-American films as the modern French novel differs from its English counterpart: the Frenchman is concerned to plumb the depths of individual personality and to record the development of character that occurs in the crucible of human relationships; the Englishman and American love external action (“play the game”), clean-cut distinctions between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and the positive resolution of the plot (everything should “come out all right”).

A comparison of the greatest of English-language fictional detectives with his twentienth-century French counterpart makes this point with telling effect. Conan Doyle’s Holmes is cold, almost machine-like, and ruthlessly effective in bringing his cases to a logical and successful conclusion; Simenon’s Maigret, in contrast, never has a “plan,” often does not “catch” the criminal in the traditional sense, but discovers the truth through intimate observation and involvement in the lives of all concerned.

Article continues below

I shall not spend time on French films available in the States with English dubbing or subtitles (e.g., Z—a superlative critique of present Greek political abominations); my comments are restricted to films not yet exported. L’Aveu can be considered to be a sequel to Z; the success of Z in castigating the Greek generals led naturally to a condemnation of Marxist imperialism in Eastern Europe—especially as concerns the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. The hero, again portrayed by Yves Montand, is subjected to a Kafka-like trial leading to an “admission of guilt.” This utterly unjust purge of an honest, patriotic statesman (Dubcek, to be sure) reminds one of the concluding chapters of Orwell’s 1984.

Current history is the point of departure for a number of excellent French film productions. Les Choses de la vie, for example, is perhaps the most telling blow ever struck on the screen against the demonic loss of life through traffic fatalities. Sensitive actor Michel Piccoli portrays the victim of a meaningless auto accident that in a split second destroys human relations and values built up over a lifetime.

France is still haunted by Indochina and North Africa, as the United States will inevitably be haunted by Viet Nam. Le Boucher, set in a harmless, sleepy French provincial village, shows how the past can devour the present: a butcher and a school mistress fall in love, but the taste of blood the butcher acquired years before in Indochina has made him incapable of experiencing the ordinary joys of life, and ultimately his pathological past destroys him.

Le Pistonné, the second unit of Claude Berri’s film autobiography, narrates the experiences of the hero during his draftee service in Morocco in 1955. Pistonné is slang for a person who “knows the right people” and can “pull strings” with the higher-ups. Actually, the young hero’s attempts to do this are farcical failures owing to the incredible stupidity and naïveté both of French civil servants (the buffoon-like fonctionnaires) and of military officialdom. The “pacification” program in Morocco accomplishes little more than the terrorization and uprooting of the native populace and the demoralizing of the soldiery. The final scene in the film shows our hero at his discharge, being met by his brother whom he has longed to see—and whom he finds grotesquely hopping on one leg, having been permanently maimed in similar military operations.

Article continues below

The question to which French film-makers return again and again is: Who is man? Like novelist Camus and playright Sartre, they are obsessed with the need to probe man’s nature. François Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage follows the (actual) scientific diary of Professor Itar, who at the time of the French Revolution attempted to civilize a boy who had lived for years in the forest without human contact. The professor concludes that the boy has a “native moral sense”; but does he? Is it the very tenderness of the relation between the professor and his charge that elicits moral response in the boy? Are the professor’s interpretations the result of factual observation, or are they but “necessary conclusions” from his deistic presuppositions? The viewer is forced to confront these questions for himself.

My favorite among the recent films devoted to analyzing the human animal is Borsalino, with the inimitable acting combination of Belmondo and Delon. A “borsalino” is that peculiarly shaped fedora that was the mark of Chicago and Marseilles gangsters during the 1920s and early 1930s. The film tells the story of the friendship between two Marseilles underworld characters who combine operations and go to the top. Finally, one chooses to leave. Why? Because, he shrewdly observes, now that the opposition has been laid low, the two will go after each other, and he wants rather to preserve their friendship. On leaving, he is gunned down by an unknown third party—while reiterating his philosophy: “Nothing happens by chance.” Exactly. Power corrupts. He who lives by the sword dies by it. Selfishness extends to all unredeemed human relationships.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.