director Yves Allégret
viewed: 05/13/2012 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA
Feature #2 of my triple header of “I Wake Up Dreaming” film noir series at the Roxie was the French film, Une si jolie petite plage. Though the French coined the term, proper categorization stands that film noir is an American thing by definition. That said, most of the American directors of noir were ex-pat Europeans, bringing aesthetics and artistry from all over Europe to Hollywood via genre cinema. The Roxie’s promotion for the film posed it as “the missing link between the French thrillers of the thirties and the nouvelle vague,” so it’s not quite true noir but European noir still carries a lot with it. They also touted it as “brilliantly forlorn and totally French,” and that it is as well.
The French seaside never looked drearier. It’s the off-season, raining endlessly, with only one shabby hotel open for customers. A young man checks in, coming from Paris, apparently depressed, and averse to the music of a popular singer who has just been murdered. It could have been a Georges Simenon novel. It is a kind of story that is almost classically French, or maybe it’s more in the tone and the way the narrative plays out, the existential dolor. The hotel is pervaded by this fatalistic ennui, a sense of inescapable doom, a melancholy without the faintest hint of possibility for redemption. The characters keep referring to the desolate shoreline as “such a pretty little beach,” repeating the title time and again, emphasizing sincerity as well as some irony, too.
It’s beautifully filmed and excellently produced. A low-key downer, for sure, but impeccable in many ways.
To say that it connects “the French thrillers of the 30’s to the nouvelle vague” as the Roxie’s promo materials suggest, I’d have to question if there is not more of this all along the way. It seems there is more of a fairly unbroken line between The Lower Depths (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), La bête humaine (1938), Le jour se lève (1939), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Rififi (1955), Bob le flambeur (1955) leading up to Breathless (1960). Maybe there is something more specific that is being connected, maybe I haven’t seen the films to which they are referring. But I do see some consistency through the crime cinema of France on through to Jean-Pierre Melville and perhaps beyond.
Une si jolie petite plage without a doubt, though, is a very fine film. Interesting and evocative even in its potentially cliche of French esprit du cinema. Trying impossibly to light Gauloises in the incessant rain, seeking solace in a woman who has had many lovers and perhaps clients, while in the end, it all comes to rien.