Bonjour and buenos dias, Monty Cristo here.
On the Golden Globes telecast the other night, Thomas Langmann (one of the producers of THE ARTIST) was giving an acceptance speech. He got very emotional when speaking about his father, and just at that moment, the camera cut away to the great Martin Scorsese.
The mention of the name "Claude Berri" (Langmann's dad) drew a warm smile across Scorsese's face. No one should ever forget that Scorsese is, first and foremost, a film geek of the highest order. Langmann wished that his father could have survived to see THE ARTIST and its success.
He told the story of how Berri's short film LE POULET was nominated for the Oscar in 1966, and how the young director could not afford the trip to the Hollywood ceremony where the film would go on to win.
It was a very touching moment, and I felt the need to write this rather delayed eulogy of Claude Berri for my fellow geeks who may not be very familiar with his work.
Berri produced many more films than he directed, including THE BEAR, which is the one most familiar to American audiences.
I'm getting ahead of myself.
Claude Berri started as an actor.
One of his earliest film roles was an uncredited part in legendary director Jean Renoir's FRENCH CANCAN. A few years later, he would appear in the film adaptation of a well-known French novel called I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (not the rape horror film or anything to do with it). The author of the novel disowned the movie before its release, and actually died in the theater during its preview screening.
He played in movies for Claude Chabrol, including LES BONNES FEMMES (THE GOOD TIME GIRLS, available from Kino on DVD in the States). He worked with the brilliant Henri-Georges Clouzot (WAGES OF FEAR). He acted in a movie whose title was translated to MY BABY IS BLACK! He worked with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif in Fred Zinneman's BEHOLD A PALE HORSE.
Then he did THE SLEEPING CAR MURDER with Costa-Gavras (Z), where he acted alongside Jacques Perrin (Cinema Paradiso, Brotherhood of the Wolf) and the stunning Simone Signoret (DIABOLIQUE) , as well as Michel Piccoli (BELLE DE JOUR) and Yves Montand (WAGES OF FEAR), among various other big names. In most of the films I've noted here, he performed uncredited as a porter or other tiny, blink-and-you-miss-it role. He had bigger dreams.
Then he decided he wanted to become a director. One of his first shorts won an Oscar that he couldn't afford to fly over an accept (as mentioned above).
No less than The Criterion Collection added his first feature to their illustrious curation just a few years ago.
THE TWO OF US (LE VIEIL HOMME ET L'ENFANT) tells the story of a young Jewish boy during the Nazi occupation of France. His parents send him to live with an older couple in the country. The boy and the old man hit it off, but the old man is an anti-Semite. It's a great movie, and the scenario is drawn from Berri's childhood experiences as a Jewish child in WWII France.
The DVD is full of some great extras, including Berri's Oscar-winning short, LE POULET. I've gotten to the point where I resist buying DVD's in anticipation of Blu-ray upgrades, but I just ordered it on impulse. No better day to watch it than a couple days from now, when Amazon Prime can deliver it.
Two of Berri's producing efforts, LE ENFANCE NEUE and the masterful THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN) are also available from Criterion, and are highly recommended.
His directing career led to producing as well, and he not only began producing his own films, but those of others.
Berri produced for Serge Gainsbourg. He did Roman Polanski's TESS. He produced Jean-Jacques Annaud's controversial (in the States at least) THE LOVER. Annaud directed THE BEAR, which Berri also produced.
Berri produced loads of other movies, and he kept directing too, never resting for long. He produced two movies back to back right before directing the duology he is best known for: JEAN DE FLORETTE and MANON OF THE SPRING.
Set in rural Provence, the two films are period domestic dramas. There's an inheritance to be bequeathed and so on. They are very much my kind of movies when I'm in the mood for the sort of thing. They're probably best served by pairing with French wine, food, and watching in an afternoon with friend. C'est bien magnifique!
It stars Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, and in one of his final roles, the great Yves Montand, alongside whom Berri had appeared as an actor years before. I love the romanticism of Berri working in a bit part with a major star and then going on to give the same actor one of his great final roles. Sadly for Montand, his beloved wife Simone Signoret (who is riveting in DIABOLIQUE among others) died during the seven month, back-to-back filming of JEAN and MANON.
Those two films set impossibly high expectations for him, and none of his future films could compete with JEAN/MANON's level of acclaim. He went on to produce the wildly successful ASTERIX AND OBELIX films directed and produced by his son Thomas Langmann (THE ARTIST). These broad audience comic book adaptations would stretch into the aughts, and theoretically are ongoing.
In 2003, Berri was elected President of the Cinémathèque Française, and is credited with returning the grand institution to glory. He helped fundraise a significant amount of money to get the Cinémathèque moved into a modern facility designed (and adapted for their use) by none other than legendary architect Frank Gehry. For what it's worth, everything I've read about the Cinémathèque's resurgence has indicated that Berri truly poured his heart into something that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. If his legacy is that of a great defender of cinema (its study, adoration and preservation), I think he'd rest easy with that.
Seek out his films. Spend a few brain cycles on him instead of refreshing your Twitter or email. What Would Scorsese Do?
Seize your weekend by the throat, my friends.