The Flicks in France

A new political film by CostaGavras, the director of Z, opened in Paris on April 29. It is a disturbing film, and appears likely to have at least as much impact in Europe and the United States as its predecessor. In its first week it was seen by 81,140 Frenchmen. By comparison, Z, which was by far the biggest movie in France last year, was seen by 22,660 in its first week.

The new one is called L’Aveu (“The Confession”). It is based on the autobiography of Artur London, published here in 1969. London is a loyal Communist—a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, the French Resistance, and a Nazi concentration camp—who is, at the time the movie opens, vice minister of foreign affairs in Czechoslovakia during the first years of Communist rule thci~e. Suddenly, one Sunday in January, 1951, he is arrested by the government and charged with treasoix. He is tortured physically and mentally for twentytwo months in Prague prisons. Finally, he must memorize a long confession, in which he admits ludicrous crimes (he is forced to say that he was a “Titoist" in Spain in 1938, long before Marshal Tito came to power) . London is convicted in a mass show trial along with thirteen other former government officials. Eleven of them are executed. London and two others get life sentences. He is released in 1956, seemingly as part of Khrushchev’s destalinization program.

London moves to France, and in discussions over luncheon on a terrace in Monte Carlo (passages which Costa-Gavras cuts into the scenes of torture), he tells friends that his faith in the Communist cause has not wavered. He writes his autobiography, and just as he finishes, he decides to go to Prague again for a visit. It is August: Russian tanks are rolling through the streets, young men are dying (Costa-Gavras uses bloody still photographs of the Russian invasion) , and a slogan in white paint on a brick wall reads: “LENIN, WAKE UP! THEY HAVE GONE MAD!”

L’Aveu is not as simple as Z. It does not present us with an easy good-guys-against-fascists theme. It does not give us thrills of righteous indignation. It is not especially exciting. Instead, it forces us to concentrate on two deep problems—loyalty and power. When the film opens in the United States, these problems will likely be misinterpreted. The picture will appear simply as an antiCommunist diatribe. “Look at the Commies,” people will say. “They kill and torture like maniacs, even their own people.” This is the idea that most Americans drew from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

This is not what Costa-Gavras is saying at all. He is a good leftist, and the film reflects the agony of any good leftist intellectual in France, where the Communist Party as a political force ranks second only to the Gaul lists and yet takes rigidly proMoscow and antihumanitarian positions. The Party supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and opposed the student rebellion in France a few months before (and, in doing so, may have prevented the overthrow of the Fifth Republic) . Many intellectuals here left the Party after the Stalinist purges in Russia in the 1930s and in Eastern Europe in the early 1950s. The armed suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 was the final injustice for the ones who were left, including JeanPaul Sartre.

For the French, the film is an agonizing experience. The Party has accomplished a great deal in France, especially during the Resistance. But can a man sacrifice his sanity, his honesty, his life for it? And, if he refuses the sacrifice, is he a bourgeois individualist? The problem of loyalty is, of course, not confined to the Communist Party. Still, with the Party the contradictions are more vivid, and that is why the film is having such an impact in France.

Jorge Semprun, who wrote the screenplay, told a French magazine that the film was “a contribution to the 100th anniversary of Lenin.” The French Communist Party, however, does not see things that way. A review in the Party’s daily newspaper, L’Humanité, claimed that the film was not faithful to London’s book and was an “anti-Communist spectacle.” The review said that CostaGavras had left out Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Party Congress on purpose, and had extracted the film from its political context. It also attacked him for “romanticizing the revolutionary struggle.”

The criticism has some validity. Costa-Gavras has made a movie that does isolate London’s personal tragedy from its political context. We are watching the man all the time. We see very little of what led to his arrest, of how he came to power, of the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev. This stark isolation is clearly intentional and helps bring out the second theme—power. CostaGavras is saying simply that all political power corrupts and leads to monstrous abuses: on the right in Z and on the left in L’Aveu. The context of the political power makes no difference. In the beginning, it may use reason as a tool to win people over, but soon, the tool becomes torture. And for those who believed in reason from the start, the whole world is destroyed. For those who did not believe in reason at the start, the abuses seem easier to take. Radicals in America can nod their heads at the invasion of Cambodia, at the new repression at home. Liberals, who believed in the rationality of the regime, have to go through the agony that London did.

The abuse of power may be an obvious theme, but for a leftist it is a daring one to explore. Costa-Gavras is challenging the assumption that revolution will solve anything. In a recent interview, he was asked, “After making Z and L’Aveu, what is your opinion of politics?” He replied, “I have, in general, a very bad opinion of politics. . . , I have equally a bad opinion of politicians throughout the world.” Somehow, Z left us with hope. L’Aveu leaves us with nothing.

Yves Montand plays London in the film. He has a much larger role than he did in the two earlier CostaGavras successes— The Sleeping-Car Murder and Z (where he is killed off early). Montand’s own politics are close to those of his director. He was a former factory worker and got his start singing workingmen’s songs in Paris nightclubs and music halls just after World War II. Simone Signoret, who was killed off around the middle of the Sleeping-Car Murder, plays London’s suffering wife, who is as faithful to the Party as London. Both of them are very good. A film renaissance is going on in France. According to the trade journal Le Film Français, movie theaters in Paris during the first three months of 1970 had their highest attendance gains in seven years. Attendance had fallen from 355 million in I960 to 182 million in 1969. The main reasons for the new rise are that France’s better directors are now making films for the masses, and the masses are beginning to appreciate better films. French television is dismal in quality and no longer a novelty. Also, the French are learning to publicize their films more cleverly and more often.

The best current films in Paris, all of them likely to come to the United States, are Claude Sautet’s Les Choses de la Vie, François Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage, and Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher. They are all in the top twenty in attendance. The overwhelming success, however, is Borsalino, a gangster film set in Marseille in the 1930s. It is a third-rate copy of the worst episodes of The Untouchables, but it stars Alain Delon (who also produced it) and JeanPaul Belmondo; the French apparently enjoy watching their own guys shoot people up with machine guns. American movies continue their popularity in France, although often the biggest hits in France are those that failed to draw crowds in the States—George Seaton’s Airport is the best example. Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was admired by nearly every critic here—in contrast with its reception in the United States. Patton opened recently at four theaters, billed as being about “the man who liberated thousands of French towns and villages.”A revival of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Junior (1928) is a great success, and twentyeight Westerns were playing in Paris theaters in one week. With the passing of the Olympia Music Hall and the mediocrity of the French theater, it is clear that movies will remain the number-one popular art form. The only sad news is the absence of JeanLuc Godard (Breathless) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), who, with Truffaut and Chabrol, founded the “nouvelle vague” school of French film-making in 1959. Godard says he will not make any more films because of the compromises involved (a problem of money and politics). Resnais, reports the weekly L’Express, is temporarily out of touch, working on something new and difficult.