To Reality and Back: Classic and Contemporary French Documentaries — Part I

In 1914, at the dawn of his career, the celebrated French playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry (Le Roman d’un Tricheur) used his camera to immortalize a dozen of his country’s resident artistic giants in the short film Ceux de Chez Nous. A quarter-century later, “having every pretense except that of modesty,” Guitry returned to his footage to add an on-screen introduction and a running voiceover narration in which he explains how each shot came to be and opines about the great men in whose presence he once stood. But what makes the film such a remarkable document is the original footage itself — an incomparable time capsule that allows us to see, among others, Rodin sculpting in his studio, Camille Saint-Saëns conducting an imaginary orchestra, the Nobel laureate Anatole France writing on borrowed paper while wiping his ink-stained fingers on his shirt, and Edgar Degas walking in the street shortly before his death. Finally, just before the film runs off the screen, we get a fleeting glimpse of Guitry’s own father, Lucien, one of the legendary men of the French stage. Paired on a double bill with Jean Vigo’s famed city symphony À Propos de Nice (1930), Ceux de Chez Nous kicks off the American Cinematheque’s ongoing survey of French non-fiction films, old and new, that is expected to run through the end of the year. Also screening in this first installment: Reprise (1997), Hervé le Roux’s massive reconsideration of the events of May 1968, plus a program of shorts by Alain Resnais that includes the stunning Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. (American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre; May 12-14;

—Scott Foundas


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