Monday 1 January 2018

Tracking down Jacques Rozier (2) - Adrian Martin recalls a close encounter

One Day in Paris …

" wasn't Le Champo"
(ph: Anna Whithear, 2017)
It was 2002, I believe. A 35mm screening was announced – at a cinema I can no longer recall, alas, but I know it wasn’t among the ones, like Le Champo or Reflet Médicis or Action Christine, that I usually attended when in Paris – of Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), which I had hitherto only seen on a VHS copy taped off cable TV in Australia.

I already had enormous admiration for Moonfleet, and – possibly even more influential on my sensibility that day – I also was well aware of its cult, especially within French cinephilia. (In English-speaking cultures, its spark has never really caught fire beyond a few, individual fans and critics – Tom Gunning’s great book on Lang, for instance, has no chapter on it. Incredible!) This is partly because, as critics including Serge Daney and Alain Bergala have well described, it’s about the charged transmission of emotion and duty between different generations. But to say anything more about that here may spoil Moonfleet for those privileged people yet to see it.

The composition of the audience that afternoon was quite amazing, and completely in tune with the legend that the film exudes. The ages of these (mostly) Parisian viewers seemed literally to span from 8 to 80, and even beyond. I realised that, at this time of the day, it had been designed partly as a matinee for kids – but very cleverly so, since this was, it seemed, the film to unite all generations of film lovers, burgeoning or nostalgic. Moonfleet, in some sense a swashbuckling adventure movie itself pitched to the toddler market (at least in the producer’s or studio’s estimation), is what the French like to call “a film for smart, gifted children”. And on that day in Paris, we were all, in that audience, smart, gifted children!

"The lights went down", Moonfleet title card
Everybody settled respectfully into their seats. The lights went down. Not a peep from anybody during the entire projection. We were all instantly transfixed.

Jon Whiteley, Moonfleet
Seeing Moonfleet on the big screen that day – and, for me, it “felt like the very first time”, as the song says – was an overwhelming experience. I said that, previously, I had admired it – but, in truth, it was in a somewhat distant, intellectual, analytical way, as we admire many things of undoubted “quality”; now I loved it, heart and mind and soul. Finally – and in the best possible screening conditions – I got it. The mystical “transmission” those critics had talked about had made it through to me, at last.

Fritz Lang (front left), directs Moonfleet
As I said, the film unfurled in a perfect, hushed, reverent silence among the audience members. But at the end, when the lights slowly came up after a suitable moment for reflection in the darkness, I quickly became aware of an unusual sound quietly filling the hall. Every single person in the room – and I do not exclude myself – was crying. If you’ve already seen Moonfleet, you’ll know why: few endings in cinema are so moving and majestic, not to mention mysterious.

I didn’t walk out of the cinema that day in Paris; I swam out, on a veritable ocean of tears.

Outside on the street, back in the daylight in front of the cinema, I tried to refocus on reality – not an easy task after experiencing such a film. And then I became aware of an elderly gentleman standing quite near to me, trying, with a large handkerchief, and without much success, to wipe the still-streaming tears from his face. I turned slightly to glance at him. He had a healthy crop of white hair, and was dressed, very elegantly, all in black.

It was the great film director Jacques Rozier of Adieu Philippine (1963) and Maine-Ocean (1985) fame, at that moment well into his mid 70s. To find oneself crying at Moonfleet alongside Jacques Rozier … well, that was a genuine moment in my cinephile life.

I didn’t try to say “Hi, I love your work!” (in either English, French, or Franglais) to him; it was not appropriate, then and there. After Moonfleet or similar such experiences, you should leave cinephiles to their teary, melancholic solitude. We wandered off along the streets of Paris, he and I, in our respective directions, full of Moonfleet.

At this point of my tale you, dear reader, may wonder: how could I have recognised Jacques Rozier with such clarity and certainty? After all, not so many photos of him are in wide circulation, even online – and many of those show him as a much younger man. But, in this one instance, being Australian served me well in the heart of cinephile Paris. For not long before – no doubt in the wake of the Cannes screening of Rozier’s last completed film, Fifi Martingale (2001) – a photo of Rozier had appeared prominently in a Melbourne newspaper. In glorious, hyperreal colour, no less!

Jacques Rozier
No, not on the arts-culture pages (heaven forbid!), but in the gossip-humour section run by Lawrence Money or one of those journalistic jokers. And what was it doing there, on the top of the column? Money (or whomever) had noticed – how they hit upon this, we will never know – that Monsieur Rozier bore a striking resemblance to … former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke! So it was a gag about some (quote unquote) “unknown” French director in Cannes looking like an Australian celebrity. (I retold this part of my story in a 2003 “Letter from Melbourne” for the magazine Trafic, much to the amusement of my French editors.)

Bob Hawke
So, as a result of that silly and typically Aussie culture-cringe joke, I knew perfectly well that the guy standing next to me that day in Paris, crying his eyes out like me at Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, was Jacques Rozier. Mon semblable, mon frère!

© Adrian Martin, 1 January 2018

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