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Mad Men at the Movies: À la Recherche d'un Film Perdu

by Lisca Bianca
Mad Men at the Movies: À la Recherche d'un Film Perdu by Lisca Bianca
* * * For over four years now I’ve been trying to trace these film images to their original source. They were inserted in an episode of Mad Men (S2E3 “The Benefactor”), seemingly at random and with no further explanation whatsoever. The main character, Don Draper, is at the cinema (avoiding work at that) watching a b&w photomontage which is accompanied by a (female) voice-over narrating a poem in French. The scene only takes a couple of seconds and subsequently sinks into oblivion. I’ve been intrigued by it ever since, simply because it is something that I would love to see in its entirety. The series creator Matthew Weiner is notoriously… Read more

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For over four years now I’ve been trying to trace these film images to their original source. They were inserted in an episode of Mad Men (S2E3 “The Benefactor”), seemingly at random and with no further explanation whatsoever. The main character, Don Draper, is at the cinema (avoiding work at that) watching a b&w photomontage which is accompanied by a (female) voice-over narrating a poem in French. The scene only takes a couple of seconds and subsequently sinks into oblivion. I’ve been intrigued by it ever since, simply because it is something that I would love to see in its entirety. The series creator Matthew Weiner is notoriously tight-lipped about it, revealing only this much:

“It’s a very rare French film. A film by a famous director. I won’t tell you the name. I won’t say the title. I’ll never tell. Because I don’t have the rights to it.”

Frankly, this statement is as useful as Hitchcock’s description of an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands. But I suppose there are certain ways to approach it. One way would be to believe what Weiner says to be true and then try to look for the film. This was the path I took. I consulted multiple major film sites and forums, cross-referenced every word and bit of information I had at my disposal. Having logically deduced not to look after the year 1962, as that’s the time period of the MM episode, I was open to consider any sound film, French or otherwise, that was made up until that year. The only concrete and verifiable clue the film excerpt provided itself were the lines of the recited poem, the words of which can also be read (just barely) in the English subtitles at the bottom of the film screen. It is a poem by a medieval French poet François Villon (Wikipedia also lists him as thief, killer, barroom brawler and vagabond), titled Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past). The poem celebrates famous women in history and mythology. This is the stanza that appears in the film Don is watching:

Queen Blanche, light as a lily,

Who sang with a siren’s voice,
Bertha Bigfoot, Beatrice, Alice;
Arembourg, heiress to Maine,
And Joan, the good woman from Lorraine,
Whom the English burned in Rouen,
Where are they, oh sovereign Virgin?
Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!

Indeed, not much information to go on at all, which is why my search results bore no edible fruit. There is an Abel Gance film with the Villon poem in it, called La Tour de Nestle (1955), but this is not the source of that photomontage (above all, Nestle is a film in colour). There also exists a film called François Villon (1945), directed by André Zwoboda, and while there’s very little information available about it, it doesn’t seem to be the film I’m looking for. Then there’s something called The Sword of Villon (1956), from the CBS anthology series Screen Directors’ Playhouse, but of all the mentioned titles this one strikes me as the least likely candidate. Other names that would appear among the suggestions were Jean Cocteau, Agnes Varda, even Louis Malle. I’ve also looked at Godard, Truffaut, anyone, really, who would’ve been actively working at that time and who I thought would be eligible for creating that type of film imagery. I’ve considered avant garde filmmakers and filmmakers who weren’t French born but were working there. None of those offered any tangible leads.

If we take Weiner’s statement at face value, this film is either supremely obscure and no suficient information about it exists on the internet (at least nothing that can connect it to the insert shown on MM), or it is an unregistered film on the web altogether. However, still assuming Weiner’s
not pulling our leg, the film is obviously known to and has presumably been seen by the MM staff, so it must exist somewhere in the public sphere. Of course, there’s always a possibility that the MM people simply put together a short film themselves, just for the show.

The general consensus among people interested in finding out where the images come from is that it’s probably something by Alain Resnais and/or Chris Marker. Sure enough, it looks like an essay film type of thing, and since the episode is taking place in 1962 those names would be the most reasonable assumptions. But they are of course incorrect. If people who believe the montage to be from Last Year at Marienbad or La Jetée bothered to actually watch those films, they’d know better and realise that the two films are anything but “very rare”. Only then can we continue to scavenge in the right places, the dark and remote corners of cinema history. It doesn’t help that Weiner threw in a red herring just a few episodes later by having Don comment on Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) as being a “sexy” film. In an instant, some people jumped the wagon having concluded that the mystery film must be La Notte. I myself was also jump-started again a couple of seasons later, when Weiner said the S5 episode “Far Away Places” was structured after Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952). I started googling and whatnot again, knowing that Ophüls couldn’t possibly be the answer, but still hoping it would perhaps lead to something new. It didn’t.

I’ve since more or less abandoned the idea that this film can be found on the internet. Not with the current means at hand, that is. I’m also questioning the veracity and relevance of Weiner’s statement. I don’t know what he considers “rare” and which filmmakers he considers a “famous director”. The statement doesn’t say the director is a French person. Moreover, the film doesn’t have to be French at all, even if it has a narration in that language. The problem is that the film’s anonymity complicates its odd and unaccounted inclusion in the series ever so more. It doesn’t appear to relate to anything on the show.* At least not that I can see. It’s strange, given that Matthew Weiner has never done anything random in MM, everything is always carefully constructed and placed within its context. These few seconds of an unknown film reel seem to exist all on their own within the MM universe. Yet it is not the film’s displacement that bothers me much. As I said, I want to know where it originates from because I would really like to WATCH the entire film. I haven’t given up looking for it altogether, it’s just that my research tools are very limited. What I do have is a short list of film titles that the film shown on MM is (probably) not.

I also take some comfort in the notion that a displaced fragment of an enigmatic film floats about like a drifter (wasn’t Villon a vagabond?) on a TV show that centers on a man who systematically dismantles the authentic self and embraces his inner hobo.

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