Possibly the most exciting retrospective to hit Toronto so far this year, at least judging by the merits of rarity, “Rebel Without a Cause: The Cinema of Gérard Blain” will offer a glimpse into a still deeply mysterious figure of French cinema. Blain, who died in 2000, is an icon who’s near sixty-year long filmography began with being one of the nation’s most sought-after actors (going as far as to being dubbed “the French James Dean”) and soon pivoted to directing uncompromising dramas that drew comparisons to Robert Bresson.
While his two best known directorial efforts, Le pélican (1974) and A Child in the Crown (1976), had been respective carte blanche programming choices of Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve in previous TIFF seasons, Gérard Blain’s work as a director remains wholly underseen in North America and much of Europe. That’s why this series is definitely an event, running from June 14th to July 1st at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and including all eight of Blain’s theatrically released films, as well as his star turns in two early Claude Chabrol films and even the late-period Howard Hawks romp Hatari! (1962).
We chatted with TIFF Programmer Brad Deane to discuss the importance of this years-in-the-making retrospective.
NOTEBOOK: When did you first encounter the work of Gérard Blain?
BRAD DEANE: It's funny. I knew him as an actor from the Olivier Assayas films as well as [Chabrol’s] Les cousins  and Le beau serge . I didn't really know he made films. Then seven years ago, me and Mia Hansen-Løve were talking. She was like, "Do you know the films of Gérard Blain?" I'm like, "No, not really. I don't know his films, really. I know him as an actor, but I didn't know he made films." She was, "Oh, he's the most amazing filmmaker," and she went on and on, and was like, "Oh, you have to see his films. He's this amazing filmmaker."
I said, "Great. Hopefully, I can see these," but, of course, none of them are on DVD. It's impossible to see his work. Then I did a retrospective of Mia's work with the TIFF Cinematheque and for her carte blanche selection, she chose A Child in the Crowd. So I got see that one, and I was of course blown away by it.
Then we talked about the idea of a retrospective, but it just seemed kind of complicated. I'd done research, trying to find elements from prints, and things like that, but it just seemed like a longer-term thing. Then last summer Olivier Assayas came, and for one of his carte blanche selections he chose Le pélican, and through that, I got in touch with Paul Blain, who's in Mia’s first film, Tout est pardonné.
I got in touch to clear the [rights for the] film and I just started asking him a bit more in an e-mail: "How many of the films do you have?" He said, "Yeah, I have all of the films. I have 35mm prints of all of them. The problem is, most of them never have been subtitled before. They haven't been translated." I thought, "Okay, well, I need to figure out a way of doing this series."
Luckily, I was talking with Samuel La France, who worked with me, and fortunately he speaks French, and he said, "You know, I've only seen Le pélican, but I love that film. I would love to see the rest of his films. For that alone, I'll help translate some of the films." Paul had some subtitles for some of them, but Sam helped. He translated the remaining films, so a handful of them will be translated for the first time with English subtitles. We’ve created subtitles, and hopefully now we can bring these amazing films to audiences.
I think that's one of the main reasons why they've been out of circulation in North America, at least, was the subtitles. But I think there's many other reasons, too, why his films are probably not known.
NOTEBOOK: The 1970s, when Blain was most active as a director, was certainly a very tumultuous period for French cinema. The government really cut off funding for films because they were kind of ashamed of the culture they represented, post-May '68. This was also a period when Cahiers du cinéma was barely even writing about cinema, but rather aboutpolitics. I wonder if that's a reason for maybe, his work falling through the cracks.
DEANE: I don't know if it was that was so much. I think Gérard's personality maybe played into it somewhat. He's such an uncompromising figure as an actor. He didn't like compromise as a director, and he just really liked pushing the boundaries and pushing people's buttons.
He is a real rebel, and his films are about that. From everyone I've talked to who knew him, he liked to cause trouble. He really was dissatisfied with a lot of aspects of society, and he had his own kind of morality in a way. I think he probably upset a lot of people at the time and was not the easiest person, necessarily, to work with.
I think he also falls into a strange generation; the post-New Wave. I think we see that with [Jean] Eustache, [Maurice] Pialat, and Blain. I think the three of them work very interestingly together. Actually, the Austrian Film Museum did a series with the three filmmakers, focusing on all three, and I think there's this interesting link, in a way, between the French New Wave, and the following generations. But it's funny, because those three filmmakers are probably the least well-known. Pialat finally has received the attention he deserves, but they were all these very kind of uncompromising, difficult characters.
The interesting thing about Blain though, is that he actually is a product of the French New Wave in a weird way. That's how he got his start. He became famous as an actor in the French New Wave films. He knew Godard, Truffaut and he worked with all of these people.
But he did make films very differently. He didn't make New Wave films, and if anything, the films he makes are probably closer to Bresson, who always kind of had his own way of making films too.
I think those were some major factors in why he's not as well known, because we've seen the same with Pialat. Pialat's a genius, as well, and only recently Pialat has been discovered. And Eustache didn't make that many films, either. Of course, he made two masterpiece feature films, and a bunch of shorts, but, yeah—you wonder why these filmmakers didn't make more.
NOTEBOOK: I think with Pialat and if you want to count Luc Moullet, the comparison's interesting, too, because all three of these people, they intermittently put themselves in their own films, as well. You'd think that it would almost make them more recognizable, the fact that they're presences within their own films.
DEANE: Yeah, and he was friends with Pialat, too. He knew Pialat quite well, Paul told me.
NOTEBOOK: How much is really known about his life?
DEANE: With Gérard, not a lot. I just recently interviewed his son in Paris, and got to learn a lot more, and also from talking to Olivier Assayas, who was also friends with him. I've gotten to learn a lot more about his life, recently. When you do a series like this and you're trying to research it, it's like, well, what do you find? There's barely anything on him in English, and then, even in French, there's not a whole lot written about him. There have been retrospectives in France, in Paris. I know, talking to Olivier, that's how he discovered him.
Olivier cast him in his own film, Winter's Child  which was, as Olivier describes, a homage to Gérard's films, because he was such a huge fan and he told me he went and presented the films when they would show in Paris. But even he was kind of baffled as to why he's not better known, because they have shown in France, at least, and even in France, they're not as well-known as they should be. But North America, it's nonexistent, really, until now. We're going to change that though.
NOTEBOOK: Father-son relationships is a running theme throughout his films. I was curious if there was anything known about his own relationship with his father or sons.
DEANE: There is. He had a difficult childhood, of course. His father was not really there. From all the descriptions that I've heard from people, he had many wives. He couldn't really maintain a relationship with a wife, but one of the things that everyone has said about him is his utter devotion to his sons. And you feel this when you watch the films. You see Le pélican, and he was really, really devoted to his sons, and his own family, in that way. I think that that was always a quest throughout his life, was to try and create that—what he never had. Just look at some of the family relations in his films, even in one like Pierre and Djemila . He's definitely obsessed with family in his films.
NOTEBOOK: Last year TIFF had that Assayas retrospective, where Le pélican was a carte blanche selection from him. And there was also a French crime series at the same time. It’s curious, being that Blain was as an actor really being sculpted to be the next Jean Gabin. Do you see every retrospective here being in conversation with each other?
DEANE: Yes. I mean, we try to, right? We try to make links. One thing leads to another, right? Then you're programming, you're always trying to fill out the bigger picture of cinema, and trying to find those holes that are missing, and trying to fill those in. You're always discovering new things, and it's kind of crazy to think that, in France, there are still some missing things, because French cinema is so well documented. It's so well written about and yet, Gérard Blain. And he's not the only one. The more you get into films, and the history of film, you start finding these little holes, and you try to start filling them in. Hopefully, for the audiences too, they keep coming back, and start filling them in for themselves.
NOTEBOOK: There's a mention on the Hatari! programming notes that apparently Blain really did not like working with Howard Hawks. He found the experience a little too loosey-goosey. I'm wondering if that kind of speaks further to his prickly nature, that he maybe rejected even a Hollywood career?
DEANE: I think he did, from what I heard about the Hawks situation. He was a great admirer of a lot of classic Hollywood, he's a huge John Ford fan. But I think when it came to working with Hawks, it wasn't what he'd imagined. Hawks wasn't as disciplined in a way. It was just too laidback for him. This was probably part of what inspired him to go on and to make films his own way, and you know, he is very Bressonian. So, of course, it's very different than Hatari!, or what Hawks is doing. I think his ideas of cinema were very precise, so it probably irritated him a bit.
I didn't get a sense that he so much pissed people off as much on that film. I think it was just more of a little disillusionment with what he thought he had, and you sense that as an actor. Like, he's a guy who could have been a big star, and I don't think it's the fault of the system. I think, people probably wanted him to [be one]. I think he probably just lost the interest in it. Because, as an actor, his scenes are so emotionally powerful.
NOTEBOOK: One of the quotes going around for this retrospective is that “he's the real inheritor to Bresson." It's interesting, because I think Bresson really haunts this whole building and organization, what with the giant posters for his films hung up here and how he always pops up almost every season in the Cinematheque Special Screenings. Is this retrospective partly a realization of that?
DEANE: We have a long history at the Cinematheque with Bresson. James Quandt has put together these large Bresson retrospectives many times over the years, back when people weren't doing this, and he's done two books on Bresson. So, James has built this really great audience in Toronto for Bresson, and it's funny, because we even get this from distributors in the US sometimes, when we want to show the films and they’re like, "Wow, you guys draw so much better for Bresson than almost anywhere else."
I think we've built an audience, but I think Bresson's reputation has increased over the years, too. I think it's become much more widely recognized for what a genius and what a great filmmaker he is, and how genuinely unique he is in the history of cinema.
Gérard was friends with Bresson and I think his films very much follow in that Bressonian way of filmmaking. I don't think they're copies in any way. I don't think he's imitating him. I don't think that would be very interesting. But I think, when you read something like Notes on the Cinematograph by Bresson, I feel like Blain is very much in line with that, philosophically, about the way he approached cinema, something that was about precision. It was very concise. The editing, the performances, were more subdued, which is all extremely cinematic, too.
Rebel Without a Cause: The Cinema of Gérard Blain runs June 14 - July 1, 2018 at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.