Posted on December 25, 2022
By Gerard-Michel Thermeau.
Many years ago, I asked myself the question of a cinema of liberal inspiration. If there exists or has existed a Nazi cinema, a fascist cinema, a Marxist cinema (which is far from having disappeared) and today an ecological cinema, one would look in vain for a liberal cinema.
If there is no shortage of committed films, they have the advantage of always being committed on the same side, preferably on the left. In this type of film, the world is healthy Manichean there with on the one hand the oppressed and especially their right-thinking defenders and opposite the hideous ones, the rich and their henchmen, whom nothing can redeem.
Since liberalism is not an ideology, there are no liberal films except the flamboyant Rebel by King Vidor, adapting the novel by Ayn Rand, the Living Source.
But liberalism in cinema sometimes nestles where you least expect it. Although the world of Hollywood cinema is populated by artists with progressive sensibilities, the deep values of the United States rather favor films that exalt the individual against the system.
In France, in the past, there were filmmakers whose films contradicted the ideological positioning of their authors. Take The Great Illusion of Jean Renoir, can we find more empathy for aristocratic characters, Boëldieu and Rauffenstein? And yet, Jean Renoir was, it seems, a communist. If he signed a propaganda turnip for the Party and a mediocre “Popular Front” film The Crime of Mr. Lange, his best works are characterized by great attention to individuals. “Everyone has his reasons”, his credo, was hardly compatible with Marxism-Leninism.
Isn’t that comforting in a way? Here are, in any case, three films that I recommend to see or see again. Good films always deserve to be seen again and time improves them: they age but well.
Ninotchka (1939), a film by Ernst Lubitsch
Lubitsch was one of the glories of Hollywood of the classical age. He was one of the very few directors whose name the public knew. His eternal cigar, his Berlin accent, his apparent superficiality masked an exceptional filmmaker and a most subtle “philosophy of existence”. If all his talkative work, under the exterior of a dizzying fantasy, exalts individualism, three of these films are distinguished by a more explicit message. One is a pacifist (The man I killed), the other is anti-Nazi (To be or not To be) and the one that concerns us, anti-communist. As much To be or not To be enjoys a flattering reputation, as Ninotchka has long had bad press in France. Just think, laugh at communism!
Yet laughter serves as a separator between capitalism (where you can laugh at everything) and communism (where laughter is subversive and therefore forbidden). But Lubitsch is not content to oppose the luxurious suite of a Parisian palace to the Moscow collective apartment. Satire digs deeper.
Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is a kind of Greta, but twenty years later, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing. This ideologue, stiff as a picket, graceful as a prison door, concerned about the future of the masses, understands nothing of the “real people” she claims to defend. Having walked through the doors of a popular restaurant, she orders “raw beets and carrots” (isn’t that marvelously prescient?) from the dumbfounded Father François. The gargotier, concerned about the honor of his establishment, like a good Frenchman, even if he was from Hollywood, retorted annoyed: “ here is a restaurant not a meadow “.
One also finds in this film this admirable formula which remains always of topicality. A Soviet wanted to explain to Ninotchka the difference between socialism and capitalism: Just call and you get what you want “. Capitalism is stronger than you!
Princess Mononoke (1997) by Hayao Miyazaki
What a contradiction made man! He is the very type of the happy entrepreneur and yet he proclaims himself a Marxist. He vehemently denounced authority figures in these films while proving to be an authoritarian boss with a difficult character for his collaborators.
Princess Mononoke is perhaps his most ambitious and complex film. How far we are from a Manichaean universe! With the exception of young Ashitaka, who is tainted by a curse, none of the characters are good or bad. The ambivalence of Dame Eboshi and Jiko Bou is a good illustration of this adult vision. One, a skilful agent of the imperial government, turns out to be a likeable scoundrel. The other, a business woman with a strong character, struggles to preserve the forges, the fruit of her labor against looting lords. In Miyazaki, the state is either evil or powerless: here, in a Japan ravaged by war, the Emperor thinks only of obtaining eternal youth. Dame Eboshi welcomes the excluded in her Forges but everyone must work there according to their strengths, the assistantship has no place here. Nevertheless, blinded by her hatred of wolves, she brings about the destruction of the Forges.
Far from the apocalyptic delusions of our time when we are told the end will be tomorrow or at least the next hour, the catastrophe caused by ambitions and hatred proves to be temporary. Nature comes back to life, stronger than all human efforts, and the Forges will be reborn, Dame Eboshi having understood that profit and respect for nature are not incompatible.
Nature is embodied in the film in the person of the God-Deer, a mute and impassive figure, indifferent to moral categories. We are far from the cult of Gaia.
Aviator (2004) by Martin Scorsese
Devoting a film to an entrepreneur, that would certainly not occur to a French filmmaker. Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest figures of what has been called the new Hollywood, knew how to do justice to this extraordinary character. There is no hagiography here, the gentle madness that will eventually take hold of Howard Hughes is portrayed openly. Leonardo di Caprio succeeded, moreover, in one of the most extraordinary compositions of his rich career.
What is an entrepreneur? He is the one who sees what others do not see. Hughes is an heir, but an heir determined not to be content to grow his legacy. He wants to be the one who does what no one has done before him. Passionate about cinema, he is not content to place famous actresses in his bed and incidentally his existence. He meets Louis B. Mayer, the same type of established studio boss and asks him to give him two cameras for the shooting of a sequence of his film Hell’s Angels. ” You have 24 cameras and you’re asking me to provide you with two more? 24 is that not enough? replies Mayer who can’t hide his hilarity. He advises him to be content to put his money in the bank because he understands nothing about cinema. But in this case Hughes, who is seen as a “madman”, was right to persist.
Crony capitalism is denounced later in the film with the confrontation between the TWA, company of Hughes, and Pan Am which enjoys the support of a crooked senator and strives to obtain the legal monopoly of transatlantic flights for cut short all competition.
One of the funniest moments in the film is when the Hepburn family meets Howard Hughes. The billionaire then saw an affair with Katharine Hepburn, a talented actress and sophisticated intellectual. ” We are all socialists here affirms the mother of this very wealthy family who does not seem to deprive herself much in favor of the proletariat. Hughes, appearing to “sneer” at Roosevelt, in fact suffers teasing from the house dog, is almost told to leave the table.
This family, very left caviar, discusses the merits of Goya and Picasso but pays little attention to the project of the plane designed by the industrialist. ” We don’t care about money here, Mr. Hughes says Mrs. Hepburn peremptorily. ” ‘Cause you always had replied the billionaire annoyed. ” Some of us work » he adds to the address of the son of an « artist » who does « the abstract, of course ». A very enjoyable moment.
An article originally published on December 23, 2019.