Tradition has it that every December since 1937, the gatekeepers of French haute cinema assemble at Le Fouquet’s on the Champs-Élysée — a café once frequented by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard — to select the winner of the Prix Louis-Delluc, France’s most prestigious cinematic award. Named after director and critic Louis Delluc (a man forever known for coining the term “cinéaste”) the prize recognizes the most promising French film of the year, with winners joining the ranks of Criterion-ites Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Unlike the more commercial César and Cannes awards — the Césars were created to be the “French Oscars” — the Prix Delluc claims to capture the spirit of French cinema, prioritizing experimentation over traditional filmmaking, and upholding the values Delluc defended in his criticism.
While following the Delluc may seem like a task reserved for the hardcore cinéaste, throughout April BAM made it easier for those of us on the wrong side of the Atlantic by hosting the Prix Louis Delluc film series, a month-long retrospective that served as a kind of best-of of the best-of. Co-curated by Michel Ciment of Positif magazine, the series featured a selection of past and recent winners, including Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and many other fixtures of college film classes.
With its formidable pedigree, wining the Delluc tends to be an indicator of future directorial success as well a barometer of French cinematic culture. Over the last several years, Delluc-ians have included 2006’s Lady Chatterley, an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s infamously pornographic novel, and 2007′s The Secret of the Grain, the third film from Tunisian director Abdel Kechiche. This year, the award went to Magnum photojournalist and documentarian Raymond Depardon for La Vie Moderne, the final installment of Depardon’s elegiac trilogy on life in the Haut-Garonne region of France. Completing his Profils Payasans series, which included 2001’s L’approache and 2005’s Le Quotidien, in La Vie Moderne, Depardon continued his examination of rural culture in the French countryside, documenting the shifting landscape with his trademark patience and grace. (FYI: If you’re in DC two weeks from now, the series will be screened at the National Gallery of Art).
Another notable selection — and one of Ciment’s personal favorites — was La Guerre est Finie, a 1966 film by three-time winner Alain Resnais. While La Guerre est Finie is often overshadowed by Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film is indisputably among Resnais’ best. Written by Spanish luminary Jorge Semprún — himself a former revolutionary and author of the political thriller Z — the film chronicles anti-Franco militant Yves Montand after he escapes to Paris following a failed rendezvous in Spain. From the perspective of Montand (who is named either Carlos, Diego, or Domingo, depending on who’s asking) Resnais explores themes of exile, insurrection and loss from the perspective of an aging revolutionary beginning to question if the war will ever end.
Regardless of the subject, the common theme among the winners is a drive towards cinematic honesty. As an early proponent of photogénie, Delluc was famous for defending film as an autonomous art, arguing that when made properly, cinema “lead(s) us toward the suppression of art, which transcends art in being life.” In making this statement, Delluc isn’t defending realism but asking us to reexamine the role of film. He is asking us to recognize life as art, or in this case, life mediated through the singular vision of a filmmaker. Film, in other words, enables our understanding of the world and our ability to perceive it. Beyond keeping cinéastes busy, the winners of the Prix Delluc do exactly this.
For film junkies in search of a new (and more domestic) fix, the Criterion Collection now screens six free movies a month in the Auteurs section of its Web site. April was Great Documentaries-themed, and available films include Burden of Dreams, Monterey Pop, and Harlan County USA.