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Of the many critics and cineastes to emerge from the French New Wave, 88-year-old Jean Douchet is probably one of the best known in his homeland, but also one of the least read or watched.
That’s because, after joining the Cahiers du Cinema during its heyday in the late 1950s, and then serving as deputy editor-in-chief alongside Eric Rohmer until 1963, Douchet would more or less devote the next 50-odd years of his life to teaching — not teaching in the traditional sense of a classroom or textbook, but presenting movies at cine-clubs, cinematheques and film schools across France, engaging the audience in his freewheeling and remarkably insightful discussions about cinema.
Like Confucius or Yoda, Douchet’s body of thought hasn’t been transcribed as much as it has been passed down to a number of disciples, among them Elle producer Said Ben Said and French auteurs Xavier Beauvois, Noemie Lvovsky and Arnaud Desplechin — the latter whose own homage to cinema, Ismael’s Ghosts, opened up this year’s Cannes Film Festival. All of them appear in the new documentary Jean Douchet: Restless Child (Jean Douchet, l’enfant agite), which was made by a trio of young Douchet enthusiasts wishing to give something back to the man who taught them how to love movies and, in a greater sense, how to love life.
Co-directed by Fabien Hagege, Guillaume Namur and Vincent Haasser — three friends who met Douchet when he hosted a screening in their provincial hometown — this informative and moving tribute to the critic, actor, director and overall bon vivant mixes interviews, archive footage and a few key film clips to reveal more than a half-century of Douchet-ian thought and activity. As both an introduction for the uninitiated and a celebration for devoted followers, the Cannes Classics selection should see festival and film channel play, with a token theatrical release in France.
Like his contemporaries Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Douchet, who was born in 1929 in the small city of Arras, started out as a budding young critic with ambitions to make movies himself. But although his short “Saint-Germain-des-Pres” was included in the New Wave omnibus film Six in Paris (Paris vu par), he never went on to direct features because, in his own words, they were “too much of a hassle.” (Douchet did however play small parts in a number of his friends’ movies, including a first-ever cameo as the lover of Antoine Doinel’s mother in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.)
But if the critic did not make much of an impact behind the camera, he would change a number of lives in front of the screen when, starting in the late ‘60s, he began to “teach” cinema at movie clubs and the prestigious film school l’IDHEC (now La Femis), screening classics by Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Kenji Mizoguchi, to name a few of the auteurs that are part of his canon.
His method, which is as laid-back and perceptive as his personality, is to say little before the movie starts, and then afterward to let members of the audience speak first. Bouncing off their comments and critiques, Douchet gradually hones in on the thematic elements of an auteur’s work and, most brilliantly, specific aspects of their mise-en-scene, marrying an analysis of style and content that has seldom been rivaled.
The fact that he does it all without notes or real preparation, working from memory and the film he just watched, is about as un-academic as you can get, yet Douchet’s teachings have proved more valuable to directors like Desplechin or Beauvois — for whom the critic served as a sort of surrogate father — than anything found in a book. At the age of 88, he continues to host sold-out screenings in Paris and elsewhere, allowing younger generations to experience his talks first-hand, while exploring the work of more contemporary auteurs like Tsai Ming-liang and Harmony Korine.
If many French cinephiles are familiar with Douchet’s film clubs, the documentary delves into lesser known parts of a backstory that mirrors his general philosophy about teaching cinema. Gay and eternally single, the man doesn’t believe in couples, personal property or anything that can hold one back from the perpetual movement of life — the same way the best movies, such as those by Chaplin, are the ones that remain forever in motion. He also cares little for notions of fitness and health, with one hilarious old news clip, about new trends in dieting, showing Douchet washing down a steak-frites with a fine glass of Brouilly, the title card listing him as “ An Epicurean.”
The three directors are clearly enamored with their subject, and in the end they have wisely made Jean Douchet less about dissecting movies than about learning how to love them. (Douchet’s talks are often presented under the name “L’Art d’aimer” — “The Art of Loving,” which is also the title of a published collection of his writings.) Perhaps more than any other critic either living or dead — and certainly those in France, which continues to be the world leader in film intellectual abstruseness — Douchet has shown that the true path to understanding cinema lies less in wracking our brains than in simply sitting back in a theater, relaxing and opening up our minds and hearts.
Production companies: Carlotta Films, Kidam, Allerton Films
Cast: Jean Douchet, Arnaud Desplechin, Noemie Lvovsky, Barbet Schroeder, Xavier Beauvois
Directors, screenwriters: Fabien Hagege, Guillaume Namur, Vincent Haasser
Producer: Bastien Ehouzan
Director of photography: Amine Berrada
Editor: Nicolas Ripoche
Composer: Arthur Dairaine Andrianaivo
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Sales: Carlotta Films
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