Film Review: Rendezvous in July

A major Jacques Becker retrospective includes the delayed American debut of an appealing French movie, though it needs to be seen in its proper context.
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Nearly seven decades after its release in France, Rendezvous in July (aka Rendez-vous de juillet) is getting its U.S. premiere as part of Film Forum’s comprehensive Jacques Becker series. Though the director is best remembered internationally for his very different Casque d’Or (aka The Golden Helmet, 1952), Rendezvous in July (1949) was actually one of his most popular films domestically. In part, the “buzz” in its day around this seeming trifle of a movie had to do with the way it depicted rebellious (well, mildly rebellious) post-World War II French youth; it was also the second of three similar movies the director made about “loving couples”—and audiences have always been suckers for sequels. Though tame by French New Wave standards a decade later, Becker’s film is actually somewhat audacious for its time and warrants rediscovery.

What Nouvelle Vague mavericks of the late 1950s, from Jean-Luc Godard to Claude Chabrol, saw in the older figure of Becker was a kindred spirit, a filmmaker attempting to de-romanticize both Gallic culture and the cinematic apparatus itself. In truth, Becker’s projects are usually small-scale and not always that inventive (not even Casque d’Or, his la belle epoque gangster picture and best-regarded production), but they indicate a tentative break from the “Tradition of Quality” studio-bound efforts of the French film industry. Taking a cue from his mentor, Jean Renoir, for whom he worked as assistant director in the 1930s, Becker at least tries to show Parisian people and places in a less glamorous or stereotyped way than did most of his contemporaries. Actually, Becker saved his best for last: Le Trou (aka The Hole, 1960), about a prison break, which made its U.S. debut about a year ago. 

Rendezvous in July’s original screenplay is a good indicator of Becker’s ambitions. Though it starts with its focus on Lucien (Daniel Gelin), a young man living with his provincial parents on the Left Bank and his plan to shoot a documentary in Africa, the story quickly morphs into a series of vignettes concerning the lives of Lucien’s friends, who are much more aimless in their personal and professional goals. We wait for what seems like an eternity for our hero’s journey to begin—it doesn’t until the denouement—while witnessing scenes in jazz clubs and acting classes. But all of the social meandering builds to a loft party scene during which Lucien finally chastises his friends for not pursuing their bigger dreams, the one really dramatic part in what could be considered otherwise a more lighthearted version of Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) or Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). But those spoiled by the radical style of Godard’s take on the French youth “scene” in films like Band of Outsiders (1964) will be disappointed by the relatively conventional approach by Becker, who was brave enough to capture en plein air shots (outside the studio) but not do very much with those shots.

The mostly underdeveloped characters are well-played by a fine ensemble of actors, including Gelin (best known to American audiences for his key role in Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much) and Maurice Ronet (memorable later in René Clément’s Purple Noon, 1960). Brigitte Auber (who also later worked with Hitchcock) and Nicole Courcel do their best with the two female leads, though this is not a story with much of a female perspective. The uneven production features moments of real style but also has its share of routine editing, photography and lighting. For jazz enthusiasts, the club scenes are noteworthy: Extended interludes include one with American cornettist Rex Stewart. Sharp-eyed viewers will also spot Capucine in an uncredited bit, her movie debut.

Though never overwhelming or truly profound, Rendezvous in July is cheeky in the best sense of the word, and something different from most other French movies of its time.