This Weekend at the National Gallery (30 cents)

Saw two films at the NGA this weekend, both directed by French director Julien Duvivier, about whom I knew nothing. Both starred Jean Gabin.

The first, a 1937 movie, “Pepe le Moko”, is a film about a famous (fictional) jewel thief, who is trapped in the casbah of Algiers, whose warrens and alleys (and friends) provide him protection, and who would be nabbed if he came out into any other part of the city. Pepe is admired even by those who are out to capture him, and leads a privileged life in the casbah, with his attractive gypsy girlfriend, his fellow thieves, his fence, and even the police inspector who is determined to trick him out of the casbah into the open. The inspector fails, but all is not lost, because the beautiful Parisian tourist wins Pepe’s heart and, inadvertently lures him from the casbah when he learns she is about depart from Algiers by ship. Pepe should have let her go. He made a fatal mistake.

The film is a bit over the top, to be sure, with each main character overplaying his/her role, and what seems to be hundreds of extras, largely but not exclusively wearing Arab clothes, wafting through the casbah. And the casbah could not be more perfect – it is just what you would think/hope this old section of Algiers would look like in 1937. But there was a problem: there was no Arabic writing anywhere in the casbah. Where there was script of any sort, and there was not much, over the door of a shop, for example, it was in French. This got me suspicious and I googled around, and learned that, in fact, the entire film was made in a French studio. The casbah was too good to be true.

“Pepe le Moko” was a very influential film. It has been redone, and even inspired the cartoon character Pepe le Pew.

The second movie was made twenty years later, again by Duvivier and again starring Gabin. The French title is “Voici le temps des assassins”, in English it is sometimes known as “Deadlier than the Male” and in German (translated), it is “The Angel, Who is the Devil”. This film was really a treat. Gabin is Andre Chatalin, a successful chef and proprietor of a restaurant in Les Halles, and most of the film takes place in the dining room and kitchen, and that itself is great fun, both watching the rapid-fire food preparation and the idiosyncratic behavior of the individual diners. But then Danielle Delorme comes on the scene. A beautiful, if someone restrained young woman, she informs Chatelin that she is the daughter of his ex-wife, who has just died in Marseilles. Chatalin, clearly a nice guy, takes in the young woman and hopes to pair her up with a young man for whom he has acted as a surrogate father, never thinking that she would opt for him rather for the young medical student. But she does, and they marry.

And then things fall apart, and it turns out that his ex-wife is still alive, and everything is a con, to cheat him out of his money. But of course, this is not the way it turns out. Even worse things happen. But it’s all a delight, and this is a film for everyone.

After the film, we saw two exhibits; the fanciful art work of 16th century Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a court painter whose portraits are really painted collages of common objects. For example, four portraits of four individuals representing the four seasons: the spring portrait is composed all of flowers, the summer portrait of summer fruits and vegetables, the fall portrait of fall fruits and vegetables, and winter with bare branches. And then there are the portraits of individuals by occupation – such as the portrait of a lawyer composed of all sorts of horrible things, the librarian composed of books. And the “elements”, the man of fire, the man of fish. A fascinating exhibit, sixteen works of art accompanied by contemporary works of other artists who appears to have influenced him, and good story telling.

The second exhibit was of graphic work (largely lithographs and wood cuts) by Edvard Munch. It’s about what you’d expect, but what made it interesting was that the exhibit showed how Munch used the same themes over and over, making small changes, sometimes of subject, sometimes of color or paper or type of ink. It provided a nice perspective.

We then went to the Portrait Gallery, and looked at the movie being shown with the Norman Rockwell exhibit (George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg on why they collect Rockwells, and the relationship of his artistic processes to the processes of film making), an exhibit of Elvis Presley at age 21 (just when he was first getting famous), and a large exhibit of paintings and photography called “Hide/Seek” about gay and lesbian intellectuals and artists who kept their sexual preferences secret through much of their careers.

Following that, and supper at the Thai restaurant, Kanlaya, which is always reasonable and tasty, we went to see the Mary Zimmerman production of Candide at the Harman Theatre. It has come off a long run in Chicago and was in its second night of previews. We have seen Candide twice before, once on Broadway and once at the Arena, and did not think this production compared with the others. But again, it is in a new theatre, which appears to be twice the size of its Chicago venue, and it may be they just have some adjusting to do. The cast is strong.

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