FriendsIn 1971, a little film by the name of Friends became a huge commercial success around the world. Universally denounced by critics, director Lewis Gilbert’s tale of two teenagers in love in the Camargue charmed and delighted untold thousands. The album soundtrack by Elton John and Bernie Taupin also became a hit.

Three years later came Gilbert’s sequel, Paul and Michelle, this time with a jazz score by Michel Colombier. However, the times had changed and in Australia the only release the film could muster was as the bottom-half of a double-bill at a few drive-ins.

Friends later made a brief appearance on video (CIC-Taft) and was shown a couple of times on late-night television, but then disappeared without trace. The soundtrack went out of print, and no CD version was ever released. As for the seemingly unloved Paul and Michelle, there was no Australian video, soundtrack or television screenings.

The first hint of revival came in 1992 when Elton John released a two-CD compilation, Rare Masters (DJM 514 305-1), which contains all the music (and the original’s dialogue snippets: “I meant to do my work today as a lizard sunned itself on a moss-grown rock …”). A few years later, both films were released on VHS in the US.

Friends – The Critics

Apart from critics being totally at odds with the paying audience (1), what is most curious about the incessant critical bagging of Friends is that each new panning appears to be a rehash of someone else’s. It is if some god has decreed what the accepted wisdom must be, and all but a few dissidents happily and mindlessly repeat it.

Take, for example, this ‘review’ of Friends in Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide:

BOMB. […] Yucky early-teen romance about French boy and girl who run off to the seashore, set up housekeeping, and have a baby … then Mommy and Daddy show up to take them home. (2)

For one, the boy is English; two, they go to the Camargue, not the seashore; three, there is no Mommy, the boy’s mother having abandoned him (and her husband) six years earlier, and the girl’s mother having died during childbirth; and, four, at film’s end, the boy faces arrest by a police inspector, with not a parent in sight.

With four major errors in less than three lines, Maltin sets a new standard in critical (in)accuracy. (3)

The multi-volume Motion Picture Guide, which promotes itself on its high degree of accuracy, fares no better:

Terrible teenage drama starring [Sean] Bury and [Anicée] Alvina as two unloved French kids who run off together and set up housekeeping on a deserted beach. They have a baby and, shortly afterward, their apologetic parents show up and take them away. (4)

What is going on here? Is there a parallel universe where a different version of the film is circulating, corresponding to what Maltin and the Motion Picture Guide describe? But, even if there were, could that explain the bizarre doubling-up of words and phrases (“run off”, “set up housekeeping”, “show up” and “take them”)?

One’s worst fears are confirmed when reading the damning TimeOut Film Guide crit. Not only are there such inaccuracies as “all lyrical slow motion” (there is very little in the film) (5), the last word is “Yuck”. (6) How odd that both TimeOut and Maltin should have independently decided that “yuck”/”yucky” was the best way to describe Friends. Perhaps it is the collective unconscious at work.

The Film

Paramount. Friends. © 1971 Paramount Pictures Corporation. Locations: Paris, Arles; the Camargue. France. 35mm. 102 mins. (7)

Director: Lewis Gilbert. Producer: Lewis Gilbert. Associate producer: Geoffrey Helman. Scriptwriters: Jack Russell, Vernon Harris. Based on an original story by Lewis Gilbert. DOP: Andreas Winding. Production designer: Marc Frédérix. Wardrobe: Jeannine Perry. Editor: Anne V. Coates. Music: Elton John. Lyrics: Bernie Taupin. Additional music: Paul Buckmaster. Sound recordist: Jo de Bretagne. Mixer: Gerry Humphreys.

Cast: Sean Bury (Paul Harrison), Anicée Alvina (Michelle Latour); Ronald Lewis [Robert Harrison (8)], Toby Robins [Jane Gardner], Joan Hickson [Lady in Bookshop], Pascale Roberts [Annie], Sandy Rebbot [Pierre].

* * *

After her father dies, 14-and-a-half-year-old Michelle Latour (Anicée Alvina) travels to Paris to stay with a female cousin. Not only is she made to feel most unwanted, but her cousin’s boyfriend makes gross sexual advances towards her in a scene that takes a strongly moralistic attitude to age-different sex. Michelle is half-naked in front of a mirror; the cinematic parallel (unwelcome voyeuristic gaze by mature audience members) is obvious.

15-year-old Paul Harrison (Sean Bury) is the ignored son of a wealthy English businessman living in Paris. He spends his time skipping language classes and stealing cars for joy rides. At the Parc Zoologique, he meets Michelle.

A few days later they set off on a day-long escape – an adventure that ultimately lasts for a year and sees them living in Michelle’s father’s cottage in the remote Camargue, where they create an idyllic existence isolated from the adult world. (9)

Paul and Michelle fall in love, Michelle becomes pregnant and they decide to have the baby alone at home. At film’s end, Paul leaves for work at a local vineyard, unaware the police are waiting there to take him away. (The audience’s ‘superior’ knowledge of the police presence makes Paul and Michelle’s last scenes together quite harrowing.)

The film’s greatest strength – apart from Alvina’s extraordinary performance and presence (10), and, to a lesser extent, Bury’s – is its evocation of Arcadia, that magic, protected place where life may be lived as the rest of us can only dream. Literature and art has for all time been obsessed with the many forms of Shangri La, but cinema has not been that successful at evoking it (the very artifice feels more like an attempt than a true experience).

This domaine perdu (as Alain-Fournier describes it in Le Grand Meaulnes (11)) is somehow cut off from earthly time and space. Only those specially privileged may enter The Great Good Place (12) and, once departed, it can rarely be refound. The white cottage and Camargue of Friends is a perfect embodiment of that world – a place where no stranger/adult enters and which even the police cannot track down. This is why they must wait overnight (one assumes in a local village) and return the next morning to the vineyard to await Paul. (13)

Shot by Andreas Winding, the film is always extremely beautiful to look at (though the David Hamilton-esque patina dates it at times), and thoughtfully directed (the green of nature is kept out until the reverse close-ups of Paul and Michelle during their first meeting (14)). Lewis Gilbert has never been regarded as a particularly inventive or imaginative craftsman, but the clearly personal nature of the material (15) has made his work here unusually sensitive and appropriate.

The scenes of nakedness and lovemaking, which created some comment at the time, are strikingly natural, never prurient and exploit neither actor. That did not stop several critics from complaining that Alvina is exposed to more explicit nudity than Bury, but this isn’t so. The full-frontal of Alvina that set the puritans afire (and the Australian censors cut) is three-frames long, and a long-shot.

Though it would no doubt be banned in ageist Australia today, it is difficult to believe any sane person could rationally object to this delicate portrayal of 1970s teenage sexuality. (16)

What certainly did upset people was Michelle’s having a baby outside the hospital system, as if this was somehow irresponsible and unbelievable. But Michelle’s mother died during childbirth (presumably in a hospital), and Michelle’s desire to have hers somewhere else is totally believable.

Friends

As well, girls/women have had babies outside hospitals for most of history; it is a profoundly natural act that only the 20th and 21st centuries have deemed always intervention-necessary. Michelle is 15 at the time, which is a most physiologically appropriate age to give birth. And why shouldn’t teenagers happily cut off from a technologically-crazy world not act in a traditional, natural way?

It could be argued that Gilbert should have taken his point even further and had Michelle give birth squatting (allegedly the most natural of methods), but Paul and Michelle have read a book on childbirth and this has introduced into their world adult ideas of acceptable delivery.

For all its ‘controversial’ material, this is a profoundly moral, indeed deeply Catholic, work. Paul and Michelle see themselves as married because they have exchanged vows to each other (standing in a church alcove while an adult marriage takes place). They also baptise their child, Sylvie, in an otherwise empty church. It is hard to believe they would not be as blessed by any God as those who simply kowtow to the man-made rules of the Pauline church.

Paul and Michelle are a remarkable cinematic couple, because one always believes in, and is inspired by, their love. Few films have captured the rapture of teenage passion so sweetly; few films have created and held a teenage perspective so honestly. Gilbert has exactly captured Fournier’s maxim: “My credo in art and literature is childhood. The thing is to render it without childishness.” (17) One could add: “Nor debase it with adult perspectives.”

The elegiac world of Paul and Michelle’s love may have been attacked from outside, dismantled and lost, but, by the virtue of this tender film, one can constantly return and relive it.

* * *

Paul and Michelle – The Critics

If Leonard Maltin’s infelicities regarding Friends were not enough, he is at it again with Paul and Michelle:

BOMB. […] further antics of those lovable teeny-boppers have about as much bearing on real life as anything [Keir] Dullea encountered while going through the 2001 space-warp. (18)

Maltin (19) misses the very point of Paul and Michelle, which takes the characters out of the idyllic Camargue and shoves them into the harsh world of modern Paris. The entire film is about what Maltin presumably sees as “real life” intruding on a romantic dream. (As for what Paul and Michelle has to do with the Kubrick film – or a space-warp! – is anyone’s guess.)

David McGillivray in Monthly Film Bulletin (20) so mangles the film’s plot one has to ask if he actually watched it. He makes seven significant errors in his plot synopsis, claiming that: Paul goes to a Parisian school (it is in England); Paul meets Michelle “accidentally” (he has been diligently searching); Paul, Michelle and Sylvie go together to Paris (Paul goes alone, the others following later); Michelle works “in a restaurant and kitchen” (only the kitchen); Michelle discovers she is pregnant in Paris (actually it is in Arles); “her student friends perform a secret abortion” (they are not even remotely her friends); Paul “puts Michelle and Sylvie on a train” (it is Michelle’s idea to return to the Camargue, not Paul’s). As for describing the white cottage in the Camargue as Michelle and “Paul’s old haunt” …!

Despite an incapacity to describe Paul and Michelle accurately, that does not stop McGillivray railing against it:

The suffering is richly melodramatic, with the young things (no longer provocative adolescents) being cut off without a penny, languishing in almost Dickensian squalor […] (21)

McGillivray exposes only himself with the “no longer provocative adolescents”, because in Friends Paul and Michelle are in no way provocative to anyone, living as they do in Elysian isolation. As for using the term “Dickensian” to describe lower-middle-class life in Paris, that is simply cultural arrogance.

Underlining these and many other attacks on Paul and Michelle is an anger that the film was even made. It is as if the critics believe their denunciations of Friends should have been sufficient to ensure no sequel was ever contemplated or made. The fact that no one listens is always the hardest reality for any critic to bear.

To take but two examples; first Leonard Maltin:

Why anyone would ever want a sequel to Friends requires an investigation we must take up one of these days […]

One can hardly wait!

Second, David McGillivray:

Three years after Lewis Gilbert’s star-crossed lovers won very few hearts in Friends, the same pair return to suffer anew in this unnecessary sequel.

This is McGillivray as self-appointed revisionist. The first film was a hit, as McGillivray well knows, and to say “won very few hearts” is disingenuous in the extreme.

The Film

Paramount Pictures presents Paul and Michelle. © 1974 Paramount Pictures Corporation. Locations: Paris, Nice; the Camargue. A Franco-British co-production. 35mm. 103 mins. (22)

Director: Lewis Gilbert. Producer: Lewis Gilbert. Associate producer: William P. Cartlidge. Scriptwriters: Angela Huth, Vernon Harris. Based on an original story by Lewis Gilbert. DOP: Claude Renoir. Production designer: Pierre Guffroy. Editor: Thelma Connell. Music: Michel Colombier. Songs: “Paul & Michelle”, “Good” (lyrics: Don Black); “Sexy Thing”, “Queen of the Nasties” (music, lyrics: Steve Gilbert). Mixer: Gerry Humphreys.

Cast: Sean Bury (Paul Harrison), Anicée Alvina (Michelle Latour), Keir Dullea (Gary (23)), Ronald Lewis (Sir Robert Harrison), Catherine Allegret (Joanna), Georges Beller (Daniel), Anne Lonnberg (Susannah), Sara Stout (Sylvie), Steve Gilbert (Nic), Anthony Clark (Hush), Peggy Frankston (Lilli), Peter Graves (Sir Henry), Toby Robins (Jane Harrison), André Maranne (M. Bellancourt), Jenny Arasse (Sister Mercier), Michel Garland (Doctor in Arles), Elizabeth Kaza (Mother Superior), Sylvie Joly (Hotel Receptionist), Alberto Favart (Professor).

* * *

It is three years after Friends, and Paul graduates from an English public school, where he has been effectively locked away by his father.

Before starting a university course at the Sorbonne, Paul decides to return to France and search for Michelle.

For those who think Paul has done too little to find Michelle over the three years, in 1974 he would have had no passport separate from his father’s and no means of travel from England to France without that parent’s consent – a consent that clearly would never have been given. The dialogue between father and son at the start also indicates that Paul deliberately waited until he is old enough to escape his father’s clutches.

Paul finally finds Michelle in Nice. In an odd misjudgement, Lewis Gilbert cuts from a near-wordless embrace (on a pedestrian crossing as car horns blare and traffic whizzes past) to some time later. What did Paul and Michelle say to each other on meeting after three years of separation? What did their eyes seek out and find in each other’s?

This is the same failure of imagination as found in Le Grand Meaulnes, where Alain-Fournier has Augustin Meaulnes and Yvonne de Galais, after having passed each other several times in the woods and gardens of the château, finally meet and talk by the lake. Every reader is on tenterhooks about what they will say to each other, but, after the characters introduce themselves, Fournier opts out and delivers the most infuriating two sentences in all literature: “Et ils parlèrent un instant encore. Ils parlèrent lentement, avec bonheur, – avec amitié.” (“And they spoke a moment more. They spoke slowly, with happiness, – with friendship.”) (24)

Paul and Michelle

What is soon learnt, however, is that Michelle is now living with an American airline employee, Garry (Keir Dullea). In full knowledge of her time with Paul, Garry has taken in both Michelle and her child, Sylvie.

The unavoidable emotional tug-of-war begins, with Michelle leaving Garry to return with Paul and Sylvie to the domaine perdu of the white cottage in the Camargue. But the happiness they find there is only on the surface, and dark shadows gather. The varied close-ups of Michelle are unbearably sad, as if she alone senses what will befall them – a fear justified when the 32-year-old Garry arrives by car, penetrating the sanctity of their childhood Eden. One immediately knows much, if not all, is lost.

Paul then travels alone to Paris to set up home in a tiny attic apartment, in a student quarter filled with drug-taking hippie protesters. (Gilbert unfortunately shows his age in these scenes.) Michelle and Sylvie arrive later, adapting uneasily to the city lifestyle and the demands of supporting a family, which weighs heavily on Michelle and Paul (each working while the other takes turn to mind Sylvie).

The film is an almost unrelievedly bleak look at the crushing effects of a grey capitalist world on young love (Claude Renoir muting his photographic palette to chilling effect), and ends on yet another separation: Michelle and child returning to the cottage, and Paul staying in Paris to finish his degree. Despite promises of joint holidays and being together in three years’ time, they look far more life-defeated than at the end of Friends, and no sequel has ever appeared to suggest that their now-illusive happiness has been regained or separately found. (25)

This impression is reinforced by the unleavened hand of Gilbert who sets up many negative parallels between the two films: the natural home birth is ‘replaced’ with an illegal abortion in a hospital; Paul’s job in a picturesque vineyard full of wonderfully warm Frenchmen becomes back-breaking toil in an industrial meat-packing plant; and so on. It is almost as if Gilbert is punishing the audience for having believed in the possibility of Friends. (This Catholic-like turnabout is also found in Le Grand Meaulnes and in many other tales of lost domains and loves unregained.) No wonder so few at the time wanted to see his new film (just as many re-readers of Le Grand Meaulnes falter after the première partie, unwilling to face again what follows).

That said, Paul and Michelle is an always interesting film, even if the story feels unfinished, like a novel where the final chapters have fallen loose. Paul and Michelle’s story is too special to not want more … to not want to return to that most special of places and once again believe that love can overcome all.

For a moment or two there was only one time, and it was not the present, but that of the domaine perdu, the so impossible to find; yet once found, so impossible to forget. (26)

Endnotes

  1. Eric Braun in Films and Filming, November 1971, pp. 52–3, is a cautious exception.
  2. Leonard Maltin (Ed.), Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide, 1998 Edition (New York, Signet, 1995).
  3. That is, as either the writer of this ‘review’ or editor of the book, or both.
  4. Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross, The Motion Picture Guide: E–G: 1927–1983 (Chicago: Cinebooks, Inc., 1986), p. 941.
  5. Brenda Davies in Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1971, p. 195, is kinder than most, but her plot synopsis has the chronology wrong (Paul and Michelle become lovers long before he finds work at the vineyard) and Davies, too, complains about the slow-motion.
  6. Tom Milne (Ed.), TimeOut Film Guide (London: TimeOut, 1993, third edition), p. 253.
  7. Including Paramount logos.
  8. No character names are given except for Bury’s and Alvina’s. This and the following are taken from press materials.
  9. Among the film’s many influences is Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, and, in a rather silly moment en route to the Camargue, the film makes homage when Paul plays a baguette as if it were a flute.
  10. Alvina has a most hypnotic calmness on screen, which Alain Robbe-Grillet would a few years later use in Glissements Progessifs du Plaisir(1973) and Le Jeu avec le Feu (1975).
  11. Fournier also uses the phrase “pays sans nom” (“countryside without name”, though usually rendered as “land without a name”). Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (Paris: Éditions Émile-Paul Frères, 1913). There are many English translations about, but beware the Frank Davison published by Penguin and Oxford: it is by far the worst, Davison mangling the prose and omitting whole sentences at seeming whim.
  12. The terms employed here are taken from Robert Gibson’s brilliant The Land Without a Name: Alain-Fournier and His World (London: Paul Elek, 1975), p. 3. Other names given are: Eden, the Earthly Paradise, the Elysian Fields, the Fortunate Isles, the Bower of Bliss, Eldorado …
  13. Likewise, in Le Grand Meaulnes no adults attend the fête.
  14. The film has the same obsession with nature and wildlife as that Australian masterpiece of the same year, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).
  15. Gilbert wrote the original stories for both Friends and Paul and Michelle.
  16. Compare it to the crude depictions of teenage sexuality in almost any American teen film of the time and ponder why it was Friends the critics savaged.
  17. Quoted by John Fowles in his afterword to The Wanderer or the End of Youth [translation of Le Grand Meaulnes] (New York: Signet, 1971), p. 222.
  18. Maltin, p. 998.
  19. Ditto footnote 3.
  20. Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975, p. 13.
  21. Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975, p. 13.
  22. Including Paramount logos.
  23. The end credits spell it “Gary” but the opening credits opt for “Garry”, which is the version always used in reviews.
  24. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, p. 104.
  25. There is a parallel here with John Duigan’s proposed trilogy, which still misses the third part to complete The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Flirting (1991).
  26. From the John Fowles epilogue to The Lost Domain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 298–9.