Sunday 6 November 2011

Le grand Meaulnes (1967)

LE GRAND MEAULNES is a French romantic drama that was directed by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco and released in September 1967.  It stars Brigitte Fossey, Jean Blaise, Alain Libolt, Alain Noury and Juliette Villard.  It is one of at least two films I'm aware of that are based on Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel of the same name in which Francois Seurel, a young schoolteacher, recounts his boyhood friendship with Augustin Meaulnes, a charismatic but restless soul.

The novel is a personal favourite of mine but is impossible to adequately describe for those who have not read it; more than any other novel I have read, it captures the heady days of youth and the impossible longing for them to return.  Such feelings rarely translate to the screen, so I was dubious about watching this film.  A faithful adaptation seemed too much to hope for and I dreaded a disrespectful trashing of a novel I feel very passionate about.

For the most part though, I'm happy to say it's pretty good.  Key to this, I think is the casting.  Albicocco went for an unknown to play Meaulnes, which was a very good idea because there is an essentially unknowable quality to Meaulnes, an almost mythic aura which would have been difficult for a well-known actor to bring off.  Meaulnes' great love Yvonne de Galais is an idealised version of woman, a wholly perfect creation; so Brigitte Fossey, who at 21 was achingly beautiful, was also a good choice.

Brigitte Fossey as Yvonne de Galais

Jean Blaise as Augustin Meaulnes

It's as difficult to say how the film manages to convey the sense of longing as it is to say how the novel manages it.  I think it is simply that Meaulnes' dreamlike adventure at Les Sablonnieres and subsequent attempts to recapture the essence of what he experienced that night speak to all of us who feel the exquisite agonies of lost youth.  Purely in terms of technique, Albicocco uses a variety of lenses to give that slightly off-kilter look to the film, and must have got through a mountain of Vaseline in order to achieve the hazily recollected scenes of memory.

Jean Blaise returned to obscurity following this film, making only two further screen appearances.  Quite the reverse for Brigitte Fossey, who has had a long career in European and occasionally American movies.  Jean-Gabriel Albicocco only made a handful of films after this one and died in 2001.  Alain-Fournier's reputation rests solely on Le grand Meaulnes; without having completed any other works, his life was cut short by the First World War.  He died on 22 September 1914.

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