Une si jolie petite plage (1949)



Une si jolie petite plage photo
One rainy night, a stranger arrives in a nondescript seaside town and checks into a cheap hotel. All that is known about him is his name - Pierre - and everyone he meets is suspicious of him. He appears to know the area well; he seems to be in good health. But why is he here?  Why is he so sad?  The answers emerge when another man appears on the scene, an acquaintance of Pierre who knows the crime that he has committed and who intends to use the information to his own advantage…
© filmsdefrance.com 2012

Film Review

Une si jolie petite plage is the most visually arresting film to come out of the partnership of director Yves Allégret and screenwriter Jacques Sigurd. Drenched in an aura of melancholia, it provides a bleakly existential meditation on the impossibility of escaping from one's past and the consequences of one's actions.
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In both its subject matter and its stark monochrome composition, the film is strongly evocative of American film noir of the 1940s and French poetic realism of the late 1930s, yet there are also shards of modernity - the plot references a major social issue of the time (the problems faced by state adopted children) and Allégret's unpolished mise-en-scene has more than a touch of the auteur about it.

Stylistically, there are strong similarities with Allégret and Sigurd's previous film, Dédée d'Anvers (1948), a classic of French film noir which evokes a similar mood of repression and fatalism, a sense of the noose gradually tightening around the neck. The bleakness of the setting is reflected in the cynicism and apparent lack of humanity of the characters. Everyone appears to have a great need to be loved and yet no one is capable of feeling for (or even trusting) anyone else. What we see here is how France was in the aftermath of WWII, bruised and desolate, ashamed of the past and apprehensive about the future. Could this be why the film fared so badly at the box office, because it captured the mood of the time so perfectly?

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Une si jolie petite plage is the most lyrical and ambiguous of Allégret's film noir dramas, and for this reason it is probably the best. The characters are not well-defined, there are no obvious heroes and villains, and most of the story is told by the camera, not by the actors spewing reams of dialogue.  We naturally recognise Pierre (Gérard Philipe at his best) as the doomed fugitive whose troubled past is about to catch up with him, and Fred (Jean Servais, in his pre-Rififi lull) exudes enough quiet menace to qualify as his nemesis. But, other than this, the noir archetypes are hard to pin down and the further we get into the film the more its allegorical subtext becomes apparent. This is not a film about the destiny of one man, but rather the destiny of nation. It is about France, shamed by military defeat and a period of occupation, coming to terms with its traumatic wartime experiences and learning from the errors of the past to build a better, brighter future.

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The fact that the film failed to attract an audience in spite of some very favourable reviews (François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville considered it an unequivocal masterpiece) suggests just how difficult it was for the French people to reflect on their recent past. Une si jolie petite plage is a hauntingly beautiful film which, with its austere realism and lack of dramatic artifice, looks forward to a new kind of cinema, that which the French New Wave would begin to deliver a decade later. But at the time when the film was first seen it offered little comfort. The depressing ending was far more likely to be interpreted as an admission of defeat rather than a gesture of hope. What can be read into Pierre's fate other than the dismal truism that we can never escape from our past?  Not an encouraging message for a nation that was keen to put its recent past behind it. Of course, the film's real message is a salutary one: to escape the past, we must fully acknowledge it. Alas, this is something that the French were unable to do for many years.
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.


The director Yves Allégret also worked with the actor Gérard Philipe on the films Les Orgueilleux (1953) and La Meilleure part (1955).

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