Jean Cormery (Jacques Gamblin) The First Man.
By Ed Rampell
I have many lead sentence ideas competing in my feverish noggin to launch this review with, so I’ll begin by declaring: writer-director Gianni Amelio’s adaptation of philosopher-writer Albert Camus’ The First Man is the best picture I’ve seen so far at the Los Angeles Film Festival 2012. It is sort of Francois Truffaut’s 1959 The 400 Blows meets Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers, with a little bit of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 You Can’t Go Home Again tossed in for good measure.
Like Wolfe’s posthumously published book, Camus’ novel was autobiographical and unfinished when he died an untimely death at age 46 in a 1960 car accident. Shortly after The First Man opens Jean Cormery (Jacques Gamblin), a Camus-like prominent writer in France, returns to his hometown of Algiers. Just as Wolfe received a hostile reception at his hometown of Asheville after his tell all about these secretive North Carolinians’ sins, scandals, etc., Cormery is plunged into Algeria’s bitter division, as Arabs struggle for independence against the French settlers and state. Although Cormery is one of the “pied noir” (the so-called “dark foot” settlers of French origin) he speaks out in favor of a “just” and “equal” Algeria during his return visit -- much to the chagrin of some settlers. (This was a very brave if dangerous thing to do, even back in France, where French supporters of Algerian liberation, such as Camus’ fellow Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, faced death threats.)
Despite being warned for security reasons to lodge in a hotel, Cormery stays in the family apartment with his loving if illiterate mother, played as an old woman by Catherine Sola. As a solo mom whose husband -- like Camus’ actual father -- was killed during World War I when her son (Nino Jouglet) was an infant, Catherine (poignantly played as a young woman by Maya Sansa) raises little Jean with the help of her simpleminded laborer brother (Nicolas Giraud) and the strict family matriarch (Ulla Baugue). In real life, Camus’ mom was a deaf mute, but although Jean’s screen mother isn’t, the difficulties of his Algiers childhood are movingly evoked. And like all the troubled children depicted in French cinema, he grows up to become a great artiste (Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature) and, in that motion picture Parisian tradition, is shown going to the movies.
The First Man alternates between 1950s Algeria and Cormery’s 1920s childhood. There is a seaside scene reminiscent of the ending of The 400 Blows and checkpoint and café scenes suggestive of The Battle of Algiers. (By the way, it bears noting that Algeria has played a distinguished if little commented upon role in film history, from Pontecorvo’s revolutionary masterpiece to the 1969 Oscar-winner, Z, to 2006’s Days of Glory, 2011’s Free Men, and now this stellar feature, etc.)
The film’s denouement may seem abrupt or even disorienting, but this may be the filmmaker’s way of indicating that the source work, Camus’ novel, was cut short and incomplete. In any case, The First Man is excellently acted and co-stars Denis Podalydes as young Jacques’ mentor. In 2011 Podalydes portrayed the recently and happily deposed French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011’s also superb, The Conquest (offscreen the activist actor campaigned for the Socialist candidates, including the contender who just beat Sarkozy, Francois Hollande). Gamblin is reflective as Camus’ adult alter ego, and he appeared in another recent great film, The Names of Love, a personal favorite, wherein Gamblin romanced a part-Algerian woman played by sexy Sara Forestier. Jouglet does excellent work, too.
Of course, the greatest existential question of all time is: Would you walk a mile for a Camus? Indeed, when it comes to The First Man, not even a plague should stop you -- strap on your shoes and run, don’t walk, to go see this beautifully shot (by cinematographer Yves Cape) Camus biopic of sorts about coming of age and dealing with revolutionary upheaval in a dignified, honorable way. Don’t’ be a stranger to a movie based on the last novel by and about the author who wrote The Stranger and The Plague.
The First Man screens at the Los Angeles Film Festival: June 23, 2 p.m., Regal Cinemas.