02 July 2013

Yves Montand

At Il Cinema Ritrovato (29 June - 6 July 2013), one of the sections is Letters from Chris Marker. His essay film came to light after a gestation period which happened to be a very special one, the golden age of the French short film in the 1950s. Bologna's tribute to Marker will focus on his early works, like Un dimanche à Pekin, Description d'un combat (which, according the festival organisation, has disappeared from the face of the earth for almost 50 years), La jeté and Le joli mai. Narrator of Le joli mai/The Beautiful May (1963) is French film actor Yves Montand (1921-1991). Italian-born but thoroughly French Montand was a charismatic singer and also a great actor - or was he an actor who also was a great singer? He represented the ideal of the working class hero with a strong social conscience. Montand starred in numerous successful films and his crooner songs, especially those about Paris, became instant classics. But his life was filled with controversy.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 423. Photo: Lucienne Chevert.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 455. Photo: Lucienne Chevert or Sam Lévin?. The credits for this photo differ. See the other cards below.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 913, presented by Les Carbones Korès 'Carboplane'. Photo: Studio Bernard et Vauclair.

Ivo! Monta!
Yves Montand was born Ivo Livi in 1921 in the village of Monsummano Alto, near Florence, Italy. He was the youngest of three children and his parents, Giovanni Livi and Giuseppina (later: Josephine) Livi-Simoni, were poor peasants. Giovanni was a militant communist and, to escape persecution from the new fascist regime of Mussolini in Italy, the family was forced to flee in 1923. They settled in Marseilles, and were granted French nationality in 1929 (one source says 1932). Ivo left school at 11 and, with the aid of a forged identity card, found a job in a food processing factory. At 14, he started working as a hairdresser at his sister's barber shop and obtained his qualification in hairdressing. When he was 17, he worked for a metal production company. By chance, the shy 17 year old agreed to do a stint as warm-up act in a music hall in 1938, for which he adopted the name Yves Montand. Legend has it that this stage name was inspired by his mother Giuseppina who used to yell at him when he was a boy when it was time to come upstairs: “Ivo! Monta!”. This first performance was a success - the audience applauded him for several minutes and shouted for an encore. That night in Marseilles a new French star was born. He performed at many small local venues, and at communist events. His father Giovanni was then a locally important figure in the French Communist Party in Marseille. Montand himself also had a strong social conscience. In 1950, he signed the 'Stockholm Appeal', the Soviet Union’s petition against the use of atomic weapons, and he became a prominent member of the French communist party. In 1956 and in 1963, he would tour as a jazz singer in the Soviet Union, and meet with Nikita Khrushchev. This caused a hail of criticism at home. In 1956, Soviet troops had just invaded Hungary, and Montand’s conscience was torn in two. He did not support the action of the Soviet government, but nor was he ready to make a political break from the Communist party and his own family. In the end Montand reluctantly agreed to go ahead with his Russian tour. He remained a Party member until 1968, when he broke with the Party in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Yves Montand
French postcard. Photo Roger Carlet.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 176. Photo: Roger Carlet.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 135. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions O.P., Paris, no. 11. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Love Affairs
Yves Montand gave his first major concert in Marseilles on 21 June 1939, headlining at the famous Alcazar. It was here that Montand made a decisive step away from performing covers of other singers’ hits, singing his own original song Dans les plaines du Far West (In the plains of the Wild West). In 1944, Montand won a coveted spot at the Moulin Rouge, where he appeared as the support act of Édith Piaf. The legendary singer fell for his good looks and natural charisma, and she would soon become his mentor and lover. Their affair would last two years, and Piaf landed Montand his first film role, appearing along side her in Étoile sans lumière/Star Without Light (Marcel Blistène, 1945). Montand’s remarkable success from 1945 onwards is attributable to Piaf’s influence. Hits like Battling Joe and Les Grands Boulevards made Montand a national sensation almost overnight. In 1946, he appeared in his second film, Les Portes de la nuit/Gates of the Night (Marcel Carné, 1946) starring Pierre Brasseur. Despite being recognised now as a masterpiece, Carné's film was a commercial failure at the time. Further film appearances similarly failed to advance Montand's acting career. So he concentrated on his singing, which appeared to bring him far more success. In 1951, he staged his first one man show, which included 22 songs and two poems. It was a phenomenal success. In 1949, Montand had met rising young actress Simone Signoret, and the two fell in love. Having divorced her then husband, director Yves Allegrét, Signoret set up home with Montand in Paris in 1950 and the two married the following year. The marriage would last up until Signoret’s death in 1985, although Montand had a number of well-publicised love affairs, including one with Marilyn Monroe.

Yves Montand
German postcard by Ufa/Film-Foto, Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 636. Photo: Teddy Piaz, Paris.

Yves Montand
German postcard by Ufa (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft), Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 658. Retail price: 25 Pfg. Photo: Sam Lévin, Paris. Publicity still for Le salaire de la peur/The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953).

Yves Montand
French postcard by Editions d'art Yvon, Paris, no. 189. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Prime Target for Hollywood
Despite his growing success as a singer, Yves Montand longed for a similar success in the cinema. In 1953, he took the starring role in the suspense thriller Le salaire de la peur/The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953), co-starring Charles Vanel. The film was hailed as a masterpiece by the international critics who also praised Montand’s performance. In 1953, Le salaire de la peur was awarded the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1954, Montand and Signoret starred in a French stage production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Its success led to a film version a few years later, Les sorcières de Salem/The Witches of Salem (Raymond Rouleau, 1956) with Mylène Demongeot. By 1959, Yves Montand was an international celebrity. Montand appeared on Broadway, New York. and returned in 1961 at the Golden Theatre for an eight-week run. This was followed by a tour of Japan and England. He was by now a prime target for Hollywood and was cast alongside Marilyn Monroe in the romantic comedy Let’s Make Love (George Cukor, 1960). Montand’s much-publicised affair with Monroe threatened to tear his marriage apart at one point but he finally chose to remain with Simone, flying back to France to be near his wife. Although Let's Make Love was a flop, Montand would act in a number of American films, including Goodbye Again (Anatole Litvak, 1961) with Ingrid Bergman, My Geisha (Jack Cardiff, 1962) with Shirley MacLaine, and the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Vincente Minnelli, 1970) with Barbra Streisand.

Yves Montand
German postcard by VEB-Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 672. Photo: Gerhard Puhlmann,

Yves Montand
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 807, 1958. Retail price: 0,20 DM.

Yves Montand
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 2.558, 1966. Retail price: 0,20 MDN.

A Pure, Unadulterated Mediterranean
Despite having appeared in over a dozen films since Le Salaire de la peur, Yves Montand was still unsatisfied with his film career. This changed abruptly in the mid-1960's, when Montand’s success as a film actor began to rival his success as a singer. This began with Compartiment tueurs/The Sleeping Car Murders (1964), which was the first of four collaborations with the politically motivated Greek-born director Costa-Gavras. It was followed by high-profile films by some of France’s most acclaimed directors, including La guerre est finie/The War Is Over (Alain Resnais, 1966) with Ingrid Thulin, Paris brûle t’il ?/Is Paris Burning? (René Clément, 1967) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the political thriller Z (Costa-Gavras, 1968). In September 1968, Montand gave a series of concerts at the Paris Olympia, which ran for six weeks. He had arrived, as a singer ánd as a film star. In the early 1970's, Montand appeared in a wide range of roles, alternating between tragic and comic: the thriller L’Aveu/The Confession (Costa-Gavras, 1970), the comedy La Folie des grandeurs/Delusions of Grandeur (Gérard Oury, 1971) co-starring with Louis de Funès, and the acclaimed romance César et Rosalie/César and Rosalie (Claude Sautet, 1972) opposite Romy Schneider. This latter film painted the truest picture of him: a pure, unadulterated Mediterranean - the big guy who never knew when to stop, as the anonymous author of the biographer at RFI Musique writes.

Yves Montand
French postcard by Philips. Photo: H. Meister.

Yves Montand
German postcard by Krüger, no. 902/394. Photo: Gerard Decaux.

Yves Montand
French card by Editions Vianelly, Paris, no. 7, 1968.

Romy Schneider & Yves Montand in Clair de femme
French postcard by Editions Nugeron in the Star Series, no. 58. Photo: publicity still for Clair de femme/Womanlight (Costa Gravas, 1979).

Spectacular Come-Back
Yves Montand was nominated for a Cesar Award for Best Actor for I comme Icare/I as in Icarus (Henri Verneuil, 1979) and again for Garçon!/Waiter! (Claude Sautet, 1983) with Nicole Garcia. In 1986, more than a decade after his international box-office draw power had diminished, the 65-year-old Montand came back spectacularly and gave one of his most memorable performances, as the scheming uncle in the two-part film: Jean de Florette (Claude Berri, 1986), co-starring Gérard Depardieu, and Manon des Sources/Manon of the Spring (1986, Claude Berri), co-starring Emmanuelle Béart. The film, adapted from the famous novel by the French author Marcel Pagnol, was a worldwide critical hit. In his later years he maintained a home in St Paul de Vence, Provence. On the last day of filming his final film, IP5:L'île aux pachydermes/IP5: The Island of Pachyderms (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1992) with Olivier Martinez, he suffered a heart attack. (The film tells the story of an old man who dies from a heart attack.) Montand died a few hours later in a hospital in Senlis, France, on 9 November 1991. Like Simone Signoret, he is buried in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise (the Père Lachaisse Cemetery in Paris). Montand's only child, Valentin, his son by his second wife, his former personal assistant Carole Amiel, was born in 1988. His first marriage to Simone Signoret had been childless. Catherine Allégret, Signoret's daughter from her first marriage was Montand's adopted daughter. In 2004, Catherine Allégret published a book titled Un monde à l'envers/World Upside Down in which she contended that Montand had abused her sexually since she was five years old. There was more controversy after Montand's death. In a paternity suit that rocked France, a woman had accused Montand of being the father of her daughter and went to court to obtain a DNA sample from him. Montand had refused, but the woman persisted after his death. In a court ruling that made international headlines, the woman won the right to have Montand exhumed and a sample taken. On 11 March 1998, a paternity test showed that he wasn't the girl's father. Film critic James Travers concludes at Films de France: “Yves Montand, the myth and the man – the two are inextricably linked and one can never be sure where the one ends and the other begins”.

Yves Montand sings Les Feuilles Mortes (written by Jacques Prevert and Joseph Cosma) in the film Parigi è sempre Parigi/Paris is Always Paris (1951, Luciano Emmer) with Hélène Remy and Franco Interlenghi. Source: paccaggicco (YouTube).

Trailer of Let’s Make Love (1960). Source: Adore Marilyn (YouTube).

Scene from César et Rosalie/César and Rosalie (1972) with Yves Montand and Sami Frey. Source: Torteille (YouTube).

French trailer of Jean de Florette (1986). Source: Danios12345 (YouTube).

Yves Montand sings A Paris. Source: bpsconcept (YouTube).

Sources: James Travers (Films de France), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), RFI Musique, Wikipedia, and IMDb.


Marie Reed said...

You are making me miss France! I had no idea that that was Montard in the movie Jean de Florette. I'll have to rewatch it:) I have it on DVD:) Happy PFF my friend!

Robin said...

That last one....Jean de Florette...was a great movie. I watched it a few years back....complete with english subtitles. :-)

Have a beautiful weekend

Ramona said...