James Bond and European Art-House Cinema

Pretentious speculations ahoy!

So last night we watched Jean Renoir’s pretty remarkable ‘The Rules of The Game’ and it stirred-up something inside of me that I had forgotten about for a while as I had dismissed it as excessively speculative thinking on my part. What it flagged up for me again was this –

What was the influence of European mainstream and art-house cinema on the early James Bond films?

Let me explain: there is a scene in ‘The Rules of The Game’ in which the characters go off on a pheasant-hunt. They have their guns and the servants are whacking up the shrubs and foliage to get the birds flying.

“Hey!” I thought, “This is sort of like that scene in Moonraker where Bond shoots the guy out the tree during a pheasant-hunt. In fact, that is set in France too. Hang on, this film is directed by Jean Renoir and wasn’t his nephew, Claude Renoir, supposed to have been the original cinematographer for ‘Moonraker’ but couldn’t do it? I know he was cinematographer for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ so there’s a definite Renoir/Bond connection. Are these two scenes linked? Am I reading too much into this?”
I would have dismissed this as such but the link between European cinema and 60s/70s Bond has been niggling at me for a while.

It started with Alain Robbe-Grillet and his films ‘L’Immortelle’ and ‘Trans-Europe-Express’ and Bond’s ‘From Russia With Love’.

Both ‘L’Immortelle’ and ‘From Russia With Love’ were released in 1963 although I’ve still to discover which was released first but the similarities between the two — the shots on the Bosphorus, the Hagia Sophia etc — might certainly be coincidence but, for me, they seem to almost feed off one another. And even if it was coincidence it is a coincidence that Robbe-Grillet acknowledges as there is a poster of ‘From Russia With Love’ in his twist on the spy genre ‘Trans-Europe-Express’. Robbe-Grillet was obviously influenced by James Bond but I am willing to wager it wasn’t a one way street.

For example, there is the case of Piet Mondrian who’s art-work and design form the basis for the student’s hang out in Grillet’s excellent ‘Eden and After’, the use of coloured forms breaking up space and dimensionality. But this Mondrian effect is also demonstrated explicitly by Ken Adam in Drax’s mission control headquarters in ‘Moonraker’ (also shot in France). Is this coincidence? Very possibly yes but it is one that seems to be forcing me to make connections even if they aren’t there (suitable when dealing with Grillet and a spy I guess). Even the presence of Michel Lonsdale screams Rivette.

And then there’s also the fact that the men’s suits and rooms of gambling tables in early Bond seem to share a very similar style and cut to Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’. Sure, we’re talking sophisticated early 60s design so of course films made around the same time will share similar aesthetics but again, these “connections” seem to be imposing themselves onto me rather than myself willing them into existence.

I know I am stretching what are, more than likely, coincidences but I do like (actually, I love) to think that both European filmmakers and the Bond people were looking at each other’s stuff and thinking to themselves — “Yep, we’ll take a bit of that thank you. Ooh! That’s a nice piece of design and style. Let’s use that.” I also think it is what makes those earlier Bond movies have such a distinct style and one that doesn’t need to lean on America as its touchstone and is more Eurocentric. I am, in no way shape or form, an expert on cinema or art and so would love to find out more about all this from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about and if there is something there or if it is all in my head.

I mentioned some of this to my friend last night.

“Maybe you’re reading too much into all this.”

I hesitated for a second before realising, and replying, “No! It’s ALL about reading too much into it. We might not be right a lot of the time but it is how we discover meaning, even if it’s all a grand illusion.”