Sunday 30 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (12) - David Hare writes on Duvivier's silent films

Serious cinephile David Hare writes: This is the first of a proposed two part essay on Duvivier which arose out of a topic post on the Film Alert blog. It is largely in response to some provocative posts  from Sydney/Melbourne film guru Bruce Hodsdon. If I survive the rhinovirus currently eating my brain I will post part 2.
PART 1 (of 2) - SILENCE
If I were a visitor from Planet Cinephilia and I was asked to explain the relative invisibility of this director on any contemporary canon or critical list this is what I might have thought.
The history of 20s silent French cinema is one littered with the bodies of wannabes, poseurs and dilettantes whose interest in film was next to zero, from whom one has to fight to extract the gold. At best as a movement it exhibits some premium values of 20s avant-gardism, including continuing tendencies from surrealism, and especially the new Russian formalists and technicians the latter of which would happily persist into French feature making during the 30s. A few notable directors come out of it – Epstein, L’Herbier, Maurice Tourneur and Gance in particular and all of these would continue careers in different directions into the sound era and commercial cinema.
For the rest we have three important major directors. One is a young Jean Gremillon whose silent beginnings are demonstrably and uniquely spectacular and immediately on display in two complete masterpieces, Maldone (1928) and the brilliant Gardiens de Phare (1929) (The Lighthouse Keepers). Gremillon’s earlier silent work includes two moyen-metrage/55 minute length pictures designed for audio sonorization with external sources including piano rolls, but the prints no longer exist. The piano rolls for one do and have been performed in recent years. Maurice Tourneur’s silent career is almost a blank to me in research terms, but a young Marcel Carne arrives on the scene in 1929 with one superb, evocatively poetic film, Noges; Eldorado du Dimanche -an homage to the Ginguette, or the riverside bistrot so beloved of early 20th Century Parisians on their one weekly day off.
And then there is Renoir and the young Julien Duvivier who, like Renoir had a silent beginning that is to me at least bumpy, stilted and often less than consistently good, with both directors frankly not yet finding their technical and stylistic feet.

Of Duviv’s extant silent films I have only seen three (and I believe there are not many more extant). Chronologically the first is his silent adaptation of the then newly published Poil de Carotte (Carrot Top)(1925) a semi autobiographical Kleenex clencher which he later remade with great critical and commercial success as a talkie in 1933. This talkie version will be included in the forthcoming Eclipse set and it’s a flawless demonstration of Duviv’s ease and visual fluidity with adapted literary material, a skill once mastered he carried with him throughout his career. The silent version seems uncharitably cast, the first of its problems to put it plainly, and it fails to really move beyond quite static and frontal “proscenium” mise en scene, nor does it harvest the narrative to cinematic needs, nor does it apparently engage visually with its subject. It’s an unmoving film in all senses and It feels very much to me like a project for which the director was not yet ready in 1925. I take a similar view of Maman Colibri from 1929, another relatively dull and static screenplay bound film visually and dramatically. Prior to this Duviv tried out a short essay in crypto avant garde/gag mystery film style with Le Mystere de la Tour Eiffel in 1927. The best one can say is it’s of a piece with a dozen other similar short silents which seem to be predicated on taking more portable cameras out of studios and into well recognized plein air locations for audience thrills. It’s minor if quite enjoyable.
Au Bonheur des Dames, Julien Duvivier, 1930
But the same year just as sound is making inroads (via RCA’s Photophone system initially) he directs a silent adaptation of Zola of the opening of a new department store, Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies Joy), the name of a fictional new department store opening in Paris which threatens the livelihood of a small family business across the street, which was made in the wake of the recent real life opening of the Galeries Lafayatte Department Store in Paris. Never mind old sourpuss Zola, this is the film in which I believe Duvivier lights up and takes off as a major, distinctive director.
Among many stylistic talismans It features centrally and more than once a characteristic transition shot device Duviv seems to have invented which has the lead, apparently walking left to right medium shot in profile (on a treadmill in all likelihood) against a transparency matte of the passing street and location footage which he cuts and lap dissolves during the real time shot of the walking actor to express physical and emotional transition. And as was to become a characteristic, Duivivier  stayed close to the zeitgeist and the pulse of the day in his movies. This version of a travelling matte shot was a device he would come back to in critical dramatic moments in several 30s pictures including La Tete d’un Homme (1933), La Bandera (1935) and Pepe le Moko (1937). By 1937 he seems to abandon it, perhaps considering it by now too technically crude, but its formal power is nevertheless striking. Au Bonheur des Dames is blessed with the cast from Paradise ca. 1929 including Harry Baur (the first of many films they made together) ,the wonderful Dita Parlo who had not yet made L’Atalante (1934), and the emblematic (to me anyway) waif-winsome par excellence Nadia Siborskaya, wife/muse of the self-styled √©migr√© Dimitri Kirsanoff and star of his best two films, Menilmontant (1926) and Rapt (1934).

The pacing, direction of performance, and decoupage, staging, camera movement and lighting, in fact the whole mise en scene of this silent feature is the first and prime demonstration of his now full mastery of the medium, as though he had just stepped into movies fully armed with a personal technique and expressive form. And it’s my proposition that in this giddy realm Duvivier remains without a single dive in quality for the next ten years.

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