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Friday, 18 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (19) - Max Berghouse reviews Un Carnet de Bal

Un Carnet de Bal, Dir: Julien Duvivier,  Script by Julien Duvivier, Henri Jeanson, Yves Mirande, Jean Sarment, Pierre Wolff & Bernard Zimmer. Cast: Harry Baur/Alain & Father Dominique, Marie Bell/Christine, Fernandel/Fabian, Raimu/Francois, Louis Jouvet/Pierre Verdier & Jo, France, 1937, 144 minutes.

This absolutely superb film is one of the absolute crown jewels of pre-World War II cinema and one of Julien Duvivier's great triumphs. It has been written about many times, always favourably, and perhaps there is little that I can add which is new, although the sheer pleasure the film has given me, impels me to write. About 30 minutes before commencing writing I received news that one of my best friends had just died and this seems symbolic of the nature of the film – at least to me.


The film opens in an Italian speaking mountain side area of Europe: possibly Savoy, possibly the Italian Tyrol or maybe Italian Riviera in a perfectly composed vista of spectacular beauty and wealth. I was very struck in compositional comparison, probably because of the Cyprus pines with the work of the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin whose work is generally recognised as being related to and symbolic of death. (See for example the several versions of his painting "Isle of the Dead"). 

Inside a mansion to which a man and a woman are heading, possibly Christine and a male friend, Christine is making arrangements for the disposal of her late husband's personal effects. His shotgun to his gamekeeper, his suits, through his valet, to people who can use them, as long as they are taken off the property. Even his pipes sitting on his desk, are removed for disposal. Christine who is apparently very much younger than her late husband, appears to be totally in charge of her situation.

By chance within the late husband's study, two things fall to the ground. One is an unfinished letter and the other is Christine's dance card from her first ball, aged 16, in 1919. Both are apparently mundane as are the "hooks" on which the film rests. They are hooks that relate to a deep and profound meditation on life itself and as life is distorted by memory. Voltaire said that, until a man be 25, he never thinks of death. Thereafter, he thinks of little else. So Christine is intrigued, to some extent perturbed, that whatever her late husband's letter was about, as it was rudimentary in form, she will never find out. Secondly she takes her dance card, trying to remember the young men with whom she danced.

Many reviewers have commented that Christine is of a prosperous family. That seems an understatement. She and/or her late husband are clearly loaded and throughout the film she is dressed absolutely stunningly. So travel and spending time at ease is clearly no problem. She recounts to her friend what it was like at that first ball and the scenery changes to a very stylised ballroom: men in white tie and tails and women in ball gowns, obviously more of the late 1930s than immediately post-World War I. I feel sure that I noticed that the men were wearing frilled shirts which would have been clearly inappropriate for the supposed period and I think this is connected to Christine's verbalisation of her memory in which the women were wearing crinolines. As her friend says, that can't be possible, because these were items of several generations prior – but it is Christine's memory. So we are given information that memory is frail and likely to change and distort under the exigencies of everyday life.

Some critics allege that on a whim Christine decides to seek out her old dance partners to see what they have made it their lives with the implication that she herself was not happy. Comfortable and content perhaps, but not happy. I don't think with the subtlety that the director customarily has that this implication is fair. Unrestricted as she now is by custom and restraint, she seems to have a genuine desire to see and explore "the road not taken".

This journey takes her through a number of vignettes with the men from the dance card. Some of these are extremely sombre. The first in which Christine has to deal with is the widowed mother of the young man who suicided as a consequence of his failure to win Christine. Some are sharp with an inevitable sense of existential despair and gloom: Louis Jouvet as a disbarred lawyer, now nightclub owner. One with Harry Baur as a renowned musician, turned contemplative priest is fundamentally melancholic, perfectly expressing the priest's decision to in some ways remove himself from the world.

All performances are excellent with particular emphasis to be given to Jouvet, Baur and the extraordinarily expressive Raimu. All these men have been "affected" by Christine. They all carry some sort of burden but some have done better than others in living life for the present. Finally Christine returns home to find that her greatest love from that evening lives across the lake. She journeys to the far side of the lake and confuses her young man with a similarly looking young man who turns out to be the son of the man she is looking for and he, the father is just dead. Christine realises unflinchingly the finality of death and the inability to make sense of it. In the very last scene she and the young man are attending a fancy dress ball with the implication that meaning, if it exists at all, comes from family, particularly children.

For the director who is known to have come from a Catholic background, this film is an emblem of his estrangement from faith and probably hope and seems like a totem for his continuing forays into pessimism and misanthropy. It is extraordinarily powerful, sophisticated and, because of the changing tones of the numerous vignettes, is both subtle and continuously compelling. Everyone says this is a very fine film but it is more than that, it is an absolute triumph. It is a work of philosophy, both absolutely honest and at the same time entertaining. So entertaining in fact that I think many critics have glossed over the very serious implications of the subject matter. This is one film by Duvivier I had not previously seen and I must say that I'm now glad that I have reached middle age so that I can appreciate it I hope fully.

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