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Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (21) - Neil McGlone writes about Poil de Carotte

Poil de Carotte, Dir: Julien Duvivier, Script: Julien Duvivier based on a novel by Jules Renard, Cast: Robert Lynen/Francois Lepic known as Poil de Carotte (Carrott Head), Harry Baur/M.Lepic, Catherine Fonteney/Mme Lepic,Christine Dor/Annette, France, 1932, 91 minutes.

I first saw this film in 2005 at the National Film Theatre in London as a blind-watch, knowing nothing of it, or it's director. That soon changed after seeing the film and began a love affair with the work of Julien Duvivier that continues to this day. (I warn the reader now I am going to analyse it in detail and thus give away some "spoilers".)

Jules Renard first published his autobiographical novel, "Poil de Carotte (Carrot Head)", in 1894. Renard endured a sad and unhappy childhood, as did the lead character in the story, whilst growing up in the Nièvre region of France where the film is also set. Renard was elected mayor of Chitry in 1904 as the socialist candidate, not unlike Harry Baur's character, M. Lepic, in the film.

Duvivier first filmed the story as a silent in 1925 with Henry Krauss in the role of M. Lepic, but he wasn't happy with the end result and returned to the source material in 1932, with the film being released the following year. It was this later version that would go on to become Duvivier's favourite of his own work.

M. and Madame Lepic have been married for 20 years and yet, barely a word is exchanged between them. Harry Baur plays the character of M. Lepic perfectly as a laid back, quiet and retiring father, who takes no interest in his own three children whilst Catherine Fonteney is the boisterous, controlling, dominant, cruel Madame Lepic. Her favourite of her three children is the eldest, Felix, whom she dotes on and who basically can do no wrong in her eyes. She makes Poil de Carotte carry out all the chores in the house including some quite unpleasant tasks whilst constantly playing him off against his father in some cruel sadistic game to please her. When asked at school by his teacher, what a family means to him, Poil de Carotte answers, "a group of people forced to live together under one roof, and who can't stand each other." Whilst initially this comment may seem amusing to the viewer, we later come to realise just how accurate and succinct this description is for poor Poil de Carotte.

An early scene in the film at a family dinner, Madame Lepic denies Poil de Carotte anything to eat and has him take out the leftover food in the dark to their chickens, a task he does not relish and is clearly terrified of doing. He is scared of the dark and she knows this, but she still forces him to do it. We see the boy tread carefully out into the darkness and across the yard towards the chicken coop. Duvivier plays on this scene of fear by superimposing the images of dancing white-cloaked figures hovering above Poil de Carotte in an eerie yet beautifully evocative sequence. It is not the only time in the film he uses this technique to great effect.

The scene at the river where we see a naked Poil de Carotte playing in the water (this scene was cut from some later versions of the film because of child nudity) is one of the tenderest moments that we witness with the boy. We get to see him having fun and being free, something he rarely gets to experience but clearly where he is happiest. A character he refers to as "Godfather" is fishing nearby and he strikes up a conversation with Poil de Carotte, showing us the audience that they know each other well. Then along comes a sweet little girl in a white dress called Mathilde and she asks Poil de Carotte if it is today that they are getting married. 

The scene that follows of a faux wedding between Poil de Carotte and Mathilde is one of the most beautiful sequences committed to celluloid. It is fairytale like in it's depiction with both bride and groom wearing little crowns made of flowers, Godfather playing the hurdy-gurdy and the wedding congregation; a number of farmyard animals nurturing their young. The metaphor of the farmyard animals with their young is not lost on the audience. Sadly in some versions of the film, the wedding sequence is also cut. 


The family maid who has come looking for him to take him back home drags Poil de Carotte away from his own “wedding”. He is not happy and takes his anger out on the horse that takes him and the maid home in the attached cart. Along the winding narrow country roads he whips the horse harder and harder as Duvivier ranks up the tension. The scene is fast cut with interspersed images of families playing with their children in the countryside as the horse gains pace. We fear there will be an accident as the cart almost seems to get out of control and then Poil de Carotte points to a family playing with their child and says to the maid sitting next to him with tears in his eyes, "Nobody will ever love me like that."

Once they are home, still angry, Poil de Carotte throws a stone at some neighbourhood children playing together. The children's mother calls him "a dirty lout" in front of an out-of-sight listening Madame Lepic. In a rare example of her sticking up for Poil de Carotte she lays into the other child's mother, but once out of sight of them she throttles and beats poor Poil de Carotte before once again playing him off against his father asking who he loves more, knowing full well that M. Lepic is listening nearby. Through fear of receiving another beating, the poor boy gives in and says it is she. He is a virtual slave to her calling and treated as such, in some cases worse than an animal. As an audience we are aware early on in the film during an exchange between the two maids that Poil de Carotte was an unexpected and unwanted child, when the maid later tries to console him he says "Not everyone is lucky enough to be an orphan." The maid tries to speak to M. Lepic to make him aware of how unhappy the boy is and how badly Madame Lepic beats the boy, but he passes it off merely as "childhood woes". Duvivier builds these scenes to a heartbreaking level of pathos, we feel for the boy, we want to pick him up and hug him, tell him it will be alright, that he is loved after all - but we are helpless to his needs. We have to continue to watch him suffer the severe beatings, the psychological mind games, and the lack of affection, the ignorance and coldness of his father. It is almost like we are party to what is happening.

That night whilst in bed, we witness another fantasy sequence where we see an image of two Poil de Carottes; arguing with each other over what must be done. One says that this can't go on any longer and that the only way out is to run away, but then he argues himself out of it. Then comes the bolt out of the blue, he talks about going on strike or taking his own life. Now, this is a film made in 1932, a children's story with some adult themes but it hits you hard, you can't believe what you have just heard. Did he really just say he wanted to kill himself? A ten-year-old boy? I can't think of any other film from that period or even a while after it, where the subject of child suicide has been broached. It hits you like a bullet.

In a rare scene M. Lepic over-rules his wife by making Felix do an errand in town that she had asked Poil de Carotte to do. She is flabbergasted and shouts and screams at what she see's as an outrage. Poil de Carotte goes to console her but she looks at him scornfully and shouts at him. In a first scene of attempted suicide Poil de Carotte sticks his head in a bucket of water but is spotted and beaten by Madame Lepic who thinks he is just messing around and making the yard dirty. She chastises him again when her daughter, Ernestine, blames Poil de Carotte for a missing 50 Franc note that her and her brother, Felix, have stolen. M Lepic intervenes and its the first time we see him standing up to his wife, and pushes her out of the way telling her she is forbidden from speaking to him ever again. It's almost a cheering moment, as we finally believe that somebody has the boy's interests at heart, that maybe now things will turn around for him. The chemistry between the father/son actors Harry Baur and Robert Lynen is immense, they work so well together. They would act together one more time in 1938 in Robert Siodmak's MOLLENARD, coincidentally again as father and son.

Finally Poil de Carotte is shown some love and affection from one of his parents as M. Lepic lifts him up, hugs him and plants a kiss on his forehead. He tells him to go and get dressed in his "Sunday best" and to join him in town where it is expected that he will be elected mayor. They can then have a party together. Poil de carotte excitedly disappears to go and get dressed, but alas he finds that he can then not leave his room as he has been locked in. We are shown in the shadows, Madame Lepic, having just locked his door. The shot shows her caught in the shadows like a spider catching its prey in its web.

Poil de Carotte manages to escape through his bedroom window and out via the hay barn where he accidentally gets his neck caught in a hanging rope. The same rope that would prove significant only moments later. He runs into town just as M. Lepic is elected mayor. What follows are yet more sad scenes for Poil de Carotte as his father is caught up in the celebrations and therefore pays no attention to his son. He has had enough; he leaves and runs home, all the time hearing voices in his head telling him to kill himself. He comes to the lake and kneels beside it as if praying. Young Mathilde spots him and walks over to him. He apologies to her and tells her they can no longer be married, as he has to kill himself. It's yet another touching and tender scene between the two very young actors, with Mathilde not reacting in any adverse way and passing it off as if he has just told her he is going on holiday. As a child, death is not really known or understood - how do you explain it to someone so young? Whilst praying he remembers the rope in the barn, but first takes Mathilde into town. On returning to his house he spots the maid, his only true friend at the house, he blows her a kiss when she is not looking as almost a parting gesture, knowing that he will not see her again.

Then we are in the barn, the rope is around his neck, his eyes wet with tears (mine too each time I watch this film!). By now Mathilde has already told people at the party of Poil de Carotte's plans and M. Lepic is rushing back to the house. The music rises to a crescendo; church bells ring then silence as M. Lepic arrives just in time to save Poil de Carotte. The boy is kicking and crying, as he doesn't want to be saved, he tells him he wants to die. When M. Lepic asks why, he responds, "Because I don't love my mother". M Lepic agrees, he doesn't love her either!  We cut to a shot of them walking together and he tells him that he was an "accident" and born at a time when he and Madame Lepic had long since fell out of love. Poil de Carotte says, "A family should consist of those whom we love, and those who love us." A stark contrast to his statement at the beginning of the film when he described what he thought a family was.

In the film's final scenes we see them together having a meal at an inn in the country. M. Lepic raises a glass to "Francoise". The boy's eyes light up, "No more Poil de Carotte?" - "No, he hanged himself in the barn". He goes on to tell him that he will be known to everyone from now on as Francoise and that he no longer needs to worry or be afraid of anything at home anymore as they are now "two".

My closing thoughts on the film - I still find it remarkable that this film is not more widely known or seen. Fortunately it will form part of a box set of four other Duvivier titles when The Criterion Collection release it as part of their Eclipse series in November. The film works so well because of both the quality of the source material and that of it's three lead actors; Harry Baur, Catherine Fonteney and the irrepressible, Robert Lynen. Tragedy would befall both Lynen and Baur a little over a decade later, after this film was made. Robert Lynen joined the French Resistance during World War 2 but was caught and executed by firing squad in 1944, Harry Baur was arrested by the Nazis for concealing his Jewish wife and died in mysterious circumstances in 1943.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this lovely appreciation Neil. I am guessing you also find this version far superior to the 1925 silent. I think 1929 was the key year Duvivier changed from a routine director to a major auteur with a consistent personal vision.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for this lovely appreciation Neil. I am guessing you also find this version far superior to the 1925 silent. I think 1929 was the key year Duvivier changed from a routine director to a major auteur with a consistent personal vision.

    ReplyDelete