Poil de Carotte
Aka. The Redhead
p Marcel Vandel, Charles Delac d/w Julien Duvivier story Jules Renard ph Armand Thirard ed Marthe Poncin m Alexander Tansman
Cast: Harry Baur (Monsieur Lepic), Robert Lynen (François ‘Poil de Carotte’ Lepic), Catherine Fonteney (Madame Lepic), Louis Gouthier (godfather), Simone Aubry (Ernestine Lepic), Colette Segall (Mathilde), Maxime Fromiot (Felix Lepic), Christiane Dor (Annette), (France 1932, 91 minutes) Available on DVD Region 1
It’s the old stigma again, putting on the ginger-haired kid. Duvivier had first told the story as a silent back in 1925. Then, old Henry Krauss had played the father and it had been a fine film in its own right. Duvivier wasn’t happy, though, and after the success of his early talkie Au Bonheur des Dames, thoughts of doing Poil de Carotte again quickly took him over. It was a rural tale, one of the most rural, and that brought its own technical complications, but the country drama was back in vogue, the French provinces were beginning to warm to the work of Marcel Pagnol, and there had always been a love of children at play in the country in France. There had been the Léonce Perret serials with Bout-de-Zan, and then the heart-rending performances of Jean Forest for Jacques Feyder in the 1920s. And then look ahead, the tradition maintained through Jeux Interdits to Le Grand Chemin.
Poil de Carotte (carrot-top) is the youngest son of the Lepics. At school he’s a loner, and his teachers are disturbed by his impressions of family life, of families being people who loathe each other. His father has become a milquetoast, a man under the thumb of a literally tyrannical, thoroughly nasty wife who lets her elder children do what they want but who bullies and harangues Poil de Carotte something rotten. His only friends are the new servant who comes to work for them after Madame fires the old one for being too old and past it, and a little girl who lives nearby, Mathilde.
It may seem remarkable that Duvivier’s film is so neglected today, until one realises exactly why. It’s that old obstacle of availability, not necessarily of the film, but of the film’s condition, the length of the prints in circulation and, for those unable to speak the vernacular, the terrible quality of the English subtitles. Plus, Duvivier is out of fashion; the same fate has befallen his other thirties films over time. And it was cut, censored to be exact, of two crucial sequences for foreign distribution. Firstly of the two kids holding mock rehearsals of marriage, and then of a sequence where Poil de Carotte talks on the riverbank to his amiable godfather. The problem was that he was naked, and child nudity in these most politically correct, innocence-obliterating times is a strict no-no. Thankfully the print I have not only restores the said sequences but is remastered quite beautifully, capturing the beauty of Armand Thirard’s work that for decades had lain tarnished like the inscriptions on an old coin.
What most impresses, though, are the stunning performances at its centre. Fonteney is suitably hateful as the mother, but it’s the father and son you recall. Harry Baur is at his gargantuan best, his hurried alarm to prevent his son from taking his fateful course of action and subsequent reconciliation one of the most emotional sequences in French cinema. And then there’s Robert Lynen; wiry, gangly, yet irrepressible, somehow managing to have any spirit left behind his prominent freckles (so prominent as to make him look like he has measles and make you wonder whether they were applied in make-up). Gut-wrenching as he makes the decision to end it all, and brightening up the darkest of souls when he realises he’s no longer carrot-top, just François. Yet it’s impossible to see the film now without thinking of the tragic fates of both father and son. Baur had Jean Valjean, Beethoven, Volpone and Porfiry still to come but he was arrested by the Nazis after making a film in Germany, tortured to gain information about his supposedly Jewish wife, and died soon after in 1943, while Lynen, like so many young Frenchmen, joined the Resistance, but was captured and executed by firing squad in 1944.