Un Carnet de Bal
Aka. Life Dances On; Dance Card, Christine
p Jean-Pierre Frogeries d Julien Duvivier w Jean Sarment, Pierre Wolff, Bernard Zimmer, Henri Jeanson, Julien Duvivier ph Michel Kelber, Philippe Agostini, Pierre Levent ed André Versein m Maurice Jaubert art Paul Colin, Serge Pimenoff
Cast: Marie Bell (Christine Surgère), Françoise Rosay (Marguerite Audié), Fernandel (Fabien Coutissol, no 7), Raimu (François Patusset, no 5), Pierre Blanchar (Thierry Reynal, no 6), Harry Baur (Alain Regnault, no 3), Louis Jouvet (Pierre Verdier, no 2), Pierre-Richard Willm (Eric Irvin, no 4), Maurice Bénard (Brémond), Sylvie (Thierry’s mistress), Robert Lynen (Jacques Dambreval), Milly Mathis (Cécile Galthery), Pierre Alcover (Teddy Melanco), Gabrielle Fontan (Rose), Henri Nassiet (policeman), Andrex (Paul),
(France 1937 128m) DVD here, Region1 French Subtitles only)
If one looks up Julien Duvivier’s once-celebrated romantic drama in your average film tome it’s a good bet that the majority will refer to how it seems like something out of step with French cinema of its time; even, one might say, with Duvivier’s career. It came hard on the back of Pépé le Moko, one of the pivotal pessimistic dramas that would result in the poetic realist Carné-Prévert movement of the upcoming years. It also hasn’t been helped by posterity, with English friendly viewings so thin on the ground.
Bell plays Christine, a newly-widowed woman in her thirties left with just her memories in a large estate by a lake in the Alps. She finds a dance card from when she was sixteen and is seized with the notion of looking up her one-time dance partners both to satisfy her romantic curiosity – they all told her they would love her “all my life” - and to see if they have stayed faithful to their youthful aspirations.
The first Georges turns out to have killed himself not that long after the ball, leaving his mother to grow insane in the belief he never died and time has stood still. The second Pierre is now called Jo and runs a shady nightclub. The third, Alain, once a successful young musician, has renounced the old world to take holy orders as Father Dominique. The fourth, Eric, eventually turned his back on his career as a Don Juan and became a mountain guide. The fifth, François, has become mayor of a small town who has to undertake his own marriage ceremony while trying to keep the affairs of his blackmailing adopted son a secret. The sixth Thierry, once a medical student of great promise, is now an epileptic backstreet abortionist with a harridan of a mistress. The seventh, Fabien, is now a hairdresser and a father and has never left the locale of the ball.
So we have Christine going to find some happiness and having all her illusions destroyed. From another angle, it illustrates how fickle a sixteen year old girl she was, and perhaps how fickle all sixteen year old girls are, so caught up in the whirlwind gaiety of the dances, the crinoline, the white dresses, they don’t notice the real pain on the other side of the dance hall. Essentially it serves as an excuse for a roll call of great French actors to do their thing. So garlands to Jouvet as Jo, even if he could play the role in his sleep; to Baur, very touching as the crestfallen Alain who composes his masterpiece for her only to look up from his piano to find her laughing with another man; to Fernandel, always looking on the bright side and doing his card tricks, to Blanchar, twisted and bitter beyond all recognition; to Rosay, imperiously heartbreaking as the mad old mother refusing to accept her son’s death; and finally, best of all as he often was, Raimu, never better than when conducting his own wedding service.
There are choice cameos, too from Fontan, Sylvie and especially Mathis as the plump hen fiancée, while Bell holds it all together, unselfishly allowing the others to take over their scenes. And while it may be easy to dismiss as an acting exercise, look again at the visual texture – especially the off-kilter camera angles in Blanchar’s sequence to represent his psyche – and savour the legendary ‘Valse Grise’ by Maurice Jaubert, a precursor to Oscar Strauss’ waltzes for Max Ophuls. As for Duvivier, he made a quick trip to Hollywood. The film? The Great Waltz, which may have equally served as the title for this.