p Arys Nissotti d Julien Duvivier w Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier ph Jules Kruger, Marc Fessard ed Marthe Poncin m Maurice Yvain art Jacques Krauss
Cast: Jean Gabin (Jean), Charles Vanel (Charles), Raymond Aimos (Raymond, aka. ‘Tintin), Viviane Romance (Gina), Rafael Medina (Mario), Micheline Cheirel (Huguette), Charles Granval, Fernard Charpin (gendarme), Robert Lynen (René), Jacques Baumer (Monsieur Jubette), Raymond Cordy (l’ivrogne), Marcelle Géniat (grandmother). (France 1936 94m) not on DVD
One of the flagship films of the Popular Front of the mid thirties, like Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange it captured the utopian mood of that movement in a nutshell. It’s not now as well regarded as the Renoir, and certainly not seen remotely as often. Like many Duvivier films of the period, it’s become unfashionable, marginalised in histories of the French cinema. Of course it’s political stuff, and it has been accused, not without some cause, of drifting a little too cosily into melodrama in its last half, and yet it’s a film that thoroughly satisfies in the watching and its faults are to be dwelt on retrospectively.
We begin at the Hotel King of England, little more than a glorified tenement building for the unemployed, where five men are drawn together through friendship and fate, as they held a tenth stake in a lottery ticket which pays up its million franc dividend. The five men thus have a 20,000FF prize each coming their way and they make individual plans. Jacques wants to go to Canada and travel, Raymond wants to go to the country, Charles to get a small wood workshop, Mario to marry his beloved Huguette. Then there’s Jean, who suggests a communal trust between the five where they pool resources to buy a plot of land on the Seine and build/renovate a dance hall. Things begin quite promisingly, but Jacques is soon gone, saying he still wants to travel, but really he loves Huguette and can’t bear to watch her with Mario. As if that’s not enough, Raymond falls fatally from the roof in an accident and, as piece de resistance, another wrecking ball appears on the horizon in the shape of Charles’ poisonous ex-, Gina, a nude model with no desire for anything but herself and her needs.
In some ways the film could be seen as misogynistic, as the comradeship of the quintet is torn asunder by two women, and yet the method isn’t the thing, it’s the fact that people do drift apart. At one point early in the film, Charles, Jean and Mario refer to themselves as the Three Musketeers, and like Dumas’ inseparables, separation is inevitable as individual pride and destiny overrides the collective. Mario gets his Huguette, but it leaves Gina to drive a stake through the heart between Jean and the weak-minded Charles. In the end, an ideal is only as good as the men it holds together, and no bond is unbreakable because human beings are frail creatures. What’s more, brotherhood in poverty is easy, but when there’s money involved, all bets are off. That human frailty, it might be said, was one of the reasons that the Popular Front itself was doomed to failure.
Little wonder that Duvivier was so disturbed when a happy ending was filmed against his wishes (the sad version, only surviving from a German print with burnt in German subtitles, thankfully survives on some prints, including my own). Yet there’s no doubting that the first half, with essences of René Clair personified by the presence of Raymond Cordy, is the most joyful as it deals with dreams not realities. These “bums who look for work yet pray they don’t find any” are, in every sense of the word, comrades. And much of the credit for that must go to the playing of the cast. Gabin and Vanel are beyond perfect as the pair driven apart, Romance was never better as the sexy temptress with the soul of a leach and Aimos captures the spirit of the enterprise as Tintin, whose death appropriately foreshadows the imploding of the dream. What makes the film most memorable, though, and allows one to forgive the melodrama, is that it makes tangible the feeling of comradeship in a single smell, of wood shavings, of a fresh coat of paint, in the country air and the drifting waft of beef and onion stew on an open fire. Substitute for your own aroma of choice, we all have them.