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Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (52) - Max Berghouse reviews the little-known MARIANNE DE MA JEUNESSE (1955)

French poster
Marianne de ma Jeunesse (Eng: "Marianne of My Youth"), Julien Duvivier (Director), Peter von Mendelssohn (a.k.a. Peter de Mendelssohn) and Julien Duvivier (Script) (based on a novel by Mendelssohn "Sad Arcadia"),Léonce-Henri Burel (Cinematography), André Davan, Georges Louran, Arys Nissetti and Pierre O'Connell (Producers), Filmsonor, Regina Films,Francinex (Production Companies), Jacques Ibert (Film Score). Starring: Pierre Vaneck ("Vincent/Argentine"), Gil Vidal ("Manfred") and Marianne Hold ("Marianne"). France/Germany, 1955. 105 minutes

Note: This film was produced, back to back in both French and German versions, the French probably first. The German version has a change of actors with Horst Bucholz ("Vincent") and Udo Vioff ("Manfred"). This review is solely concerned with the French edition and this reviewer has not seen the German edition. Some reviews indicate that the French version is somewhat better.

Marianne de Ma Jeunesse was produced immediately after The Maurizius Affair (Julien Duvivier, France/Italy, 1954) a not especially good film but which has its moments. It comes immediately before Voici  le Temps des Assassins (Deadlier Than the Male) (Julien Duvivier, France, 1956) which, if one were to see only one of the director' s mature works, this would be it. Both films reflect the Noir sympathies and general pessimism one associates with the director's oeuvre. Marianne has been described as a limpid and languid work, almost fairytale, perhaps a dream, uncharacteristic of this director. It may well be that the subject matter and production reflect something which arrived on M. Duvivier's desk and which he then took on simply as a journeyman director. It is certainly not as overtly pessimistic, nor perhaps as cynical as most of the director's work but it is hardly all "sweetness and light".

The plotline concerns the arrival at a very exclusive boys' boarding school in a castle, beside a lake, presumably in Germany, of Vincent, clearly a young adult (indeed it was the actor's first film) but seemingly intended to be much more of an adolescent. Although originally French, his growing up years have been spent in apparent wealth on an estate near Rosario in Argentina. On his arrival he describes his intense loving feelings for his mother, such intensity being acceptable in a young pubescent male but grossly inappropriate in a full-grown, albeit young man. He meets Manfred and friendship blossoms. Both male actors went on to enjoy very significant careers in France but this film reflects them at the incipient stages of those careers. This raises one quite fundamental problem in the film which is that both men are significantly too old for the roles they play. They are manly in appearance, attractive and quite self-possessed and they cannot thus in purely physical terms, convey the uncertainties of adolescents.

Quite a deal of the storyline is imparted by Manfred in voice-over. Not only at the beginning of the film but continuously throughout. Attitudes to voice-over have significantly hardened over the years since the production of this film but it must be said that much of it is intrusive, possibly unnecessary and distracting in terms of plot development.

There is a significant tradition in European literature to dwell upon the travails of youth. One particularly famous example of this in French is "Le Grand Meaulnes" by Alain Fournier and in German, "The Confusions of Young Torless" by Robert Musil., The homoerotic, indeed homosexual undercurrents in both these works is quite palpable and I believe the same can be said about the current film. It is not that buffed young men, striding about in short shorts, held up with braces, with long socks and stripped to the waist, is at all disturbing in this day and age, but it is distracting in terms of what is described as the plotline. I may be perhaps prudish but I found this quite uncomfortable. Perhaps that was intended!

Vincent, generally described as "Argentine" is a true "son of nature". As evidence of this, forest animals like wild deer come to him as if perfectly tame. The same applies to apparently wild guard dogs. Across the lake from the school and through the forest on either side is an apparently abandoned manor house but which in fact is inhabited by Marianne and her "benefactor"/guardian. Vincent develops a pathological attraction to her but which ends very badly. This has been described in Freudian terms as the growth of a young man from infantile attraction to mother, to mature attraction to an adult woman subject to the constraints that the first great love of a man's life is bound to end in failure. Take that as you will.

Cinematography in limpid black and white, is well night faultless. Mists rising up from the lake, the alluring danger of the lake itself, and the interspersing of shots with wild animals are exceptionally well handled. Some reviewers have compared this to the dreamlike works of Cocteau (indeed some reviewers have thought the film might itself be one long dream) – as if anything by Cocteau is anything other than a solipsistic exaggeration.

Within French literature and cinema there remained at the time of production a strong admiration for essentially "poetic" works. "Cyrano de Bergerac" was written in blank verse in the early part of the 20th century and similar stage works can be found right up to the time of the production of this film. Perhaps as a consequence the dialogue in the film is not merely particularly "stagey", it is more or less directly poetic, vastly more convoluted and self reinforcing than ordinary demotic speech. (So much so that although I can read subtitles quite quickly, I found it difficult to read the titles fully before scenes changed.) That may also be one of the reasons why adult actors were chosen because it is really hard to imagine that adolescents would have been able to manage the dialogue effectively.

As usual with this director, there are a number of matters which are handled extremely well, to create the impression of verisimilitude. Vincent finds Marianne at the village fete and she has come there by luxurious car. It is a just slightly pre-World War II Rolls-Royce, certainly with individual coach built body, probably German. It is certainly not English. M Duvivier seems to me always to get his cars completely appropriate for the class and demographic of his actors. His interior sets are generally purpose-built and convey a sense of intrigue and interest. As in other films of his which feature large spaces, both the main sitting room of the boarding school and the entrance foyer of Marianne's house have mezzanines from which shots can be taken looking down and from the foyers looking up where action is to take place in split positions, rather than in one single space.

French version with Pierre Vaneck (r)
The storyline is presumably taking place at "current time" – this seems to be confirmed by external shots of people in current, 1950’s garb. Yet the headmaster of the school is seen consistently in frock coat and high collar, redolent of the 1890s. The boys, in their formal school uniform wear single breasted blazers with wide front left and right lapels, pinned back down the length of the jacket with brass buttons. I think but am not completely sure that this sort of dress, which I think is Germanic, was well and truly out of fashion by the end of World War II. Similarly seeing Vincent in a long draped cape almost like that of a cleric, seems to me to speak of a much earlier period.

German version with Horst Buchholz (r)
I did not like this film: it concerns a subject matter which does not particularly interest me but more presciently, even on its own terms, I don't think it conveyed what it set out to do, very well or effectively. It remains too much "bits and pieces" rather than a coherent whole. The final scene of the film has Vincent leaving the boarding school chastened by his experience of Marianne but still seemingly determined to try and find her in a place which overlooks the borders of three countries, a quest which as audience we accept is going to fail. So, on the basis that the director did this work simply as a journeyman, he cannot resist his natural instinct to pessimism such that he sees Vincent's future journey as a failure.

Before I started this series of reviews of the director's work, such as my affection for his capacity, that I would have recommended that everyone should see as many of his films as he or she can possibly lay hands on. But I've also been inundated myself with very significant amounts of media, all demanding attention in what is really a very short space of time. So I am falling back on the adage of the late and not particularly lamented English literature reviewer, F R Leavis, that with life being so short we should devote our attention only to the very best. On that basis I think this film can be given a relatively wide berth.

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