Sunday 30 August 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (11) - Au Royaume des Cieux (1949) reviewed by Max Berghouse

Au royaume des cieux/ English titles include The Sinners, Kingdom of Heaven,  Dir: Julien Duvivier, Sc: Julien Duvivier, Dialogue: Henri Jeanson, With: Serge Reggiani/Pierre, Suzanne Cloutier/Maria Lambert, Suzy Prim/Mademoiselle Chamblas, Christiane Lenier/ Dédée, Nadine Basile/Gaby, Monique Mélinand/ Mademoiselle Guérande, Jean Davy/Antonin. L’aumonier, Liliane Maigné/Margot 108 minutes, France, 1949.

Fundamentally this exquisite film concerns brutality in a French girls' reformatory in the immediate post-World War II period. In the grim weather of an incipient flood somewhere in rural France, an elderly police car battles rain and rising floodwaters (very effectively shot!) to take the young and innocent Maria Lambert (Suzanne Cloutier) innocent of anything that warrants being incarcerated, while at the same time the headmistress, a kindly soul, dies from heart attack while conversing with the "director", a senior civil servant in Paris. The telephone is picked up by Miss Chamblas (Suzy Prim), her deputy, and by simple chance she becomes administrator. By contrast, she is rigid, hostile, authoritarian and her behaviour reveals, ( at least to me) very strong homoerotic, or stronger, relationships to the inmates: about 50 girls all guilty of more or less serious breaches of moral or criminal law – the majority clearly prostitutes, working in this field, without much or any free choice.

The casting is uniformly good although it must be acknowledged that "the girls", probably all intended to be in their late teens are in fact mature actresses in their 20s. But it is very hard to imagine genuinely young actresses being able to act as convincingly as these actresses in fact do. Ultimately, collectively, except for Maria they are a band of very likeable "goodtime girls". Maria does, as she is intended to do, stand out. She reveals that she has a boyfriend Pierre (Serge Reggiani) an electrician and subsequent to a generalised cacophony that men are faithless, the girls become convinced of his fidelity to her, especially as they learn that he is coming from the city to rescue her. Reggiani is very convincing as an everyday "Joe" whose sole notable positive feature is his devotion to Maria.

With so much information about plotlines currently available, I don't wish to spend too much time in details rather to point out a number of production decisions which move the plot along very forcefully. Firstly, and as previously mentioned, the quality of acting in which a variety of very similar "roles", basically multiples of "bad girls" are subtly and intriguingly differentiated. Secondly the integration of genuine exterior footage (the rising river) with its clearly delineated negative import and studio sets. In particular, the village church to which the girls as a choir, attend by boat on Christmas Day (thus providing the opportunity for Maria and Pierre to escape) which as a set is flooded, is exceptionally dextrous

Thirdly the sexual frisson is handled and faced quite directly but without any attempt at prurient interest. In particular the clearly disturbed Miss Chamblas makes very uncomfortable viewing. No film is ever better than when it moves us into uncomfortable emotional situations! Fourthly while we can believe in the redemptive power of love, as perceived by the other girls in relation to Maria and which we acknowledge will fortify them in the years ahead, we as viewers are nonetheless struck in the very last scene with Pierre and Marie struggling in the rain and the swamp of the flooded river banks, with a very doubtful future ahead. Again the pessimism and realism of the director is absolutely convincing.

I have previously
pointed  to a possible political subtext in this director's work. It is true that in the immediate post-war period, left leaning and particular Marxist views were pretty much the norm. That is essentially, that the "personal is political". It may be going too far to suggest that innocent Maria being brutalised by a corrupt administrator, is symbolic for France and the Nazis. However, the audience at the time would have had a quite clear reference point in the treatment by the Germans of the French during the Occupation, which was similarly (notwithstanding any platitudinous wording) solely for the benefit of the Germans. In this context I note a quite superbly executed scene in which the new headmistress tries to tempt the girls from the hunger strike with a nourishing soup in a huge pot. The French would have had clear memories of food shortages and the despair that encouraged. We who view the film now are separated from these sort of immediate parallels of experience, but the film exists independently of them.

Amongst the minor characters Jean Davy as the priest Father Antonin reflects what most people thought of the Catholic Church during the period, well-intentioned but weak. Rarely seen on film, Davy was a very distinguished stage actor.
Finally the vicious headmistress is taken out of action by an attack by a very large guard dog, "Goliath". Such is the pessimism of the director that he quite frequently relies upon non-humans to correct transgressions. She is replaced by a much more sympathetic assistant headmistress Miss Guérande (a very attractive if somewhat bland Monique Méliland) who promises to reintroduce all the more liberal policies of the old headmistress who suffered the fatal heart attack: and more or less forgetting what has so recently gone on. Again very similar to the behaviour of France after the war.

I really tried to engage with this film without drawing political/historical parallels because it stands on its own as a very powerful emotional work which is not overly melodramatic. The political parallels amplify the depth and quality of the film.

When one considers Duvivier's work in Hollywood, only a few short years prior, his work now in France on his return is so much more mature and rounded and consistent with a philosophy of life, which although pessimistic, is exceptionally well thought out and conveyed.

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