Wednesday 2 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (15) - David Hare examines Duvivier's films of the 30s

In an earlier post which you can find here, serious cinephile David Hare wrote about the silent films made by Julien Duvivier. David has now written a companion piece devoted to the decade of Duvivier’s greatest artistic success, the 30s. The effort is heroic and I have to note that readers from around the world, greatly assisted in part by some tweeting, are hopefully enjoying the scholarship on display. This remains a long term project and contributions, reviews of individual films, anecdotes, reports or whatever are most welcome

This is an attempt to give thumbnails of 16 Duviv’s complete feature film output for the 1930s. Four films are missing;  of these, La Venus du College from 1932 no longer exists, Le Petit Roi exists in a single print at the Belgian Cinematheque and, according to Norwegian French cinema expert Oystein Tvede, La Machine a Refaire la vie from 1933 is merely a film history montage from 1924 that was re-released in a sonorized version in 1933. There is also a Maurice Chevalier vehicle from 1934,  l’Homme du Jour which I can’t access.    

Here is the remainder, and I want to briefly mention a small dedicated clique of film collectors and hard working enthusiasts, saints all who literally uncovered, curated and slaved over video searches, forgotten TV broadcasts and semi clandestine 16mm and Telecine screenings, video tech repair work and subtitling, and effectively magically regenerated this crucial chapter of film history, in the almost complete absence of “official” sources, through a particular closed web community. Special thanks to Neil McGlone, and to “Kinsayder” who may not wish to have his name published at this time given the insane straitjacket of the French so called “Intellectual Property” regime which has itself been the primary cause of so much suppression of Duvivier’s and Charles Spaak’s work for the  last forty years plus. With the advent of the Eclipse box and the 4k restoration of La Belle Equipe by Pathe now in the works one hopes this age of exclusion and copyright malfeasance is coming to an end. 

1931 and David Golder.  For his first talkie Duviv pounced on the newly published 1930 novel by Irene Nemirovsky which documents a wealthy Jewish financier and paterfamilias who ruthlessly makes his money through brutality and mendacity, in large part to service the whims of his vain and self absorbed wife and daughter. At a key point in the film he turns his life around, in a stunningly filmed sequence in which he tries to choke his wife to death with her recently acquired pearls.  He leaves this life behind and takes to the high seas in a state of terminal despair.   Nemirosvky’s novel was centrally addressing what she perceived as a “problem” she identified as a French (and European) social issue at the time; the so-called “Good Jew/Bad Jew” issue. Given the concerns of anti-Semitism that arose over the following years , and despite her own Jewishness,  these tended to dog her through her career up to her tragic deportation to the camps during the Occupation and her murder by the Gestapo in 1942.  Duviv’s wife was also Jewish and his cycle of 20s Catholic devotional films as a devout believer had come to an effective end with the now highly ambivalent late 1929 silent La Divine Croisiere (the Divine Cruise) when it had become clear he was losing his faith. Thus the volume of films with biblical and Christological material that so marked his silent period would be reduced to only one striking sound film in 1933, Golgotha.

Duvivier worked with Nemirovsky to minimize the Bad/Good Jew dynamic of the book re- shaping the material textually to incorporates his own growing misanthropy, a personal characteristic that would never be absent from his later work. And thus it is for this first striking talkie, in a film similar in genre to L’Herbier’s L’Argent (1929), David Golder is certainly the equal of if not actually superior to L’Herbier’s film.  It has a deft blending of European-wide social spectacle with an intensely private emotional vision.

Of a small number of films inspired by the beautiful Pal Fejos silent/part talkie romantic comedy Lonesome (1928), my own favorite is Allo Berlin, Ici Paris (1932). This is Duviv’s first UFA co-prod through Tobis Klangfilm with both French and some German dialogue.  The film’s technical and social dimensions give voice to the relatively  new transcontinental wire services and easy rail travel between France and Germany, so the endless narrative opportunities for the lead boy’s and girl’s missed meetings and all the tropes of that romantic sub-genre are deftly explored through the screenplay. If there were ever a classroom for comic timing and pacing this movie presents itself. The tone of this beguiling little film never wavers from gentle, and  the sentiment of looking forward to a united Europe is both touching and melancholy given what was about to happen in Germany.  This is essentially genre Duvivier and he’s clearly a master of it.  Unmissable. 

Les Cinq Gentlemen Maudits (Moon Over Morocco, 1933), also unmissable, is a seemingly lightweight but surprisingly personal journey film and the second in which Duviv travels to his beloved Algeria (the first was in the Divine Croisiere in 1929.)  The film is largely overlooked and little seen (the source I have is ragged) but he delivers a pictureque personal diary-style tale of a group of men (invariably) whose comradeship on the holiday is tested and under threat from the appearance of “woman” into the pack. Here is another central theme in many of Duvivier’s movies, the bonded male group and its undoing by a woman which, in this comedy-drama, takes a bittersweet tone. It clearly suggests the far more sinister later themes of betrayal and treachery that characterize his reputation by some (if not me) as misogynist. The tone here is the thing to watch, pre-Charles Spaak and his development with Spaak of the “meddling female” notion into the fully blown Femme Fatale character a couple of years later.  Harry Baur who first acted for Duviv as the paterfamilias in David Golder is lead here, along with the sublime Rene Lefevre, an archetypically sweet French actor “type” whose shy masculine beauty is the defining feature of his unforgettable roles here, and in Renoir’s La Crime de M. Lange (1936) and Gremillon’s astonishing Gueule d’Amour (1937).
A German-language version of this was made with Anton (then Adolf) Walbrook released through UFA. I have not been able find any source for this.

And again in 1933 Duvivier revisited Poil de Carotte (Carrot Top), now with Harry Baur. Along with the addition of panchromatic film stock and long lenses Duvivier could now shoot great slabs of the film outdoors with greater freedom than  previously and the mise-en-scene of this talkie version of the beloved weepie has both the benefit of superior actors to the 1925 silent, and a much more limpid and fluent visual style. I still think it’s a “project” picture as much as a personal project but he infuses it with hints of threat and unease that aren’t necessarily a given from the novel. Certainly in terms of novelistic adaptation it’s a demonstration piece, as are all his fictional adaptations from this point on.

Valery Inkijinoff in La Tete d'un Homme
Made in 1932 and released in 1933, only a matter of weeks after Renoir’s own Simenon/Maigret adaptation La Nuit du Carrefour, Duvivier followed with, La Tete d’un Homme (Man at the Scaffold.) Where Renoir’s wonderful (and still little seen) film seems to play out in an opium infused narcotic haze, with inexplicable narrative  details seemingly lost in the blur of cross purpose mayhem, Duvivier’s movie opens with the audible and visual frenzy of a bar and he keeps up, using the duality of chaos vs. obsession for  the rest of the film. It gives a sense of narrative and emotional implosion with a visual battery of tricks from Hitchcock to Lang and beyond. Stylistically there’ s nothing else like it in French cinema including the Avant-Garde, except perhaps Renoir’s own great Maigret film (with bro Pierre as the detective.) If the Eclipse box’s presentation of this doesn’t have new viewers scraping themselves off the floor I’ll eat my hat. 

Maria Chapdelaine (1934) brings Jean Gabin to Duvivier’s world, and both of them to Quebec French Canada. If this beautiful, great outdoors romance and journey film reminds me of any film it’s Vidor and Northwest Passage (1940), but the three man, three woman narrative here has inflections of conflict and unease that are again Duvivier-esque.  This is one of three Duviv 30s pictures magnificently  restored and released on excellent French Warner DVDs back in the mid 2000’s.

Golgotha (1934)  is the very last of Duviv’s “devotional” cycle of pictures, albeit one made after he had essentially abandoned his Catholic faith for non-belief. As one who is genetically allergic to Biblical costume pictures myself, I find this unlike almost any other similar movie - an unusual blending of action film with meditation. Gabin plays Pontius Pilate in a fetching combination of flowing curtain fabric toga and page boy wig. Once one gets over the costume aspects as one always must with these things, it’s actually a compelling action narrative of guilt and responsibility. The cast includes Baur,  again and the first time in Duviv’s canon  Robert le Vigan, playing Christ (!!), the notable young actor who would appear in key films from Renoir and Carne up to 1939 and his role as the suicidal poet maudit in the fabulous Quai des Brumes (1938). Le Vigan sadly became better known as a rabid anti-semite and Vichy supporter during the war.  

La Bandera (1935) is Duviv’s first film with Spaak as screenwriter and his first with Gabin playing the original “mec on the lam” precursor to the eventual France/Algeria/otherness trope that formalized the new era of Poetic Realist cinema. I love this movie to death. The apparently outrageous narrative lurches from one continent to another, from chamber drama to Foreign Legion battle epic with the introduction of the Fantastic “Other”/Woman, in this case the actress Anabella in heavily applied Egyptian Dusk, whom Gabin weds in a staggering blood sharing ceremony of outrageous eroticism, in one of the high points of 30s French/Algerian exoticism. An early scene with Gabin on the lam in a dive in Barcelona has him circled by and then embracing bare breasted flamenco dancers and ruthlessly butch-faced drag queens just before he’s picked off by his fellow Frenchmen who steal his passport and set him up for deportation. While administering his usual dose of corrupt cynicism Duviv here manages to depict decadence and sin with the most and endearing glee. There’s a true spirit alive here folks. And another superb Warner France restoration from 2005. Le Vigan turns up later in the Legion along with a bevy of unlikely characters including a short dumpy “American” actor who has befriended Gabin and who seems to be gay, as he is constantly wrestling off le Vigan and sitting on his face to keep him at bay. There are some unbelievable things going on in this masterpiece by an unabashed man of the world .  

Viviane Romance,star of La Belle Equipe
If there’s any such thing as a common accord about Duvivier it’s probably that his next film La Belle Equipe (1936) is an undisputed masterpiece, and possibly also Spaak’s I think. I don’t want to say much more prior to a major 4K restoration and Blu Ray release next year except that this is a peak thirties French cinema, a peak Duvivier and peak Spaak. This is the very heart and soul of Poetic Realism, all the more as the faith in the “Group” or the “Collective” is so frail it ultimately collapses in tragedy. The film also seems to predict the rise and the fall of the Daladier government and the turmoil that will engulf France by the start of the War.

Duviv’s 1936 remake of the frequently filmed Le Golem again stars Harry Baur in a relatively energetic reworking of the oft –visited subject. It’s his least interesting film from this period to me, but it requires a re-viewing.

The next film is possibly one of the best known Classical French films of all time, Pepe le Moko (1937), another great Spaak screenplay set in Algeria with a flawless cast including the extraordinary Mireille Balin, the female lead who goes “slumming” in Algiers and becomes sexually enthralled with Gabin.  There is already a mountain of commentary written on this wonderful movie but I would only add some recent notions that the playing by Mireille Balin, indeed Duvivier’s direction of her, is alchemical, as though while giving her the dimensions of a flesh and blood Femme Fatale, she seems to remain untouchable, almost ethereal, beyond judgment, simply without guile of malice, despite the  nightmarish consequences her appearance has triggered.  I adore the actress and her parts in this,  Gremillon’s Guele d’Amour (Spaak again) and Delannoy’s very funny, and rich 1939 dawn of war adventure pic Macao L’Enfer du Jeu. She is a neglected and tragic figure in French cinema.

Un Carnet du Bal (1937) has happily had a more extended life in repertory cinema and its reputation is deserved. Among other things it deploys a large ensemble cast with finesse and Duviv can explore that variety with narrative depth. 

And it’s not far in some respects from his first American film, made on a first “Scouting mission” to Hollywood in 1938, The Great Waltz for Metro.  More than pure Duviv sadly the movie strikes me as pure Louis B and it’s frankly a miracle the exercise comes off with as much grace and style as it does. Duviv was not happy doing the project, indeed while MGM under the hideous Mayer in particular could and did smother any auteurist with ease, it must have been especially galling to Duviv. Personally the single most beautiful and surprising things in it is the post production  addition of a gorgeous Waltz montage filmed by Sternberg as “filler” to a totally ham and baloney  finale directed by Victor Fleming after Duviv had fled back to France.

Which leaves us with two more pictures in 1939:

La Fin du Jour, written by Spaak (his final screenplay for Duviv) is perhaps the director’s best ensemble piece. It is set in an actor’s “retirement “  home with another gift cast for the day, especially the sublime Louis Jouvet.  For people who enjoy the greatness of so much cinema by directors like Cukor and Carne, with their focus on performance and text, this resides in the stratosphere alongside both those masters’ work. This is the film I wish Sondheim had become attached to for a possible musical, rather than La Fete a Henriette (1952).

Then a remake of the Sjostrom silent picture La Charette Fantome  (The Burning Chariot) (1939), an energetically stylish forecast of the horrors that many were feeling about the oncoming war. It’s not intentionally an allegory for the imminent war but it has great power as personal expression. Fantasy and delirium are never very far away. 

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