Friday 18 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (20) - Max Berghouse reviews The Phantom Carriage

La Charrette Fantome/Phantom Carriage ), Dir: Julien Duvivier , Script & Adaptation:Julien Duvivier, Dialogue: Alexandre Arnoux, From the novel by Selma Lagerlof, Cast: Pierre Fresnay/David, Louis Jouvet/Georges,  Micheline Francey/Sister Edith, Marie Bell/Sister Maria, Ariane Borg/Suzanne,  France, 1939, 93 minutes.

My original studies in literature at University, all those years ago, were focused on the then enormously influential F R Leavis. Years after his death he remains a very divisive figure but one thing which he opined on with intense regularity was the need only to read, the very best. This seems to me just as important in watching films and on that basis The Phantom Carriage is a film which can justifiably be ignored. On that basis, the potential viewer has been making a consistently similar judgement to the critics since the film's original release.

That is not to say that the film lacks any merit. There are a number of things which make it quite compelling viewing, but it could not be thought to be a consistent success. I should mention that the musical score by Jacques Ibert, while not probably completely consistent with the seriousness of the film, is completely characteristic of that composer's effervescent high spirits and this is something I have not seen referred to in any other review.

Secondly whatever the merits of this film are, they have generally been found wanting in comparison with the original Swedish 1921 film, a film so important to Ingmar Bergman, that he said subsequently that it caused him to wish to become a film director. Both films are the visual productions of an early 20th-century Swedish novel by Selma Lagerlof (herself a Nobel prizewinner). I know nothing of either the first film nor the novel which concerns the dire effects of tuberculosis but I expect it is one of those relentlessly severe realist novels, ultimately owing a considerable debt to Emile Zola. Many examples of this sort of writing have ultimately produced febrile and intense films.

Duvivier's production is set, as it introduces itself, in an anywhere/any time place which for a significant part of the proceedings is that well-known country Backlotistan. Swedish names are changed to Anglo-Saxon: for example "Holm" becoming "Holmes" but he effectively tops and tails the production with the appearance of the phantom carriage which is driven for a year by the last person to die on New Year's Eve. Apparently this is a Nordic fable. While not without its attractions,  Duvivier, exceptionally proficiently, uses a range of filmic devices (essentially transparency shots) to create a picture of something otherworldly. However it does not seem to really hold his interest, only being relevant at the beginning and very end of the film.

The balance and substance of the film is a relentless downer concerning David, a drunk wife-beater, and serial abuser and the attempts by Sister Edith of the Salvation Army to save him while she herself is dying from tuberculosis. So shades of "Major Barbara" and "Camille" and others. Pierre Fresnay is not convincing, especially in comparison with Louis Jouvet and Micheline Francey and his lack of physical stature may have something to do with this. Nor is he likeable in the sense that he is not emotionally engaging to the viewer. I make the same comment about Sister Edith but I should also indicate that modern day viewers are no doubt much more negative about self-sacrificing and self abnegating women. This would seem to be one of those cases where the director' s relatively objective view of his cast, does him no favours.

The film commences at Christmas time – somewhere, at least the northern hemisphere, because it is snowing in what appears to be a totally indoor set but may be a mix of both real and staged sets. It is very good. On the one hand the Salvationists are selflessly operating a soup kitchen while, in contrast, the debased vagabonds, including David, are conspiring to get Food & Drink without the necessity of the dreaded intermediary, work. All of them have been broken by some degree of substantial adversity but this is neither explained nor shown. In contrast to the self-sacrifice and other directedness of the Salvation Army group, are the revelries at a local inn. It's hedonism is presumably to be viewed negatively, but, by contrast, especially as it involves the music of Ibert, previously mentioned, it seems positively joyous. And alluring.

And that's how the film continues with the alternation of goodness, contrasted with the self-indulgence of the "lost souls". It takes place over the course of the year with Sister Edith thinking that if she can see David on the following New Year's Eve, alive, she will have saved him from the fate of being the driver of the phantom carriage for the following year. David really isn't worth the effort and he only comes to some sort of awareness when dead. Of course by that time, it's too late.

As I write, I become more aware that it is a film out of its time. It made more sense in 1920, but its capacity to make a dent in the more sophisticated period, immediately prior to World War II, seems very limited.

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