Thursday 24 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (22) - Max Berghouse reviews Maria Chapdelaine (1934)

Maria Chapdelaine, Dir:Julien Duvivier, Script: Julien Duvivier from a novel by Louis Hemon, Cast: Madeleine Renaud/Maria, Jean Gabin/François Paradis, Jean- Pierre Aumont/Lorenzo Surprenant,  Suzanne Depres/Laura Chapdelaine, Alexandre Regnaut/Eutrope Gagnon, France, 1934, 75 minutes.

This early sound, but none the less mature, film by Julien Duvivier is highly rated by critics and is also a prize winner. While regarded by some as the first successful example of "poetic realism ", unfortunately I cannot support that judgement, at least of critical success. I think the passage of time and modern viewers' greater insensitivity to natural life, renders a more positive judgement very difficult. The film is based on a novel of the same name published in 1914, about a year after the author’s death, by a Frenchman living in Canada, Louis Hemon,. It received rapturous reviews on publication and has been published continuously ever since, remaining an important source of identity in Québec. The story concerns the pursuit in marriage of pure and innocent Maria by three men, equally worthy in their own way: the timber man, François; the "modern" man Lorenzo who has escaped from provincial life to the city and the farmer Alexandre who aspires to nothing more than to remain where he has always been.

The overwhelming bulk of production took place in the upper reaches of Québec near the township of Peribonka. Of course I recognise that this must have been substantially difficult but that decision imposed a very real cost on the completed film. The setting is the early years of the 20th century, whereas the clothing and manners of the actors and the matte shots of the big city Lorenzo describes to Maria, are clearly of the 1930s. There is nothing overtly egregious like a modern day motorcar, but the ensemble effect is much diminished and in fact when I saw shots of horses and buggies, I thought these choices were very overt and unsubtle, just inserts to make clear that it was an early period, earlier than the actual time of production.

Secondly, as in most films of more or less restricted budget, with considerable use of on-site locations, there is a tendency to over use the shots of the real background. Duvivier has a great compositional eye, but most of these shots run on rather too long. Others however may be more patient than I. Moreover most of these scenes are captured in longshot with a diminished sense of engagement partly because they are invariably shown with clearly post-dubbed music or singing voices. This happened so consistently that it drew attention to the fact that there were clearly technical limitations at work – limitations I quite understand. Sound equipment was both cumbersome and crude at the time and taking genuine sound shots would have been very difficult.

It is a matter of common historical knowledge that the Québec provincial/farming society was exceptionally insular and closed. While the Catholic Church and in particular its clergy were authoritarian generally in the pre-Vatican II period, this seems to have been particularly noteworthy in Québec. Indeed many social commentators from the 1960s onwards have indicated that a substantial reason for Québec being able to integrate itself better into Canadian and modern life came from a willingness to become more independent from the clergy. In the film this degree of authoritarian control is indicated by the parish priest of Peribonka treating Maria quite harshly in her deep regret over the death by exposure of François. He left the timber camp during the Christmas period when Canada is desperately cold, and perishes. Maria had thought that, in accordance with custom, if she had said 1000 Hail Mary's, her wish, in this case that François return to her, would be fulfilled.

Secondly at the funeral for her mother, whose death is at least partly caused by lack of availability of proper medical care, the priest makes positive note in the eulogy of the separateness of the French of the province and their retreat away from the "invaders" (the dreaded English), keeping themselves to themselves for the prior 300 years. This seems to be a material cause for the decision to remain where she is and to marry Eutrope despite the temptation to leave with Lorenzo.

I am profoundly uncomfortable with French "poetic realism". I can revel in the beauty of captured pastoral scenery but the idealisation of the harsh and brutal poverty and provincialism that this pastoral world underlies, seems to me to become more depressing year by year as I grow older. At the level of pure cinema, the characterisation of all the main actors, and especially Maria, seems to me to be grossly unrealistic. The grinding poverty and the intense cold would seem to me a sure invitation to leave while the going is good. It is equally unappealing to me that directors – there is a whole host of French directors who were engaged in displays of poetic realism – wouldn't think of living such a life for themselves but were quite prepared to project it onto screens as something inherently desirable. I find this a perfect example of what Sartre called in the immediate post-Second World War period "bad faith" (mauvais fois).

The film moves painfully slowly and is completely comprehensible if watched at two or three times normal viewing speed. I know because I watched part of it a second time just to check. At the same time even though it's only 74 minutes long, it seems too long!

I conclude with one perhaps fanciful thought. Perhaps it's best to view this film as part of the intellectual path along which Duvivier lost his religious faith and pretty much all his optimism. Perhaps his depiction of the sterility and acceptance of an otherwise unacceptable life, and the uncomprehending and unsympathetic role of Catholic clergy, was part of his own development as a person. If that be the case, then the film is worth watching on that count alone.

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