Tuesday 29 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (23) - Max Berghouse reviews Le Fin Du Jour (1939)

Le Fin de Jour (Eng: End of the Day), Director: Julien Duvivier , Script: Charles Spaak, Cast: Victor Francen (Marny), Michel Simon (Ernest Cabrissade),Louis Jouvet (Raphael St Clair) and Madeleine Ozeray (Jeanette), France, 1939, 99 minutes.

In discussions with the esteemed Geoff Gardner concerning details of the life of Julien Duvivier, in the hope that greater knowledge would give us insight into his particular artistic choices, which being so varied, have contributed to his uneven reputation, we have to acknowledge that neither we, nor apparently anyone else, had significant knowledge. It is known that he trained as an actor and then became a "journeyman artisan" learning the craft of directing. This information seems to me very significant in his form of choice in the film Le Fin du Jour which superficially concerns three elderly actors in an old person's home, referred to in the film on at least one occasion as an hospice. In fact the film is really a profound and deeply felt meditation on ageing and death.

It is one of the director's finest works and is an absolute "pleasure" from beginning to end. I say pleasure in terms of the sheer enjoyment of the beauty of craftsmanship from both director and all his actors, not pleasure at the subject matter, which has a deep sense of foreboding from the very first scene. At this incipient stage of my review I should also mention the superlative script of Charles Spaak. Elegant and tight as ever and intensifying the mood of the film which is set almost literally in a cloister (the rest home is a former abbey), the script and the script writer work hand in glove with the director, but really deserve analysis by themselves. Something I shall have to consider.

Duvivier in his training as an actor was presumably partly or significantly occupied in repertory, involving constant changes of plays, roles, and venues. The first scenes of Le Fin du Jour capture a down at heel repertory company to which is attached St Clair, a once noted actor, but now clearly on the skids. From an almost empty theatre, the troupe has to pack bags, break scenery and make for a train in a matter of minutes. On the platform St Clair announces that he is going to his country home. Not corrected by the rest of the actors, they know that he is moving into the actors’ retirement home.

The balance of the film is really the interaction of the three actors mentioned above. While all the actors perform very creditably, it is clearly these three who dominate. And rightly so because they were the cream of the crop in terms of acting during this period.

Right from the beginning, I should also mention the intellectual commentary between members of the troupe, which to some extent is taken up in the retirement home: that of the decline of, not so much traditional, but of classic theatre. Duvivier as a man of the screen must have been aware of the general decline of theatrical audiences in the France of his day, significantly caused by cinema. But there is a rather deeper explanation than that which relates to the decline of "classic" (meaning in this case rhymed verse theatre) compared to prose theatre. This is a dispute that in France is still called a dispute between Racine and Corneille. It still goes on and it is significantly concerned with a dispute about the health of French culture generally. St Clair declares subsequently that he is interested exclusively in prose theatre whereas Marny, although not a great success with the public – he is an "actors' actor" has remained dedicated to verse language theatre.

From the very beginning St Clair is introduced and played as a gross narcissist. The sort of completely self preoccupied loner who is psychopathically unaware of anyone or anything, save as it relates to burnishing his own glory. Shortly after his arrival he is gifted an extremely valuable ring – Fr.100,000 – from a deceased lover of many years prior. He struggles to remember who she was and finds it easier to recall and describe the course upon whom he bet and won, thus enabling him to buy the ring. He does this in the presence of the late woman's lawyer who has brought the ring. He is completely oblivious to the disgust of the lawyer, who leaves the small restaurant/bar adjacent to the retirement home, rather than stay in St Clair's presence. St Clair subsequently and in very grand and unnecessary style, leaves for Monte Carlo and loses the lot. He is the absolutely typical leading man star.

Whatever high-minded principle the main characters maintain, they are all destitute. Their survival depends upon the charity of others. This indifference which to "normal people" would cause enormous distress, is largely absent from the consideration of any of the residents. They live in an insular world relating to "the business" but in this case truncated to the theatre alone. This is referred to towards the end by Cabrissade, in reaction to news that the retirement home will close, in that it is essential that theatre people, despite their frailties, stick together and be kept together because they are as people are largely constructed by their environment. In my view and experience, this is an utterly accurate, compelling and not particularly favourable view of actors. It has been said to me in the past that unflattering films about "the industry" are never made because no one is ever encouraged to "shit in their own nest". This film is proof of the reverse and not insignificantly presumably stemmed from the director's own life experiences.

Already at the nursing home is Cabrissade an incorrigible prankster and buffoon. It becomes clear, though subtly, that his childlike behaviour is an attempt to avoid facing age and declining vitality. If one remains young then there remains the possibility of finally being discovered. He like most of the residents is alone. Part of this is perhaps due to his financial failure: he was a lifetime understudy to a star who never got sick! But the remaining part we infer is this substantial narcissism of all actors. They cannot share the limelight with anyone.

Also at the retirement home is Marny, deeply embittered by his lack of success, but also by the loss of his wife, who deserted him in favour of St Clair, years prior. She died in mysterious circumstances, apparently the result of a shooting accident which haunts Marny. That she may have suicided causes him great despair and the working through of his detestation of St Clair as it intersects with the death of his wife, is one of the truly outstanding parts of this film. St Clair as an "older man" is the object of infatuation by Jeanette, whom he encourages to suicide at the prospect of St Clair leaving the retirement home. That anyone could promote such behaviour is obviously vile but the director in his usual, quite objective style, makes no apparent comment on the behaviour, leaving it to us.

Like all great cinema, this film can be viewed in a number of ways. Obviously there is the attention to the detail of theatre and what the desire for success under the limelight can do. Touchingly, the director shows some scenes of people in the retirement home, capable of affection and respect for others: one resident buttering the bread of another elderly female actress, because her sight is poor, for example. But it is quite unflinching in its solipsism as regards the principal actors, all of whom are excellent. The other aspect is as previously referred to, a meditation on ageing and death. Everyone finds some means of simply ignoring this eternal reality.

I had taken it for granted that the director came from a traditional Catholic background and his belief structures moved, as evidenced by his films, to pessimism possibly nihilism. This is because a number of his earlier films feature traditional Christian subject matter. Now I am not so sure. Perhaps he took these craft works on, simply because it was work. Perhaps he always had a disdain for false hope – as he saw it. I believe that's why I would like to know much more about his biography.

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