Wednesday 7 October 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (24) - Max Berghouse reviews La Fete a Henriette

La Fete à Henriette ( English Holiday for Henrietta) Director: Julien Duvivier,  Script by Duvivier and Henri Jeanson, Cast: Dany Robin (Henriette) Michel Auclair (Marcel), Louis Seigner (Script Writer 1), Henri Cremieux (Script Writer 2), Michel Roux (Robert) and Micheline Francey ( Script Girl). France, 1952, 118 minutes.

This film is generally reviewed as a comedy, and I suppose it is, but in a very intellectual and French – rational way. It is not a film of laugh out loud moments, except perhaps for cinephiles who recognise deliberate references to other then contemporary film directors and films.

The "real" story concerns two unnamed scriptwriters, one businesslike and down-to-earth (Seigner) and the other volatile to the point of irrationality (Cremieux) who try to brainstorm a new script following the rejection of the immediately prior one, rejected on the perfectly understandable grounds of obscenity (at least as it was understood at the time!). The two are ensconced in some sort of weekender next to a river and this bears a striking resemblance to the main set in the director's earlier film, La Belle Equipe (France, 1935) which is set on the River Marne outside Paris. The weekender, apparently studio based, is one of those typical Duvivier sets with an open mezzanine over the ground floor. This construction with open stairways leading into rooms or apartments is very common in the director's work. It seems to me to display his desire for control and regularity. Maybe on the other hand it's just accident!

The two writers verbalise various scenarios, ably assisted by their script girl – very admirably played like Micheline Francey, whom it is not hard to see is quite the brightest of the three. Anyone who has been involved in "the business" would recognise the various plots that any script writer would employ, not in the interests of "credibility" or "truth" but just so they can find someone to produce the film, make money, and hopefully put bums on seats. To a very considerable extent, despite some comic head notes, this is the "real" movie. The balance is the playing out of the various scenarios as they are discussed, worked through and frequently discarded. The consequence of this is that these various alternatives played out by Henriette, Maurice/Marcel and Robert are clearly "constructs" which have intellectual but little emotional depth.

That seems to me to be the essence of the film. The director takes a very rational look at his cast and moves them around as does a puppetmaster, according to his immediate requirements. Because the actors are moving at the direction of the puppetmaster, there can be no question of free will and thus the film fits in with the general pessimism and misanthropy which characterises Duvivier.

These various differing scenarios are in effect examples of the multiple storylines which also characterise Duvivier's work. Probably because it was made in Hollywood and therefore more accessible to English speakers, Tales of Manhattan (USA, 1942) would be the best example of this. For reasons apparently pertaining only to myself, I have never liked this film and took it that the director only engaged with the work out of necessity. Yet I must concede that multiple storylines are a feature of his work and he does it with exceptional panache. Perhaps therefore it was a matter of choice.

A third aspect I consider worthy of comment is that since the action takes place on Henriette's name day (after St Henriette) which occurs on Bastille Day (July 14) there is great play on the holiday atmosphere within Paris itself. There is for example a montage of public buildings draped in the Tricolour which I thought went on for rather too long but there is also a well conceived and played out background of the military celebrations and marching troops with traditional French marches in the background. This characterises and contrasts with the individual celebratory mood of the city in which Henriette, Marcel and Robert play out their various roles. It is as if the director suggests that multiple things occur and that the fate of individuals is of little importance.

The original film score by Georges Auric is exemplary. Perfect for the period and he, the composer, is like the director, rather undervalued these days.

The pre-film credits are a treat. It features question marks as to who is responsible for what and this is only revealed by the end credits which are thus very interesting.

Several scenes refer to the work of other of the director's "competition" and one scene featuring an apparently blind but "all seeing" filmmaker, referencing Marcel Carne, is as lovely as it is brief. Because the only storyline relates to the scriptwriters, some of the interspersed playings out of their scenarios are interesting while not in any way moving the drama along. A chase through a cinema/theatre, art deco in style with pursuer and pursued running across the stage as the theatre organ is raising, and then continues on to the roof, is extremely noir. That the director knew what to do to capture a fully noir ambience is even more strongly shown by a chase inside an industrial park, including pursuit and death on a gas storage unit.

No one could begrudge the capacity of the director to show off his prowess by really emptying his bag of tricks. However fundamentally, that is exactly what they are: tricks which will have manifold appeal to cinephiles, without being more than tolerably amusing to less interested folk. That said, I had loads of fun.

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