Friday 6 November 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (31) - Everything you want at Ladies’ Paradise - Alan Fish reviews Au Bonheur des Dames

Au Bonheur des Dames (France 1930 88m) 

p  Charles Delac, Marcel Vandel  d  Julien Duvivier  w  Noël Renard  novel  Emile Zola  ph  André Dantan, René Guochard, Armand Thirard, Émile Pierre  art  Christian-Jaque, Ferdinand Delattre  cos  Gelaud, Marthe Pinchard
Cast: Dita Parlo (Denise Baudu), Pierre de Guingand (Octave Mouret), Fernand Mailly (Sébastien Jouve), Armand Baur (Baudu), Nadia Sibirskaia (Geneveève Baudu), Germaine Rouer (Madame Desforges), Ginette Maddie (Clara), Fabien Haziza (Colomban), René Donnio (Deloche), Adolphé Cande (Baron Hartmann), Albert Bras (Bourdoncle),
DVD Zones1/2 (Germany only)

Another film rarely discussed in film tomes, with no entry in any major film guide, Julien Duvivier’s final flowering of the French silent cinema now looks, 80 years on, like a paradox; a film both behind and ahead of its time.  Part of that was down to the genius of Emile Zola, whose novel could just as easily be updated from its 19th century setting to the late 1920s as his L’Argent had been by Marcel l’Herbier a year or so earlier.  Indeed, the two films seem, more than ever, to belong hand in hand.  Take the opening caption of Duvivier’s film; “the big department store versus the little shop, a problem that still exists today; a cruel unfair struggle that ends in death and destruction.”  Then jump forward to today and see that we have ratcheted the problem along one place, with the department stores now on the wane thanks to the rise of the internet.  The companies themselves may still prosper online, but the shopping experience, a communal enterprise, is slowly being eradicated.
Essentially that’s what the film is about, as a young orphan, Denise Baudu, comes to Paris to stay with her uncle, who runs a fabric store.  The problem is that he’s now going out of business thanks to a massive department store across the way and Denise is forced to work there for her keep.  There she meets and falls for the store owner Octave and…well, you can guess the rest.  It all sounds very Capraesque, a precursor of those late 1930s films with Edward Arnold snarling his way to every grasped buck before the lovers achieve a happy ending.  Rarely for Zola tales there is a modicum of bonheur at the end, but not before a severe dose of reality is dealt to all. 
Even from reading the cast and credits one has a feel for Zola’s world, with Bour and Rouer still around nearly a decade after the pastoral tragedy of La Terre. As in that film, Bour plays the put upon victim, the old man watching his livelihood crumble around him and finally falling apart under the mental strain in a cacophony of sounds and images combined in a montage worthy of Eisenstein or Gance.  And then we have the opening shot, of a train pulling into a Paris terminal, a reminder of La Bête Humaine and lust in the sidings and another Zola classic freely updated.  Finally, we come back to L’Argent, for just as the marbled colonnades of the financial institutions there were temples to Mammon, the same is true of the temples of pleasure like the eponymous store to tempt anyone, gargantuan in concept, towering over the streets like an oversized railway terminal (the interiors were shot at the world famous Galeries Lafayette).  And for what, the railways, the stores, the stock exchanges; what else but progress?  Baudu (just a vowel swap to other memories) is doomed to be crushed by progress, in this case literally run down by it, in the form of a van from his dominant enemy.  And then the masses, crowding into the giant store, scurrying around like the workers of Metropolis.  

It’s all progress, and if the viewer hadn’t grasped it yet there’s the final dreamlike matte shot of the new enlarged store complete with a plane taking off from the roof.  It’s all like something out of Lang’s vision of the future, or Korda’s similar Things to Come, but this time with Parlo (never better or lovelier) and de Guingand looking up to the stars, not asking, like John Cabal, “what is the good of all this progress?”, but accepting their fate.  For Duvivier, and for the very art-form of silent film, they had to do the same.  The talkies had come; one must adapt or perish.  He adapted, the world adapted, but we lost something with that particular progression.  A future being built on ruins

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