Drôle de drame

Michel Simon might be Charles Laughton as that demm’d elusive Pimpernel, Louis Jouvet his Revolutionary nemesis Chauvelin.

An English comedy made in France, having to do with detective fiction, the unseemliness of it or not, the writing of it, the business end.

A question of killing your wife, the nosy bishop she’s anxious to avoid calls Scotland Yard, who descend in force.

The botanist with a gifted pen is offered a hundred pounds under his other name to express his views of the horrible crime, “I have no imagination,” he says, refusing.

Hounded from home and hearth by a hue and cry in the newspaper headlines, he and his wife go to ground in a low bed and breakfast where a fastidious maniac on a bicycle (“butchers kill animals—but me, I kill butchers”) hangs his cap (Jean-Louis Barrault).

Nevertheless, the botanist takes the case, only to find his house a shambles, overrun with “a whole flock of detectives.”

“I’ve often wished to read your books,” says one whose method when solving a crime is to sleep on it, “the mystery dissipates.”

Bobbies are digging up his cherished mimosa, it’s scandalous.

The milkman, who dowers the place with gallons for love of the daughter, is jailed as a suspect.

The inspector, first seen wearing a dress undercover for the bishop’s speech against such works as our author’s The Model Crime, interrupts proceedings at the “Murder House Beer Stand” as he breezes by, hot on the trail.

An incriminating music-hall program belonging to the bishop (last seen as a Scotsman in full regalia) has been lost by him on or near the premises, he is a married man with a whole flock of children, the botanist’s wife is an artiste.

One of the funniest goddam films ever made.

Caryn James (New York Times) and Jonathan Rosenbaum came to see its virtues, but Time Out Film Guide says Carné “fails to extract all the fun possible from such rich material.”


Quai des Brumes

The title is a mock, all is precise, exact, perfectly formed, no detail is wanting to the purpose.

Carné’s métier completely.

A godfather with a penchant for religious music, the girl fleeing him, a soldier AWOL, petty hoodlums and Le Petit Tabarin, a nightclub.

So, “a masterpiece of poetic realism” (Philip French, the Observer) and so on, a small story on the docks at Le Havre, not going anywhere.

Bergman has the same story in Hamnstad.


Hotel du Nord

Oh, ces sales gosses avec les pétards!”

The themes are later reworked in Les Portes de la Nuit, for example, le dénonciateur et la prostituée, the young lovers who embrace against the gates of night and so forth, a long histoire in this instance, a long delay of l’amour et la mort that ends on Bastille Day with the title of Carné’s next film in the girl’s mouth.


Le Jour se Lève

The subsequent analysis by Carné, Prévert and Laroche in Les Visiteurs du Soir is all that is needed.

A very funny film often cited as an Existentialist saga. The two orphans meet and fall in love, “we’ll have lots of kids,” he says, “and put them all in homes.”

“A model of French poetic realism,” says Halliwell’s Film Guide, citing Richard Mallett’s praises in Punch.

Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles, as a play, is roughly contemporaneous.


Les Visiteurs du Soir

Two emissaries from Hell, signed, sealed, but not yet delivered, and the Devil himself.

Many films such as Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson go into it, many others such as Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête come from it.

In the grief of the Occupation, the advice is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “most like a monumental statue set”.

“One day in 1942, I was so anxious to see Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du Soir, which at last had arrived at my neighborhood theater, the Pigalle, that I decided to skip school. I liked it a lot. But that same evening, my aunt, who was studying violin at the Conservatory, came by to take me to a movie; she had picked Les Visiteurs du Soir. I didn’t dare admit that I had already seen it, I had to go and pretend that I was seeing it for the first time. That was the first time I realized how fascinating it can be to probe deeper and deeper into a work one admires, that the exercise can go so far as to create the illusion of reliving the creation.” (Truffaut)


Les Enfants du Paradis

The work is simply like being in Resistance headquarters with every message coded as a line in a nineteenth-century tale. Prévert had this very happy idea of treating the Occupation as his field of operation and letting it scud and flicker among the stock characters of a comédie set in a suitably fantastic domain, the pantomime stage and environs. That’s where Carné comes in, dressing out the conceit like the most ambitious camouflage ever devised.

Every word is electric, or nearly, starting with the title of the first part, The Boulevard of Crime. The camera shows, not the grand avenue down which shock troops strode, but a lively crowded street full of amusements, among which is Truth (Arletty), a lady up to her diddies in a tub, gazing into a hand mirror. A rich spectator’s pocket is picked, Arletty is accused, but the grand auguste mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) has observed the crime and delineates the culprit in pantomime.

That is essentially the layout of the whole film sketched in ten minutes. The villain of the piece is Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), whose occupation is Public Writer, i.e., he indites letters and documents for the illiterate public, with a sideline fencing stolen goods. “So many ugly people,” he says, “how much better it would be to get rid of some of them.” Writing plays is an ambition of his, though again he’s a crackpot æsthete who finds tragedy an inferior medium because it’s “depressing.”

Anselme Debureau (Etienne Decroux) announces the extravaganza within, featuring his own “incomparable” self, who has “performed in the harem of the Grand Turk amid 83 Turkish ladies.” The performance introduces the image of a fifteen-year-old girl menaced by dangers (Arletty describes her own youth this way) and rescued. Barrault’s precise and vociferous pantomime begins after Chaplin and attains the classical art.

The simplest question, the merest remark takes on the flavor of the time. “Who gave you this flower?” “Be careful, they’re waiting for you.” The stuff of farce and romance becomes the drama of Occupation at every moment.

At the Gorge Rouge, a tavern named for a former proprietor whose throat was cut there, there is a Brueghelian dance. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is simply mentioned, but the murder scene from Othello is acted by the great Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur). Gautier is cited as a critic.

The tone reached by Prévert and Carné is sometimes simply keening, as when an actress on stage beweeps her slain husband in rehearsal (this is reversed in performance as a brilliant parody of Cyrano de Bergerac’s opening scene, Lemaître exposes a bad play, mocks the authors, and has the policeman lie dead rather than himself as Robert Macaire), or the unparalleled frenzy of Barrault thrashing a huge bouquet of flowers with a stick because he cannot bear the sight of them in Arletty’s dressing room.

The second part is named for him, the ideal dreamer and moonstruck good-for-nothing who bears witness, The Man in White, and introduces an admirer of Arletty’s, the Count de Montray (Louis Salou). “Several years have passed,” says the screen, and those are lacerating words. Barrault’s doctor advises him to “go and see Baptiste,” a famous joke.

Lacenaire berates the Count. “When a king is betrayed, that’s tragic.” Why? “Because Fate deceives him,” volunteers Lamaître. “But when it happens to you or me, it’s only buffoonery.”

Love itself, Arletty says and Barrault finally agrees, is simple. But under the Nazi Occupation literally dictating running times, Prévert and Carné foresaw that who loved who and why and for what would all be forgotten in the great joy of the Liberation.


Les Portes de la Nuit

The Liberation has come and gone, the war is not yet over. The clochard of Destiny foresees the end (this was a particularly bitter pill for critics to swallow, Tom Milne calls it “a hollow film” in Time Out Film Guide).

The absolute clarity of the position gives it a striking ease in Prévert’s screenplay that is borne out in the filming, which again combines the themes brought into play all along in Carné’s films on this subject, the statues in Les Visiteurs du Soir notably “come alive” in the most perfect way, the infinite subtlety of the approach also calls a spade a spade, the demolition magnate and his collabo son are exposed, “the most beautiful girl in the world” dies, murdered by her profiteer husband, and so forth. One has been warned, that is the construction put on events by this same Destiny, more or less in vain, always correctly.


l’air de Paris

Here precisely is the theme of Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a simple answer to Niblo’s or Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand.

That is, victory over the world and oneself.

The gandy dancer, the ex-champion, the heiress (“la journée n’est pas finie”), the mondaine.

Hal Erickson sees a Hollywood ending, Alexander Dhoest of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) asks, “How queer is L’Air de Paris?” (“Marcel Carné and Queer Authorship”, Scope, U. Nottingham, May 2003).