FRENCH MELODRAMA PIANO EXTRAVAGANZA

By Phoebe Green

San Francisco lovers of Hollywood melodrama with a touch of Noir will delight in the opportunity to see the French do it as least as well (if not better) than their American counterparts when Donald Malcolm’s  series offers a sneak preview of their November, 2019 series on Sunday, October 13 at the Roxie Theatre.

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MONELLE (aka LES AMOUREUX SONT SEULS AU MONDE)

The motto of “The Other Side of the Lost Continent,” inscribed as a cheeky but inspiring piece of graffiti under the doorway of the Conservatoire, where “ENTRÉE DES ARTISTES” is boldly emblazoned, is as follows: “One can never have enough Louis Jouvet.” Thank goodness that outside the world of French noir, there is still so much Jouvet to rediscover…

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In LES AMOUREUX SONT SEULS AU MONDE (Lovers Have a World of Their Own), Jouvet once again plays an artist and pedagogue. Once again we (at least briefly) visit the Conservatoire, with its green and eager young students. Once again life and artifice bleed into each other, with tragic and ironic results. Once again Henri Jeanson provides a solid but surprising scenario sparkling with wit.

Henri Decoin, familiar to Roxie-goers for noir masterpieces LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON and NON COUPABLE, shapes an ironic melodrama, played out in Paris, but with a prolog and epilog set in the countryside, at a timeless little inn and in an enchanting forest, its shimmering tunnel-perspective magicked by cinematographer Armand Thirard.

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Composer Gérard Favier (Jouvet) loves his wife of eighteen years (Renée Devillers, perfection in a trying role) as fondly and gaily as when they first met. By chance, they pass by the ground-floor apartment where seventeen-year-old Monelle, a pianist, is playing his compositions with talent and understanding. They make her acquaintance and she becomes Favier’s pupil and protégée—she will perform his concerto at an upcoming concert.

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All is well until a gossip rag publishes an article claiming an affair between maestro and protégée—Monelle is, after all, played by peachy, pouty Dany Robin, the Henriette of  Duvivier’s LA FETE À HENRIETTE.

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Le tout Paris blandly accepts the story, even Monelle’s protective father. Only Favier himself is outraged; his wife is supportive but disquieted. Monelle’s reaction is the most startling: swept up in the drama, she decides she is in love with Favier and has been from the moment they met.

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From there, with the unforeseen domino effect of stratagem upon stratagem, in the lineage of the Princesse de Clèves and Madame de la Pommeraye, the fate of Madame Favier is sealed.

(The film will be screened with English subtitles)

Henri Decoin’s producers were so taken aback by the bitter dramatic irony of the climax and the aching melancholy of the epilog that they insisted a happy ending be shot, at least for overseas audiences. Decoin was appalled to find that they had slapped an intertitle—“But wait!”—on his ending and added the happy alternate as a caboose. The recently restored version allows Decoin his vision. Will Roxie-goers get the happy ending as a bonus? Time will tell!

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OMBRE ET LUMIERE

Who animates the plush, shadowy dreamworld of OMBRE ET LUMIERE? The “cinema de papa” also had its auteurs, even if they were only fitfully acknowledged: surprises—and paradoxes—abound.

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It seems a Gallic version of Hollywood’s post-war women’s pictures, a vehicle for Crawford or Davis: glamorous careers (concert pianist, fashion designer); a toothsome but not obtrusive male lead (Jacques Berthier, a “sensitive hunk”); a dash of psychoanalysis (Jungian here: semi-refreshing). All this, topped off by Tchaikovsky and couture gowns.Simone.jpeg

The difference? There are two female stars, equally important, squaring off as half-sisters. Simone Signoret is the sunny half-sister, loved by their mother; a piano prodigy swept into worldwide adoration; a woman with effortless charisma. Maria Casarès is the shadowy half-sister, the mother’s “mistake,” who needed her sister’s financial backing to establish herself; who chases down proxies and dividends; who is mocked behind her back by her seamstresses; who stalks an elusive lover (Berthier), haunting his favorite bar. Naturally, she loses him—to her half-sister.

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Henri Calef, director of unorthodox noirs (LES EAUX TROUBLES, LA PASSANTE), constructs another gliding, deliberate drama. He conjures beautifully balanced compositions opposing Signoret and Casarès:  two-shots divided by an architectural element; mise en scène with one’s seated back counterbalancing a more distant standing figure; and sequences of single shots in which each woman’s plunging movement mirrors and reverses the other’s.

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The scenario and dialog are by Solange Terac—a cinematic journeywoman at the time, though briefly notorious in the 1930s. Then, as Solange Bussi, she rose from assisting Pabst on the French version of the THREEPENNY OPERA to directing her own productions. Parisian columnists were titillated by the women-only parties she was said to hold at the hôtel by the Bois de Boulogne that she shared with Marcelle Chantal, the star of her adaptation of Colette’s LA VAGABONDE. Photographs of her at that time show a dark, oiled short coiffure not unlike that of Maria Casarès in OMBRE ET LUMIERE, playing a woman named—Caroline Bessi. (Was this film supposed to have been Terac’s comeback, with its story that covertly traced the humiliation of her own career decline? And was she, in fact, supplanted by the producers in favor of a male director?)

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It is tempting to attribute the strange, muffled intensity of the film to a long-repressed expression of unspoken things. When reprimanded by her former lover near the film’s climax, Casares replies that he has no idea how she has suffered—and there is a tense ellipsis in the sisters’ peregrinating interactions. Their confrontation in the bedroom of the inn has the body language of a lovers’ quarrel; but we sense a desperate inequality in this lifelong battle, with one sister’s only hope of “victory” to devise a chain of events orchestrated to undermine the other’s sanity.

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Wisely, Calef turns over OMBRE ET LUMIERE to its two stars: they become its auteurs, in a way that could scarcely happen a decade later. Each is caught “in the act” of character dissolution within mirrors: the soft, blonde, casually dressed Signoret has the more dramatic confrontation in such scenes, but the tiny, tense Casares, whose clothing is divaesque in its fiercely-cinched theatricality, has her own ghoulish self-reckoning in the mirror, knowing that the tack she’s taking will lead her to a point of no return.

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download-3.jpgPhoebe Green spent four years at Harvard waiting to go to Paris. Once she arrived, she became an in-demand translator and developed an inordinate love for rare French cinema. Vocation and obsession have now intertwined, as she creates subtitles for impossibly rare French films—while waiting to again return to Paris, as she fulfills a most laudable daughterly obligation. She promises more from THE OTHER SIDE in 2020.

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