Julien Duvivier in the Thirties is perfect for Criterion’s Eclipse series because Duvivier epitomizes a once-celebrated filmmaker whose reputation and availability have gone into eclipse. The four films in this set show an artist whose command of the medium was such that even his earliest talkies display a visual and aural confidence beyond most of his contemporaries. Further, because they all star a versatile, balding, stocky character actor named Harry Baur, we incidentally rediscover his once-admired versatility as well, so that this might also have been named Harry Baur in the Thirties.
Duvivier and Baur’s first talkie, David Golder (1930), has the added cachet of being an adaptation of the first novel by Irène Némirovsky, newly celebrated this century for the discovery of her unpublished WWII novels. Baur plays a wealthy Jewish businessman who becomes disenchanted with the empty life of high society, where he’s exploited by everyone including his cheating wife and shallow daughter. In what becomes a culturally loaded tale of French Jewishness and the class system, he redeems himself with a tragic re-enactment of his poverty-stricken youthful voyage from Poland.
While Baur’s sympathetic portrayal anchors the melodrama, Duvivier doesn’t let heavy sound-cameras get in the way of expressive, motion-oriented tracking shots evidently shot silently for sound to be added later, such as the lyrical sequence of the daughter and her lover. In this and the next two films, Duvivier understands that the audience needn’t see the person speaking dialogue, and he often juxtaposes sound and image in ways the talkies don’t usually exploit.
Poil de Carotte (1932)
Poil de Carotte (1932), meaning “Carrot Top”, is a remake of his great silent film of the same name. Both are brilliant in different ways, as Duvivier here makes the most of natural and expressive sounds and rural lyricism while telling about a neglected boy giving way to despair. Robert Lynen overacts shamelessly yet charmingly in the title role, and this quality contrasts well with Baur’s restraint as his distant father. Although the mother (Catherine Fonteney) is as shrewish and duplicitous as David Golder’s wife, she too is presented as starved for love, so the film becomes an analysis of dysfunction.
La Tête d’un homme (1933)
La Tête d’un homme (1933), or “A Man’s Head”, adapts one of Georges Simenon’s novels about Inspector Maigret (a phlegmatic Baur) by crossing it with Dostoyevsky. As in the Columbo TV series of decades later, Duvivier inverts the mystery to concentrate on the criminals, especially the dying student (Russian immigrant Valéry Inkijinoff) who evokes Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment without the conscience. It’s all fetid, corrosive atmosphere with several lovely tracks of the camera interspersed with expressive closeups, and we can perceive the seeds of “poetic realism” (or at least romantic fatalism) Duvivier would pioneer.
Un Carnet de Bal (1937)
The only story that takes a woman’s point of view is the last and most famous film here. Un Carnet de Bal (“Dance Card”) hails from 1937, the same year as Duvivier’s other international hit, Pépé le Moko (available from Criterion). A rich widow (Marie Bell) revisits the suitors who danced at her debutante ball 20 years ago and discovers their disappointing fates. The flattering unlikelihood that everyone’s lives were ruined when a teenage girl ignored them is balanced by the symbolic idea that she represents France and this is a survey of where the country has arrived as war looms.
It’s a film of disillusion that contrasts the lilting use of slow motion (rare for the era) and superimposition with increasingly beady-eyed realism, except for the extravagantly conceived sequence where the flat of a drug-addled, one-eyed abortionist (Pierre Blanchar) is shot with tilting angles and scored by the racket of machinery to make it seem like a hellish ship. The ex-suitors include Baur (as a man who became a monk), a seedy Louis Jouvet, a bellowing Raimu and a grinning Fernandel, while “carrot top” Robert Lynen drops in at the abrupt end. (Baur and Lynen were both murdered by Nazis.) Although the latest film in the set, its print is in the worst shape, with jitters and blackouts; a restoration might raise our opinion to the dizzying heights this film once enjoyed.
All four films present a sour, self-critical image of French civilization, and do it with finesse. The biggest problem with this collection is that it offers only a fraction of the approximately 20 films made by Duvivier in this decade, and although his reputation as a fussy stylist has suffered, his films deserve to circulate for precisely those qualities of elegance and technical bravura that can’t go out of style. Perhaps this box will lure more of his “lost” efforts into the digital light.