To Forgive and Forfend
We like to believe ourselves to be innocent. It is difficult to escape from that pattern of thinking. After all, no one else has to live with us. We do. Therefore, we justify our actions. Sometimes we do this explicitly. Sometimes we merely forget to continue to chastise ourselves for the things we regret. A person is never more eloquent than when that person is defending past actions and present beliefs. It is natural that we do so. We must excuse ourselves. We have no choice. We must go on.
Indeed, our defiance in the face of self-rebuke is not mere vanity; it is a necessary and built-in mechanism for survival. If we ever stopped to seriously consider all of the evil that we do in this world with all of its attendant consequences, we should never stop contemplating our own eradication.
And so we are given Gervaise (Maria Schell). We cannot help but identify with her, this beleaguered cripple that continuously smiles at the world around her as it defecates upon all of her hopes and dreams. Gervaise is proud of the philandering lout Lantier (Armand Mestral) that impregnated her at the age of 15. She is proud that she, a cripple, has the best-looking lover in the neighborhood. But he cheats and she suffers. He tells her to forget it and she forgives. He abandons her along with their two children and she crumbles. When the sister of Lantier’s new lover, Virginie (Suzy Delair) taunts Gervaise, the latter repays the compliment by tearing an earring from her lobe and repeatedly smacking her derriere with a paddle.
Gervaise finds and marries another man: the kind-hearted, illiterate roofer Henri Coupeau (François Périer). They have a daughter. Gervaise dreams of renting a space to run her own laundry shop. Coupeau falls from a roof and never truly recovers. Coupeau’s friend, the admirable and responsible Goujet (Jacques Hardan), loans them the money. He is obviously smitten with Gervaise. Coupeau wants to object but cannot. He has no proper ground upon which to propose an objection. He has failed his wife. He also cannot accept his friend’s charity—that is to say, he does accept said charity but cannot reconcile himself to his willingness to accept it. He drinks and embarrasses his wife. Gervaise’s admiration and affection for Goujet deepens.
Virginie, newly married, returns to town. So does Lantier. Coupeau, in his drunken grandiosity, insists that Lantrier live in their household—a household funded by Gervaise’s efforts. Meanwhile, through no fault of his own, Goujet is sent to prison for a year. The rest…well, the rest doesn’t matter. You can guess what it entails. Fate does not smile upon Gervaise. Here there is no redemption. Here only cynicism reigns.
As we watch Gervaise’s life fall to ruins, we are forced to see ourselves in her. The director René Clément (in one of his finest efforts) does his best to ensure that we are invested in her plight. She just seems so innocent, so willing to grin and bear the most egregious of burdens. We watch her suffer the cruel taunts of Virginie and the maniacal indifference of Lantier. What is worse, we see the kindness in Coupeau that dissipates once he realizes how superfluous he really is to the existence of his wife. We see the lifeline that Goujet seems to offer Gervaise—a lifeline he justifiably rescinds when he realizes that he was betrayed (insofar as an adulterous lover can be betrayed).
We watch as the neighbors watch; and they always watch. They seem to be ubiquitous witnesses to all that transpires in the life of Gervaise. When Lantrier first betrays her, the entire population of the laundry room eagerly observes her reactions. When she celebrates her name day, random uninvited neighbors crowd around her door. When her husband goes mad in one of most realistic cinematic depictions of deliriums tremens ever filmed, the entire quarter is there to take note. Everyone seems to bear jaded witness to her rare triumphs, and everyone seems to experience glee in witnessing her despair.
Image (partial) courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Except us. Clément does his best to cajole us into aligning ourselves with Gervaise. And yet, something nags at us. We cannot help but realize that Gervaise is not all that innocent. She may have the best of intentions and it is certainly true that she is not dealt an even hand. But most of us would claim the best of intentions and most of us believe we were not dealt the best of hands. We want to forgive, to exculpate Gervaise because we want to forgive and exculpate ourselves. Gervaise becomes the emblem of our wounded bodies, our wounded souls.
We cannot help, despite ourselves, but to find fault with Gervaise and thus with ourselves. She really ought to have seen Lantrier for what he was—if not before his initial betrayal then certainly upon his return. She ought to have known better than to involve herself romantically with Goujet. In the best of all possible worlds, they would have been together but this is far from the best of all possible worlds. She ought to have exerted more control over her household. She was more educated and more adept than her husband. Her willingness to be simultaneously the greater earner and the subordinate wife is precisely what put Coupeau in the double-bind that drove him to deepen his affection for alcohol.
And yet we don’t want to blame Gervaise. We don’t want to blame her insofar as we hesitate always to blame ourselves. Gervaise is far from being a bad person. We recognize in her our desire to be good. But she and we are not innocent. We are complicit in our failings, in the baleful strokes of Fate that descend upon us. We suffer as much from our own doing as we ever could from the machinations of others just as Gervaise suffers most from the circumstances that she creates. We cannot and we will not condemn Gervaise inasmuch as we cannot and will not condemn ourselves. But neither can we absolve her. She fails. Nor, I fear, can we absolve ourselves. We are complicit in her failings, as well.