French filmmaker Sacha Guitry, so the story goes, was once reluctant to make films at all. Guitry’s theatrical roots were firmly established by way of an esteemed father (actor Lucien Guitry) and his own successful career as a playwright and stage actor. After some initial involvement with short films in the ‘10s and ‘20s, he emerged as an inventive and prolific voice in sound films of the ‘30s. The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry offers four works from this period: The Story of a Cheat (1936), The Pearls of the Crown (1937), Désiré (1937), and Quadrille (1938).
An adaptation of his own novel, The Story of a Cheat is Guitry’s awe-inspiring masterpiece. His command of form suggests not averseness to cinematic techniques, but rather an uncanny mastery. Although at the time many filmmakers across the world were finding ways to maximize and toy with the rules of film grammar, Guitry employs a number of methods that in retrospect make him a sort of “auteur’s auteur” (Orson Welles, for one, must have been paying close attention).
Beginning in the opening credits, there is a playful use of self-aware footage to introduce the cast and crew. As the players act out their roles in front of and behind the camera, a voice on the soundtrack narrates their names and functions to the audience. Of two actresses, Guitry says, “they both know they are being filmed”. In 1936, it was likely a risky move to remind the audience of the artificiality of what they were watching, and especially to do so in the opening, rather than closing credits. Guitry uses other such techniques to “intervene” throughout the film.
The plot of the film is relatively simple: A Cheat (Guitry) sits at a café and writes his memoirs, which chart his maturation from lucky scamp to seasoned charlatan, who may or may not find some moral redemption by story’s end. What brings the plot to life is Guitry’s arrangement and narration of the events, which speed by with energy and complexity, as well as those vignettes’ occasional interaction with the present day scenes at the café.
The illustrated tales from the Cheat’s life begin with his stealing money from the family till and the subsequent punishment at dinner. For his crime, he is not allowed to eat the mushrooms that the other family members all enjoy. However, when the poisoned mushrooms kill his entire family, the Cheat reckons that his illicit behavior inadvertently saved his life. He also wonders if his family members died as a result of their honesty.
A combination of dark humor and upended morals, the Cheat’s origin story successfully establishes the anything-goes playing ground that Guitry will explore in both narrative and visual style. As the Cheat becomes a bellhop and worldly elevator boy, Guitry’s voiceover interacts cleverly with the filmed flashbacks. His voice also speaks the lines of the actors, whom are in the vignettes more or less acting as if in a silent film. The actors largely avoid performing in a stagey manner or going “big”. The stillness and subtlety of their performances combine effectively with Guitry’s playful narration, which subjectively comments on the action. He observes that the period clothes look ridiculous and that the actor playing the adolescent Cheat is “unrecognizable”, which is true since the audience has theretofore only seen the Cheat as a child and as the older adult narrator.
From The Story of a Cheat (Le Roman d’un tricheur)
In addition to the nimble narration, The Story of a Cheat’s camerawork (by Marcel Lucien and Raymond Clunie) and editing (by Myriam) contribute to its distinct comic tone. During one sequence at the café, the Cheat talks about a nearby townhouse that is significant to the story. Instead of cutting to an image of the townhouse, the camera traces the steps across the street to reveal the house, and then follows the same path back again to the café. This sequence preserves the “actual” distance rather than use creative geography to convince the viewer that the townhouse is across the street.
When the action of the plot moves to Monaco, Guitry uses a similar unbroken shot technique to accompany his comparison of Monaco to Monte Carlo, panning back and forth between the two. Some of the film’s funniest material takes place in this introduction to Monaco, which Guitry sends up as “not a foreign city but a city for foreigners”. He observes that the “little army” is “charming”, and imagines in the narration that the army could march backwards. Just like that, the film reverses and then proceeds to go forwards and backwards a number of times, illustrating the whim of the narrator.
The Story of a Cheat is full of such knowing attention to how the story is being constructed, and the best instance of this comes not through cinematography but through narrative verve. The Cheat describes in flashback his first romantic encounter—with a Countess (Elmire Vautier) 20 years his senior. When the film cuts to the present day action, he is joined at the café by an older woman (Marguerite Moreno), whom we realize is the Countess. From the story the Cheat has told us, we know that she gave him a watch to commemorate their encounter, and the older woman now sitting beside him is insistent on knowing the time. If she sees the watch, she’ll know who he is, and the sequence plays out in a great comic routine of concealing, switching, and replacing watches. What starts as a bawdy setup (the Countess says she’s “given away” 217 watches over the years) turns tender when the Cheat attempts to do the right thing by returning the gift anonymously.
Exceeding the high level of ambition established by The Story of a Cheat is The Pearls of the Crown, in which Guitry plays four roles in addition to writing and directing. Spanning four centuries of European history, The Pearls of the Crown traces the paths taken by the seven pearls originally given to Caterina de’ Medici by Pope Clement VII. Taking great creative liberties with historical figures and events, the film’s dense plot is conveyed in French, English, and Italian by three narrators within the film. As with The Story of a Cheat, Guitry is the principal narrator, though the form and function of the narration is considerably different in this film.
Once again turning the credits inside out, the film opens with the phrase, “With the obligatory details out of the way, here are The Pearls of the Crown.” Guitry also continues his technique of identifying the constructedness of the tale by saying at one point, “We lend our faces to the heroes of the story,” acknowledging his own presence within the historical episodes being brought to life. For the first half of the film, the multiple narrators are mostly used as entryways and motivating devices for the rapid-fire survey of history. The film imagines French royalty (Guitry) as witty and philosophical and English royalty (Lyn Harding) as boorish and blustery. One repeated source of humor within the plot is how historical rivalries and relationships are chiefly concerned with assessing the appearance of chins and legs.
The immense scope of The Pearls of the Crown would be unbearably overstuffed if not for Guitry’s keen use of cinematic principles such as compression, expansion and collocation. While the reigns of some royal figures are represented in mere seconds (some in single shots), other individual moments, such as Mary Stuart’s preparation for being beheaded and Henry VIII’s antagonism of Anne Boleyn, are given ample screen time. On other occasions, such as the joining of a princess and dauphin, Guitry pauses the comedic remixing of history in order to indulge in a straightforward appreciation of royal pageantry.
Four of the seven pearls that link the film’s many subplots reach Queen Victoria, who has them set on the arches of the crown of England. A thief absconds with the other three pearls. Halfway through the film, the three narrators who have been relaying the stories within the story, decide to search for the missing pearls. This mutual search brings the narrators together for present-day adventures, which also contain several flashbacks. The standout comic scene in this portion of the film involves the instruction given by Jean Martin (Guitry) to wife Françoise (Jacqueline Delubac) only to use adverbs when talking to the man who currently owns one of the missing pearls. She follows Jean’s instructions, and the resulting wordplay is ingenious.
The other two films in this collection take a more domestic tack, departing from the comprehensive sort of biographical and historical storytelling of The Story of a Cheat and The Pearls of the Crown. Because of their smaller scale, Désiré and Quadrille are more obviously the product of Guitry’s stage roots, but his execution of the plots allows them to flourish as films rather than simply as filmed theater.
Désiré opens with Guitry claiming, “I made the film we are about to present.” He then leafs through a photo album to introduce us to the characters and the crew. The plot begins with an upstairs/downstairs scenario, wherein Odette (Delubac, Guitry’s real-life wife stepping into a lead role), the well-off mistress to interior minister Félix (Jacques Baumer) employs a service staff of cook Adèle (Pauline Carton) and maid Madeleine (Arletty). Odette and Félix seek a valet for their upcoming vacation at a villa in Deauville, and Désiré (Guitry) arrives in time to get the job.
Guitry plays the title character with an air of mystery and danger. He is perceptive of the social structure, saying of his employers, “We’ve got their number, but they don’t know who we are,” and he wins the affection of Adèle and Madeleine. However, he seems to carry secrets that threaten to have negative consequences for the household. Through following up on Désiré’s references, Odette discovers that he may have behaved improperly with his last female employer. When she confronts him, he gives an impassioned monologue, rationalizing and excusing the encounter while seeking her sympathy.
When the action shifts to Deauville, the uneasy seeds planted in the first act of the film start to take root. From this point on, Désiré is increasingly risqué and modern in its approach to class and sexual attraction. If not a direct influence on Woody Allen, the film is at least in the same psychoanalytical ballpark. At night, the characters have dreams that are illustrated in dream clouds above their heads. It becomes clear that Désiré is attracted to Odette and that Odette is attracted to Désiré. Odette says Désiré’s name loudly and repeatedly in her sleep, which at first alarms, then amuses Félix. A book called The Key to Dreams seems to hold some explanation for why the characters are behaving so, but the class divide and Odette’s relationship with Félix are both complicating factors to the attraction between the lady and the valet.
From time to time, Désiré breaks away from the topic of erotic dreams. There is an uproarious sequence in which Odette and Félix host a dinner, and their deaf female friend arrives without her husband. The couple’s attempt to communicate with her combines with Désiré’s movement around the table to form a caustically comic dinner. One interesting visual element of the scene at the table is a chronic breaking of the subject-to-subject axis, so that the characters do not appear to be looking at one another across the edit. By “jumping the line” in such a way, Guitry and/or cinematographer Jean Bachelet flout cinematic grammar and in the process reinforce the point of the scene, which is failed interaction.
Apart from Carton’s appearance as a chambermaid, Quadrille mostly does away with the service characters of Désiré and enters the privileged world of editor Philippe (Guitry), his famous actress girlfriend Paulette (Gaby Morlay), their reporter friend Claudine (Delubac), and Hollywood star Carl (George Grey). Although Quadrille is more narrow in its focus of socioeconomic class, the film shares Désiré’s interest in the rules and realities of fidelity in romantic relationships.
By looking closely at Hollywood through the character of Carl, who is sort of a Valentino figure within the story, Guitry sends up the carefree, often vacuous charms of matinee idols. At one point, Carl says that his acting consists of trying to think of nothing, and that viewers see whatever they choose in that blankness. What strikes all of the women in the film (and what Philippe concedes, as well) is that Carl is a handsome young actor. Paulette, in particular, finds him irresistible. Although the central foursome is presented in a more or less stable fashion at the beginning of the film, Guitry’s script suggests early on that his character, Philippe, will end up with Claudine, and that his girlfriend, Paulette, will end up with Carl.
Quadrille is a racy film, and its content would have likely shocked American filmgoers who, in 1938, did not have wide access to such films due to the Motion Picture Production Code. Beyond its implied nudity and sex scenes, Quadrille is notably provocative in its examination of lust and love. Preceding by decades Allen’s infidelity tales and the era of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the film comically questions the level of control couples should exert on the tempting influences around them.
From The Story of a Cheat (Le Roman d’un tricheur)
Philippe does not necessarily push Paulette into Carl’s arms as a means of testing her, but he does allow the connection to take place and then observes more or less complacently as she gives in to her instinct. When he confronts her after the fact, the film (like Désiré) keeps the characters from connecting by breaking the subject-to-subject axis time and again. Although it might be a coincidence, Guitry seems to break this rule most conspicuously when he is trying to suggest a divide between characters. Quadrille concludes with the configuration of characters predicted at the beginning of the film, but the plot takes some dark and unexpected turns on its way to that conclusion.
As an installment in the Criterion Collection’s affordable Eclipse Series, this DVD set does not include any special features. Additionally, the transfers vary in quality, with Quadrille bearing an especially persistent blemish at the top of the frame. However, the presentation of these four films from a comparatively uncelebrated filmmaker is a treasure for any film viewer interested in seeing a probable source of many later auteurs’ inspiration and innovation.