Volume 45 in Criterion’s Eclipse Series contains four French movies directed by Claude Autant-Lara, though we may just as well say four films starring Odette Joyeux. This petite, elfin actress was pushing 30 in the earliest of these productions, yet she’s specializing in teen virgins who are simultaneously waif-like and wise.
In three of the titles, Joyeux plays the spoiled upper-class daughter of indulgent fathers who keep shrewish or meddling maternal figures at bay. As the heroine of The Marriage of Chiffon (Le mariage de Chiffon, 1942), she moons over her uncle by marriage (Jacques Dumesnil), an older man consumed by the desire to build an airplane and therefore committed to progress and his country’s glory, a man doomed to become a national hero.
She’s being courted by an even older gentleman (André Luguet) who’s both a duke and a colonel, yet the latter is such a fair player that when he intuits Chiffon’s feelings for her dashing uncle, he pushes her towards realizing those emotions and bows out gracefully. The comic highlight occurs in the first reel and involves some clever Cinderella business with a lost shoe.
Louis Seigner plays Chiffon’s doormat-ish stepfather, brother to the aspiring aviator, while Suzanne Dantès chirps through the proceedings as the overbearing and class-conscious mother. The setting is early in the 20th Century, around the time of the Wright Brothers.
All three of the films made during the Nazi Occupation of France take place in an earlier, supposedly more carefree time and are positioned as apolitical escapism that wouldn’t offend the Vichy regime or their German masters. Lettres d’amour (1942) and Douce (Love Story, 1943) even go back to the 19th Century. Still, they sometimes can’t help resonating with their time. Douce includes a father with a wooden leg who had been an artilleryman in “the war”, though obviously neither of the wars that yielded legless Frenchman in 1943.
Lettres d’amour is the only title in which Joyeux plays neither a daughter nor a member of the bourgeoisie. She’s the village postmistress, and thus identifies with “the Shop” instead of “the Society”. This doesn’t stop her from vamping Emperor Napeoleon III (Jean Dubucourt) for a personal favor in a complicated plot about love letters gone astray. Our Miss Zelie (Joyeux) has been the postal “beard” for her glamorous married friend (Simone Renant), who’s carried on an affair with a young Paris lawyer whose hairstyle earns him the nickname Hedgehog (Francois Périer).
When the affair breaks up, he falls under Zelie’s charms while pretending to believe her tales of a lover, since he doesn’t reveal himself as the true correspondent. It’s much more acceptable, of course, for him to be sexually experienced than her, but it wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker if she had been. There’s also much business about learning to dance the new sensation called the quadrille, which becomes a skirmish in the class war.
Douce, once again with the heroine’s nickname in the title, is the only one of these tales that’s not a comedy. It begins with the teenager confessing to a priest that she loves a “domestic” and wants to run away with him, and he warns her she’s proceeding on the road to Hell. The next scene underlines the prediction with a shot from inside the fireplace as she talks with her icy blonde governess (Madeleine Robinson, who bears a strong resemblance to Simone Renant of the previous film). After some misdirection, we figure out that Douce yearns for the governess’ secret boyfriend (Roger Pigaut).
Under the noses of her father (Debucourt, who played Napoleon III in the previous film) and monstrous if truth-telling grandmother (Marguerite Moreno), Douce manipulates events as she wants them. It begins to look as though, having come to her senses, she’s now going to maneuver herself into a sadder-but-wiser happy ending, but that wouldn’t have satisfied the thirst for morality. If only she hadn’t given away her virginity so willfully, she might have escaped a last-minute punishment so out-of-the-blue that it requires all her headstrong idiocy to fly into it, and which will exasperate most viewers.
Although it seems to affirm traditional morality, this is apparently the only film here that ran into censorship trouble. When the grandmother plays her annual Lady Bountiful act to properly grateful poor people — a scene of stringent satire — she wishes them patience and resignation. When the old poor woman asks the brash young servants what she should wish for them in return, the dashing anti-hero answers “impatience and revolt”. This scene was cut shortly after the film’s release and restored after the war. Impatience and revolt weren’t on the Vichy menu, not even for a movie set in 1888. Is the half-built Eiffel Tower in the opening pan across a maquette city perhaps a comment on France’s current decapitated status?
The only contemporary tale dates from the year after the war’s end and therefore doesn’t quite count as a wartime escape. Sylvie and the Phantom (1946) is the only one of these titles to see a US release on home video (way back in the VHS era) and only because it provides a starring role for Jacques Tati in his feature debut. He applies his talent for pantomime to the silent role of the phantom as his friendly see-through image wanders around his castle, visible only to the viewer. Even though he’s not yet playing his celebrated Mr. Hulot, Tati’s persona is already that of an old-fashioned man out of step with the bewildering modern world.
On her 16th birthday, Sylvie (Joyeux once again) is indulged by her father (Pierre Larquey) and not so much by his bossy sister (Claude Marcy) with a party. Because Sylvie’s in love with the portrait of a romantic ancestor who now haunts the castle, the father hires an actor (Louis Salou) to run around in a sheet as said ghost. For complicated reasons, two young men are also hired to play the same ghost. One is a supposedly 18-year-old burglar (Périer again) avoiding the cops, and the other is a pretty 17-year-old (Jean Desailly) who’s fallen for Sylvie.
This lightest of the entries works the best, being a graceful mixture of fantasy, comedy, romance and farce. No matter the differing tones and subjects, many of the same crew and cast are recycled from one film to another. The last three films are shot by Philippe Agostini, one of the busiest and most illustrious cinematographers of his time in French cinema. He would marry Joyeux and become a director while she turned to writing.
The most significant contributor to this set, aside from the director and star, is writer Jean Aurenche. He worked on all the films, and Douce marks his first of many collaborations with Pierre Bost. They became one of France’s most celebrated writing teams until Francois Truffaut and other ’50s-era critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, who would become the filmmakers of the French New Wave, began criticizing the previous generation’s “cinema of quality”. Aurenche’s career weathered the fashions and he continued under the auspices of Bertrand Tavernier and others.
While I strongly support bringing these and other examples of classical French studio cinema out of the mothballs, if you will, so that we can judge them for ourselves, I must confess to sympathy for the position of Truffaut and his colleagues. These are prime examples of the “well-made” films of their time, often period pieces based in literary sources, careful and tasteful and well, slightly dull and plodding. We can well understand why the young critics were more spellbound by the Hollywood fairy tales of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, especially as those were dispatches from a robust, undefeated country whose traditions weren’t stifling and tiresome to them.
That said, time and distance emphasize for us how French these movies are. For one thing, they’re quite carefreely about characters who have sex outside marriage, an element that would never have flown under Hollywood’s Production Code. Only Douce punishes anyone for this, and it’s understood that the punishment is more for betraying one’s class; the two “domestics” are expected to carry on illicitly, as they’re clearly birds of a feather.
Autant-Lara began in the silent era, supervised French-language Buster Keaton films in Hollywood during the early talkies, and made a British film I very much want to see, The Mysterious Mr. Davis (1939), one of several movies inspired by Jenaro Prieto’s classic Chilean novel The Associate.
These wartime movies with Joyeux made the director’s reputation. He would go on to make better films, especially those with darker and more cynical postwar themes, and these too need to see the light of digital day. He was, alas, a filmmaker who lived too long, for he was pushing 90 when he disgraced himself in politics as a member of France’s ultra-right National Front. This distasteful period throws an unfortunate light on the films he made during the French Occupation.
On this and other matters, the contextualizing notes by Nicholas Elliott deserve praise. On Chiffon, he quotes Aurenche’s 1982 statement that “this film benefitted from a time when the French were humiliated. And, for the first time, one could see happy Frenchman on-screen, a colonel who was charming. Everybody was comforted by it.”
Elliott observes that “in all of these films, Joyeux plays charming but driven women, prepared to break with the encumbrances of tradition and propriety to get what they want.” It’s only too bad that the women around her are so harsh.
As for the director’s anti-Semitic statements that led to his public downfall in 1989, Elliott writes: “While these actions on the part of an embittered old man are indefensible, it is worth mentioning that his films never espoused such detestable views. On the contrary, Autant-Lara’s work often embraced controversial progressive and anti-establishment positions, vigorously defending the right to abortion long before it was legalized and praising conscientious objection when young Frenchman were being called to fight the independence movement in Algeria.”
All films are products of their social moments, even those that try to avoid discussing it via “escapism”. In this set, we can glimpse indirect reflections, like the mirror scenes in each film, of the world just outside the frame. We also see the state of France’s studio art during a dark time, as everyone determines to show their best face. In these escapist films, the idea of escape itself and the uncertainties of the fronts we display to others become more complicated than anyone would wish.