Marc Allégret: Julietta (1953) | featured image
Jeanne Moreau in Marc Allégret's Julietta (1953) | original studio promotional still

Time Out for Love: Five Little-Seen Classic French Films Streaming on OVIDtv

OVIDtv specializes in documentaries and arthouse items such as these five French films of the 1950s and 1960s from directors Marc Allégret and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. This is my catnip.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear on-demand streaming services may contribute to the death of physical DVDs and Blu-rays. Major producers like Netflix and Amazon don’t always bother to issue their acclaimed productions on disc. I presume they want exclusive access for subscribers.

Here’s the flipside. As providers hanker for products, they dig into the vaults for things that aren’t otherwise available. For example, the US and Canada service called OVIDtv specializes in documentaries and arthouse items, as streamed through the standard platforms and devices. In February, “just in time for Valentine’s Day”, OVID premiered five French films of the 1950s and 1960s never on disc in Region 1. This is my catnip.

Three of the films are directed by Marc Allégret, the other two by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. These are major figures in French cinema whose works are barely or rarely seen in the US and who mark an overlap or divergence between the old guard’s Cinema of Quality (Allégret) and the New Wave (Doniol-Valcroze). Suddenly, a bunch of their films are widely visible for the first time! They weren’t even available so widely when they were new. Let’s review them before we get back to this streaming question.

Marc Allégret

To understand this filmmaker, it’s helpful to know what I discussed in my PopMatters review of his debut, Travels in the Congo (1927). He began his sexual and professional life under mentor André Gide, one of France’s most famous and scandalous writers and public intellectuals. Evidently, with the family’s blessing, their relationship lasted for the decade when Allégret was 15 to 25. Gide was 30 years older.

While they filmed their African tour, Allégret decided he liked two things: sex with women, and this filmmaking thing. They parted as friends and Allégret moved on to a straight life and a long successful stint in French commercial cinema in which he promoted the early careers of a string of major names.

Two of Allégret’s films, including those we’re about to discuss, are romantic vehicles for Jean Marais, the glamorous star and romantic partner of Jean Cocteau (25 years older). It all sounds quite French, doesn’t it? Have patience, for these details bear on the kinds of stories told in these examples of French mainstream film.

Julietta (1953)

Dreamy, flighty 18-year-old pixie Julietta (Dany Robin) is engaged to marry a literal prince who looks 95. That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s one reason that lawyer André (Jean Marais) will seem a more suitable contrast since he’s only about 40.

Marais was at this point an aging matinee idol but he still had those flashing eyes, that breathy growl, and that profile to die for, so he could be a catch even without a contrasting centenarian. Hollywood too pushed its romantic leads in their fifth and sixth decades; it was the thing.

The ancient Prince Hector (Bernard Lancret) is good friends with Rosie (Jeanne Moreau). To the audience’s eyes, she’s discreetly unhappy with Hector’s engagement but she’s a good sport about it, and she invites herself to spend the weekend at the country house of her squeeze, who is – wait for it –the aforementioned André.

For a tolerably contrived reason, the winsome and impulsive Julietta has spent the night chastely as André’s guest without bothering to inform her fretful mother (Denise Grey) or sassy sister (Nicole Berger). She’s basically running away from her engagement and retreating into a fairy-tale world of bric-a-brac in André’s attic, as the film very distantly channels Jean Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946).

André doesn’t realize this until he arrives with Rosie, and then he starts hiding Julietta and running around like someone in a French farce because he doesn’t want Rosie to get the wrong idea. In this case, Julietta has more brains, because she points out that he could have just told the truth. It’s a good thing somebody says it, but the plot needed to get off the ground.

That’s one of the waif’s more lucid moments. Elsewhere, out of mischief and fantasy and joie de vivre and cussedness, she tells the grumpy caretaker (Georges Chamarat) that André is her brute of a lover. He bridles with indignation because there’s a difference between what French people can approve in movies and how they actually behave, and Hollywood observed those rules too.

This is one of two films that year based on novels by Louise de Vilmorin, the other being Max Ophüls‘ much more celebrated and sophisticated The Earrings of Madame De (aka Madame De…). Vilmorin was another of those scandalous French writer-libertines who should be worth her own documentary or mini-series. Wikipedia informs us she was a friend of Cocteau and spent her last years living with novelist and Cultural Minister André Malraux, calling herself “Marilyn Malraux”.

Wikipedia also cites the biography of Allégret’s assistant, future director Roger Vadim, who stated that this film was important to Vadim’s career because he pacified a disgruntled Marais by rewriting his dialogue. Another important film in Vadim’s career is the title we’re about to discuss, the one that paired Marais with Vadim’s wife, Brigitte Bardot.

School for Love (Futures vedettes, 1955)

Based on a novel by Vicki Baum, this almost tragic romance takes place at the Vienna Conservatory, where students get loaded with the high culture of music and ballet. They are “future stars”, which is what the French title means, and that was true in spades for second-billed Bardot.

She plays Sophie, who studies dance (Bardot was a dancer) and opera (nope, so she’s dubbed). Not unlike Julietta, Sophie has a bothersome mom (Lila Kedrova) and a sassy sister. Sophie’s BFF is fellow student Elis (Isabelle Pia), a sensitive winsome flower with a dying mother, a gruff sculptor father, and the best voice in class.

Both students, and apparently many others (with seemingly one or two boys), swoon over the dreamy opera star and irascible male-diva Eric Walter (Marais), who teaches their voice class. He’s estranged from his wife, the equally emotional opera diva Marie Koukowska (Denise Noel). The girls savor the rumor that he beats her, they hope with a belt. (“What a man!”)

Marie’s the love of his life, but she’s not around and the students are, so inappropriate tuition seems an expected part of the curriculum. Perhaps it’s billed extra, like the meal plan. This may be Vienna, but they’re still pretty French. Even without Bardot’s peek-a-boo skinny-dip in Eric’s fountain, or the distant glimpse of the girls’ shower room, you see why French films had a reputation in the US and had to play the arthouse circuit to avoid getting shut down. (It didn’t always work.)

If the film offers a rationale, it’s that suffering in love makes you a better artist, and that’s why both future vedettes get their hearts broken when Eric’s wife returns. Some suspense is generated over how they’ll handle it, and for a while, things look like they’re headed for operatic melodrama until the Vadim-Allégret screenplay remembers it’s some kind of comedy.

Hollywood character player Mischa Auer lends comic support as Eric’s servant Berger. The subtitles don’t preserve this quirk, but he speaks of his master in the royal plural, as in “We aren’t divorced, we’re separated.” He and Marais have their little vibe, especially when Berger gives massages to his master.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (L’Amant de Lady Chatterley, 1955)

While nobody will confuse the two Marais comedies with cinematic masterpieces, here’s a fine example of Allégret’s art at its most serious, a carefully detailed and seamless updating of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, published in France in 1929. Allégret makes it a contemporary tale whose wheelchair-bound landowner, despised all over the area, was wounded in WWII instead of WWI. The hidebound class prejudices and hypocritical sexual mores needn’t be altered at all by the change of date or country.

As Sir Clifford Chatterley, English actor Leo Genn delivers an effectively “heavy” performance of slow correctness that emphasizes his foreignness and isolation amid his sense of entitlement. Danielle Darrieux is credible and charming as the wife who’s shocked by his suggestion that she should take a lover to produce an heir. The lady is presented demurely throughout and preserves a classy dignity, even when unlaced with her lover.

Also credible and charming is Italian actor Erno Crisa as Mellors, the rough gamekeeper who isn’t what Sir Clifford had in mind, but we have no trouble seeing what Lady Chatterley sees. Here’s where I suspect Allégret’s background helped him, for he presents Mellors as a powerful sex object from the Lady’s POV, especially in the scene where she watches him sleep but also in her first glimpse of him bathing. The audience is completely aligned with her sympathies, as is necessary for what was still a scandalous story.

The scandal derives less from the adultery than the revolutionary social attitude expressed in the ending, with the Lady’s decision to reject everything she has in favor of the gamekeeper. With a shock, I recognize that this sensitively handled film predates by a few years Louis Malle’s similar The Lovers (Les Amants, 1958), which created a contretemps in the US for its story of happy adulterers running away from responsible society.

In fact, The Lovers was challenged in the US after Allégret’s film had been banned in New York. The Supreme Court finally permitted Allégret’s film in 1959, the same year Lawrence’s novel was cleared of obscenity in another Supreme Court case. (In the UK, the novel was vindicated in 1960.) According to Wikipedia, Malle’s film was cleared of obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, the case where Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

The travails of Lawrence’s novel in English are partly due to four-letter words. French cinema is full of their equivalents going back to the silent era, but Allégret’s film avoids them. The poetic script is by two poets, Philippe de Rothschild and Gaston Bonheur, who were talented in many areas. Their version of Mellor’s “earthy” language is to have him philosophize about pollinating his mistress’ “iris”. That’s hardly a blunt approach, but his shirtless visuals create their own impact.