From the early morning of France’s post-WWII film industry comes Georges Lacombe’s 1946 crime drama, Martin Roumagnac. Despite starring Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin, two of the century’s larger-than-life stars in their only film together, this film isn’t famous or appreciated as it should be. Viewers have the chance to discover Martin Roumagnac restored to crystal clarity on DVD from Icarus Films, and it’s also screening on OVID TV. Film buffs will find a meticulously detailed piece of French realism in “fatal romance” mode, anchored by star power.
Dietrich plays “veuve joyeuse” (merry widow) Blanche Ferrand, a warm and more down-to-earth version of this goddess-actress’ star persona. In a rural town, Blanche and her uncle (Jean d’Yd) own a store selling seeds and birds. We never learn the uncle’s name, although his opening lines declare that he’s not the late Mr. Ferrand. He also drops the information that he and Blanche are from Australia; he points to the floor and says they come from below, which could imply another location.
This opening sequence delays Dietrich’s introduction by creating curiosity about Blanche before her grand star entrance. A handsome, if green young professor (Daniel Gelin) hangs around the shop, waffling over whether to buy one bird or two. A man arrives for his lunch date with Blanche, and the uncle turns him away by claiming she’s out shopping. A moment later, the uncle summons Blanche from upstairs, where another man emerges from her room and scurries down a back way.
Blanche descends a circular staircase, and we watch her from below, entering the frame in installments until she finally emerges like Venus into our vision and the professor’s. Her first line on camera is “Vous désirez, monsieur?” This is a common phrase in shops, meaning “May I help you,” and it functions as a pun underlining the young man’s tongue-tied desire. This moment is the first of many countershots on the exchange of glances between men who desire Blanche and her amused appraisal of them.
When he says he wants to buy one of the birds, she explains that this species can only be sold in pairs or else they die. If that’s not some metaphorical foreshadowing, we’ve never seen a movie before. The birds have been a pretext, but he buys them and leaves, looking foolish. Now Blanche goes upstairs to her mirror, puts on a fancy hat and fox fur (we might as well say a vixen), and announces that she’s going out. When she shuts her mirrored door, the screen wipes to a long view of a boxing match.
She arrives at this venue where nearly naked men pummel each other in physical catharsis, becomes disturbed at the brutality, and leaves. But first, she meets Martin (Gabin), a typical man’s man, and accidentally drops her silver four-leaf clover like Cinderella’s slipper. Blanche sits beside Martin, who gives her plenty of eye and looks at her stockinged legs, and the camera cross-cuts to the “legwork” of the boxers in skimpy silk shorts to make the point that everyone in this room is looking at one erotic spectacle or another. Behind-the-scenes trivia: Dietrich did some boxing in the 1920s and could hardly play this scene without thinking of it.
Dietrich’s career was based on all the qualities exploited here: her exotic “foreignness” (Australia!), her status as a decorative object observed by men, her frankly sexual nature, and perhaps most importantly, her self-possession. Everyone looks at her, but she remains opaque and in control. She looks at them, and she’s got their number. She remains in charge of her sexual life, even though it usually leads to the destruction of herself or others. That may even be the reason it does, but she’ll always be unapologetic.
While vulnerable, she wears her own moral armor that elevates her above the pettiness of those who condemn her, like the miffed bourgeois gossips in Martin Roumagnac, or the men who would permanently claim her. She chooses whom she chooses when she chooses, and when she decides to commit, nothing will stand in her way. Her persona leads critics to drag out phrases like “force of nature” or “femme fatale”, but she’s also got the weary intelligence of experience that forges its own integrity, and often it’s wrapped around a kernel of romanticism. More than many stars, Dietrich played the sum total of her roles to date.
The first hour of Martin Roumagnac is the honeymoon phase of Blanche and Martin’s affair, during which he uses his profession as a contractor to build her a nice house. He feels awkward on a weekend in Paris, where she’s known to the lounge lizards and waiters, like the heroine of Hello Dolly! It wouldn’t have been out of place if Blanche got up and sang; in another film, she would have. Art director Georges Wakhevitch permits himself to go wild with cramped extravagance in the Paris club, making this a snazzy setpiece.
The town gossips take Martin for a fool and wait for his fall when Blanche’s other men show up. The most prominent of these is the diplomat Laubry (Marcel Herrand), who’s been waiting for his wife to die. The men know about each other and act philosophically. Many class grievances are injected here. Martin works with his hands and “ca declasse” (lowers him). Laubry says Martin has “les bons sentiments avec des faux de syntax” (good feelings with bad grammar), and Blanche shoots back, “Tout le monde ne peut pas jongler avec le vocabalaire” (Not everyone can juggle with vocabulary). This harks back to his earlier remark that diplomats know pretty phrases.
These parts of Martin Roumagnac partake of Emile Zola’s naturalism and village depictions like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau from 1943, while some moments annex the tradition of French poetic realism. Master cinematographer Roger Hubert handles all phases.
Whether in the lyrical, bucolic outdoor scenes or the fancy Paris hotel where Blanche shows off her legs again, Martin and Blanche enact a palpable heat from which the camera must perforce glide away discreetly now and then to indicate what cannot be shown. As this synopsis makes clear, a Hollywood studio could never have told this story in 1946. All this frank hanky-panky without the benefit of marriage would have been verboten by the Production Code, as would all the social winking over it.
For the record, Dietrich and Gabin conducted a famous affair throughout the ’40s, so Martin Roumagnac functions as a kind of souvenir for that off-screen reality. That brings up the point that audiences watch fictions or fabulations while simultaneously looking at some dubious documentary reality of their favorite stars. It’s as though we see a double movie, or a movie and its shadow, and at least one of these is a fantasy in our heads.
Martin Roumagnac, which played the US in 1948 as The Room Upstairs, goes on to a tragic ending of psychological and social detail. Georges Lacombe directed the screenplay by himself and Pierre Véry, who specialized in scripts about crime often adapted from novels, in this case by Pierre-René Wolf. Although Martin Roumagnac ultimately becomes a courtroom drama, it spends most of its running time as a romance anchored in expansive social observation with a large cast of supporting roles and extras.
In other words, Martin Roumagnac is an intelligent example of French “cinema of quality”, that line of well-made, literature-based, star-powered mainstream cinema that later got dismissed or derided by critics searching for something new. It’s no milestone film; it just works and looks good.
In The Film Encyclopedia: 5th Edition, writer and filmmaker Ephraim Katz says Lacombe “was considered a disciplined, efficient studio technician who worked well with actors … but with only rare flashes of brilliance.” Lacombe is lightly damned in Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Film Makers as one who “was never able to raise himself above the craftmanship level.” To which some of us say: craftmanship ain’t hay. As time goes by, that stuff tends to look better and better.