Finally du Jour

At last, the day after Duvivier’s birthday, I get around to writing something substantial, or at least what passes for “substantial” around here, about LA FIN DU JOUR, the film I’ve been promoting to the best of my ability. In fact, the film has also been promoting me, since various mentions of the GREAT DUVIVIER GIVEAWAY around the blog-O-sphere have bolstered my stats and got Shadowplay some favourable mention. What goes around does actually seem to come around.

I think I mentioned in an intervening post that, having borrowed the film from the Lindsay Anderson Archive, a non-lending VHS repository in Glasgow, I ran it for my late friend Lawrie, who was always enthusiastic about French film, especially that of the ’30s and ’40s. It was a field that was mostly a blank to me when I first met Lawrie, but he had lived through it and seen Rene Clair and Duvivier and Carné films when they were new. As I was able to get a few of the films, we ran them together, and agreed in the end that while much Clair had dated a bit, Carné’s classics stood up brilliantly (and some of his non-classics seem to deserve reappraisal) and Duvivier was in serious need of rediscovery. Lawrie wasn’t so keen on Renoir, it seemed, and so my appreciation of him had to wait a little while (and I’m still in the process of catching up with him as a result).

LA FIN DU JOUR was a big hit with Lawrie. I don’t think he’d seen it before. While the fact that it was about elderly characters may have resonated with him, the pleasure probably had more to do with seeing favourite stars Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet in meaty roles, and finding Victor Francen a revelation. Rather than reviewing the film in detail, I just want to talk about those characters a bit.

Victor Francen as Marny. Francen is, I suppose, the nearest thing to a leading character in the story, which is more or less an ensemble piece. Unlike Michel Simon’s Cabrissade, Francen isn’t a clown, and unlike Jouvet, he isn’t mad. But Duvivier and co-scenarist Charles Spaak deliberately divide our attentions and sympathies, so that Francen doesn’t quite assume the status of hero.

For one thing, he’s a bit of an old stick. He stands on his dignity too much, and thus makes an irresistible target for Cabrissade’s practical jokes. One can’t entirely blame Cabrissade for picking on the stuffed shirt Marny. It seems likely that Marny’s “dignity, always dignity” approach to life has hampered his career as an actor. He describes himself as an actor without a public, and his overall stiffness is perhaps responsible for this. It may also be to blame for the failure of his marriage: one can imagine a young wife preferring the dash and vigour of the irresponsible Saint Clair.

Louis Jouvet as Raphaël Saint Clair. Isn’t that a great name for a classical actor? Jouvet is introduced in scene one almost as if he’s the protagonist, but this is really just a narrative device to take us from the familiar circumstances of a touring theatre troupe to the less familiar setting of a retirement home for actors (a brilliant location to set any kind of drama, it seems to me — I tried on one occasion to interest the producer of BBC3’s wretched Twisted Tales series in a supernatural comedy with such a setting).

Saint Clair is a complete egomaniac, introduced as such, whose character development consists of a slide into madness which is really just an exaggeration of his normal personality. “We ought to hate him!” observed Fiona when I ran the film for her. Miraculously, we don’t. Other people just don’t exist for Saint Clair, except as an audience for his greatness. So there’s no possible malice in him. But he’s blithely unaware of the emotional destruction he leaves in his wake. If somebody kills themselves over him, that’s just fuel to his ego. He’s perhaps the most stupendously selfish character ever written, and it seems he got this way just by basking in the audience’s affection. This is a movie with some fairly tough things to say about the acting profession — yet it’s full of love and admiration for actors.

Michel Simon as Cabrissade. Only 44 when he made the film, but with the face of a compressed buffalo, Simon represents, on one level, the failure of the popular front. Duvivier, who apparently was fairly conservative in his politics, lays this old radical to rest, dismissing him as a mediocre player and a case of arrested development, but celebrating his love and devotion to his craft. But Cabrissade is closer to Duvivier than politics would suggest: the spark of the film came from J.D.’s experiences as an actor, and in particular the nightmarish moment when, like Cabrissade, he “dried” on stage, forgetting all his lines and standing paralysed and sweating before a derisive audience.

ken

ken

The late Ken Campbell — still can’t believe he’s gone — described his own experience of this phenomenon in colourful terms. He was performing in Ben Jonson’s “comedie” The Alchemist and was frustrated with the lack of actual belly laughs in it, so he had just decided to attempt a fart, to get the audience going a bit, when an angel descending and informing him that he was going to have his acting ability, or license, or something, taken away, and then the angel extracted his fart, bubble by bubble, and departed, leaving Campbell unable to access his memory of the lines except as if through a thick fog. He never played a leading role again… although the angel did visit him again about a week later to say, “Small roles in film and TV: still OK.”

The fact that Cabrissade’s drying, followed so soon by his dying, may be poetic evidence for the existence of this theatrical angel…

So: not a film review, but I think THIS IS THE PLACE for anyone who has received and watched LA FIN to chime in with their responses, questions, demands for emotional reimbursement or whatever. Let’s talk!

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10 Responses to “Finally du Jour”

  1. Where to begin? Any number of places, really. As a film about old age it bears comparasion with Make Way For Tomorrow and Tokyo Story. As a film about acotrs it bears comparasion with Stage Door and All About Eve. And then it’s a French film of the Golden Age that has been pretty much completely overlooked in the English-speaking world.

    Odd your mention of Michel Simon’s age. To be he’s always old. Even in Boudu Saved From Drowning he has the air of a codger.

    Louis Jouvet is a cinematic world unto himself. I love him in Renoir’s The Lower Depths

  2. Yes, MS is actually at his very oldest in L’Atlante, made several years earlier. So it’s true — you’re as young or old as you feel. An encouraging thought as my birthday looms.

    Glad you liked la Fin! Agree with all your observations. Haven’t seen the Renoir Lower Depths, only the Kurosawa. Another to add to my list.

    I’m reminded that there’s a French Stage Door — Marc Allegret’s Entree des Artistes, another film I saw courtesy of the BBC and the Anderson Archive. It’s a very minor piece, though it does have Louis Jouvet as a very impressive drama teacher.

  3. Firstly – happy birthday for the future!

    That was an excellent analysis – I like the way you pointed out the way that our three characters aren’t exactly separated into ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ but have admirable and reprehensible qualities in equal measure, just like real people!

    Though I suppose the ‘last man standing’ ending could suggest some value judgement? Then again would the surviving member who took the middle road lead to a long life but little chance of being remembered as a scoundrel or life of the party? Perhaps the most terrible fate for an actor?

    Could it also suggest Marny is more of a working professional actor than Saint Clair and Cabrissade, whose characters are more deeply tied into their profession? It is perhaps telling that Cabrissade dries up wyhen he tries to take a lead role in a dramatic production, running against his naturally comic demeanour?

    Perhaps that could have had some application to Campbell too? ;-)

  4. Yes, I think Ken Campbell felt uncomforable in a lead role that wasn’t that funny, even though the play was supposedly a “comedie”. “There are ways of constructing a sentence so the meaning arrives at the end and allows the audience to laugh, but Ben Jonson appears not to know this,” he said.

    The fact that marny survives is possibly because he’s the only character clear-headed enough to sum up what’s happened. I guess the director of the home could have done it, but that wouldn’t be so neat.

    Marny is utterly symnpathetic despite a definite flaw in his standoffishness and somewhat pompous demeanour. Cabrissade also is loveable. Saint Clair is like an alien! I guess that’s why we can’t resent his selfishness. He’s a stranger to most human emotions. How he can counterfeit them on the stage is a mystery, although the little we see of his playing, it seems pretty rhetorical and stylised.

  5. Madame Diliovska must be a cousin of Maria Ouspenskaya in Dance Girl Dance.

  6. MovieFanatic Says:

    Received the disc Monday!! Can’t wait to watch it & thanks again for mailing this to me even though I’m in the States….

  7. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

  8. Just finished watching this, and it was a treat from start to finish – and one that will bear repeated viewings, I think. Note-perfect scenes that always manage to avoid the threatened mawkishness that any story set in a home for retired ac-TORS would always have lurking in the shadows. Cabrissade’s sudden plummet into old age was unbearably moving, and the twin set-pieces at the end where each of the two departed characters seems to attempt to manipulate the people around them into a kind of cruelly ironic reality-play (St-Clair with the horrifying attempt to salvage his womanising reputation, Cabrissade with the graveside encomium which – could he have known this? – would be delivered by the butt of all his jokes) was marvellous. Also – the way Duvivier cuts away as soon as any of the actors does any actual acting was tremendously well judged – the Romeo/Juilet scene in the barn would have been three times as long if directed by your standard, audience-milking hack. Thanks again for bringing this marvellous film to my attention!

  9. Thank YOU. Beautifully evoked and analysed!

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