Pork Suitcases Over Paris

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Having very much enjoyed Claude Autant-Lara’s L’AUBERGE ROUGE, we turned with enthusiasm to LA TRAVERSEE DE PARIS aka FOUR BAGS FULL unofficially aka PIGS ACROSS PARIS, made in 1956 but set during the Occupation. Black market meat man Bourvil reluctantly takes on a new partner, Jean Gabin, to help him transport a newly dismembered pig across town in four suitcases to a buyer in Montmartre. Gabin proves to be a temperamental and dangerous co-conspirator in the midnight meat trade.

When did Gabin change from the muscular hero of MOONTIDE, whose physique impressed me no end, to the bulbous curmudgeon here? He looks like a Drew Friedman cartoon of Gerard Depardieu. Still, his ability to explode like a fleshy Hindenburg is undiminished by the passage of years and the accretion of bulk. Bourvil is both a droll comedian and a gifted actor, well-matched in his hangdog lassitude to his ebullient companion.

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One thing that’s a little disconcerting is the volume of the playing — quite apart from several scenes where everybody yells at the top of their lungs, the theatrical performance style Autant-Lara encourages in his comedies seems an awkward fit to a story about subterfuge — in loud voices, our two heroes debate business strategies for their criminal venture while trudging deserted streets after dark where police and military patrols can, and do, appear at any moment. The only thing to do with this unrealistic quality is get used to it — maybe it helps that the sets are beautifully unreal too,

The script, by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost  (heroes of Tavernier’s wartime film industry saga LAISSEZ-PASSER, and regular screenwriters for his films) juggles the dark and the light with surprising dexterity and daring. Autant-Lara, late in life, became a far-right member of the European parliament and was successfully sued for Holocaust denial. His writers steer him away from any such monstrosity, But there’s an edgy moment where Gabin is threatened with denunciation by nasty bartenders and then threatens to denounce them in turn for employing a Jewish girl as slave labour. It’s the first strong hint that things are going to turn dark.

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And they do — but this is followed by the worst tacked-on Hollywood ending since UNCLE HARRY. Best to disregard that altogether, which leaves us with a shockingly grim slap-in-the-face of a conclusion. Much better.

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13 Responses to “Pork Suitcases Over Paris”

  1. Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost were the target of Francois Truffaut’s wrath in his famous but profoundly misunderstood essay “A Certain tendency of the French Cinema.” The founding document of la politique des auteurs it’s less about directorial style than it is a right-wing Catholic screed, raging against the perceived anti-clericalism of Aurenche and Bost.

    Go read it and see. I’ll wait.

  2. I have to agree with David that the ending was tacked on. It was very bewildering to me. It seemed very much against the grain of what was shown up to that point. No big spoilers, but I expected Bourvil’s ultimate fate to be very different.

    Truffaut, he’s sort of been a thorn in my side for years.

  3. The Truffaut piece doesn’t make sense in terms of his supposed belief in movies — he’s objecting because the screenwriters altered the intent of the novel, as if they weren’t entitled to do so. Of course what it means is that he didn’t like what they chose to do in this case because it went against his own sensibilities. But he never admits that his own beliefs have anything to do with it.

    It seems very clear that somebody didn’t think the film could end unhappily. I did like the little bit of social satire inserted — “Still carrying suitcases?” “Yes — other peoples’!” — so that we see that post-war the old class distinctions still apply. But it’s a really sloppy ending — no explanation is given for how things turned out this way.

  4. Truffaut’s piece has far more to do with his belief in Catholicism than it does with his belief in the movies.

  5. I LIKED the ending — for me it was a LAST LAUGH-style twofer. You get the drop into the abyss, plus the world-goes-on cynicism. Regardless of regime, Bourvil is always going to be carrying other people’s suitcases.

  6. Well, The Last Laugh is the original self-deflating studio ending, where at least they get to denounce it before delivering it. Later filmmakers have been forced to render the ending itself flat or implausible in order to give the audience a hint that what they’re seeing is no longer true to life. I’d say this one nearly falls into that category — the hint being the total lack of explanation for how Bourvil is suddenly OK.

  7. “the total lack of explanation for how Bourvil is suddenly OK”

    Which is something I quite like about it. You’re left to imagine him going through some completely hellish ordeal only to emerge from it: 1) alive (which, of course, many people did); and 2) STILL a servile tool. Enough time has also passed that any bad feelings or even wonder at the strangeness of their odyssesy have been processed by both characters, leaving each simply glad to find the other has survived.

  8. That’s valid. It still FELT wrong, though, even though the Paris liberation montage of stock footage mirrors the opening credits of occupation scenes. Partly the problem is that after the emotional wrench of the climax, each new bit felt unnecessary prolongation. I doubt if the ending is more than a few minutes, but it felt VERY long.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    David E, Back in 1975, John Hess wrote an important but neglected essay in the first two issues of JUMP CUT raising the very same aspects you’ve mentioned. Once one does some deep viewing of French cinema of the 1930s and especially the Occupation period one finds a very different picture especially the developments in film noir pioneered by Christian Jacque and others but ignored up to now.

  10. I recalls that Hess essay and have it around here somewhere. Film history is exceedingly complex.

  11. The original script of LA TRAVERSEE DE PARIS ended with Grandgil (Bourvil) being shot by the Germans. But the producers refused flatly such a tragic ending. This is why Autant-Lara had to shoot that last scene in Gare de Lyon. He hated it, but he had no choice.
    As for Autant-Lara himself, he is a complex piece of work. He was certainly an anarchist opposing army, religion, traditional family values, etc. At the end of his life, he became really far-right and expressed anti-semitism up front. he was sued for it, and rightly so.
    You should nevertheless explore his filmography. He made some real masterpieces in the 40s: DOUCE, LE MARIAGE DE CHIFFON, LETTRES D’AMOUR, LE DIABLE AU CORPS and OCCUPE-TOI d’AMELIE. He also directed a film called TU NE TUERAS POINT (1960) about a consciencious objector. The film was banned by censors. It’s very rare and I’ve never managed to see it.
    Aurenche and Bost were both brilliant screenwriters and it’s no wonder Tavernier asked them to work for him. He was aware of their achievements with Autant-Lara. This is also why Tavernier’s best films are those written by Aurenche and Bost.

  12. Thanks, I thought you might know the facts! I guess like many filmmakers, Autant-Lara was faced with major compromises necessary to get the film made at all. I think he was right to make it — the viewer can always imagine it without the ending.

    Being a charitable sort, I blame Autant-Lara’s inability to get films made for his curdling into a far-right bigot, though it’s also true that many radicals of the left turn to the right in old age. C A-L is unusual perhaps in starting as an anarchist (political non-Euclidean) rather than a leftist — I guess to continue feeling like a firebrand he had to find a spot off the respectable political map he could occupy. But talk about blotting your record.

  13. Oops…correction! It’s Martin (Bourvil) who gets shot by the Germans.

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