Took me ages to get around to VOICI LES TEMPS DES ASSASSINS, a major Julien Duvivier film. Not sure why. It’s very good indeed, with Jean Gabin settling into his portly patriarch phase, and Daniele Delorme electrifying as his ex-wife’s daughter who comes into his life, seduces him, and wrecks his relationships.
The closest comparison is with LA BELLE EQUIPE, in which Gabin co-founds a riverside bar identical to the one his mother runs here (a fearsome woman, she decapitates chickens with a bullwhip). Gabin himself runs a successful restaurant in Les Halles — Duvivier artfully intercuts nostalgic footage of the real, long-vanished market, with his own elaborate studio reconstruction, and has a rare time tracking around the restaurant itself. The interiors of the film having been constructed to facilitate the director’s elegant camerawork, we get some great stuff tracking between tables, through doorways, peering around partitions…
LA BELLE EQUIPE shares with this film a slightly undercooked ending (LA BELLE EQUIPE has two, one happy, one sad, the sad one being the original and preferable version, but neither one quite living up to what’s gone before) and also a female spirit of malevolence of the kind the director returned to several times in his career. While Viviane Romance in the 1936 movie is an almost unmotivated force of pure evil, Delorme at least has in her past sufficient trauma to suggest how her character got so warped.
While the earlier film acquired a received-wisdom reading as an allegory for the Popular Front (friends decide to share their good fortune and go into business together; it all falls tragically apart), which Duvivier denied intending, I don’t see any similar political subtext here, except as a premonition of the deepening generation gap. Gabin has a young friend he regards almost as a son, who goes on student demos — Delorme drives them apart and conspires to kill both of them. Fear of women seems to drive the movie, with both Gabin and Delorme’s mothers representing different sorts of destructive possessiveness. But the characters at least have individual psychologies that make sense, and it’s a relief not to have the somewhat insipid “good girl” archetype too — Duvivier’s vamps are much more fun than his virgins. But that’s the case with most filmmakers, isn’t it?
One of Billy Wilder’s rules: “If she’s not a whore, she’s a bore.”
There’s also an English lady customer with a drunken dog called Group Captain.