One More Waltz

The opening scene of Duvivier’s LA BANDERA, in which crime passionelletype Jean Gabin flees Paris and joins the foreign legion. It’s not my fave Duviv, by any means, but that’s a fine, moody opening.

First, the slinky move across the rooftops, which looks like multiplane animation a la PINOCCHIO, with a weird transition once it comes to a halt, shifting us into live action. Polanski fans could compare it with the move from animated credits to live action at the start of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

It illustrates a key point about Duvivier’s generation, who wanted to address social issues and were generally a bit more excited by the underclass than the upper crust (though Duvivier, no left-winger, made films about both). The whole poetic realist school is deeply interested in seedy environments that breed or harbour crime, but they’re paradoxically studio-bound. These guys didn’t want any faux-documetary rough edges, and most of them were probably horrified by that jazzy nouvelle vague roughness when it came along. Marcel Carné started off wanting to bring the camera onto the streets, but soon found satisfaction in recreating the streets — exactly — in the studio.

The boxy interior sound of the couple’s steps testify to the fact that none of this is quite authentic, but the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has yet to be invented and named, but that’s what this is nonetheless — and social realism is exciting as hell to me.

I love the faux-split-screen composition that allows us a glimpse into a window and onto the street at the same time, and then — well, let’s allow Dudley Andrew to take up the tale, with the two-fisted yet plangent prose that characterises his excellent book Mists of Regret, containing the best writing on Duvivier I’ve managed to find ~

“It’s opening sequence could stand as a prologue for poetic realism as a whole: a dark street seen from above; through a second-story window of a cheap hotel, the silhouette of a figure disappears; at ground level now, a tipsy couple careens towards us from the far plane as the camera moves laterally to frame the glistening street, with the hotel standing on one border; the tipsy woman, white-clad, rests against a lamppost in a closer shot that lets us glimpse a man limned in shadow (Jean Gabin); from her perspective we see the man dart out of the doorway; she grabs him in jest, and he pushes her away in hurrying past; when her boyfriend steps over to help, the lamplight reveals bloodstains where her dress was touched by Gabin; the camera slowly tilts to reveal the street sign: Rue Saint-Victor.”

That tilt at the end of the night scene is a particularly strong piece of DIRECTION, in the literal sense of directing the audience’s gaze towards something. It’s such an authored move, it sticks out, particularly to a modern sensibility — one rarely gets such a bold intervention in film narration these days. So Duvivier isn’t at all afraid to show his hand, though having the kind of craftsmanlike attitude he had, he’d probably deny ever moving the camera in such a blatant way. The move is particularly strong since we don’t know why we’re moving, and even when we arrive at the street sign, its significance isn’t really clear until we dissolve to the next scene.

And then there’s the almost-too-archetypal shot of Gabin through the Venetian blinds — back when that kind of image was basically NEW. Yup, I think if this movie came on TV, based on that opening scene, a lot of us would want to see the rest…

LA BANDERA is available second-hand, but it ain’t exactly cheap…

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9 Responses to “One More Waltz”

  1. Very nice. I love the way French films of the 30’s featured street life. In a way the New Wave was recapturing a spirirt of filmmaking that was alive in the 30’s but had been eclipsed by less innovative modes of production.

  2. It’s true in a way. And Carne began by shooting home movie style stuff on the streets, Clair’s The Crazy Ray/Paris Qui Dort is totally location-dependent. Then “professionalism” set in and everything had to be studio.

    But I like the lunacy of building massive reconstructions of real streets — Hotel Du Nord is a favourite in this regard, as is Les Portes de la Nuit, certainly one of the finest films maudit ever, and arguably a good candidate for a Great Giveaway if I could afford it.

  3. Though Clair had his own pans over perspective-manipulated-to-create-the-illusion-of-depth manufactured rooftops, notably in the opening of Le Million in which the pan ends with a couple of people looking curiously through a skylight at a boisterous party below, which is the happy ending of the screwball story of the lost lottery ticket that the curious latecomers (of whom we the audience are one) get related to us in flashback.

    And of course that amazing long track in to the crowd singalong that opens Under The Roofs Of Paris is another great example of that kind of thing.

    You probably want to save discussion of La Fin du jour until more people have received and watched their copies, but how would you classify that film in relation to the underclass or upper crust? It seemed to me that it was about the privilege of actors (especially in their horror at having to be placed in public rest homes where they have to mingle with the less privileged and non-artistic), or could it be seen more as about actors being a separate entity from a class structure, much as criminals or legionnaires are sort of outside of the boundaries of traditional life?

  4. “I love the way French films of the 30’s featured street life.”

    I particularly like the long lens capturing Michel Piccoli wandering past the street vendors before throwing himself into the Seine in Boudu Saved From Drowning!

    I do like films where you can see some sense of reality at the edges of the frame, something that has not been orchestrated by the filmmakers – a really great film that has those kinds of shots of ‘real’ people surrounding the film’s characters is Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers. Well worth checking out!

    Though on the other hand I also like marvelling at totally created and controlled worlds – how much of an influence would Fritz Lang’s M, and its masterful portrayal of an entire city’s manhunt, have had on French films of the period?

  5. Renoir said “In every set, you should leave one door open, because through that door, life will come.”

    (Not to be taken too literally: through that door, in fact, the sound of art department bods moving stuff, or chattering actors, will come.)

    That’d be Michel (La Fin Du Jour) Simon, not Piccoli, though — Piccoli would have been in short culottes at the time.

    Renoir probably pushed for real locations (and suffered sound recording problems on La Crime de M. Lange) more than his contemporaries: Carne and Duvivier follow the Lang model.

  6. The actors in La Fin Du Jour are basically destitute and dependant on a charitable institution for support. Not that different from veterans or any other specialist group of penniless pensioners. The film is simultaneously about different approaches to old age and different approaches to theatre, and it’s a closed world which could also be seen as a microcosm of France, divided between hedonists, aesthetes and anarchists…

  7. D’oh! I wondered what inspired me to say Piccoli!

  8. I’ve been blogging from the Theatro Piccolo, so it’s obviously a case of remote viewing by yourself.

  9. […] a very interesting piece on the film, David Cairns has written, ‘the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has […]

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