The Prussians are Coming!

MADEMOISELLE FIFI, with Simone Simon.

Guy de Maupassant is a fave of mine, although I’ve only read his short stories, not his novels. Among these morally complex, twisted works, are a few atypically simplistic propaganda-type pieces dealing with the Franco-Prussian war, one of which, Mademoiselle Fifi, became half of a fine Val Lewton/Robert Wise drama at RKO. The other half of that movie was based on the considerably more complex Boule de Suif, in which the Prussians may be brutes and tyrants but the French are self-centred snobs and hypocrites. Lewton skillfully uses the simple story to counteract some of the anti-propagandistic aspects of the complex one, so as to wind up with a film that could be released in wartime without drawing accusations of giving succour to the enemy.

This week’s edition of the Forgotten, over at the Daily Notebook, looks at PYSHKA, the last silent movie made in the USSR, and a much more faithful, hard-line version of Boule de Suif. I suspect you’ll find the images there most bracing.


Three facts about Guy de Maupassant which I carry in my mind:

One day while swimming he saved the poet Swinburne from drowning. As a reward, Swinburne gave him an ashtray made from a human hand, and this formed the inspiration for Maupassant’s first published story, The Hand, a creepy and hilarious thunderstorming mystery.

Maupassant liked to paint fake syphilis sores on his erection and chase his mistress round the room with it. What a card!

Contracting the disease for real, GdM wound up dying, blind and insane in the asylum. Towards the end, he was convinced there were diamonds in his urine.

Asides from the films cited above, the movie most alive to the spirit of Maupassant is perhaps Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR. Interesting how the marvelous overcast skies of PYSKHA (that amazing combo of heavy clouds and bright sunshine blasting in from the horizon line) followed Ophuls around and crept into his last shot.

LE PLAISIR, with Simone Simon again.

If the weather had been different that day, all cinema would be changed. For me, anyway.

UK: Le Plaisir [DVD]

US: Le Plaisir

Max Ophuls Collection: Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948), Earrings Of Madame De.. (1953) + Le Plaisir (1952)

20 Responses to “The Prussians are Coming!”

  1. An interesting thing about LE PLAISIR is that its immortal final line, “Happiness is not a joyful thing!” wasn’t written by Maupassant at all but it encapsulates much of the spirit of his works.

    Pyshka seems interesting.

    Another definitive Maupassant movie is of course Renoir’s Partie de campagne.

  2. Mikhail Romm’s 9 DAYS IN ONE YEAR is one of the great post-Stalin Russian films.

  3. Godard is a humungous fan of Le Plaisir. “Happiness isn’t always gay” is used a one of the title cards in Vivre sa Vie, and Masculin-Feminin is a very modern adaptation of two de Maupassant stories.

  4. And also as the epigram that opens Fassbinder’s ALI : FEAR EATS THE SOUL.

  5. …and that whole last episode of Le Plaisir was added by Ophuls when he went over budget and they couldn’t shoot the story originally chosen. Fate is strange.

    Richard Brody just tweeted to tell me that Andre Bazin preferred Andre Michel’s Trois Femmes, which is another anthology of three Maupassant stories. But it’s impossible to see at present…

    I wonder if Bazin preferred the Michel because it’s a super-masterpiece, or because he underrated Le Plaisir? A lot of people seem to do so…

    I was going to mention Bazin here because I seem to recall him saying Stagecoach wasn’t as good as, say, Welles, because it failed to create long takes with deep staging. I don’t have his book to hand so I can’t check, maybe I’m doing him a disservice. Of course, filming in a cramped coach (much tighter than the ones in Pyshka and Mademoiselle Fifi), Ford had to cut around just to show the various characters’ faces.

  6. I have wanted to make a short film of de Maupassant’s Le Horla for a long time now, because it could probably be done pretty effectively on the cheap, which makes it kind of odd that there haven’t been a lot of attempts at it. The Vincent Price one has fine work from Vincent Price but really could’ve used, say, Roger Corman instead of Reginald Le Borg behind the camera. Or, if we’re really dreaming, Georges Franju or Mario Bava.

  7. I have the same dream! I even thought of doing it as a no-budget feature. The story’s interiority is perhaps what’s mitigated against multiple adaptations, but I think I have one solution to that. Of course, a suitably fervid central performance would work wonders anyway.

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    I rather like Lewin’s THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI (47), for all its studio-bound pretentions. A great cast (Sanders, Dvorak, Lansbury). Maupassant seems to have been an inspirational figure for the “arty” Hollywood producers in the 40s (Lewton, Lewin).

  9. Been meaning to watch that one. Sanders embodies the Maupassant air of dissolution, and I’m fond of Lewin.

  10. The great unjustly neglected Jean-Daniel Pollet made a film of Le Horla back in 1966, starring Laurent Terzieff.

  11. I’m Over The Moon about Lewin. Especially Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and Saadia

  12. Terzieff is BRILLIANT casting for The Horla. Talk about fervid!

    Still to see Saadia, Bel Ami and The Moon and Sixpence. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

  13. Re: Bazin preferring Trois Femmes to Le Plaisir…

    This is pure guessing on my part, since I don’t know Bazin’s actual reasons, but perhaps he thought Trois Femmes was truer to the letter of Maupassant’s, in addition to his spirit. I should try and explain further…

    I enthusiastically agree that “the movie most alive to the spirit of Maupassant is perhaps Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR.” It’s a great movie and a masterpiece by any definition of the term. But it also–to my mind–tends to slightly soften the astringency of its source stories.

    In the original of La Maison Tellier for example, the husband is a far more brutish character, with no Jean Gabin charm, and the church scene is more emphatic. In Le Modèle the ending is a good deal bleaker and devoid of redemption. Several critics have explained these discrepancies by saying that Ophuls actually improved upon Maupassant’s “cynicism” and misogyny. It’s a justifiable argument, but my feeling is that Ophuls’ choices made things easier for the viewer, in contrast to Maupassant’s dispassionate, clinical view (I don’t think “cynicism” is not a fair charge). That doesn’t prevent Ophuls from being most alive to the spirit of Maupassant, though I should admit to having never seen Trois Femmes.

  14. Arrghh, that should have been ‘I don’t think “cynicism” is a fair charge.’ Not in those specific stories anyway.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    Strangely, I´m not a great fan of Guy de M´s short fiction but do love his novel UNE VIE. Have always been curious to see the Alexandre Astruc film with Maria Schell.

    Have also just seen a trailer for the new film of BEL AMI, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman and R-Patz from the TWILIGHT movies. It looks lush if nothing else.

  16. Well, lush is good. Or can be.

    Oh, I have a copy of the Astruc. Haven’t watched it though (has he seen ANYTHING?)

    It’s true, Ophuls brings a more wistful feeling to Maupassant’s bleaker moments. Which I don’t mind at all. Maupassant does show a sweeter side in some stories, so I don’t think Ophuls is being unfaithful to the author generally. Ophuls’ ending to The Mask improves immeasurably on the original, and I’m sure GDM would have used it if only he’d thought of it…

  17. Please do have a look at The Siren’s wonderful posts (and commentators’ cocktail party following) on Maupassant, Bel Ami, and Mademoiselle Fifi!

  18. David Boxwell Says:

    The first BEL AMI is available on Netflix “Watch Instantly” to subscribers. And Russell Metty’s ravishing camerawork is done justice in this format.

  19. Yes, I remember the Siren’s post well. Am rereading though.

    I have a VHS off-air of BEL AMI and maybe if I get myself an upgrade, I’ll finally watch it.

  20. david wingrove Says:

    The one Lewin I still have left to see is THE LIVING IDOL. All his other movies are wondrously bizarre, although only one of them (the sublime PANDORA) strikes me as wholly successful.

    Still, he´s one of those rare film-makers (along with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Jean-Gabriel Albicocco and Mitchell Leisen) who make me think…”God, those are the sort of movies I would make – if only I were a film-maker, and not a technical incompetent who deosn´t know one end of a camera from another.”

    The feeling is inspiring yet humbling, at the same time.

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