A Bad Egg

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.

25 Responses to “A Bad Egg”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    I wonder if Danièle Delorme was electrifying in everything? She certainly stood out in IMPASSE DES DEUX ANGES and she made a perfect Gigi in the otherwise slightly washed-out Jacqueline Audry version — you really got the feeling, through all the Belle Epoquery, that this was the story of a 15-year-old being trafficked.

  2. I agree with your suggestion that viewing La Belle equipe as a direct allegory for the Popular Front is almost certainly a retrospective reading, not intended by Duvivier and Spaak, but by the same token there is a reasonable degree of evidence that even contemporary audiences perceived that the film was commenting on issues of importance to them — Gabin’s song commenting on work/time-off directly reflected the contemporary reforms of working hours, for instance. So I guess I’d say that irrespective of authorial intention even in 1936 some people saw the film as part of a broader contemplation of themes given political expression in the Popular Front government, even if, as one academic notes, Gabin and pals aspire as much to petit bourgeois success as to workers’ paradise.

  3. There’s no avoiding social commentary and politics — a determination to do so practically guarantees that it will slip in without the authors’ knowing, and be all the more revealing.

    The poetic realist school of thought tends to the view that all sober planning leads to disaster, all expectations to bitter disappointment, and in retrospect it reads like a road map to the occupation.

    I didn’t actually look up Delorme and am amazed to realize she was that intense girl in Impasse des Deux Anges. A true forgotten great! Her gaze burns holes in the screen.

  4. Agreed. Attempting to read Duvivier’s films in political terms can make the head spin at times, which certainly lends credence to his claim that little was intended, whatever the outcome. In some ways I think that La Fin du jour is even more of a Popular Front film than La Belle equipe, except tempered by the bitter knowledge that it had all gone to pot. Which I suppose only confirms that the poetic realists were right…

    I just saw Delorme in Miquette, where she’s rather less intense but enjoyable in a perky kind of way. I’d like to see her in Le Chanois’s lengthy version of Les Misérables.

  5. La Faustin Says:

    Germaine Sellier and Noël Burch cite LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS as a late example of the misogyny of post-war French cinema — an attempt to claw back to the status quo after defeat, collaboration, and women’s increased responsibilities during the war. Sort of like the out-of-the-factories-back-to-the-kitchen movement in the US after the war, but more so.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    Just one more note before I shut up! The footage of Les Halles was not nostalgic at time LE TEMPS was shot — the markets were in operation until the early 1970s and can also be seen in Wilder’s IRMA LA DOUCE. Jeunet’s UN LONG DIMANCHE DE FIANCAILLES used CGI to recreate them (as well as turning the Musée d’Orsay back into a railroad station and other amusing tricks).

  7. There’s a glimpse of the markets at Les Halles in Stanley Donen’s Charade, too; I love the shot you use of that location.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    Marco Ferreri’s marvellous DON’T TOUCH THE WHITE WOMAN was filmed in the hollowed-out crater of the Les Halles market – just before building began on the ghastly glass-and-concrete mall that took its place.

    As that film is Ferreri’s parody of the Western, Les Halles becomes the Parisian equivalent of Monument Valley. Not a bad way to go, if go you must!

  9. Claire Denis made S’En Fout La Mort in and around Rungis, the replacement for Les Halles; it’s a rather harder place to romanticise, although the market itself is extraordinary.

  10. Oh I long to see this. The other two great films set in Les Halles are Rivette’s Out 1 and Ferreri’s Don’t Touch the White Women

  11. I guess this might make a decent double bill with Frenzy, which preserves the old Covent Garden market for posterity.

    Duvivier’s fascination with bad women wasn’t only a post-war phenomenon. Viviane Romance in La Belle Equipe takes malevolence to a degree that transcends any character motivation. In Panique she at least makes dramatic sense, and much of the suspense comes from wondering how evil she’s prepared to get. Female schemers also feature in Diabolically Yours, The Burning Court, and several others.

    Gabin’s formidable mother in this movie is a more affectionate but no less intimidating version of the mom from Poil de Carotte.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Would love to see LA BELLE EQUIPE. I’ve already viewed VOICI LES TEMPS in terms of late Gabin viewing so liked your comments here. Some poetic realist films are hard to find, especially Pierre Chenal’s LA RUE SANS NOM (1933) that appeared to start the trend.

  13. I may have made some contacts who could source that film… will certainly try when the time is right. Chenal was mentioned in Paris, and I’ve been meaning to sample his work anyway.

    La Belle Equipe is about to emerge from a copyright dispute, I think… there’s the real prospect of more Duvivier releases in English subtitled versions as soon as the legal difficulties are settled.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    Good news about LA BELLE EQUIPE then. I’ve just finished reading the 1985 interview book with Chenal and have now seen six of his films.. Dudley Andrew’s MISTS OF REGRET mentions LA RUE SANS NOM positively and Alan Williams includes it in his footnoted list of key poetic realist films in REPUBLIC OF IMAGES.

  15. Two items for further investigation —
    1) Chenal
    2) Delorme
    Duvivier is an ongoing obsession…

  16. david wingrove Says:

    David E – thanks for the clip from Jacques Demy’s truly fabulous LA NAISSANCE DU JOUR. The one thing I didn’t quite get was why two women like Daniele and Dominique were rivals for a puffy and sadly over-the-hill Jean Sorel. How much more satisfactory if they’d found a few interests in common…a la BITTER MOON.

  17. A Roman Polanski rendition of Colette? Sounds tempting. How’s about a remake of Gigi starring his daughter Morganne?

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    Chenal is definitely worth following up. Since LA RUE SANS NOM is unavailable, the next best film is his CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1935) that contains much of the poetic realist style he pioneered in the earlier film. He also directed NATIVE SON with Richard Wright playing the title role, David Goodis’s OF MISSING PERSONS in South America, and L’ASSASSIN CONNAIT LA MUSIQUE with Paul Meurisse and Christa Lang in one of her earlier roles. If you can read French (and my knowledge is rudimentary) you will find that 1985 interview book fascinating.

  19. I think Roman better stay away from Gigi…

    The Chenal I have on hand is Crime et Chatiment — with subtitles, yet! A viewing looms.

  20. I have Chenal’s L’Alibi, with Jouvet and Von Stroheim; must dig that out soon. His name came up in some research I was doing because his 1948 film The Scandals of Clochemerle managed to get itself banned not one but twice by the Kenyan censor in the 1950s. I’m not sure if it was So Very Wicked or if the first ban somehow didn’t stick.

  21. Tony Williams Says:

    LA FOIX DES CHIMERES (sic?) is another von Stroheim/Chenal collaboration worth seeing. CLOCHEMERLE also ran into censorship problems in France as Chenal points out in the 1985 monograph.

  22. La Foire des Chimeres, yes, that looks fab. Lots of them do. But I can get L’Alibi with subtitles!

  23. Tony Williams Says:

    You can. Try filmnoirfilms@hotmail.conm

  24. That’s alright, I have a source!

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