Marcel L’Herbier, having shot L’ARGENT at Bernard Natan’s studio, returned to work for Pathe-Natan on three features.* ENFANT DE L’AMOUR has the reputation of being a dud, but L’AVENTURIER is rather good and LE BONHEUR might just be a masterpiece. A strange one, to be sure, but still…
In L’AVENTURIER, Victor Francen is the black sheep of a bourgeois family who returns from a wild life abroad as drug dealer, arms trader and slave trafficker, to shepherd the family business through a problematic bit of industrial relations. The middle-class emerge as weak and corrupt, whereas Francen’s character is portrayed as strong, masculine, effective — and an amoral fascist. But he’s true to his own ideas and we’re meant to find him fascinating and alluring. Politically, it’s quite worrying, but L’Herbier’s filmmaking is assured and elegant.
LE BONHEUR is more twisted still, but fascinatingly so. Charles Boyer plays some kind of ill-defined nihilist, an “anti-social,” who shoots a beloved singing star (Gaby Morlay) as a purely gestural act of defiance to society. When Morlay survives, she becomes enamoured of her would-be assassin and waits for him upon his release from prison. Their subsequent love affair understandably shocks everybody, but the film is on their side.
“Charles Boyer didn’t get to play anarchistic assassins when he was in Hollywood,” remarked David Wingrove, my benshi translator for the occasion.
The film also sports, like L’AVENTURIER, a walk-on for a young Jean Marais, a very sweet performance by Paulette Dubost, and uniquely, a camp turn by Michel Simon as Morlay’s swishy agent. It’s a rather affectionate caricature, it seems to me, Pangbornian in the best sense, and quite a surprising thing for the burly Simon to attempt, let alone pull off. It’s also interesting since Marcel L’Herbier was France’s most openly gay director. More people knew about him than about Cocteau, it seems. Whether his wife was in on the secret, I don’t know.
LE BONHEUR might be my favourite L’Herbier yet, which is interesting since conventional wisdom regards him as a spent force by the dawn of talkies. It’s a meditation on the power of cinema, brought home when the lovers part but he tells her that he’ll see her on the screen. It’s also a fascinating melodrama because, despite much discussion and self-analysis by the characters, essentially all the major events take place for no explicable reason —
Boyer’s shooting of Morlay —
His subsequent love for her —
Her love for him —
His leaving her —
All happen as if plot requirements were puppeteering the characters. And yet the characters never cease to feel real, rational to a degree, and human. It’s quite a strange take on the melodramatic form, and I can’t wait to see if it’s carried on in L’Herbier’s subsequent films.
Paulette Dubost, who cheated us out of an interview by dying a year too soon. She’s wonderful in this, as a wide-eyed working girl. Testifying at Boyer’s trial, she hangs her handbag on the witness stand. Touching and funny.
*L’Herbier wrote to Natan after shooting L’AVENTURIER, fulsomely praising working conditions at the studio. Then he was injured on set making LE BONHEUR, and sued the company for negligence (he seems to have been a pioneer in industrial accident litigation, in fact). By the time of Natan’s arrest for fraud, L’Herbier was writing to the press demanding that foreign filmmakers in France, “these people with names ending in ‘isky’,” should be prevented by law from changing their names to sound French. All very unfortunate.