Befuddled

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Hey look it’s Pierre Blanchar! (See comments for correction.) With Louis Jouvet in Salonican drag. What gives?

I have a Pabst-related gig, so I’m watching Pabst films. No hardship there.

But when I come to MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR, a 1937 French spy thriller (Pabst was working in France before the war, which adds to the mystery of why did he go back to Germany when war started? He’s like Rudolph Hess in reverse. Or something) I hit a subtitles snag. The subs have been created by a fan. This is one of the great phenomena of modern cinephilia — fan subs have opened up vast uncharted areas for study and enjoyment by the monolingual — but of course sometimes the results are imperfect. I can remember Ozu’s sublime I WAS BORN… BUT sliding out of focus, mentally, as I gradually realized the subtitles had been auto-translated and didn’t make a lick of sense. It’s surprising how long it can take to notice. You patiently wait for a film’s narrative to resolve, but it never quite does because all the words are wrong.

The problem with the Pabst is different. The subs are simply unfinished, with whole scenes untranslated. Since it’s a twisty spy flick with moral gray areas and dubious characters adopting shady masks, it could prove challenging to my Earthling brain anyway, but the abrupt subtitle dropouts make it even more abstract, like watching Tinker Tailor as a child. (The problem Truffaut diagnosed, that whenever a character in a film refers to someone not present by name, we become confused, because unlike novel-readers we can’t flip back a few pages and remind ourselves who the hell Emma Flume or Argentine Filibuster or Rudolph Sasquatch *is*, largely disappeared for me when I read hisĀ statement of the problem, and I started paying attention to the dialogue. The bad one is still Carpenter’s THE THING, where somebody self-immolates offscreen and I can never work out who is meant to be smouldering in the ashes. I scan the beards, trying to work out which one is no longer present, which is no kind of fun.)

I was trying to think, what is this sensation reminding me of, as the film slipped in and out of comprehension like those little animated plasticine worms in ERASERHEAD, weaving above and beneath the riddled surface of my capability. I think it’s a childhood feeling, when you’re listening to adults and they suddenly shift the subject to politics or taxation or something you don’t understand and they might as well be making brass instrument noises like the adults in Charlie Brown.

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5 Responses to “Befuddled”

  1. Isn’t that Jean-Louis Barrault rather than Pierre Blanchar (a new name to me) in the pic with Jouvet?

  2. Nope. Barrault was just emerging from bit parts in 1937, but his rival for the title of “most razor-sharp cheekbones in France” was well-established as a result of such films as Wooden Crosses and films by Pabst, Duvivier, Chenal, Czinner. You should get acquainted, he’s really great.

  3. The man on the picture with Jouvet is definitely Jean-Louis Barrault. I saw Mademoiselle Docteur recently. Blanchar plays a different part.

  4. Crikey — I’m more confused than I thought. It was probably all explained in that scene with the man standing in front of the map saying things.

    Thanks for the correction!

  5. I’m watching more — Barrault participates in the most riveting melon purchase ever put on celluloid, as Jouvet chews his toothpick. Barrault turns out to be not a spy, but a random lunatic melon-lover. I can’t want to see what happens next.

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