UN FILM DE ?????

Duvivier’s LA FETE A HENRIETTE has a neat premise and plays neat tricks, as its two screenwriters run through alternate possibilities for their romantic story. But the basic dynamic never satisfied me: the director sees the film as a light, charming, Rene Clair confection set on Bastille Day (Clair had in fact already made that film, as LE QUATORZE JUILLET, with Annabella in the ’30s). His writer keeps trying to turn it into a sexy melodrama full of underwear and killings. We see the alternative versions played out before us.

But it made me wonder why on earth the director keeps this writer around, since he hates all his ideas. And although we’re meant to sympathise with him, the writer’s bawdy caper with its Dutch tilts and lingerie looks a lot more fun. A more interesting dynamic might have been to give the power to the character with bad ideas, so we see a potentially sweet movie being wrecked.

George Axelrod and Richard Quine’s remake, PARIS… WHEN IT SIZZLES (most sources omit the ellipsis but it’s there in the title sequence) explodes the original concept in a number of ways. There’s only one writer, and he’s at war with himself, which is already more interesting. He has a stenographer with whom a romance blooms as the script is, falteringly, shaped. The real-life relationship merges with the characters in the film, with Audrey Hepburn and William Holden playing the leads in both “reality” and the film-within-the-film, which is called THE GIRL WHO STOLE THE EIFFEL TOWER and, unlike nearly all such meta-movies (the dire-looking MEET PAMELA in DAY FOR NIGHT being the prime example), actually looks like it might be diverting — in fact, it looks very much like HOW TO STEAL A MILLION. Fluffy, pointless, enjoyably diverting.

It even has Mel Ferrer changing from Jekyll to Hyde, as was his wont.

The mixing of reality and fantasy allows Axelrod and Quine to set up a lot of fun running gags, as the fictional avatars of our protagonist plagiarise their lines from real life, and get them stolen right back. Though it’s stuffed with pointless excess, both to parody gaudy Hollywood confections and to become one, it also has a narrative and manages to explain its impossible title quite neatly (there’s a film-within-the-film-within-the-film, you see, and it’s also called THE GIRL WHO STOLE THE EIFFEL TOWER — which, obviously, ought to have been the title of PARIS… WHEN IT SIZZLES too, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not to include the ellipsis — and the FWTFWTF gets stolen, so…).

A startling throwaway moment. This is 1964, people!

This leads us to Tony Curtis. While Marlene and Mel have uncredited cameos, Tony’s bit is actually quite substantial. When the real Audrey tells the real Bill that she has a date with an actor on Bastille Day, Holden gives his disgusted impression of the profession, summing up the Brando school of thespian as a bunch of preening slobs. He then begins his script with Audrey’s meta-character being dumped by her date, played by Curtis as an absurd, eye-lash fluttering, pouting, pose-striking, slouching Brando parody. Only also French. But with Tony Curtis’s Bronx accent.

As the plot progresses, though, Holden decides that the Curtis character is really an undercover cop. His boss, Gregoire “Coco” Aslan, keeps referring to him by his cover name rather than his real one, then scathingly tells him that really he’s just “second policeman.” So the gag becomes Tony Curtis, movie star, gamely allowing himself to play a humiliated bit actor in a nameless role. But there’s more! Maurice/Philippe (Tony) actually gets, probably, the biggest character/s arc of the movie. And reminds us of his astonishing comic skills.

Give this one a try! As a Parisian romp with Audrey, it ought to be frothy and charming, but it’s slightly too bitter, too Tashlinesque-zany, and salacious and shambling to be what, by rights, it ought to be aspiring to be. It’s too much like a Deluxe Color nervous breakdown. But, as such, it’s very interesting and often very funny.

5 Responses to “UN FILM DE ?????”

  1. revelator60 Says:

    Well, now I shall have to track down Paris When It Sizzles! But I cannot share your feelings about La fête à Henriette.

    The discord between the director and screenwriter is a comedically exaggerated version of the heated arguments that are liable to occur between creative partners, espcially when they’re of diferent temperaments (I would not be surprised to find that Henri Jeanson and Duvivier drew on their own partnership when writing the script). The director is cooler-head but has poetic instincts, while the screenwriter is more cynical and sensationalist–I thought it was clear that if he had his way he would have ruined the final film, as shown in the scene where he turns Michel Auclair into a creepy murderer instead of a charming scapegrace. The final film is both light, charming romantic comedy and a crime caper—a staisfying compromise.

    The result is a raucous portrait of the collaborative creative process (not, I think, less interesting than the romantic idea of a single scriptwriter at war with himself) and thrilling in the way the writers rifle through, discard, adapt, or keep their ideas.

    Lenny Borger makes a very interesting point about the film’s straddling of styles:

    “French post-war cinema was experiencing a crisis due to the quantity of imported American films. Duvivier’s position in it is paradoxical. The director had spent the whole war period in Hollywood, where he had made a name for himself, and now he had to face American competition in France. To the extent that he even shows us his dilemma: should he return to the poetic realism of his pre-war films or copy American action films with characters with rudimentary psychology? He answers the question himself through the style we see on the screen, the virtuoso style of a great artist: a deft parody with Hitchcockesque suspense in crooked shots of the streets of Paris, which meant to show the silliness of such effects when not grounded in a solid screenplay.”


  2. Matthew Clark Says:

    I came across this movie decades ago on television, but tuned in half way through, and though rather young at the time, I did sort of figure out what was going on. Holden is writing a screenplay, Audrey is helping him, and they are falling in love. And was slightly intrigued to see the rest of the movie. But didn’t know the name of the movie and never came across it again on television. I finally did find out what the title was, and eventually came across it on DVD. And was then disappointed to find that I really couldn’t watch it all the way through.
    But, did come across this interesting story about cinematographer Charles Lang who worked on this film. As Paris While it Sizzles was wrapping up, Stanley Donan was making the final arrangements to start his production Charade, starring Cary Grant and also to be shot in Paris. He signs on Audrey Hepburn and she goes right from Sizzles to Charade. Part of the deal she made to do Donen’s comedy/thriller was to also have Charles Lang handle the camera work. She liked how he photographed her. So, she goes right to work for Donen after wrapping on Sizzle.And Lang is brought right along with her. The turn around was so quick that Lang started working for a couple of days before he realized that he was now shooting a different picture.
    A couple of asides. Another movie of this type would be Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1966). And, if you like the idea of a two-fisted writer who writes what he lives and lives what he writes, and looks like William Holden, pick up the Hector Lassiter series of mysteries by Craig MacDonald.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Funny about Lang! Also a favourite cameraman of Natalie Wood, who would ask for him. The movie also references My Fair Lady, which I guess Audrey had just wrapped.

    I still feel that any dynamic where the character with authority is always right lacks essential dramatic tension, and so La Fete a Henriette doesn’t grab me, despite having had all those kind of creative arguments myself, from both sides…

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    So glad you brought up “Trans-Euorp Express” Mr. Clark. Not enough serious writing has been done on Robbe-Grillet’s own films. Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (which deliberately omits the climactic rape scene in R-G’s script) has overshadowed them, alas. They’re great, particularly “Glissements Progressif du Plaisir”

  5. Keep meaning to write about Robbe-Grillet…

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