Archive for Danielle Darrieux


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hops from country to country, sometimes making the same film in multiple languages. I’m grateful to Shadowplayer Everett Jones for directing me to SLEEPING CAR at the Internet Archive, not least for its historical import, its service to my Litvak completism, and the novelty of seeing Litvak make a British film, for Michael Balcon no less — but also because it’s really pretty damn fine. The best Ivor Novello film I’ve seen that’s not THE LODGER.

When I saw THE GHOST GOES WEST I felt that Rene Clair’s sense of lively movement had been somewhat flattened by his collision with the British way of doing things. No such conditions prevail here — from the first shots, Litvak is sweeping about with his camera in the bold, propulsive and grandiose style we see in his Hollywood features. I particularly liked the way the camera pushes onto the railway platform, tracking along the approaching locomotive in a reverse direction, stopping just as it does, with its title plaque reading Orient Express perfectly framed.

There’s great funny kid and funny dog action, and there’s Madeleine Carroll, though I don’t like her hair in this.

The story is a little disjointed — a plot point about La Carroll having to marry to stay in France comes in at the halfway point, when it seems to me a necessary Act One curtain kind of thing, at the very latest.

But it’s fun, and bee-yoo-tifully made — even the view from Novello’s mistress’s window seems more convincing, dimensional and interesting than is typical in films of the time, from any nation (designer is Alfred Junge, of Powell-Pressburger fame).

COEUR DE LILAS is a major one but I haven’t revisited it lately. It’s major early Gabin (he dominates) and has beautiful location filming. For reasons of celluloid fetishism it showed in Lyons as a dupey, underexposed mess, but can be seen in a gorgeous digital restoration. Phoebe Green delivered a great piece on in for Shadowplay’s Late Show Blogathon a few years back.

I saw L’EQUIPAGE even further back, when researching NATAN, the feature doc I made with Paul Duane. This was the last Pathe-Natan production, 100% French, and a remake of a Maurice Tourneur silent which is now at least partly lost. I suspect they recycled flying sequences from the original film. Why not? Easy to do, and the different frame rate is unlikely to show. You might avoid killing some aviators.

I remember the film was good, and concentrates on a conflict between two French fliers in WWI, competing over Annabella (do you want to tell them, or shall I?) with the war as a dramatic backgrop. But I don’t remember much more, particularly about it’s visual style. I should rewatch it, but I thought it better to catch up on something I’ve never seen, so Fiona and I ran MAYERLING. David Wingrove had described it as an aboslute masterpiece, and Fiona is now speaking of Litvak as a favourite director, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

It’s very, very good — Litvak remade it, at huge expense, for TV in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, which seems to have been a mistake. Then Terrence Young did it in 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve and bits of it, I’m told, are shot-for-shot identical except in colour and widescreen and a leading man in whiteface.

Fiona went in not actually knowing the historical storyline — which is disputed, but Litvak goes, understandably, with the most famous and romantic version. Not that the film wholly romanticises suicide — I think a case can be built that the film not only finds it tragic in a Romeo & Juliet way, but rather blames Charles Boyer’s melancholy Archduke for getting Danielle Darrieux’s innocent baroness into the idea.

It’s very Ophulsian indeed — Vienna, a tragic romance ending in death, dueling officers, sumptuous sets — Ophuls, graduating from being Litvak’s AD, had already used all these elements in LIEBELEI, but there’s reason to suspect he may have looked at this one and felt a little envy — he later made DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, a quasi-sequel about that other unfortunate Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, which may be Ophuls’ least interesting or successful film. Certainly the dive into WWII propaganda at the end doesn’t help it, though one appreciates the desire to do one’s bit (Ophuls anti-Nazi radio broadcasts marked him for execution and he had to flee to Switzerland, smuggled out by Louis Jouvet, when France fell).

It’s useless to speculate on why Ophuls is revered by critics who despise Litvak — and it’s always tempting to invent preposterous reasons to denigrate such opinions. (I’ll grant that Ophuls best films are better than Litvak’s — but I would deny that Ophuls’ genius makes Litvak look like trash.) My best example of such a reason would be that Ophuls made “womens’ pictures” — usually despised, but in rare cases such as Ophuls and Sirk, embraced by the Cahiers critics. But Litvak, like Wyler, made guy films too, and that seems to be harder to swallow. The idea of a filmmaker making all kinds of pictures, unless there’s some kind of very clear superimposed personality as with Hawks, seems to be troubling to some. But as I say, I’m kind of imputing reasons where reasons are not exactly clear: I’ve never seen a Litvak takedown that seemed to me to relate to the qualities of the films he actually made.

Oh yes, MAYERLING. Well, Litvak enjoys hell out of his huge budget, as he always did. The lovers-to-be meet for the second time at the ballet and Litvak keeps pushing in one them, evoking their magnetic attraction with his camera. It’s epic.

Arguably Litvak enjoys the scenes of debauchery a bit too much, they become frantic musical numbers. Even with a glimpse of bosom as the Archduke runs amok on rum and rips a floozy’s dress open. But everything in this film is an aesthetic feast, feeding Litvak’s voracious eye. It’s why it can’t help but glamorize the lovers’ pact a bit. But the grim little scene after Boyer shoots Darrieux in her sleep — because she’s said she doesn’t want to know when it’s going to happen — where he explains away the gunshot to his faithful servant, before going back into the bedroom to kill himself, isn’t a necessary scene if you’re intent on making an exotic spectacle of suicide-murder. It complicates our feelings and adds greater disquiet to the drama.

The build-up to the fatal night — well, that’s what the whole film is. And it’s sort of accurate to the psychology of suicide. Someone is under competing pressures that can’t be reconciled and which keep intensifying. Eventually a Gordian-knot style solution suddenly offers complete relief. Those around the tortured individual, by trying to push in one direction or another for the individual’s perceived own good, are just adding to the strain pushing them towards the exit. Kids commit suicide over exams because the pressure is unrelenting and its made to seem the most important thing in the world by well-meaning people.

It’s really hard to make a good story about suicide — you can’t, I think, use suicide as a solution to a plot. But that’s not what this is. Everything is driving the protagonists to this ending, including all the glamour and majesty of an empire in decline.

Uncomfortable side-note: Boyer, who is fantastic here and who would reconnect and collaborate with Litvak again in Hollywood (including on another masterpiece, TOVARICH), committed suicide himself at age 78, two days after his wife’s death from cancer. I don’t admire suicide, I think it’s always damaging to those left behind, but it’s hard to hold it against him under the circumstances.

Music is by Arthur Honegger (LES MISERABLES) and it’s hauntingly beautiful, as is the film.

Forbidden Divas: 24

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2018 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove hits us with another of those Forbidden Divas. You know the ones I mean! This movie was previously covered by Scout Tafoya in our ’68 Comeback Special, here.



“It is not enough to be innocent.” – Danielle Darrieux, 24 Hours in a Woman’s Life

 Let me start with a terrible confession. Danielle Darrieux is one of those stars I admire but have seldom actually liked. Even in her greatest roles such as the frivolous socialite transformed by love in Madame de (1953) she exudes a chilliness that makes her hard not engage with. I admire her coolly, remotely, from a distance – like an exquisite artificial orchid that has been sculpted in ice and preserved at a sub-zero temperature in a display case of finest cut glass. She seems less an actress than an icon put there to be venerated, a luxurious but rather hollow objet de culte.

None of her remoteness was apparent in her off-screen life – which was considerably livelier and more dramatic than most of her films. A leading lady from the age of fifteen, Darrieux was married in her youth to the film director Henri Decoin and the notorious gigolo stud Porfirio Rubirosa. (Yes, the name Italian waiters give to their supersize pepper mill.) After a brief flirtation with Hollywood, she returned to Paris just in time for the Second World War and the Nazi Occupation. Her enthusiastic but unreliable collaboration won her a notoriety that persisted until her death. She was forced to go into hiding at the end of the war, having been marked for death by both the Gestapo and the Resistance. Darrieux weathered the scandal by scorning even to discuss it. She kept working into her nineties and died in 2017 at the age of 100. Yet she never lost her air of icy hauteur. When a concert she gave in Paris sold out in record time, she remarked: “Nobody really wants to hear me sing. They just want to see if I drop dead in the middle of it.”

As a woman whose life story reads like a potted biography of 20th century Europe, Danielle Darrieux was a natural choice to star in Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life(1968). The film is based on a story by the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who prided himself throughout his life on being a European whose identity transcended national boundaries. Forced into exile by the Nazis, Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. Allegedly, they were unable to live with the loss of their ideal, which had always been that of a united, cultured and cosmopolitan Europe. One weeps to imagine what Zweig would make of Brexit – or of the populist thugs now governing Italy, Hungary, Poland and other European countries. His life and work bear witness to the futility and downright idiocy of borders and nation states. Are we heading for an era in which any educated person may soon start to feel like Stefan Zweig?

These are some of the issues that Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life, with its running time of less than 80 minutes, seeks to address. Its story takes place at the height of the First World War. Darrieux plays a French aristocrat, married to an English lord and on holiday in neutral Switzerland. Her husband is busy with his war duties so she is travelling with a group of with a group of upper-class Parisian ladies. Among them, oddly enough, is a teenage Romina Power, the pretty but utterly insipid daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian. This girl would go on to appear in Jess Franco’s soft-core sleaze-fest Justine (1969) and achieve lasting notoriety as a pop star in Italy. Music plays an important part in Twenty-Four Hours as well, but rest assured it is of a far more elevated sort. As the film opens, the ladies are attending an outdoor concert by a lake, where a Hungarian pianist is playing music by the German composer Johannes Brahms. A few hardcore patriots are aghast at being forced to listen to “Hun music.” But for Darrieux, as for any cultivated Zweig protagonist, matters of art and culture take serene and automatic precedence over politics or national identity. It is symbolic, perhaps prophetic, that the concert is interrupted by a loud and torrential rainstorm.

Her friends catch the boat back to their hotel on the far side of the lake. But Darrieux, on a whim, decides to stay and hear the concert out, rain or no rain. Coming back alone late that night, she inadvertently gets on the wrong boat. It carries her – to her shock and surprise – across the border into Italy. At first she is mystified when a man in uniform asks for her passport. How, after all, can there be a border in the middle of a lake? When it transpires that she has no passport with her, the only option is to drop her on the Italian side and tell her to catch the first boat in the morning. Darrieux faces a night alone in a strange country, an undocumented and entirely illegal alien. She is, paradoxically, free for the first time in her life. The strait-jacket of identity has ceased, for a few hours anyway, to exist. She finds herself in the dubious position of doing (and being) whatever (and whoever) she wants.

She finds her way, through the rain, to an opulent casino. Its sumptuous Art Nouveau staircase is dominated by a giant stained-glass image of a peacock. Ladies parade up and down the stairs, resplendent in lilac wigs and glittering sequined gowns, fluttering their giant fans of ostrich plumes. Two stuffed peacocks spread their tail feathers on either side of the stairs. The writer-director Dominique Delouche (once an assistant to Fellini) served as his own designer for the costumes and sets. He creates an aura of boundless luxury on what was obviously a very small budget. Wandering into the main gambling hall, Darrieux spots a young blonde man (Robert Hoffmann) seated at a table playing roulette. His fingers drum nervously on the green baize, as he gambles away what is clearly that last money he has in the world. The wheel spins and he loses. Slowly, he gets up from the table and walks out alone into a thunderstorm. Darrieux – not even quite knowing why – follows him.

Although the man is easily young enough to be her son, the two become lovers for the night. The next day she learns he is a German. He has deserted from the army, as he can no longer stand the senseless act of killing for the sake of borders and nations. They go out rowing in a small boat on the lake. He points out a villa that reminds him of his family home. “It has an Italian terrace and a French garden,” he says. “But the house is in a Viennese style, the essence of Mozart and Schubert. That is my country!” Like the educated young Europeans of his day, he has grown up with no concern for national identities or boundaries. Suddenly, such things have become literally matters of life and death. The cosmopolitan Europe that was his home has become a hostile and alien world, one in which he no longer feels able to live. He carries a revolver with him in the pocket of his coat. He feels prepared, at any moment, to use it.

Hoffmann bears a passing resemblance to the young Helmut Berger, but is also a considerably worse actor. The plentiful nude shots – including just a few too many in a vaguely Crucifixion-like pose – suggest that Delouche did not really hire him for his acting. Delouche would make only two other features: L’Homme de Désir (1971) about a husband and wife who fall for the same young man and Divine (1975) about a young man’s obsession with a flamboyant theatrical diva, played once again by Darrieux. Having seen only the first of these movies, I cannot say which one is gayer. Twenty-Four Hours, which should have won Delouche an international reputation, was deprived of its world premiere when the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was called off due to the wave of strikes and student demonstrations across France. Delouche himself joined in the protests that prevented his own film from being shown. These days, in interview, he wonders why. Surely his costumes alone were worthy of a Palme d’Or?

Yet the revelation of 24 Hours must be Danielle Darrieux herself. As an older woman in love with a drifter half her age – and with all Europe going up in flames around her – she dares not just to make us cry, but to make us laugh. Her situation is poignant because it is ridiculous and she, a sophisticated and intelligent woman, knows precisely how ridiculous it is. She is passionate but not deluded, world-weary but never cynical. She makes us aware that irony and emotion do not merely coexist; they may, in fact, be two sides of a single overpowering and life-transforming experience. Darrieux gives a performance to rank with the very greatest. I may have to become a fan after all.

David Melville

The Birds in Peru

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2016 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove is BACK — with another Forbidden Diva column…



Something for the Birds

“If you are face to face with the impossible, all you can do is give in.”

~ Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Birds Come to Die in Peru

A naked woman lies on a beach, her arms spread wide in a crucifixion pose. Her face is hidden by a white mask, smooth and empty of features. The mask does not belong to the woman; it covers the back of a man’s head. The man is making energetic, even violent love to the woman. He pumps away at her but she does not respond. Her hands, in close-up, clench until her fingernails dig savagely into her flesh and draw blood. Stigmata. She wipes her palms on the mask, until its pale cheeks are stained with blood tears. On the sand, around the copulating couple, lie a score or more of dead seabirds. A trio of other men lie among the birds. They are dead too, or maybe just exhausted, dressed in ragged carnival clothes. One wears an 18th century frock coat and powdered wig. Another wears a plastic suit of armour with a matching mask. The third, who wears a gaudy matador outfit, sits some distance apart and strums on a guitar. Suddenly, the man who is on top of the woman climaxes and rolls over, half dead. The woman stares up at the camera, her eyes blank and exquisite, unfulfilled…

Five minutes into Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968), you may be fleeing up the cinema aisle and spilling your popcorn as you run. If not, you may be sitting there transfixed and feeling you are in the presence of something great. Perhaps the most wilfully bizarre erotic fantasy ever recorded on film, it is the brainchild of the French novelist and occasional film director Romain Gary. (The illegitimate son of the silent Russian star Ivan Mosjoukine, this man absorbed his devil-may-care flamboyance straight from his father’s sperm.) Gary conceived the film as a perverse valentine to his then-wife, the transatlantic American star Jean Seberg. Discovered as a teenage nymphet by Otto Preminger – in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) – the glacially lovely Seberg had an oddly schizophrenic career. At once an icon of the French Nouvelle Vague – Breathless (1959) for Jean-Luc Godard – and a bimbo in the squarest of Old Hollywood schlock – Airport (1970) for Ross Hunter. Yet her most indelible screen legacy, here and in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974) by Philippe Garrel, finds her in the service of outright and unapologetic weirdness.


Her role in Birds Come to Die in Peru is that of Adriana, a frigid nymphomaniac of ineffable glamour and seemingly boundless wealth. All she does, it seems, is travel the world in search of the one man who can bring her sexual satisfaction. Doomed as that quest may be, there is no denying that she goes about it in grand style. Her husband, a sinister Middle Eastern tycoon played by Pierre Brasseur, combs the beach in search of her in his silver-grey Rolls-Royce. Their hunky chauffeur (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) wears a tailored black uniform and looks like a sexy Angel of Death in a Jean Cocteau movie. He sports a pair of black leather gloves that poke up, suggestively, from one shoulder of his jacket. His job is not so much to find Adriana as to keep her husband company on his search. “Wherever she goes,” he quips, “she does wonders for tourism.” A dark and doe-eyed youth in a white suit (Michel Buades) stalks Adriana and watches her from behind rocks. Is this lad her Guardian Angel? Or is he just a horny local beach boy who has not yet got lucky?

Once the five-way orgy is complete, Adriana – still unsatisfied – sees the sun is rising over the pounding surf. The beach around her is positively littered with dead birds. She takes refuge in an old clapboard whorehouse, which is run by none other than the classic French movie icon Danielle Darrieux. The lesbian Madame Fernande takes a none-too-discreet shine to Adriana; they share an unseen interlude behind a closed wooden shutter. As magnificent as Darrieux undoubtedly is in classics such as Madame De… (1953), I tend to find her chilly and remote. Here she is overtly raunchy and vulgar – and wears a rainbow-hued sequinned gown of consummate and eye-popping hideousness. Asked if she is truly French, she snaps back: “My heart yes, but the rest is international.” That is a touching tribute to her rival diva and fellow wartime collaborator Arletty. At the risk of disqualifying myself forever as a film critic, I confess that I have never found Darrieux as oddly likeable as I do here.


Fearful that her husband and his chauffeur are closing in, Adriana flees the brothel and wanders a bit further down the beach. She stops and pays homage to a giant vulture that crouches atop a boulder – unsure, maybe, as to which of the multiplicity of dead or dying seagulls to snack on next. Feeling that her life is just too desperately empty, she wades out into the surf and tries to end it all. Has she perhaps been watching Joan Crawford in Humoresque (1946)? Like all of Adriana’s efforts, this too is doomed to failure. A dashing ex-revolutionary and failed poet (Maurice Ronet) just happens to glimpse her drowning herself through the giant picture window of his beach house. He runs after her and sweeps her up in his arms; carries her back to the safety of his bedroom. No sooner has Adriana come to than she and Ronet realise, in the same instant, that they are made for each other. Neither one of them has ever met another human being who was quite so poetically disillusioned, or quite so glamorously doomed.

These two outcasts spend the morning making love. At one point, we suspect that Adriana might almost be about to have an orgasm. But Jean Seberg, in her exquisite porcelain pallor, is an actress who makes Catherine Deneuve look like Anna Magnani. We suspect that undergoing (or at least miming) the throes of highest sexual ecstasy might cause her to break into tiny glass splinters. A more expressive actress might well come a cropper in Birds Come to Die in Peru. In a film so outré and flamboyant, any bravura emoting would surely be redundant. The face of Jean Seberg, as callow and coldly perfect as that mask in the opening scene, is a cipher of hidden neurosis and frustrated lust. Her performance blends the cool lasciviousness of Deneuve in Belle de Jour (1967) with the icy anguish of Liv Ullmann in a Bergman psychodrama. We know better than to hope that she and Ronet will settle down to any sort of happily-ever-after finale. Yet the ending is a warped twist that – even having sat through 90-odd minutes of insanity – we are unlikely to see coming.


Needless to say, Birds Come to Die in Peru was a career-killing catastrophe for everyone involved. Savaged by critics and shunned by the public, it was released in America under a shorter title – Birds in Peru – that made it sound like a nature documentary. Unavailable today in any commercial format, it survives in blurred TV copies that utterly ruin its spectacular Franscope photography by Christian Matras. Seberg and Gary would make only one more film together – a 1972 political thriller called Kill! – before her real-life political sympathies (allegedly) wrecked their marriage. A fervent supporter of the radical Black Panthers, she died in mysterious circumstances in 1979. The official cause was suicide but rumours of FBI involvement persist to this day. Birds Come to Die in Peru still features regularly on lists of the worst movies ever made. Yet I defy anyone who has ever seen it to forget they have – or to say they have seen anything quite like it. A mediocre work of art will almost invariably resemble other artworks. Only the Greatest (and the Worst) art is entirely unique.

David Melville