Hey look, it’s Pierre Blanchar! For realz.
Despite being directed by a German, Pabst’s MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR is extremely French — for much of its running time it’s essentially a romance in which a variety of secret agents and double agents fail to do their patriotic duty because they’re all in love with members of the enemy sides.
When I started watching, I was quickly confused, owing to the less-is-more approach to subtitling. The fan who subbed it seems to have left out bits he found boring, and other bits he found too difficult, and with my concussed-schoolboy French I had no way of knowing which was which. And the plot seemed to be leaping arpund all over the place. Pierre Blanchar is introduced in prison, being recruited to betray his own side (the Germans, I think — it seems to be WWI) but then disappears for so long that when Jean-Louis Barrault turned up, with his similarly razorsharp cheekbones but looking otherwise not much like Blanchar, I thought it was him. Barrault buys a slice of melon from Louis Jouvet in an unusually intense manner and then disappears from the story completely.
Everybody is in love with the wrong person — as in The Sea Gull or LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. Viviane Romance loves Pierre Blanchar and betrays fellow agent Dita Parlo (the masterspy of the title) because she suspects he’s smitten with her. Blanchar is supposed to betray Parlo to the French but doesn’t because he IS smitten with her. Parlo is supposed to steal the secret plans from Pierre Fresnay but doesn’t because she’s smitten with him. Fresnay is completely in the dark about Parlo being an enemy agent so at least his being smitten with her isn’t treason, but it is undeniably a security risk. Jouvet alone remains uncompromised.
So with Topic A on everybody’s minds, I could relax about whether the Bulgarians were negotiating a separate peace — an impossible thing for anyone to get worked-up about, I’d have thought — and just enjoy the romantic angst amid seamy and exotic settings, as each of the cast attempts to out-louche the rest. Blanchar, sporting a fez, has an unfair advantage.
(Eric Ambler on loucheness and the art of spying.)
The rules of poetic realism demand that love end in tragedy, and by making everyone political enemies, most of them on the losing side in a global apocalypse, Pabst and his army of writers have stacked the deck admirably. We can’t predict just how it’ll turn out, but it is utterly impossible for it to end well for anyone. Still, the last scene’s entirely unromantic bleakness took me by surprise. You can either end up shot by firing squad, insane and mumbling, or lying dead in a heap of melons. C’est l’amour.
The gang of writers, asides from the alluringly-named Irma Von Cube, include Herman Mankiewicz, and I’d love to hear the story behind THAT. Pabst had just returned from an unsuccessful stab at Hollywood*, so I supposed he made the future KANE scribe’s acquaintance while there. The thing hangs together pretty well despite the multitude of chefs, though somebody should have noticed that if Parlo needs Fresnay’s help in Act I because she can’t drive, it stretches credulity to have her nearly beat him an exciting car chase in Act III…
*Unsuccessful? A MODERN HERO features Marjorie Rambeau as an alcoholic one-armed ex-leopard trainer**. That one fact puts it ahead of Lewis Gilbert’s entire filmography.
**An ex-trainer of leopards. Not a trainer of ex-leopards. Because that would be stupid.