Regular Shadowplayer and NATAN collaborator Phoebe “La Faustin” Green enters the fray now with the final film of a screen siren little known and indeed quite new to me. I am thrilled to make her acquaintance ~
“Oh la la, qu’elle a du chien,” one of my screening companions growled appreciatively as Marcelle Romée made her first appearance in COEUR DE LILAS (Anatole Litvak, 1932).
Indeed, Marcelle Romée demonstrates that untranslatable quality, the French version of “it” – a careless magnetism, a deep, racy energy under a coolly imperturbable surface. Her face tapers from a high, pearly forehead and wide-set dark eyes to a nose of arrowy delicacy, with perpetually flared nostrils, and a tense, fine-cut cupid’s bow mouth. Less than a year after shooting that scene — appearing in her kimono on the landing of a dive hotel to demand that her sheets be changed, then pivoting back with a sullen, “This dump …” — she would be dead.
In the 1920s and 1930s, even before the rise of the Reich sent German and German-based filmmakers fleeing westward, Paris was both location and subject for foreign directors: Kirsanoff, Litvak, Ophuls, Ozep, Pabst, Siodmak, Wilder… They revelled, with what might be thought of as the sensitivity of a fresh eye or the prurience of a slumming tourist, in gleaming cobblestones, misty quais, slinking apaches, fatalistic streetwalkers, hoarse-voiced urchins tearing through the littered no-man’s land of the fortifs…
Their presence was condemned, in a 1938 letter to the French Ministry of Internal Affairs by the board of the National Technical Federation of Cinematographic Production, as “causing grave wrong to their French colleagues … They are competing, here and abroad, with our own directors, in their own language. And yet they infuse their films … with a spirit and a character that are not ours. They risk losing for French film on the world market its advantages of elegance, lightness, cleverness, and charm …”
These attractions – the “Frenchness” that was conjured up by Lubitsch or Mamoulian on a Hollywood soundstage – are not to be found in COEUR DE LILAS. And yet it is very, very French:
- The romance of squalor, pugnacious flair, wistful hope – articles de Paris since … Bruant? Rétif de la Bretonne? Villon?
- Location shots that thrill us with the 1932 everydaynesss of La Chapelle’s hilly wasteland by the tracks and Les Halles’ bustling abundance – contrasted with a burst of freshness on the Marne
- Pathé-Natan studio shots that give us the quintessential tarts’ hotel, escaliers de la butte, and honking bal musette of our sordid dreams
- A scenario based on a play by Tristan Bernard (a luminary in his own right and father of Pathé-Natan’s key director Raymond Bernard)
- Three beautifully staged songs by Maurice Yvain (composer of “Mon Homme”) that variously illustrate, motivate, and counterpoint their scenes
- Marcelle Romée, Jean Gabin, Fréhel, Fernandel …
COEUR DE LILAS opens on the scrubby hills on the northeastern outskirts of Paris, with trains from the gare de l’Est hooting by and a wrong way round glimpse of Sacre Coeur. A gang of little boys apes the soldiers drilling nearby, then, when one of them says he wants “no more war”, breaks off to play cops and robbers – though no one wants to be a cop. One of them discovers a man’s corpse on the hillside. Gapers and policemen gather promptly.
A quick montage of newspapers brings us up to speed – the victim is an industrialist — a glove found near his body belongs to a tart known as Lilas (Lilac) – an American sailor alibis her for the night in question – suspicion falls on the industrialist’s clerk. In the examining magistrate’s chambers, the poor cipher is peppered with sardonic questions – didn’t he have money troubles? Didn’t he know his boss had a large amount of cash on his person? Didn’t he pay off an outstanding debt the day after the crime? The victim’s widow is received with obsequious attentions and leading questions – the accused’s frantic wife with a pointed fingering of her little fur neckpiece. Over her sobs, the camera moves toward the statue of justice in the courthouse waiting room.
So far, so schematic – but André, the young police detective (André Luguet*) who found the glove at the scene of the crime, is convinced of the clerk’s innocence. He asks for time off to investigate the original suspect, Lilas, on his own.
Now, twenty minutes in, the film really begins. A barrel organ plays and, punningly synchronised with its whining, the metal shutters of a café are cranked up. This is our Paris.
The young detective checks into Lilas’ hotel, a greasy den whose bar is frequented by a tangy assortment of riffraff, led by Jean Gabin’s Martousse.
Gabin is a Cagneyesque plug of energy, so springy that he has to counterbalance himself every few minutes by readjusting the slant of his hat. But he moons over Lilas, when she appears on the stairs, as though she were Juliet on her balcony.
André clashes immediately with Martousse, defending Lilas from the latter’s apache-style attentions. That evening she comes to his room and stonily begins undressing as a return for services. It’s the réaliste version of the pre-Code lingerie scene, and leaves an appropriately nasty taste in the mouth. André, however, insists on going out together instead, and they go to the bal musette across the street. Marousse, embittered by the turn things are obviously taking, sings along with “La Môme Caoutchouc” – “My girl, Rubber Doll – you won’t believe what she can do – you think she’s under you, she’s on top – “
Look at Gabin’s hands at the bar. Am I the only one reminded of the opening of Footlight Parade’s “Shanghai Lil” number?
A police raid sends André and Lilas running – they take shelter on an all-night bus, riding from one end of the line to the other until morning. Lilas confides her hatred and terror of the police – “They get you and they work you over. Some of them pretend to be pimps, and then it turns out they’re stool pigeons and they turn you in.” André cradles her and she sleeps.
Bright morning and another Paris location: Les Halles. Fresh flowers, oranges … the pair picnic on the steps of the Fontaine des Innocents. “You can’t even handle a knife,” André says with tenderness and relief. He buys Lilas a floaty crepe dress and a wide-brimmed hat – you can feel what it must be like for her to peel off her hard-used sweater and skirt.
The two escape to a riverside hotel. Their idyll is set off by a wedding party arriving for a blowout, with Fernandel leading the singing of “Ne te plains pas …” – “Don’t complain if the bride’s too beautiful, if she’s got these and those … if you’d chosen a dog, you’d have her all to yourself … you’ve got it made, you cuckold!”
But Martousse has told Lilas what her lover is. She is shocked into a gasping confession – she did kill the industrialist. As the wedding party bursts gleefully into the room and dances around the couple, she flees. She is haunted in double exposure by a farandole of increasingly grotesque wedding guests, and by the superimposition of implacable uniformed police and her lover’s face. Appointment in Samarra: she runs headlong into the cop on the beat.
André finds her in a local police station. He identifies himself and pleads that Lilas’ confession not be taken seriously – she’s not in her right mind. Of course not, the desk sergeant replies – the guilty man is already in jail in Paris. André is brought back to earth, and, inevitably, picks up the phone … Headlines confirm the result.
Back on the La Chapelle hillside, one urchin is consoling another, who’s fallen. “What are you doing, petting a robber?” he’s asked. “A cop can’t go soft!”
Marcelle Romée was hospitalised for depression that year. She ran away from the clinic during the night of December 3rd, 1932, and drowned herself in the Seine.
*Luguet had a busy 1932, with seven films shot in Paris and, for Warner Brothers, in Hollywood. Let’s hope that Love is a Racket and Jewel Robbery cheered him up after this one.