Archive for Victor Francen

Marcel Wave

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2012 by dcairns

Marcel L’Herbier, having shot L’ARGENT at Bernard Natan’s studio, returned to work for Pathe-Natan on three features.* ENFANT DE L’AMOUR has the reputation of being a dud, but L’AVENTURIER is rather good and LE BONHEUR might just be a masterpiece. A strange one, to be sure, but still…

In L’AVENTURIER, Victor Francen is the black sheep of a bourgeois family who returns from a wild life abroad as drug dealer, arms trader and slave trafficker, to shepherd the family business through a problematic bit of industrial relations. The middle-class emerge as weak and corrupt, whereas Francen’s character is portrayed as strong, masculine, effective — and an amoral fascist. But he’s true to his own ideas and we’re meant to find him fascinating and alluring. Politically, it’s quite worrying, but L’Herbier’s filmmaking is assured and elegant.

LE BONHEUR is more twisted still, but fascinatingly so. Charles Boyer plays some kind of ill-defined nihilist, an “anti-social,” who shoots a beloved singing star (Gaby Morlay) as a purely gestural act of defiance to society. When Morlay survives, she becomes enamoured of her would-be assassin and waits for him upon his release from prison. Their subsequent love affair understandably shocks everybody, but the film is on their side.

“Charles Boyer didn’t get to play anarchistic assassins when he was in Hollywood,” remarked David Wingrove, my benshi translator for the occasion.

The film also sports, like L’AVENTURIER, a walk-on for a young Jean Marais, a very sweet performance by Paulette Dubost, and uniquely, a camp turn by Michel Simon as Morlay’s swishy agent. It’s a rather affectionate caricature, it seems to me, Pangbornian in the best sense, and quite a surprising thing for the burly Simon to attempt, let alone pull off. It’s also interesting since Marcel L’Herbier was France’s most openly gay director. More people knew about him than about Cocteau, it seems. Whether his wife was in on the secret, I don’t know.

LE BONHEUR might be my favourite L’Herbier yet, which is interesting since conventional wisdom regards him as a spent force by the dawn of talkies. It’s a meditation on the power of cinema, brought home when the lovers part but he tells her that he’ll see her on the screen. It’s also a fascinating melodrama because, despite much discussion and self-analysis by the characters, essentially all the major events take place for no explicable reason —

Boyer’s shooting of Morlay —

His subsequent love for her —

Her love for him —

His leaving her —

All happen as if plot requirements were puppeteering the characters. And yet the characters never cease to feel real, rational to a degree, and human. It’s quite a strange take on the melodramatic form, and I can’t wait to see if it’s carried on in L’Herbier’s subsequent films.

Paulette Dubost, who cheated us out of an interview by dying a year too soon. She’s wonderful in this, as a wide-eyed working girl. Testifying at Boyer’s trial, she hangs her handbag on the witness stand. Touching and funny.

*L’Herbier wrote to Natan after shooting L’AVENTURIER, fulsomely praising working conditions at the studio. Then he was injured on set making LE BONHEUR, and sued the company for negligence (he seems to have been a pioneer in industrial accident litigation, in fact). By the time of Natan’s arrest for fraud, L’Herbier was writing to the press demanding that foreign filmmakers in France, “these people with names ending in ‘isky’,” should be prevented by law from changing their names to sound French. All very unfortunate.

Finally du Jour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by dcairns

At last, the day after Duvivier’s birthday, I get around to writing something substantial, or at least what passes for “substantial” around here, about LA FIN DU JOUR, the film I’ve been promoting to the best of my ability. In fact, the film has also been promoting me, since various mentions of the GREAT DUVIVIER GIVEAWAY around the blog-O-sphere have bolstered my stats and got Shadowplay some favourable mention. What goes around does actually seem to come around.

I think I mentioned in an intervening post that, having borrowed the film from the Lindsay Anderson Archive, a non-lending VHS repository in Glasgow, I ran it for my late friend Lawrie, who was always enthusiastic about French film, especially that of the ’30s and ’40s. It was a field that was mostly a blank to me when I first met Lawrie, but he had lived through it and seen Rene Clair and Duvivier and Carné films when they were new. As I was able to get a few of the films, we ran them together, and agreed in the end that while much Clair had dated a bit, Carné’s classics stood up brilliantly (and some of his non-classics seem to deserve reappraisal) and Duvivier was in serious need of rediscovery. Lawrie wasn’t so keen on Renoir, it seemed, and so my appreciation of him had to wait a little while (and I’m still in the process of catching up with him as a result).

LA FIN DU JOUR was a big hit with Lawrie. I don’t think he’d seen it before. While the fact that it was about elderly characters may have resonated with him, the pleasure probably had more to do with seeing favourite stars Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet in meaty roles, and finding Victor Francen a revelation. Rather than reviewing the film in detail, I just want to talk about those characters a bit.

Victor Francen as Marny. Francen is, I suppose, the nearest thing to a leading character in the story, which is more or less an ensemble piece. Unlike Michel Simon’s Cabrissade, Francen isn’t a clown, and unlike Jouvet, he isn’t mad. But Duvivier and co-scenarist Charles Spaak deliberately divide our attentions and sympathies, so that Francen doesn’t quite assume the status of hero.

For one thing, he’s a bit of an old stick. He stands on his dignity too much, and thus makes an irresistible target for Cabrissade’s practical jokes. One can’t entirely blame Cabrissade for picking on the stuffed shirt Marny. It seems likely that Marny’s “dignity, always dignity” approach to life has hampered his career as an actor. He describes himself as an actor without a public, and his overall stiffness is perhaps responsible for this. It may also be to blame for the failure of his marriage: one can imagine a young wife preferring the dash and vigour of the irresponsible Saint Clair.

Louis Jouvet as Raphaël Saint Clair. Isn’t that a great name for a classical actor? Jouvet is introduced in scene one almost as if he’s the protagonist, but this is really just a narrative device to take us from the familiar circumstances of a touring theatre troupe to the less familiar setting of a retirement home for actors (a brilliant location to set any kind of drama, it seems to me — I tried on one occasion to interest the producer of BBC3’s wretched Twisted Tales series in a supernatural comedy with such a setting).

Saint Clair is a complete egomaniac, introduced as such, whose character development consists of a slide into madness which is really just an exaggeration of his normal personality. “We ought to hate him!” observed Fiona when I ran the film for her. Miraculously, we don’t. Other people just don’t exist for Saint Clair, except as an audience for his greatness. So there’s no possible malice in him. But he’s blithely unaware of the emotional destruction he leaves in his wake. If somebody kills themselves over him, that’s just fuel to his ego. He’s perhaps the most stupendously selfish character ever written, and it seems he got this way just by basking in the audience’s affection. This is a movie with some fairly tough things to say about the acting profession — yet it’s full of love and admiration for actors.

Michel Simon as Cabrissade. Only 44 when he made the film, but with the face of a compressed buffalo, Simon represents, on one level, the failure of the popular front. Duvivier, who apparently was fairly conservative in his politics, lays this old radical to rest, dismissing him as a mediocre player and a case of arrested development, but celebrating his love and devotion to his craft. But Cabrissade is closer to Duvivier than politics would suggest: the spark of the film came from J.D.’s experiences as an actor, and in particular the nightmarish moment when, like Cabrissade, he “dried” on stage, forgetting all his lines and standing paralysed and sweating before a derisive audience.

ken

ken

The late Ken Campbell — still can’t believe he’s gone — described his own experience of this phenomenon in colourful terms. He was performing in Ben Jonson’s “comedie” The Alchemist and was frustrated with the lack of actual belly laughs in it, so he had just decided to attempt a fart, to get the audience going a bit, when an angel descending and informing him that he was going to have his acting ability, or license, or something, taken away, and then the angel extracted his fart, bubble by bubble, and departed, leaving Campbell unable to access his memory of the lines except as if through a thick fog. He never played a leading role again… although the angel did visit him again about a week later to say, “Small roles in film and TV: still OK.”

The fact that Cabrissade’s drying, followed so soon by his dying, may be poetic evidence for the existence of this theatrical angel…

So: not a film review, but I think THIS IS THE PLACE for anyone who has received and watched LA FIN to chime in with their responses, questions, demands for emotional reimbursement or whatever. Let’s talk!

Giving and Receiving

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 4, 2008 by dcairns

A look of madness…

Just calculated that I had mailed or at least packed 30 discs in the Great Duvivier Giveaway, with 11 requests still to fulfill. And I decided before I began that I was happy to dispense at least 100 cheap discs, depending on demand, so I’m not thru yet.

Pleasingly, a lot of the recipients are KEY TASTEMAKERS and all round groovy so-and-sos, which works to the advantage of my Grand Scheme to rewrite film history. And the rest are obviously beautiful people. The chances are this will all do something positive for Duvivier, even if only by the SPURIOUS ASSOCIATION of linking his films in people’s minds with the concept of random gift-giving. He’ll be like Santa Claus, or the Great Pumpkin.

I have a Spur. Assoc.myself, in a way, since I ran my purloined VHS of LA FIN DU JOUR for the first time with my late friend Lawrie. Lawrie was probably about 79 at the time, paralysed down one side, and with a swollen foot that doctors kept threatening to remove. He was housebound much of the time and had great difficulty getting from his wheelchair to his bed.

And yet, at the end of many a film we watched, including this one, he would smile beatifically and say, “Ah, life is good!”

I remember he was very impressed with Victor Francen’s performance in particular. “We always thought he was just a Frenchman!” he said in wonderment. (Francen was actually Belgian.) It’s true that Francen’s American films, made mostly during the war years, use his accent and dignified air, but don’t give him so much to do. He’s wonderful in LA FIN DU JOUR, turning that dignity into a sympathetic quality, a form of vulnerability.

Is my love of this film bundled up with the occasion I first saw it? Probably. The second screening was with Fiona, and I loved it just as much, and she was very much taken with it too. So I don’t think this is purely a sentimental attachment. But as it’s a very emotional film, it’s hard to be certain of that. So it’ll be very interesting what people think.

Post your initial thoughts in the Comments section here. I’ll right a bigger post on the film when I’ve sent out more discs.