November 10, 2015
“If I was an architect and I had to build a palace to the cinema, I would put at its entrance a statue of Duvivier.” – Jean Renoir
Julien Duvivier is a memorable name, phonetically speaking. It rolls lyrically off the tongue, sounding like a foppish count in a Lubitsch operetta. The memory of his career, though, has faded. Duvivier was a distinguished director for forty years, one who popularized the French poetic realist style in Pepe le Moko (1937), starring Jean Gabin. In his time he was admired by Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and Graham Greene, but was part of the old guard roundly rejected by the Cahiers du Cinema critics in the 1950s, and continued to be dismissed by the American brand of auteurism imported to the U.S. by Andrew Sarris. Outside of Pepe, he was rarely discussed in English until a 2009 retrospective mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Joshua Siegel. And now the Criterion Collection has released a fascinating DVD box set, in their no-frills Eclipse series, entitled Julien Duvivier in the Thirties, which includes David Golder (1930), Poil de Carotte (1932), La Tete d’un Homme (1933), and Un Carnet de Bal (1937). These films, unknown to me previously, approach four different genres with a dark romanticism expressed through a restless, roaming camera.
Duvivier was born in 1896 in the city of Lille, in Northern France. His father was a traveling salesman, and the arts were not an emphasis at home. Duvivier recalled that, “I had a passion for the theatre, although I don’t know where I got it from, since, through my childhood, I was never allowed to go there” (quoted in the Faber Book of French Cinema by Charles Drazin). He was a painfully shy child, and his initial attempts at a theatrical life were disastrous. He made his stage debut during WWI at the Odeon Theatre in Paris, where, according to his friend Maurice Bessy, “Not a word escaped his lips. The prompter whispered his lines, whispered them again, almost shouted them to him. But it was no use. He had fallen into a black hole. They had to lower the curtain. This was his first and last appearance.” The director of the Odeon, André Antoine, told him “This is not a career for you…Come with me. Work with me in the cinema.” So Duvivier got his start as an assistant to Antoine, who directed a number of realist films during WWI. Duvivier was also the AD for Louis Feuillade on his adventure serial Tih Minh (1918), and would direct his first feature in 1919 (Haceldama or Blood Money).
After working steadily through the silent era, and directing a genuine hit with Poil de Carrote (1925), Duvivier was quick to adapt to sound, evident in his first feature with the new technology, David Golder (released by Gaumont in 1931). In the first sequence he experiments with off-screen audio, focusing on a butler’s impassive face as the industrialist Golder (Harry Baur) reminisces about his humble origins as a poor Jewish immigrant. The film, adapted from the novel by Irene Nemirovsky, is a melodrama about Golder coming to terms with those origins, after years of escape into the distractions of new money. His wife and daughter are both shallow conspicuous consumers, so when Golder’s health gives out, there is no one to give him solace except his memories of home. Baur was a frequent Duvivier collaborator, a large, pear-shaped fellow with an air of insularity, he emits an anxious avuncularity, kindness wrapped in insecurity. From the start Duvivier and his cinematographers Georges Perinal and Armand Thirard experiment with different visual approaches. That same sequence that includes the close-up of the butler’s face ends in an extreme long shot, with Golder’s broke ex-partner standing alone in a living room doorway, while Golder sits down to his latest feast in the dining room on the opposite side of the frame. In addition to these static, highly choreographed tableau are more kinetic traveling shots that emphasize the decadence of Golder’s one-percenter buddies. The camera circles around a bar pouring champagne and lilts across a table covered in meat and booze, following the path of a check as being passed down to Golder. The characterizations are overly broad – Golders’ wife and daughter are little more than screeching harpies – but Golder’s loneliness is conveyed with desolate finality.
In 1932 Duvivier remade Poil de Carotte, the story of a freckled kid nicknamed “Carrot Top” desperate to escape from his family. His mother Madame Lepic (Catherine Fonteney) is an abusive nag, while his father Monsieur Lepic (Harry Baur) is an absent-minded guardian who pays more attention to the newspaper than his children. What threatens to become a schmaltzy coming-of-age tale turns out to be much darker, as Carrot Top is not just exasperated by his family but driven to suicidal thoughts. Once again the wife and mother is depicted as a monster, heaping work and slaps on her defeated little boy. Duvivier depicts Carrot Top’s internal struggle through superimposition, turning a trip to feed the livestock into a harrowing encounter with ghosts, to nighttime arguments where Carrot Top’s multiple personalities argue the appropriate way to end his life. The contrast of idyllic farm landscapes with the cute kid’s death fantasies makes for an unusually unsettling kid’s movie. This mix of fairy tale and nightmare becomes most pronounced in a beautiful shot by a lake, where Carrot Top and his little girlfriend stand by the water. He tells her he cannot marry her because he is going to kill himself. She agrees it is the right decision.
Death and love are again intertwined in La Tete d’un Homme (A Man‘s Head, 1933), an intense adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel (1931) of the same name (translated into English as A Battle of Nerves). The first Simenon film was Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour (Night at the Crossroads, 1932), which I wrote about here. Harry Baur plays Commissioner Maigret, who is involved in the murder of an eccentric American millionaire. A gangly fool named Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) left bloody foot and hand prints all over the scene of the crime, and is swiftly arrested. Maigret is convinced this poor simpleton has been framed for the job, so he allows Heurtin to escape, in the hopes of following him to his employer, the real killer. The path leads to the dissolute heir of the American’s fortune (Gaston Jacquet), his regal wife Gina (Edna Reichberg), and a neurasthenic Czech named Radek (Valery Inkijnoff) who only has six months to live. With no motive other than a Raskolnikovian nihilism, Maigret is hard pressed to find any evidence to put Radek behind bars. Armand Thirard’s camera is again very mobile, exploring each space with a detective’s curiosity. In a cafe that is central to the murder plot, Thirard executes a 360 degree pan to inspect each face around the bar, a roll call of sorts for the investigation to come. There is also a resourceful use of back projection. A beat cop is canvassing for witnesses, and instead of cutting from one set-up to another, Duvivier has the policeman stand in one spot while the back projected image cuts between locations instead. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it conveys the idea that the city is contorting itself to serve the police – the investigation somehow changes the face of the urban space. The only one who can resist this power is Radek – who Valery Inkijnoff embodies with a charismatic disdain. Radek, under investigation for murder, is a guy who will refuse to pay a bill just so he can waste the police’s time. Counting the days until he dies from a mysterious disease, he wants to make his mark before he goes. Maigret’s whole existence depends on erasing these marks, but Radek cuts deep, and the incantatory closing scenes are a delirious mixture of extreme close-ups, a back projected light show, and the revelation of a passion that seems to be wasting Radek from within.
The last film in the set, Un Carnet de Bal (Dance Card, 1937), was released the same year as Pepe le Moko, and was a huge hit that year. Utilizing the portmanteau structure he would return to often (Tales of Manhattan, Flesh and Fantasy), it is a melancholy trip through a widow’s past. Christine (Marie Bell) is recovering from her husband’s death, and reminiscing about her youth. She recalls her first ballroom dance when she was sixteen, and the diverse group of suitors who once declared their love to her, and whom she rejected. In order to close out the narratives from her past and open new futures, she decides to visit all the men on her dance card from that night. They include a criminal night club owner, a depressive priest, a one-eyed alcoholic, a magician barber, and a dead man who haunts his mother’s addled brain. Her memories all dissipate in the face of reality, and the dance she fetishizes so much she can see the shadows dancing on the wall of her bedroom, turn out to be nothing but phantoms. Duvivier is anticipating the late films of Max Ophuls here, with his twirling camera imitating a doomed waltz. At 130 minutes there are at least two too many vignettes – but this is a beautifully bittersweet film, anchored by Marie Bell’s sensitively crestfallen performance.
These are only four films from the seventy he made in his extended career, but they all display a formidable visual intelligence, an atmosphere of doomed romanticism, and a bit of overwriting. La Tete d’un Homme, with that tight-as-a-drum Simenon plotting, would have to be my favorite in the Criterion set. These are films of lost or withheld love, of characters so deprived they mine their own past for any vein of compassion, usually coming up empty. Even Carrot Top is nostalgic, though only for the time before he was born. They are, at their core, about failure, something Duvivier felt deeply from his first and only appearance on stage – and that petrified emptiness seems to have went its way throughout his 1930s work, trailing an air of voluptuous resignation.