Screened January 27 2010 on DVR downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #839 IMDb
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the one film on the TSPDT 1000 that I hadn't been able to locate in any form was this one, which had just been re-introduced to the list after the January update. Not long after that update, with the help of a couple of wonderful people from the French archival cinema community, I was able to track down a 35mm print of the film with the rights held by Gaumont. Unfortunately, Gaumont quoted me a ridiculous fee of several hundred Euros to rent the print, which made it pretty much impossible for me to access it. However, fortuitously at the same time, someone posted a DVR rip of the film, presumably from European television broadcast, to a site that will here remain unidentified. So I had my chance at last to watch this strangely inaccessible classic of French cinema.
The one catch was that the rip was unsubtitled, which presented me with the dilemma of whether I should proceed with watching, esp. given that reviews of the film mention the elegant script by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche. Fortunately, Marilyn Ferdinand provides a solid enough account of the plot on her site that I was encouraged to take the leap. All the same, I must acknowledge that my understanding of the film is by no means satisfactory. I can only hope that my opting to treat this as an experiment in watching a film without a grasping its dialogue might offer alternative insights focused more intently on its cinematic properties.
I should also mention that watching the film in this manner reminded me of many times as a child when I'd watch American comedy films and TV shows with my mother, and I'd laugh along with the punch lines only to turn to see my mom bearing an uncomprehending smile, aware that there was something to laugh about but not quite knowing what was funny. I think there were at least a couple of instances where I'd play the asshole and ask her if she got the joke. In some ways I was as confused as she was - ashamed at the wedge between us, irrationally resentful to her for making me feel alienated in my joy even as with the TV laugh track to egg me on. I dedicate this entry to her, that we may unshamefully derive our own pleasures from what we don't fully understand.
What strikes me most is how insular the film feels - it's all filmed on sets, largely interiors, with exteriors taking place in night streets and alleys taking place at night. Knowing that this was a production under German-controlled Vichy adds to this feeling of confinement. The stage-bound artifice also adds a dollhouse fairy-tale like quality. It's felt as early as the opening establishing shot, an ostentatious track across a model replica of 1880s Paris, featuring an Eiffel Tower still under construction:
For the most part the film takes place on a giant soundstage dressed as a grand aristocratic house, somewhat reminiscent of the Amberson estate in The Magnificent Ambersons. There are two levels, joined by a grand staircase as well as a newly installed elevator for the convenience of the aging matriarch that presides over the household. Some scenes make good dramatic use of the upward and downward motions of characters traversing the levels.
Graceful tracking shots help bring dynamism between these walls: they alternate in functions between scanning the interiors like a Martian probe and connecting characters' eyelines to objects. But the film repeatedly rests upon images of entrapment. From the opening scene a prison motif is introduced, as the title character (Odette Joyeux) first appears veiled an anonymous at a confessional booth rendered like prison bars:
A later scene between Douce and her governess, the scheming Irene (Madeleine Robinson) introduces another motif of fire that recurs (see title card) though less frequently. This fireplace POV shot (look carefully for the flame between them) symbolizes their respective romantic passions contained by 19th century decorum.
This shot moments later suggests the concealing of thoughts between them - unbeknownst to Douce, Irene is carrying on an affair with the man she fancies.
Mirrors are also used to create a sense of deflection in relationships - here Douce addresses Irene through a mirror at a moment where her trust of her has been broken irreparably:
Windows, doors, shadows and bars permeate the film, confining the characters throughout:
The servants in the house largely function as comic relief, with boorish dialogue and gestures:
There's even Jacques Tati as a servant, in one of his very earliest roles:
But there's room for the upper classes to be skewered visually as well. Marguerite Moreno as Madame de Bonafé is often dressed in oversized frills conveying her aristocratic excess, though her middle-class, kiss-ass estate manager Fabien (Roger Pigault) takes the cake with his ridiculous fur coat:
Yet over the course of the film the destructively selfish Fabien comes to be redeemed by Douce, a character so angelically pure that in one scene she sparkles:
While in this scene he literally has a cross of salvation cast upon him while in Douce's embrace:
There's enough going on visually to compensate for not understanding the dialogue; though in the more stagebound scenes a lot is riding on repartee. There are plenty of moments where the stagelike nature of the production gives the impression that this is largely a theater production captured on film with a modicum of tracking shots and lighting effects used to spice things up. But this is certainly worth watching again, especially if accompanied with a subtitle track.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Douce / Love Story among the 1000 Greatest Films on the TSPDT 1000:
Bertrand Tavernier, Profil (2004) Frederic Vitoux, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Lenny Borger, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Lindsay Anderson, Sight & Sound (1992) Patrick Laurent, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Philippe Ariotti, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009) Bertrand Tavernier, 10 Overlooked French Films (2003) Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Director Claude Autant-Lara was one of the principal figures of the French “tradition of quality” that flourished during the Nazi occupation, and this 1943 masterpiece, which also introduced the writing team of Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, is the first of several great films he made. The radiant Odette Joyeux stars as the title heroine, a socialite who seeks to flee her lavish but suffocating environs with the handsome family caretaker, only to discover that the relationship is doomed. Autant-Lara's exquisite blend of social commentary, lush romanticism, and opulent sets and costumes—he began his career as a designer—vividly re-creates France's belle epoque and recalls Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons both thematically and in its deep-focus exploration of interior space.
- Joshua Katzman, The Chicago Reader
It was under the Occupation that director Claude Autant-Lara proved his mettle and established himself as one of the finest directors of his generation. His best film, Douce, is a magnificent blend of romance, satire and dramatic irony, beautifully filmed, with some enchanting acting performances. Although the film is set in the late 19th century, its story of forbidden love between servants and masters from two totally different social strata was relevant to 1940s France, a country that was as divided by class as it was by the war.
The character Douce is played with great force and subtlety by Odette Joyeux, undoubtedly her best screen performance. Her portrayal of the love-sick adolescent who who makes a doomed attempt to cross the barriers of class and respectability is totally captivating, giving the film the tragic dimension that makes it a masterpiece.
Another noteworthy performance comes from Marguerite Moreno, who play’s Douce’s imperious grandmother. Well into her seventies, Moreno had become the archetypal eccentric ageing tyrant and this film sees one of her most spirited and charismatic performances. Her character epitomises everything that is wrong with the bourgeois elite – patronising, dictatorial, insensitive. The casting of Moreno is a stroke of genius because the strength of her character’s position and her inability to change her viewpoint reinforces the nobility of her son and grand-daughter, who opt for love before protocol. Moreno’s la comtesse de Bonafé is a grotesque caricature but it provides an entertaining and accurate satire of the French bourgeoisie.
- James Travers, Films de France
Douce was the first film scripted by the so-called “Tradition of Quality" team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Tradition of Quality films were dubbed as such by the leading critics of the 1940s and 1950s for their academic production values, basis in traditional literary classics, and theatrical scripting. I might add that the work of Aurenche and Bost, frequent collaborators of Autant-Lara, is where I would place the quality. Their writing is extremely witty and subtle when they are going for social commentary. Marguerite Moreno certainly had a plum role as the Grand Dame of the house. Her lines and actions would have been buffoonish if they hadn’t been closely observed and written. When she goes through her closet to choose items to give to the poor tenants on her land for Christmas, she holds back one jacket. “That’s too good," she instructs Irène, saying (I paraphrase), “It will only depress the people because they will see the heights to which they never can aspire." When she calls on her tenants, she brings Irène and Fabien with her to carry the clothes and soup. One tenant gets up to heat a bowl of soup for herself and her husband. “No, no," says Madame, “It’s my turn to serve you. Irène, put the soup on the stove."
Some quibbles. Joyeux looked too old to still be dressing like a child, and Joyeux, Robinson, and Pigaut have a severe, mannered acting style. The love talk between Pigaut and the two women is the ultimate in purple prose, as well. The film takes a somewhat predictable turn to tragedy, but it was startling to me because up until then I had been watching a very funny comedy of manners. The overly melodramatic elements made me all too aware that there was a moral to this story. I wonder, in fact, whether the German honchos might have insisted that the story reflect a superior/inferior class ethos to suggest the depravity of “mixing." But this is mere conjecture.
- Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Film
It was Autant-Lara who introduced Bost to Aurenche to help with the dialogue for his film Douce , taken from Michel Davet's simple story of a devoted governess in a bourgeois family. Their screen version cleverly subverts the original text by shifting the emphasis to expose middle-class complacency. Thereafter the two writers formed a unique partnership translating for the screen an impressive array of literary classics, including works by Aymé, Colette, Feydeau, Gide, Radiguet, Stendhal, and Zola. Their initial collaboration set the pattern for their approach to adaptation; Aurenche concerning himself mainly with the screenplay and Bost with the dialogue. Frequently their shared left-wing sympathies are reflected in the inflection given to their reworked film narratives. Although they worked for several directors their most memorable achievements are found in films by Delannoy, Clément, and Autant-Lara.
- R.F. Cousins, Film Reference.com
Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their “profanity” and “blasphemy.” His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views’ on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d'auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded “messages,” are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.
Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the “profanity” and “blasphemy” in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.
- John Hess, "Politique des Auteurs, 2" Jump Cut