Saturday, October 3, 2009

Julien Duvivier: Poetic Craftsman of Cinema

Last night, PFA kicked off a Julien Duvivier retrospective.

Jean Renoir once proclaimed, “If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of (Julien) Duvivier above the entrance...This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.” The French director and screenwriter Julien Duvivier (1896–1967), whose astonishingly varied career spanned both Europe and Hollywood, was also championed by Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and Graham Greene. This retrospective offers a rare chance to discover the work of this influential filmmaker.

Working in a darkly poetic realist style—Greene wrote admiringly that “his mood is violent, and belongs to the underside of the stone” — Duvivier made popular melodramas, thrillers, religious epics, comedies, wartime propaganda, musicals, and literary adaptations of novels by Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, and Georges Simenon. This exhibition features rarities and revelations, as well as masterpieces starring the great actor Jean Gabin, including La belle équipe (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), and Deadlier Than the Male (1956). Also featured is Duvivier’s favorite among his films, Poil de Carotte (1932), a heartbreaking chronicle of childhood.

Among the films that caught my attention were:

Pépé le Moko (1937) - Duvivier’s most influential film stars Jean Gabin as a suave Parisian jewel thief who eludes capture by taking refuge in the Casbah—the mysterious, labyrinthine quarter of Algiers that embodies the exotic, and erotic, Arabian nights of our colonialist imagination. For Pépé, the Casbah with all its attractions is also a bitter prison; a gorgeous French tourist (Mireille Balin) lures him to his doom, not with her jewels, or even her sex, but because she reeks of Paris, his love. A classic of romantic fatalism, Pépé le Moko is also a fascinating picture of colonialism as a system of traps and betrayals. Graham Greene rhapsodized, “I cannot remember (a picture) which has succeeded so admirably in raising the thriller to a poetic level,” and French film critic André Bazin observed, “With Gabin...death is, after all, at the end of the adventure, implacably awaiting its appointment. The fate of Gabin is precisely to be duped by life.”

La bandera (1935) - Recently restored by the Archives Françaises du Film, Duvivier’s sensuous and brooding Foreign Legion melodrama was a commercial success and made Jean Gabin a star, helping to forge his romantic image, solidified in Pépé le Moko, as the doomed existential antihero haunted by a criminal past and driven toward death. Filmed in Spain and Morocco on the eve of civil war—the original theatrical release was dedicated to “Colonel Franco” — La bandera is an Orientalist fantasy infused with the stylistic qualities of reportage, most notably in the tense chase sequence through the mean streets of Barcelona, about which Alistair Cooke observed, “It looks like an exquisite newsreel taken away and baked brown to give you the feel of the air.”

Deadlier Than Male (1956) - Noir, très noir...Lest we forget that film noir has roots, on screen as in language, in the French, this gem offers the quintessential femme fatale, hooking the quintessential unsuspecting guy who quickly becomes suspecting, and dangerous. “Duvivier’s darkest study of moral depravity, this is a harrowing drama of a successful restaurateur (Jean Gabin) who takes in and marries a young, angel-faced orphan (Danièle Delorme), only to discover she is the conniving daughter of his vengeful ex-wife. The film marked the definitive screen gentrification of Gabin, now in his fifties and destined to play middle-class patriarchs and gentlemen gangsters. Robert Gys’s studio reconstruction of the Halles food market is a masterpiece of production design.” (Lenny Borger)

The Great Waltz (1938) - Duvivier made his Hollywood debut with this opulent MGM musical about the romantic early years of composer Johann Strauss, written by the émigrés Gottfried Reinhardt and Samuel Hoffenstein and gorgeously photographed by the Oscar-winning Joseph Ruttenberg. Attempting to capture the lilting rhythms and charms of Strauss’s waltzes and operas (set here to lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and performed by the Viennese-born soprano diva Miliza Korjus), Duvivier moved from lavish set piece to lavish set piece, in the café, the garden, the palace, and the opera house - leading one critic to call the film “a symphony in soft focus” - before Josef von Sternberg stepped in to direct the wonderfully kitschy final sequence, the carriage ride through the Vienna Woods during which Strauss was inspired by birdsong to write The Blue Danube. Called by its admirers “The Great Schmaltz,” The Great Waltz is said to have been a favorite of Stalin’s.

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