Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry

On Film / Essays — Jul 26, 2010

The Story of a Cheat: Breaking the Rules 

While most filmmakers arrive at their profession already possessed of a vigorous love of cinema, Sacha Guitry saw the form, at least at first, as a necessary evil. Paris’s most popular and prolific playwright of the 1920s, Guitry felt that the medium was inherently compromised, that it lacked the finesse and excitement of live theater, and that, even in the sound era, it was limited by too many technical and systematic strictures. Yet having reluctantly embraced film after concluding that it would allow him to reach the widest audience possible, Guitry refused to play by the rules, creating a cinema that was not just verbally witty but visually daring—one that would influence artists as aesthetically diverse as Orson Welles, François Truffaut, and Alain Resnais.

A theatrical lineage was a trait Guitry shared with many of his film contemporaries, from Julien Duvivier to Raymond Bernard. He first appeared onstage at age five, for Czar Alexander II (his godfather); his matinee idol father, Lucien Guitry, was then under contract to Saint Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Back in Paris, Guitry struggled with school (chronically expelled, he never got his baccalaureate), family (he had a falling out with his father), and his health (he suffered from rheumatism) before finding his calling as a boulevard theater playwright and performer; his sophisticated, clever plays, from romantic comedies to biographical dramas, made him a sensation. And though he had been vocal in his condemnation of film—he told the newspaper Candide in 1933: “The cinema is lifeless spectacle, conserved theater”—as talkies took off in the 1930s, he thought it wise to jump into the game.

Guitry’s first experiment with film was actually his silent documentary short Ceux de chez nous (1915), a love letter to the great French artists of the time, featuring, among others, Claude Monet, August Rodin, and Sarah Bernhardt, but he didn’t get behind a movie camera again until 1935, for an uninspired version of his 1919 stage success Pasteur that was indeed little more than canned theater. One year later, following a few more stage-to-screen efforts, he wrote, directed, and starred in the film that, even had he never directed again, would have put him in the history books. Based on his only published novel, the frolicsome, innovative The Story of a Cheat tells the tale of a professional swindler, and while the finished product may seem effortless, Guitry’s methods—cutting between past and present, such technical tricks as transitional wipes and reverse motion—were way ahead of their time.

The impish main attraction in his own production, as always, Guitry plays the unnamed unscrupulous protagonist. His memoirs are relayed in flashback, using voice-over alone rather than dialogue, which has the effect of giving the author complete control over the events that unfold: he becomes a sly, self-conscious puppet master. When one watches it now, two famous auteurs come to mind: Hitchcock, when Guitry is introduced in silhouette, and Welles, who would borrow Guitry’s spoken-credits approach, and whose swiftly paced storytelling may have seeds here. An energetic and enchanting amorality tale, The Story of a Cheat would be embraced by Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s as “pure cinema,” and listed by that magazine in 2008 as one of the fifty greatest films ever made.

The Pearls of the Crown: Life’s Rich Pageant

Sacha Guitry’s films were often straightforward adaptations of his plays, but when he broke out of this format, he created daring narratives that used the medium to its fullest. The Story of a Cheat is one of these, but perhaps the most adventurous example is The Pearls of the Crown (1937), a whimsical historical pageant imaginable only on film. Its madcap visual storytelling is ambitious beyond reason: Guitry turns history into a sort of flip book, jumping through four centuries of monarchical Europe while tracing the largely fictitious fate of seven pearls given to Caterina de’ Medici as a child by Pope Clement VII and then passed down through the years in an intricate web of circumstance—four of them end up adorning the crown of England, three are taken by a thief and subsequently seem to disappear. Naturally, this being Guitry, these episodes are cheekily told, though they never tip into royal mockery.

For this, his eighth sound film in three years (and his second script written expressly for the screen), Guitry was especially enterprising: The Pearls of the Crown was planned as a trilingual (French, Italian, and English) production that could, as he told Paris-soir in February 1937, “be understood in several countries without dubbing and without subtitling.” Intended as a salute to Britain’s George VI upon his coronation in May 1937, this whiplash-inducing yarn provided Guitry with a broad canvas on which to feature approximately two hundred characters (Mary Stuart, François II, and Queens Elizabeth and Victoria among them) and more than eighty settings, and with the opportunity to play four illustrious roles—including François I and Napoléon III. Guitry, ever the grand storyteller, also does duty as the winking narrator, Jean Martin.

With its plethora of speaking parts, the film is the opposite of The Story of a Cheat, which mostly eschews dialogue in favor of a single narrator. Here, the chatter is clamorous as the pearls pass from one pair of hands to the next, generation after generation, back and forth between nations entwined by royal marriage. Occasionally, Guitry spikes this teeming historical stew with an odd flavor, the oddest being a pearl-seeking detour to Abyssinia in which the actress Arletty (later immortalized by Marcel Carné in Hôtel du Nord and Children of Paradise), in dark makeup, plays a snake-charming queen, her indecipherable language accomplished by Guitry’s reversing the soundtrack.

The film’s insouciant approach to history; impressive sets by art director Jean Perrier and cinematography by Jules Kruger (both regular contributors to the films of Raymond Bernard); costumes by Georges K. Benda (Le million); and technical direction by Christian-Jaque (Fanfan la tulipe) wowed critics in France and abroad. “Its unusualness, in some cases, borders on the freakish,” read a Variety rave, which went on to call it “the most formidable undertaking that has yet been attempted in France.” But it was Graham Greene who best summed up the strange singularity of The Pearls of the Crown, and of Guitry, in a sly Spectator review: “Late in life he has taken lightheartedly to the cinema, breaking every rule . . . Everything seems to have come to him so easily . . . The rules remain rules for all of us but M. Guitry. The impertinence of it.”

Désiré: The Butler Did It

Sacha Guitry’s The Story of a Cheat and The Pearls of the Crown are both strikingly unorthodox films, reliant on narration, more interested in tone and place than character, and rife with idiosyncrasies that seem almost to spring spontaneously from their maker’s mind while unfolding on-screen. Yet the stage-to-screen works that Guitry was better known for—family dramas, bedroom farces, historical biographies—were ingenious in their own way, and always sparkling entertainments. Even when he wasn’t helping to invent a new kind of cinematic storytelling, Guitry was no staid technician.

One of his wittiest (and most devilishly suggestive) adaptations is Désiré (1937), a keenly observed class satire in which Guitry playfully tweaks his own persona. Known by French audiences as much for his accoutrements and affectations (pinkie rings, long fingernails, dainty oval glasses, dangling cigarettes) as for his artistry, Guitry dresses down for Désiré, playing valet to a rich mistress, Odette, portrayed by Jacqueline Delubac, Guitry’s wife at the time (she had previously appeared in smaller but spotlighted roles in The Story of a Cheat and The Pearls of the Crown). Yet the actor-director didn’t have to completely bottle up his rarefied charm to play the film’s title role: this forthright butler arrives at the home of his new employer with a well-established reputation for seducing his social betters. Guitry’s plot cannily puts his character, despite his lowly station, on a sexual footing equal with, if not higher than, that of society’s upper echelons. This is a major majordomo.

Though divided into three distinct acts, Désiré is far from stuffy or theat­rical—Guitry shows his usual nimble control of the medium, interweaving sly, communicative reaction shots, close-ups, and subtle camera moves to get nearer to his delightful cast of characters, and even including a beautiful overhead image of Désiré bustling around the dinner table. Still, despite this and some visual effects meant to evoke various characters’ dream states, technique here is largely invisible—form functions in service of the plot and especially Guitry’s signature lightning-quick dialogue, among both the help quarantined in the kitchen (Désiré; the maid, Madeleine, played by Arletty; and the cook, Adèle, played by Pauline Carton) and the moneyed folk in the dining room (Odette, her interior minister suitor, and their comically insufferable dinner guests).

Perhaps as a result of his theatrical background, Guitry was always hyperaware of his audience, driven to entertain them. There’s very little slack in Désiré, which races from one rapid-fire exchange to the next with joyous abandon. Its head-spinning pace almost prevents one from noticing how frank the chatter is, especially compared with Hollywood films of the day (the movie is full of references to erotic dreams, and Guitry gets a lot of mileage out of the innuendo in lines about “servicing” his mistresses). This tale of forbidden passions proved irresistible to audiences; it was another hit for Guitry. Yet perhaps the greatest testament to its success came when Guitry’s chambermaid saw it and accused him of eavesdropping on her conversations to write the script. Guitry’s attention to authenticity had apparently paid off.

Quadrille: Connect Four

Like Désiré, Sacha Guitry’s next film, Quadrille (1938), was a featherweight comedy about flirtation, adapted from one of his plays. But here the stakes of the game are higher: rather than two lovelorn characters, Quadrille, as the title implies, offers four romantically confused principals. Guitry plays Philippe, the editor in chief of Paris-soir, who’s planning to propose to the acclaimed stage actress Paulette (Gaby Morlay), his lover of six years. As the film opens, however, Philippe, along with the saucy star reporter Claudine (Jacqueline Delubac, in another of her eleven roles in her husband’s films), is distracted by an alto­gether different matter: the much-anticipated arrival in Paris of the handsome Hollywood movie star Carl Herickson (George Grey). This last character, whose seductive wiles will hypnotize Paulette and lead her astray, completes the game.

Much of the film’s action takes place under the roof of the Ritz Hotel, where Philippe and Claudine go to get the scoop on the American celebrity, who has rented two suites, presumably for multiple dalliances; while they wait in one of them, Paulette and Carl have a chance encounter downstairs in the hotel restaurant that sets the rest of the plot in motion. Though it’s clear that this sort of door slammer would work well in theater, Guitry, as usual, turns the play into a very cinematic farce—as in the scene where the carefree Carl comically disrobes, the camera whipping back and forth to follow his gleeful tossing of one article of clothing after another onto the floor, culminating in a shocked chambermaid (priceless Guitry regular Pauline Carton) walking in on him stark naked.

But it’s Guitry’s sparkling wordplay that takes center stage, especially the banter between him and Morlay (a popular character actress later seen in Max Ophuls’s Le plaisir). Upon being questioned by Philippe about her attraction to the alluring American, Paulette explains, “I found him handsome like you.” Perking up, he replies, “Handsome like me?” only to be met with the deflating conclusion “No, I mean handsome like you found him.” There’s a refreshing, even shocking matter-of-factness about infidelity, an implicit assertion that no one is above temptation; this notion threads through Quadrille right to the dizzying conclusion, which ties things off with riotous precision.

Guitry had a preternatural genius for filmmaking, but his true love always remained the theater (at the charity premiere of Quadrille in Monte Carlo, he reportedly stopped the projector a third of the way into the screening to act out some of the film, before starting it up again). Still, even though he continued performing onstage throughout his career, Guitry is now best remembered for his cinematic legacy, especially those films he made in the 1930s, which were only truly acknowledged for their technical and emotional sophistication by Cahiers du cinéma writers in the 1950s. Said François Truffaut: “In any history of cinema worthy of that name, Sacha Guitry would, with no reservations, find a place in the chapter ‘Auteurs of Films,’ his name alongside that of Cocteau and Malraux and then of Bresson, Astruc, Gance, Ophuls, and Renoir.” One wonders what Guitry would have made of such illustrious, hopelessly cinematic company!


Thanks to Lenny Borger for his invaluable assistance.