Eclipse Series 44: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties

On Film / Essays — Nov 5, 2015
Duvivier alternate

MAN IN THE SHADOWS

Julien Duvivier was a master of the early sound film. Whether he was making a romance, mystery, comedy, or domestic drama, his use of the camera was always revelatory, and he showed an uncanny instinct for the ways sound could be put to poetic as well as narrative uses. Nevertheless, he is today largely forgotten, particularly in the United States. His best films of the 1930s, the most fruitful era of his career, are dark-toned works about human disillusionment and frailty. In his output from early in that decade, with its elements of fatalism and compositional sophistication, one can see the seeds of the poetic realist tendency in French cinema, a style whose popularization Duvivier would have a fundamental hand in a few years later (along with the likes of Marcel Carné, René Clair, and Jean Renoir, all of whose work has come to overshadow Duvivier’s).

Like so many of his contemporaries, Duvivier got his start in theater, as an actor in Paris. His early cinema training was auspicious; he worked as an assistant to the legendary directors Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier. In the decade following his 1919 feature debut, the revenge melodrama Haceldama, Duvivier made twenty films. But it wasn’t until the sound era that he—and the financially troubled French industry as a whole—found success, at home and internationally. Like many others, Duvivier was skeptical about the idea of talkies, but his first sound film, David Golder (1930), was well received on its release and still stands as one of his great achievements.

Based on the best-selling 1929 debut novel by the Russian-born, French-educated Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky, David Golder, every frame of which seems to be imbued with the desperate spirit of France’s economically difficult and politically chaotic interwar years, is the captivating and cynical tale of a mean-spirited banker undone by his greedy estranged wife and selfish teenage daughter. Working with the gifted young cinematographers Georges Périnal and Armand Thirard, both of whom would be influential, world-class cameramen for decades to come, Duvivier creates a pervasive atmosphere of dread, with most of the film shot within expressively designed, moodily lit interiors, alternating between marvelous, claustrophobic close-ups and wide shots accentuating the hollowness of the characters’ lives. The camera tracks through these spaces like a prowling panther. Some of Duvivier’s choices are fascinatingly modern: see the dinner scene where the camera stays on a butler’s face as he pours wine for his employer and a guest, so that a critical conversation about Golder’s origins as a poor Jewish immigrant temporarily becomes offscreen sound.

As crucial to the film’s power as its technical audacity is its leading man, Harry Baur. David Golder was the first of this renowned stage actor’s appearances in sound cinema—and the first of his seven collaborations with Duvivier. At once physically imposing and remarkably versatile, Baur brings a rich humanity to the role of Golder, who could have been played as either simply cruel (as he knowingly ruins a work associate, driving him to suicide) or pathetic (as he sacrifices his life and fortune for the manipulative daughter who, he learns, is not his own). Both Baur’s face and Duvivier’s penetrating camera make David Golder’s metaphorically rich denouement—in which Golder seems to return to his past while on a sea voyage—feel like grand tragedy rather than mere melodrama.


LOST BOY

Julien Duvivier’s next great success following David Golder was 1932’s Poil de Carotte, a remake of the director’s own 1925 silent drama about a child neglected by his family. The original had been among Duvivier’s favorites of his films, and since he had recently learned to stop worrying and love talkies, he felt that it could be improved upon with a soundtrack. Though, like David Golder, the film has a rather grim view of family relations, Poil de Carotte is a work of beseeching humanity, shot through with a bucolic beauty that anticipates some of the work of Jean Renoir. And in its sympathetic yet intense and uncompromising depiction of the inner life of a preadolescent, it stands with such unforgettable dark cinematic chronicles of childhood as René Clément’s Forbidden Games and Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue.

Based primarily on the 1894 novella by Jules Renard, Duvivier’s film centers on the rural Lepic family, and specifically on the ignored redheaded youngest child, François (Robert Lynen), referred to by the slightly demeaning moniker Poil de Carotte, or Carrottop. As the film opens, he is being chastised by a teacher for writing in an essay, “A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who cannot stand each other.” For him, home life is a burden. Though he’s desperate for attention from his indifferent, always busy father (Harry Baur), the town’s mayor, and browbeaten mercilessly by his abusive mother (Catherine Fonteney), the resilient Poil de Carotte, with his lively, wisecracking demeanor, is hardly a pushover. Even so, his unhappiness can be concealed for only so long, although the near tragedy of the film’s climax gives rise to a cathartic, redemptive connection between father and son, made all the more moving by Baur’s and Lynen’s emotionally acute, unsentimental performances.

Filmed in the summer of 1932 in Corrèze, France, Poil de Carotte has a sunny outdoor lushness that provides a sharp contrast to the dark interiors of David Golder. Poignant pastoral moments abound, including a sequence in which the boy marries a little neighbor girl in a play ceremony, surrounded by barnyard animals, and another that sees him prancing naked beside a rocky stream. Yet darkness encroaches on the film’s edges, and Duvivier experiments visually in ways reminiscent of his contemporary Jean Vigo’s flights of fancy, including a sequence in which Poil de Carotte imagines a ring of demonic ghosts when he goes out on his fearful night journey to shut the chicken coop, and double-exposure effects that envision the lonely child having conversations with himself.

Released in November of 1932, Poil de Carotte was an immediate sensation, playing for a year in Paris. It remained one of Duvivier’s biggest hits; the director even wanted to return to the story for a third time in the fifties, with a color version featuring Jean Gabin as the father, although the project fell through. One of the film’s great legacies is the performance of the twelve-year-old Lynen, whom this debut role made an instant star. After acting in a handful of movies over the next decade, Lynen joined the French Resistance during World War II, and was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis in 1944.


DARK PASSAGE

An image of a guillotine looms under the opening credits. And indeed, La tête d’un homme (1933) was Julien Duvivier’s darkest work to that point. Based on a book by Georges Simenon, the film stars Harry Baur as the great French author’s iconic sleuth, Inspector Jules Maigret, investigating the murder of an elderly American woman in Paris’s Montparnasse. As the viewer is aware from the film’s detailed setup, the death has links to the woman’s nephew, the sole beneficiary of her fortune; a sinister, tubercular medical student; and a petty thief. It’s up to Maigret, inhabited by Baur with his customary sly restraint, to unravel these various threads. La tête d’un homme is a policier, but an unorthodox one. Unlike Maigret, we meet all the criminal elements early, in a deviation from the book; Duvivier, who also cowrote the screenplay, wanted the film to be less a mystery than the story of the psychological struggle between the inspector and his prey.

Much more important than the complex plot is the way Duvivier presents it, with suggestive camera moves that are Hitchcockian avant la lettre, eerily expressive sound, and elegantly claustrophobic set design. The way cinematographer Armand Thirard follows a significant handwritten note as it’s quietly poached from a pocket in a café is effortlessly suspenseful visual storytelling, and the film is filled with superb moves, like a flashlighted crane up a dark staircase or a glide through a smoke-choked police station. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear that its dark heart belongs to Radek, a Czech immigrant student and murder mastermind. A sickly, emaciated figure, Radek is a classic literary conceit, a Dostoyevskian nihilist made flesh by the mesmerizing Russian émigré actor Valéry Inkijinoff. The film seems to emanate from his distinctly twisted perspective, especially in its mournful final passages, which point ahead to the brooding fatalism of Duvivier’s 1937 poetic realist masterpiece Pépé le moko.

Initially, Simenon, dissatisfied with earlier screen adaptations of his novels, had wanted to direct La tête d’un homme himself, but his plans fell through, and Duvivier took over the project. The idea to hire Inkijinoff had come from Simenon, though it was at Duvivier’s insistence that Baur was cast as Maigret (Simenon wanted Pierre Renoir, who had played Maigret once before, in his brother Jean’s 1932 La nuit du carrefour). Baur was supposed to already be shooting what would be a monumental lead performance as Jean Valjean in Raymond Bernard’s Les misérables (1934), but a production delay allowed him to take on Maigret first.

Both actors were inspired selections, and the penetrating way they are captured in close-up as their characters descend into their game of cat and mouse is among the film’s purest pleasures. Adding to the sense of existential mystery is the use of offscreen sound, including the wolf howl that accompanies the revelation of the murdered corpse and, near the film’s extraordinary climax, the haunting song that emanates from an apartment next to Radek’s. The oddly hollow but gorgeous voice belongs to the music hall singer Damia, seen later, in a breathtaking slow tracking shot, singing on her bed. Her song, “Complainte” (with lyrics by Duvivier), becomes the film’s sad anthem. “I lived out my destiny / And all I see / Inside of me / Is a night that’s foggy, dark, and gray,” she sings. The words, suffused with shadows and fatalism, could be from the point of view of French cinema itself, heralding the arrival of poetic realism.


JOURNEY TO THE PAST

In 1937, Julien Duvivier directed the film that would define him for decades. Pépé le moko, a romantic crime story set in the Algerian Casbah, was a remarkable success, more or less launching the poetic realist style and cementing actor Jean Gabin as the face of 1930s French cinema. Later that year, Duvivier made another movie that was just as popular at the time and marked a crucial turning point in his career, even if it has now been largely forgotten. Mixing comedy and drama, whimsy and realism, Un carnet de bal, inspired by Jean Giraudoux’s 1924 novel Juliette au pays des hommes, is an episodic work that, with its technical craft, visual inspiration, and shifting tonal registers, shows the filmmaker at his very best.

Christine (Marie Bell), a rich, childless French widow living in Italy as she enters middle age, decides to travel Europe to reconnect with the suitors of her youth, whose names are penciled on a dance card from her first ball. The assurance of the film’s first movement is dazzling. Christine’s privileged existence is introduced via a series of gorgeous exterior images—mountains, cypress trees, and her enormous villa (achieved with a triumphant matte painting) emphasize the verticality of the 1.33:1 frame. Yet, as illustrated by a shot that begins close in on Christine and cranes out to reveal the vast space of her empty room, she is lonely. Duvivier then dissolves to a glittering ballroom of the past; we see a row of curtsying women in white, each grabbed by a partner and twirled away in rhapsodic slow motion. Adding to the scene’s eeriness, composer Maurice Jaubert had his musicians play the score backward, then reversed the recording. It’s a fitting first act for a film that depicts the past as a romantic illusion.

Un carnet de bal proceeds to follow Christine from one encounter to the next, each in a dramatically different setting, from snowcapped mountains to a sunny French village to a dilapidated Marseille apartment that is shot at such a cant that it looks like the actors will slide out of the frame. The men she visits include a disbarred lawyer turned gangster (Louis Jouvet), a Pyrenees mountain guide (Pierre Richard-Willm), a small-town mayor (Raimu), and, in the film’s most moving sequence, a heartbroken priest, played by Harry Baur, in his last performance for Duvivier. Baur would live for only six more years; in 1943, he was tortured and killed by the Gestapo for anti-Nazi activities.

Un carnet de bal is diverting throughout, while its melancholy about love and aging give it emotional heft. Directly after its release, Duvivier was summoned to Hollywood to direct the 1938 Johann Strauss biopic The Great Waltz for MGM. In the subsequent decade, he shuttled between Europe and the United States, his English-language successes including Tales of Manhattan (1942), featuring Paul Robeson and Henry Fonda, and the Vivien Leigh–starring Anna Karenina (1948). Beginning in the fifties, Duvivier worked exclusively back in France, until his death in a car crash in 1967. Although his reputation waned after the Cahiers du cinéma critics fingered him as one of the makers of retrograde “cinéma du papa” films, his work today looks formidable, even groundbreaking. Take it from Jean Renoir: “If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of Duvivier above the entrance.”