By the time German forces marched into Paris in June 1940, there was little to indicate that thirty-eight-year-old Claude Autant-Lara was on the verge of artistic and professional triumph with the quartet of films that would establish him as one of French cinema’s leading directors of the forties and fifties. Autant-Lara had spent his life on the fringes of glory but never experienced a real success of his own. The son of an actress with the Comédie-Française and an acclaimed architect and set designer, he had himself worked as a set and costume designer for Marcel L’Herbier and Jean Renoir, made a handful of silent experimental shorts, and spent time in Hollywood directing shot-for-shot remakes of Buster Keaton pictures for the French market. Back in France in 1933, Autant-Lara had been assigned his first original feature as a director: Ciboulette, an adaptation of a popular operetta. He thought his time had come. Alas, the film was mangled by its producers in the cutting room, critically lambasted, and eventually disowned by its director, who fell back on “ghost directing” as a technical supervisor on three features credited to theater actor Maurice Lehmann. As France fell to the Nazis, Autant-Lara was at best a journeyman, at worst a hack.
Upon arrival in Paris, the Germans set up a propaganda unit, responsible for overseeing—i.e., censoring—the French media and entertainment industry. All American films and many French films were banned, while German films were rushed into theaters. But the French audience took little interest in the German cinema, and the Nazi authorities soon had to allow French filmmakers to return to production, albeit of carefully controlled entertainments. Unsurprisingly, the occupation yielded a large number of watered-down costume pictures and dreamy comedies; the censors were watching closely, and anything that looked like political or social commentary was out, as Jean Grémillon learned the hard way when his Lumière d’été was pulled from theaters shortly after its release in 1943.
As for Autant-Lara, he was wise enough to take a piece of advice from his mother and read Le mariage de Chiffon, a popular 1894 novel by Mme Gyp, a tremendously prolific romance writer from the French aristocracy. Autant-Lara recognized that this story of a rebellious young woman in love with her stepfather’s brother, an eccentric inventor, could provide exactly what was needed by an audience still reeling from the French defeat, and suffering the privations and suspicionsof life under the occupation. He enrolled screenwriter Jean Aurenche, with whom he had worked on one of the Lehmann films, to create a sunny portrait of the French provinces at the height of the belle epoque, with characters both unconventional and passionate, but fundamentally selfless and noble in spirit.
While Le mariage de Chiffon (1942) is undoubtedly escapist in its picture of an earlier, happier time in French life, it is far from single-noted. It begins with the nostalgic sweep of the great Max Ophuls films, with a train pulling into the station at Pont-sur-Sarthe and a colonel with the dragoons returning to a dark, rain-slicked street where he has not set foot in over a decade. Here, he encounters a charming young woman but fails to learn her name or address, leaving only with one of her shoes. Chiffon briefly becomes a Cinderella story as told by Ernst Lubitsch, with the colonel embarking on a wild shoe chase. Meanwhile, the viewer learns that the young woman is Corysande, better known as Chiffon, an independent lass of sixteen who likes nothing better than to spend time in the hangar where her “uncle” Marc is perfecting a flying machine, much to her aristocratic mother’s chagrin. Chiffon does not yet know that she is in love with Marc, but she will do anything to help him, including marry the colonel to get her dowry and pay off the debts he has incurred in pursuit of his invention.
In the role of Chiffon, Autant-Lara cast the rising actor Odette Joyeux, a former ballet student at the Paris Opera whose girlish appearance belied a wide range and pointed wit ideally suited to the headstrong young aristocrat who refuses to wear a corset because she “wants to be herself.” In some respects, the four films Autant-Lara would make with Joyeux during the war years are strikingly modern women’s pictures: with the exception of Douce, the tragic outlier in the pack, these are stories in which a young woman in love is defined not by her affections but by her ambitions and values. In all of these films, Joyeux plays charming but driven women, prepared to break with the encumbrances of tradition and propriety to get what they want.
Le mariage de Chiffon is also the tale of a noble surrender, that of the colonel who agrees to let Chiffon go. This debonair career officer who bows to the greater good and steps out of the race may have been the greatest balm to the French heart. The film was a box-office success upon its release in the summer of 1942; Autant-Lara was finally a director to be reckoned with, and his star, Joyeux, joined Danielle Darrieux and Michèle Morgan as one of the top draws of the war period. As Aurenche would put it in a 1982 interview, “this film benefited from a time when the French were humiliated. And, for the first time, one could see happy Frenchmen on-screen, a colonel who was charming. Everybody was comforted by it.”
Ironically, the occupation was not only a launchpad for Autant-Lara’s career but perhaps the period when his films were most optimistic about the human spirit. While he would go from one success to the next in the postwar years, films like Le diable au corps (1947), L’auberge rouge (1951), and La traversée de Paris (1956) evinced a taste for scandal and an increasingly cynical outlook attacked by the young critics of the Cahiers du cinéma set, soon to be known worldwide as the directors of the French New Wave. While François Truffaut’s legendary 1954 polemic “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” targeted screenwriters, it focused largely on the Autant-Lara films written by Aurenche and Pierre Bost and was arguably as damaging to his reputation as it was to theirs. By the beginning of the sixties, Autant-Lara had been pushed out of the limelight. He continued to make films into the next decade, but most went unnoticed by audiences and unloved by critics. Sadly, his public life ended in a grotesque and reprehensible manner: he was elected to the European Parliament in 1989 as a member of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front and made several incendiary anti-Semitic statements. While these actions on the part of an embittered old man are indefensible, it is worth mentioning that his films never espoused such detestable views. On the contrary, Autant-Lara’s work often embraced controversial progressive and antiestablishment positions, vigorously defending the right to abortion long before it was legalized and praising conscientious objection when young Frenchmen were being called to fight the independence movement in Algeria. As for Autant-Lara’s enchanting wartime films, one might venture to say that they are the work of an entirely different person from the man he later became, one at the top of his game as a filmmaker—and perhaps as a human being.
Released two days before Christmas in the dark year of 1942, Claude Autant-Lara’s follow-up to Le mariage de Chiffon could not have been more fanciful: one of the first scenes in Lettres d’amour finds a slightly insecure, dreamy Emperor Napoléon III slipping away from an official function in the provinces to cheerfully listen to a parakeet’s insults and stroll through a field with a widowed young businesswoman. The year is 1855, the setting the provincial town of Argenson, and Napoléon III is soon cast aside as Autant-Lara embarks on a zippy comedy in which a series of love letters circulate as freely as Chiffon’s missing shoe did in his previous film, but serve a real dramatic function, initially sowing confusion, then letting the truth be known.
With its layered cases of mistaken identity and its irresistible satirization of the French aristocracy and bureaucracy, Lettres d’amour is a showcase for a troupe of seasoned actors who gleefully race through Jean Aurenche’s witty dialogue and zany set pieces, including a ballroom-dancing class held in a barn. As Zélie Fontaine, the aforementioned widowed owner of a provincial stagecoach company, Odette Joyeux confirms her talent at playing quick-thinking, independent young women. Like Chiffon, Zélie is honest to the point of bluntness. When the emperor learns she has been widowed for three years after only three months of marriage, he comments: “Three months of happiness, three years of regret.” Zélie swiftly corrects him: “Three months of regret, three years of happiness. I’m free, rich, and happy.” Joyeux’s girlish voice and marvelously open face may soften the edges of Zélie’s protofeminist statements, but Zélie never fails to tell it like it is, unlike her deceitful “best friend” Hortense, the wife of the local prefect and a fickle mistress to the young prosecutor François de Portal.
As de Portal, Autant-Lara cast François Périer, a wonderfully expressive actor gifted with a changeable appearance: depending on how the camera catches him, de Portal looks like an awkward pip-squeak or a romantic young man. The actor and his director make the most of this, poking fun at de Portal’s pretensions but crafting a measured performance that stands a little apart from the high-velocity comic turns by the rest of the cast. De Portal may be the only character who takes the time to changeover the course of the story; he is certainly the only one worthy of the freethinking Zélie Fontaine. Lettres d’amour also marks the first of many collaborations between Autant-Lara and the actor Julien Carette, who had been so memorable as the rakish poacher in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Here, the comic dynamo with a thick Paris accent plays a dance instructor posing as a doctor for mentally ill patients, and his every gesture and utterance is a staccato eruption of fatigue or exasperation. Carette’s performance is a prime example of an outsider briefly barging into a movie and making it his own.
While Autant-Lara’s fluid mise-en-scène yields an entertainment as effervescent as a fine champagne, the film rests on a serious subject—and one that is rather surprising for a picture made on the watch of the Nazi censors. Indeed, the class struggle jovially depicted in the rivalry between Argenson’s “société” (the aristocracy) and its “boutique” (the merchant bourgeoisie) would return in a more pointed manner in Autant-Lara’s next film, the darker, more substantial Douce.
Douce begins with a wondrous flourish worthy of the greatest silver-screen romances: a camera tracks over the snowy roofs of belle epoque Paris, coming upon the Eiffel Tower looking oddly truncated in its half-completed state. As snow swirls before the lens, we descend to street level and enter a shadowy church, pushing forward into the confessional, where a veiled woman unburdens herself to a priest. Speaking the first words of the film, the priest reveals its terrible crux: “Is there a class difference between you?” Here ends the romantic ambience and begins harsh reality: Douce is a love story, but a love story constricted by class, a battleground between aristocrats and commoners in which Claude Autant-Lara’s flair for merciless satire is balanced with a mournful assessment of the class system’s devastating effects on the human heart. The critic Pierre Macabru put it best in a review of the film in the cultural weekly Arts: “One thinks of Maupassant, a Maupassant who has read Marx.”
In Douce, the purity of feeling and selflessness of Le mariage de Chiffon give way to obsession and self-interest. Appropriately, Autant-Lara and his director of photography, Philippe Agostini, create a hushed, nocturnal atmosphere, far removed from the brightness of their previous two collaborations. Low camera angles, deceptive mirror images, and shots through foggy windows emphasize the emotional crookedness of a home in which feelings are allowed to fester. This more brittle environment provides Odette Joyeux with an opportunity to show the full range of her talent, breaking with the youthful charm of Chiffon and Zélie to deliver a more uncomfortable but startlingly convincing turn as Douce, a young woman madly in love with her family’s steward, Fabien. For the first time, the unpredictable, mercurial quality found in all of Joyeux’s performances suggests a character who could be dangerous if she does not get what she wants. The tragedy here is that Douce’s love may be no more than a rich girl’s adolescent whim, a fantasy with no grasp on reality. Indeed, the theme of class difference is most painfully acute in the contrast between the aristocratic Douce and her governess, Irène, played with aching restraint by Madeleine Robinson: Douce has the luxury of indulging her passion, however ill-fated, whereas the lowborn Irène must think of propriety and her future no matter what her heart tells her.
With Douce, Autant-Lara took a determined step toward the caustic, even subversive films he would come to be known for in the late forties and fifties. A particularly loaded moment comes when the Countess de Bonafé, Douce’s grandmother and a monster of self-righteous privilege, makes her annual charity visit to the poor and takes her leave of one family with “I wish you patience and resignation.” Fabien whispers: “You should wish them impatience and revolt.” Strong enough words in and of themselves, but add in the fact that the countess’s bromide was frequently used in radio addresses by Marshal Pétain, head of the collaborationist Vichy government, and you have a genuine call to insurrection. It comes as no surprise that the Vichy censors had the scene removed shortly after the film’s release in November 1943; it was restored after the war.
One Last Flight
A charmingly playful, lyrical ghost story featuring one real ghost and three fakes, Sylvie et le fantôme was originally a stage production written and performed by Alfred Adam at the prestigious Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris in 1942. Claude Autant-Lara thought it would make a good film, in the style of whimsical ghost tales of the period like Marcel Carné’s Les visiteurs du soir and Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. He also saw it as an opportunity to get back to what had drawn him to film in the first place: special effects and the movie magic of Georges Méliès. But the producers were harder to convince. Despite the fact that he had reassembled the proven team of screenwriter Jean Aurenche, cinematographer Philippe Agostini, and actor Odette Joyeux in the title role (she was already thirty but still playing sixteen!), Autant-Lara struggled to find financing. Finally, on January 29, 1945, with France freshly liberated and Hitler’s forces retreating east after their defeat in the Battle of the Bulge, the cameras began rolling on what would be his biggest success to date, a film blissfully unaware of contemporary events and a last fanciful flight away from the bitterness introduced by Douce, focusing once again on the romantic fortunes of a free-spirited young aristocrat—with the added twist that one of the rivals for her love is a genuine phantom.
The ghost in question is played by Jacques Tati, then a renowned music-hall entertainer making his first appearance on the screen. Autant-Lara had heard about Tati from his production director, Fred Orain, who had worked with Marcel Carné when he briefly considered Tati for the lead role in Children of Paradise. As the gentle ghost of an ill-fated hunter who once loved Sylvie’s grandmother, Tati is a graceful, utterly silent figure, appearing in a state of semitransparency, accompanied by the melody of a pan flute. The ghost effect was achieved by building two identical sets, one for the regular actors and one for Tati, who was reflected onto the regular set and filmed using an optical glass. Autant-Lara later described the effect as similar to that of a train window in which one sees both the landscape and the reflections of the passengers. Clearly taken with this bit of wizardry, he devoted a long, meandering sequence to watching the ghost float through Sylvie’s family’s château. While Autant-Lara’s facility for handling multiple characters across a fast-paced, constantly shifting story is still in evidence here, it occasionally yields to this more contemplative mood, well suited to depicting the emotional awakening of a young woman overenthralled by the past.
Of the three fake ghosts, two are young trespassers thrown together by chance: a highborn admirer of Sylvie’s and a professional burglar whose encounter in the night and eventual alliance across class lines foreshadow the relationship between Jean Gabin and Bourvil in Autant-Lara’s 1956 box-office smash La traversée de Paris, the coal-black comedy about the occupation that many consider his masterpiece—even François Truffaut had to concede the film was pretty good. By that time, Autant-Lara had made several films on the occupation, each more cynical than the last, as if he had to do penance for the sweetness and innocence of his wartime comedies.