In his 2018 essay on Panique (1946), James Quandt notes that Julien Duvivier was “dismissed by the nouvelle vague directors, especially Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, for what they viewed as his bland prolificacy, his lack of an individual style or personality. Even the director’s recent champions have resorted to such ambiguous terms as ‘demi-auteur’ or ‘impure auteur’ to describe the pro whose mind was always on his next project and whose vast output ranged across countless genres.” But at the very least, Panique “testifies to a long-standing authorial vision,” and it’s one of nineteen films screening in a series running at the Arsenal in Berlin from tomorrow through the end of March. Mise en Scène: Julien Duvivier is the first retrospective in Germany dedicated to the “master of poetic realism.”
Nineteen also happens to have been Duvivier’s age when he launched his career as an actor at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris in 1916. Two years later, he was at Gaumont, the renowned French studio, working as a writer and an assistant to Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier, and in 1919, he directed his first feature, Haceldama, a silent melodrama shot through with murderous schemes. Around twenty features followed, many of them “as visually dynamic and emotionally vibrant as even the best films of the era,” as Derek Smith wrote at Slant when Flicker Alley released its box set Cinema of Discovery: Julien Duvivier in the 1920s early last year.
Duvivier’s first talkie, David Golder (1930), an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s novel about a nasty banker and his nastier wife and daughter, signaled the beginning of “the most fruitful era of his career,” as Michael Koresky writes in the essay accompanying the release of our collection Julien Duvivier in the Thirties. These films 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).”
Imogen Sara Smith has suggested that “if you consider noir as a global phenomenon,” then Duvivier’s Pépé le moko (1937), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938), and Carné’s Port of Shadows (1938), “with their fatalistic despair and moody romanticism, may be the first full harvest of this bitter crop.” But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The Arsenal is also screening Allô Berlin? Ici Paris! (1932), a brisk comedy of mistaken identities among telephone operators in the German and French capitals that, as series curators Ralph Eue and Frederik Lang put it, combines “the best qualities of Weimar sound comedy with those of French poetic realism.”
During the Second World War, Duvivier worked in Hollywood—briefly in 1938 and then again from 1940 to 1945—before returning to France and making Panique, a “beautiful and merciless film” that “has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis,” as Chuck Bowen writes at Slant. When a woman is found dead in a Paris suburb, all eyes turn to the local eccentric, Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon). Panique has, “at its center,” writes Bowen, “the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism.”
Ben McCann, the author of the 2017 book Julien Duvivier, notes in Senses of Cinema that his subject is “a director of range, adaptability, and know-how, yet attempting to define the ‘Duvivier style’ can be a frustrating exercise . . . He always maintained that a film’s style was dictated by its subject, and not its director: ‘Genius is just a word; filmmaking is a craft, a tough craft that must be learned. Personally, the more I work, the more I realize how little I know in proportion to the infinite possibilities of cinematic expressions.’ But despite such protestations, Duvivier’s authorial vision remained, from film to film, unmistakeable.”
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