Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sacha Guitry

Sacha Guitry (pronounced, I think, GHEE-tree) was a well-known French playwright, librettist, actor and theater impresario between the wars. Perhaps the closest English-speaking equivalent would be someone like Noël Coward, although Coward could carry a tune. (Guitry, despite his resonant baritone speaking voice, apparently couldn't: his role in André Messager's musical comedy L'amour masqué (1923), for which Guitry wrote the libretto, was a speaking one.)

But despite his renown on the stage, up until the mid-1930s Guitry had not been very active in film. Of course, movies were silent until the late 1920s; perhaps, like Kathy Selden in Singin' in the Rain, Guitry thought that "acting means great parts, wonderful lines, speaking those glorious words"—his own, of course.

By the mid-1930s two changes had occurred: film sound technology had improved, and Guitry had married the young actress Jacqueline Delubac, who convinced him to try his hand at the new medium. He began to make up for lost time, writing, directing, and starring in a dozen or so films in the five years between 1935 and the declaration of war with Germany in late 1939. Gaumont Films and the Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series have released a selection of his movies from the 1930s, and they're a mixed bag.

Le roman d'un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936): A curious thing about this film, Guitry's fourth sound feature and the earliest film in the Criterion Collection, is that it is almost entirely narrated. Even most of the dialogue scenes have a voiceover instead of diegetic sound. The layers of metafiction are made denser by the opening sequence, which introduces the actors and technical crew, and by the frame story (the Cheat is writing his memoirs, and the story takes place in flashback). Amusingly, as the Cheat sits in a café and begins writing the story we are about to see, the music we hear on the soundtrack turns out to be provided by a strolling violinist in the café. Guitry could not be signalling the constructedness of his tale any more clearly.

As a young boy the Cheat is left orphaned and alone after his family dies en masse after eating a meal of freshly-gathered but, alas, poisonous mushrooms. Having stolen money from his family's grocery store earlier that day so he could buy some coveted marbles, the Cheat has been forbidden from eating any of the special treat and so is the lone survivor. "Yes, I was alive because I'd robbed the till. Did that mean that the others had died because they'd been honest? As I fell asleep that night in the empty house, I formed an opinion about theft and justice which may seem rather paradoxical, but which 40 years of experience haven't altered." We watch those 40 years of experience unfold, as the Cheat quickly realizes that thievery and deceit are the basis of the social system and the fortunes of the respectable rich, and determines to get his share.

Made in the depths of the Great Depression, The Story of a Cheat offers no homilies about honesty or hard work; quite the opposite: ". . .after stealing huge amounts, I turned honest, and went completely broke." Its cynicism, though, is presented with irony and charm. This was my favorite of the four Criterion films, and is definitely the place to start (and perhaps finish) if you want to explore Guitry's movie comedies.

Les perles de la couronne (The Pearls of the Crown, 1937): This is one of those "following a chain of characters" films, the template for which was established by Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde (1897, made into a film in 1950). The pearls of the title are a matched set of seven, four of which wind up adorning the Crown of England. The film investigates the fates of the other three pearls as they pass from hand to hand over the centuries.

The story seems mainly to be an excuse for Guitry and his regular ensemble to dress up in costume and play the roles of historical figures (including a sequence with Arletty in blackface playing the Queen of Abyssinia). As in The Story of a Cheat there is a frame story and narration (this time with Guitry and Delubac playing themselves), but everything in The Pearls of the Crown is handled in a clunkier way. And the story's conclusion is deliberately anticlimatic. This is some people's favorite Guitry film, but I'm at a loss to understand why.

Umm. . .

Désiré (1937) depicts desire that ignores distinctions of class. It features the lovely Delubac as Odette, the longtime mistress of a preoccupied minister of state (Jacques Baumer). Odette, taken for granted, begins having erotic dreams about her newly hired valet de chambre, Désiré (which literally means "desired").

We learn that Désiré has been dismissed from several previous positions because his mistresses found him sexually irresistible. I'm not the best judge of male attractiveness, but that the valet is played by the paunchy middle-aged Guitry in an obvious wig stretches credulity. Although we learn that Désiré is 38, Guitry was over 50 and looks even older; Delubac was more than two decades younger than her husband. Guitry had played the role of Désiré onstage ten years previously, but he was 42 at the time; Odette had been played by his then-wife Yvonne Printemps, who was in her early 30s. So in the stage version, perhaps, the idea of Odette fantasizing about her valet was more credible.

The film has some clever upstairs-downstairs juxtapositions as the servants obsess about their employers, and vice versa. And there's an amusing sequence where we peek into the dreams of the members of the household (the lady of the house dreams of Désiré making advances to her, while her maid (Arletty) dreams of wearing her mistress's fabulous gowns). But not only is there Guitry's obvious vanity in casting himself as a universal object of desire, the movie concludes with his character giving his mistress a lengthy harangue about the wisdom of leaving feelings of mutual (but impossible) attraction understood but unspoken. The big closing monologue seems lifted without alteration from the play, and it leaves a sour taste.

Quadrille (Foursome, 1938): A talky and stagy infidelity comedy that once again obviously originated as a play (which had premiered only a few months before). It has some funny lines and the considerable charm of the elfin Delubac, but those elements are not quite enough to make it recommendable.

Quadrille concerns the erotic chaos sowed in the settled, not to say stale, relationship of middle-aged newspaper editor Philippe (Guitry) and his live-in mistress of six years, the actress Paulette (Gaby Morlay), by the arrival in Paris of the handsome Hollywood actor Carl (George Grey). Delubac is Claudine, a newspaper reporter and Paulette's sensible friend and confidante, who tries to patch things up between Philippe and Paulette after Paulette impulsively spends a passionate night in Carl's hotel room. From the professions of the characters you can probably guess how the couples ultimately rearrange themselves, apparently to everyone's satisfaction. Quadrille and Guitry's other comedies acknowledge desire and sex outside of matrimony (or even monogamy) in a way in which American films of the period were forbidden by the Production Code. Why, though, we should care about the romantic indiscretions of any of these characters is never made clear.

In an article in the New York Times film critic Dave Kehr called Guitry "one of France’s greatest filmmakers, fully the peer of Jean Renoir and François Truffaut." I'd have to say that I don't share Kehr's enthusiasm. On the evidence of these films Guitry does not rank in the company of the director who made Grand Illusion (La grande illusion, 1937) and The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). In fact, for me the great discovery of the Criterion series was Delubac, who almost makes even Guitry's lesser films worth watching.

Neither is Guitry the equal of another contemporary French filmmaker, René Clair, who is perhaps the more apt comparison. Look for a post about Clair's early films in the near future.

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