The English titles for the afternoon fare were HAPPINESS and HATRED (as programmer renegade extraordinaire Don Malcolm pointed out in his program notes). Noir being noir, might one expect a sense of irony?
Is there love after attempted murder? Is there love before attempted murder? Is there love? Charles Boyer and Gaby Morlay explore the possibilities in LE BONHEUR aka HAPPINESS (Marcel L’Herbier 1935).
Boyer is a sketch artist for an anarchist newspaper. A right-wing newspaper purchases his services to sketch France’s favorite actress (portrayed by Morlay) upon her return from Hollywood. She’s a diva of the highest order, aided and abetted by her hanger-on husband and her agent (Michel Simon providing a comic element). Boyer attends her live appearance, mixes in the throng outside the stage door, and shots her. Luckily, it was only in the shoulder.
At trial, Boyer contends he shot her for political reasons – she was the person best-known among the masses and she was available for an assassination attempt. Morlay turns her trial testimony into a stage play, pleading with grandiose magnanimity that he be forgiven, and Boyer countering that he does not want her forgiveness. He gets an 18-month sentence.
Upon his release, she files for divorce and Boyer becomes her paramour. The sincerity of each is questionable at first, but eventually appears real. Boyer explains that his attempt at murder was initially fed by his politics, but upon hearing her rendition of “Le Bonheur” at the concert, he became obsessed to have her only to himself and that the only way to do that was to kill her. That story becomes the basis for her next film. And the story begins to replay itself when she is called away at midnight for a…reshoot.
The narrative and the performances are magnificent. And L’Herbier’s eye is equal to them. Bordering on the avant-garde at times, even the opening credits are stunning. He was a visual experimenter and innovator in his earlier films, and brought a court case that established in France that a director has a right to be considered the auteur of a film. He founded a film school at which students included Louis Malle and Costa-Gavras, and was president of Cinematheque Francaise during WWII. Also, in the early-1900s, a lover shot him and, then, herself. All that now forms the basis for further exploration of his work. Forgive me for not having already done so.
MOLLENARD aka HATRED (Robert Siodmak 1938) was Siodmak’s next-to-last screen credit before coming to the United States. Eugen Schufftan was the cinematographer; LE QUAI DES BRUMES aka PORT OF SHADOWS (Marcel Carne 1938) was his next film. Charles Spaak wrote the scenario. Darius Milhaud composed the music. Harry Baur is the star. That’s enough for a recommendation.
Commander Mollenard is a ship captain and, for a little extra money, arms smuggler. He loves his crew, as they do him, and being on the sea. It also helps that he hates his nagging, upper-crust wife. There is symmetry. She hates him for being away for months at a time and for coming home. She has even turned their children against him.
While in Shanghai, the smuggling is detected and he is to be suspended. His desire to cash in big with this last haul turns into a war with an arms buyer. While returning home, there a fire on the ship – a time bomb planted by the arms buyer – and it sinks. The commander and crew, as survivors of a sunken ship, are given a hero’s welcome. The commander wants none of it, preferring the sea, the crew, and the alcohol to being at home with his shrewish wife and turncoat children. But before he can head back to sea, he falls deathly ill and is required to stay at home in bed to be tended to – and tormented by – his spouse. Then the hatred truly comes to the fore. Death, of someone in some way, some manner, will be a relief.
Siodmak is finding his noir footing on his way to Despair, Delirium, and Destiny.
Then came the evening of Scheming & Scandal in Cinema!
Robert Bresson. Those two words are all I need to watch a movie. His second feature film, LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (1945), does not disappoint.
A gentleman drops Helene (Maria Casares) off at her posh apartment at night. He tells her that her other man, Jean (Paul Bernard), does not love her. She enters the apartment and greets Jean. She calmly explains that she has grown distant and their affair needs to end. Jean is relieved because he was about to say the same. He wants to remain her confidante and assures her that he will never be able to find another woman to compare to her. She expresses similar sentiments. It’s the infamous mutual break-up with “let’s remain friends” coda! One knows this will go awry.
Helene sees two old friends, a woman and her daughter, Agnes (Elina Labourdette), who have fallen on hard times. Agnes is a cabaret dancer and a prostitute, with her mother as the pimp. They hate their lives. Helene takes them away from that, putting them in a new apartment. She thinks Jean would be well suited for Agnes, and arranges a meeting. Jean is immediately smitten by her beauty and innocence. Agnes is not similarly smitten. Helene surreptitiously advises both. The more Agnes remains unmoved, the more Jean is moved. Agnes finally relents and they marry. Helene joyfully arranges everything about the wedding, including the guests…Agnes’ former clients.
Add Humiliation as a component of the Despair-Delirium-Destiny troika. And add Helene to the list of Conniving Women of Noir.
With a final scene that is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946), but with the genders reversed.
LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE dialogue written by…Jean Cocteau.
The night drew to a close with a reverse angle and GIBIER DE POTENCE aka GIGOLO (Roger Richebe 1951), starring Arletty as Madame Alice and Georges Marchal as Marceau.
Marceau is fresh from the army, but with no prospects. Flashback: Leaving the strict Roman Catholic orphanage, meeting a middle-aged high end lingerie shop owner, Madame Alice, who thinks he would be a marvelous photography model, posing with a young woman for a few French postcards, and, with Madame Alice as his ever encouraging and supportive agent, becoming a gigolo who seems to sabotage his relationship with each client after a while. WWII and his entry into the army break that pattern.
Now out of the army, he has the irresistible impulse to return to Madame Alice. The pattern returns. Through it all, Madame Alice gently rejects Marceau’s advances. He wants to know why. She says that when she was eight-years old, a man…and the explanation is left unstated. Madame Alice takes him to a resort. He meets a sweet virginal young woman. They are smitten. Her family approves of him as an appropriate husband. Madame Alice had not brought him there for love, but for securing a job with the wealthy family.
Madame Alice waves those French postcards under his nose. They smell of the past and blackmail. And Despair, Delirium, and Destiny.
Magnifique appariement, Don!