Annabella was the sensation of the moment in the French cinema of 1935 and gets top billing in La Bandera. But it´s Gabin´s film all the way, one he considered part of his ‘Palmarès,´his Greatest Hits, those which contributed to the construction of his persona as the defining star of 1930s French cinema, and by extension key to an understanding of French culture of the period. One can see it as a dry run for Pépé le Moko (1937) also directed by Julien Duvivier: a young man on the lam, exotic locales, male camaraderie and derring-do. One could group these films together with Gunga Din (George Stevens) for an interesting comparative study of French and American masculinity in relation to Orientalism in the action/adventure genre.
Its Orientalism aside, La Bandera is great glamorous fun. But can one cast it aside? It´s so central to its pleasures, all those extraordinary close-ups of Annabella encased in golden collars, bracelets, coins, veils. Perhaps one can only find it fun because one is unaffected by its effects? These are questions I asked myself. But only in retrospect.
The trailer well conveys the film´s themes and its attractions: ‘Can a life of heroism and abnegation erase the error of an instant? The trailer shows off the spectacle of army manoeuvres and promises ‘L’atmosphère vibrante de l’Espagne‘/ The vibrant atmosphere of Spain’ …You will passionately follow the painful adventures of Jean Gabin, ennobled by discipline, softened by love, crowned by a soldier´s heroic death…You will find your favourite star, Annabella, in an entirely new guise´. Drama! Action! Humour!
La Bandera delivers on all the promises of its trailer. It´s great trashy fun, no expense spared, with plenty of spectacle, exotic locales, stars, an extraordinary marriage sequence where Annabella and Jean Gabin drink each others´ blood, and one of the great death scenes Gabin would become famous for,
As you can see above, Duvivier brings great visual flair to the film. The still is from the great opening scene: a drunken couple is wandering through the streets of Paris. A man comes out of the shadows. She embraces him and asks him to join them for a drink. He gently pushes her aside and wonders off. As he does so, she realises her dress is stained with the blood from his hands. The camera tilts up to show us it´s Rue St. Vincent. It´s visually and conceptually brilliant. A great dramatic beginning to the story.
The murderer of the rue St. Vincent is Pierre Gillieth (Jean Gabin) and when we next see him he´s wandering the ramblas in Barcelona. The film ostensibly had location shoots in Barcelona and in Tetuán in Spanish Morocco, and the production was allowed to film in the military barracks of the latter thanks to the intervention of Franco, a few years later the Generalissimo of all of Spain, due to Franco, a famous cinephile, being a fan of Gabin´s. It´s worth noting that the film was made a year before the Spanish Civil War erupted. A few years later being a member of the Spanish Foreign Legion would not have seemed so attractive a proposition.
Though there was location shooting in Barcelona, what we see are mostly process shots of Gabin wandering the Ramblas and the Barri Gotic/Gothic Quarter. However, one of the Barcelona scenes that really stands out, for me a marker of the differences between American and French cinema, is the nightclub scene below: nude women and drag queens are part of the picture — along with the usual thieves and prostitutes — that Duvivier so dazzlingly and dynamically visualises:atmosphere, spectacle, titillation, and a key dramatic moment where Gabin is robbed of what he´s stolen and is the impetus for him joining the Spanish foreign legion.
The film contains a dazzling dream sequence to show us a whole array of male torsos as a context for expressing how haunted Pierre/Gabin is by his crime (see below), how others are equally disturbed by their past, and then finally Gabin´s satisfied stretching as he tells his colleague to shut up before he inventive cut (what is it called?) moves us onto love street.
And of course Gabin is his own form of spectacle, certainly as visualised by Duvivier:
Steve Neale, developing and challenging some of Laura Mulvey´s ideas on the male gaze, has argued that a male spectator could bear to look at the erotic display of male bodies but only if it was part of, and somewhat displaced by, action. Those muscles of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in 80s/90s action cinema can be displayed in the way they were because they evoked power and were the basis of the violence to come. They could not be displayed purely for erotic pleasure but as a preamble for power, strength, violence. Brad Pitt and later stars and filmmakers changed all of that of course. But the action/adventure genre was one of the few sites were the male body was allowed to be displayed without excuses and Duvivier makes full and early use of that in La Bandera. And it´s not just Gabin we see. I post an image of Gaston Modot below simply because he´s wearing my favourite tattoo in the film, one which mysteriously disappears upon his death scene, a sad continuity error.
La Bandera is also an interesting reminder of how men´s bodies, and what are considered fit male bodies, have changed since the thirties.
I post the clip below, mainly for the line ´’vous êtes fort´and the way Gabin nonechallantly responds ‘oooof’. These films, and this one in particular, are not just about strength and being macho but about masculinity moralised: What is a good man? What qualities are endowed by nature and what must be worked for and acquired?
If Gabin is constantly praised for his strength and virility, — one of the questionable señoritas in the nightclub scene even says, ‘que macho!’ about him –, his virility is always relational. And the film has one character clearly coded as being both camp and comic, the comic relief but literally the butt of the joke, to comparatively shore up that which we´ve shown of Gabin (though in various ways all of the supporting characters fulfill this function).
In a very interesting piece on the film, David Cairns has written, ‘the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has yet to be invented and named, but that’s what this is nonetheless — and social realism is exciting as hell to me. The film can be seen as a precursor to the later poetic realist films Gabin would do with Marcel Carné such as Quai des brumes (38), Le jour se lève (39), which some have seen as precursors to film noir. As you can see below, there´s certainly a lot of imagery one would later associate with noir in the film.
But it´s precisely the mix of genres, conceived of as attractions for a popular audience and executed to be as visually enticing as possible, that continues to charm. A blockbuster success of the period, a cornerstone of Gabin´s persona and with images of Annabella photographed as if she were Garbo or Dietrich and much better than later on when she would go on to Hollywood (and marry Tyrone Power).