New translations of the Maigret books that are wonderful reminders of what a great writer Simenon is. The one on Maigret is Afraid is translated by Ros Schwartz The book is short and quickly read; paragraphs are often a sentence; and yet what emerges is a vivid portrait of complex society and a complex depiction of people, their lives, their relations, their thought of themselves and others, how others see them. There are sketches that are all the more vivid for being but sketches: class tensions at boiling point in a post war provincial village; the schoolteacher all too eager to join in every leftist cause; how the smell of a room unfurls and alters through memory; a young immigrant barely twenty and with a will to live almost extinguish by an already long history of various kinds of abuses, including sexual; the meaning of the things people don´t tell each other. Simenon´s sketches leave lines for the reader to read between. It´s all structured as a mystery, one that barely gets resolved before Maigret moves onto the next one. But what remains, vividly and in textured form, is a rich evocation of people and place at a particular time.
Another adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire), a great film, Duvivier´s first upon returning to France from Hollywood after the war, a noir, and a huge big flop at the time of its release. And one can understand why.
The film begins with a close-up of a pair of feet, pans past a hobo´s body, and rests momentarily on his face. No that´s not the Boudou who was saved from drowning in Renoir´s 1932 film. But as the camera pans back we see the actor who played him, Michel Simon, snatching a picture of this. In Panique Simon plays Monsieur Hire, a man who keeps to himself, is abrupt and without small talk, and a bit mysterious. Patrice Leconte remade Panique in 1986 as Monsieur Hire. I haven´t seen it but I´d be very surprised if it were any better than this.
The film has a characteristic camera move: a dollying back to demonstrate context or a dollying in to move the public sphere into the personal and private. And context,; the neighbourhood, the mob, the French, their narrowness, smugness, hypocrisy and murderousness is the theme of Panique. It´s no surprise the French didn´t like it. They´re not very well reflected in it.
At the beginning of the film, after the neighbours and neighbourhood have been introduced, we get shown a pair of shoes. When they see them, the binmen react as if they´ve won the lottery. But the shoes are attached to a body. Who killed Mme Noblet. Was it Monsiur Hire? He certainly seems more preoccupied with the ripeness of his camembert than with the death of a person when he hears the news.
As all this is taking place, a woman comes to the hotel Monsieur Hire lives in. We soon learn that it´s Alice (Viviane Romance), who´s just come out of jail after taking the rap for her lover Alfred (Paul Bernard). They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but their first and secret re-union by the side of the church, in large, looming closeups, intensely lit, as rather funereal music wafts in from the Church, indicates the depth and intensity of their passion. They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but will meet as if for the first time the next day.
Alice goes to stay at the same hotel as Hire. His room is one floor up and overlooking hers. She finds this creepy. Indeed the whole neighbourhood finds this solitary man so. Even his being nice to children in the neighbourhood is interpreted as the predatory grooming of a child molester.
Hire has two problems. Firstly, he is hiding many things: His real name is Desirée Hirovitch, a jew who doesn´t want others to know his identity or his past (and for good reason: The film is set in 46). He also works as Dr. Vargas, though he seems to be only a doctor of horoscopes; lastly he used to be a lawyer with a comfortable house in the country he left abruptly the day his wife ran off with his best friend. Though I´m sure family breakups and abrupt departures for people named Hrovitch had other connotations in 1946. The second problem Hire has is that he´s fallen for Alice, opens himself up completely to her, and she uses this knowledge to get the man she loves off the hook for the murder he´s committed.
Things heat up, get out of control and murderous, when the Carnival takes over the neighbourhood.
And the lighting in some of the shots could be taken straight out of an American noir of the period:
What begins as a whodunnit ends as social commentary. There are some scenes that are just extraordinary. Hire alone in the bumper-cars at the carnival, being crashed into by everyone. All these crude, smug couples, laughing at the violence they´re doing to a lonely old man. And then the extraordinary ending where Alice plants Mme Noblet´s purse in Hire´s room, and manoeuvres with her killer lover to turns the whole neighbourhood, — all to willing to believe the worst — against him, thus turning herself into a defacto killer….for Love. . The fat butcher, the smug tax man, the local hooker, the gossipy neighbours, all collaborate in killing this poor lonely jew who somehow managed to survive the Occupation. It´s a condemnation of collaboration, of social hypocrisy, of petit bourgeois culture, of intolerance.
It´s an incredible film with a soft, quite, knowing, sad and all too human performance, a truly great one, from Michel Simon as a man who closes himself off due to having suffered too much from love only open himself up to it once more and be killed for it.
It´s out now in a newly sub-titled and great looking version from Criterion.
Gabin as he is in La Marie du Port (right), and the much more youthful portrait the poster advertises (left). The image the poster sells harks back to his thirties films, perhaps hoping to appeal to his pre-war popularity and regain it. But it´s also an image that somewhat contradicts one of the film´s main themes, which is about inter-generational love. The film itself I´ve now seen twice and it gets better each time:
The film is based on the novel by Georges Simenon (see above) and tells the story of Henri Châtelard (Jean Gabin), a well-to-do owner of a restaurant and cinema in Cherbourg, the biggest town in the region, who accompanies his mistress Odile (Blanchette Brunoy) to her father´s funeral in the small village of Port-en-Bessin in Normandy, only to fall in love with her sister, Marie (Nicole Courcel). There are several obstacles to the union of Châtelard and Marie: Marie is seeing a young local boy Marcel (Claude Romain), crazy in love with her and threatening suicide; she´s Odile´s sister; there´s a considerable difference in age (one of the things the poster for the film is trying to obscure); Marie doesn´t want to be a mistress like her sister, living the good life but shunned by ´respectable’ people — she wants a ring.
At the beginning of the film Henri and Odile are driving to the funeral of Odile´s father. They get a puncture and arrive late. These first few scenes paint a powerful picture of small town life and mentality. The house is so small, mourners and well-wishers remain outside, on the street. Inside, Marie is feeding the family. Odile and Marie have three younger siblings, which now have to be distributed amongst the aunts and uncles to be brought up. We get a sense of a subsistence culture –whether the children can earn their keep is part of the discussion of how and to whom they will be distributed –and that children will most likely be used as slave labour until they come of age. Odile has escaped this by becoming Châtelard´s mistress. But at a price. She doesn´t really love him, or at least no longer. She´s stuck in Cherbourg where she really want to be in Paris. And she´s being shunned by the village folk she grew up with. Carné well indicates the community´s opprobium towards her by the expression in some of the mourner´s faces as she arrives to her father´s house (below right), something that reminded me of the scene with the nuns at the hospital in Almodóvar´s Live Flesh (below right) and how a series of expressions can not only evoke character but a whole structure of feeling.
Marie is hard-working, dour, conscientious, honest, and Châtelard is smitten from the first moment he sees her (below left), an image significantly rhymed the first time Marcel sees her with Châtelard: interestingly, one is on the inside looking out, the other outside looking in.
Carné surrounds himself and this production with some of the greatest talents the French cinema of the period had to offer: Jacques Prévert worked on the screenplay (Louis Chavance and Geroges Ribemont-Dessaignes are the writers credited); there is beautiful work by Herni Alekan as cinematographer, the legendary Alexandre Trauner is with Auguste Capelier credited for the production design. And the way Carne orchestrates the various elements they contribute tells you all the story you need to know and more, as you can see in the lovely image below, where Claude, in the image that follows the one above right, sees Châtelard and Marie, clearly in love because, as you can see below, in that busy café, surrounded by people, and with Marcel´s own father propped at the bar anticipating the scene to come, the light seems to envelop them alone, a couple, even if they themselves don´t yet know it.
One of the things that´s striking about the film is the presentation of a freewheeling, guilt-free, pragmatic and easy sex-life to almost all of its characters. Marie and Marcel are the exceptions: she too puritanical and serious, he over-excited and dangerously romantic. But they´re young and they will learn.
The clip above is preceded by a scene in which a party leaves Châtelard´s restaurant because their table has been handed over to the local football team who´ve just won a match. The party leave in a huff except for the young woman who goest to the cinema next door. Châtelard has gone there too to eat his lunch and get some peace and quiet. But before the newsreel is over, they´ve agreed to spend the night together. It´s a scene that luxuriates in the cinema itself, letting us see it in wide shots, with the projector throwing a beam of light in the darkness, and the screen itself creating a glow in the space. Note the partial lighting of the characters, allowing us to see their expressions but evoking the covert by the surrounding darkness. Note too the adventurous (at sea) playful (the cat), the structured (army manouvres) the explosive (the guns going off), and the brief that´s indicated in the newsreel being shown but that is also commenting on the action we see.
Another scene that I also found unusual in its attitude to sex is the one where Châtelard and Marie, find Odile (Châtelard´s mistress and Marie´s sister) in bed with Marcel (Marie´s boyfriend). Marie and Châtelard have had a fight, he goes to find Marcel and when he opens the door he sees Odile and Marcel in bed together. Instead of being angry he finds it a joke, laughs, and won´t hold it against them later. It´s a scene unimaginable in American cinema of the period.
What I also found intriguing about the scene is that we´re shown the action through a relay of close-ups that indicate each of the principals´reaction but tellingly we´re never shown a two-shot or a medium shot in which Odile and Marcel are in the frame together, as if the idea really is too incongruous.
When Marie descends the stairs it´s photographed so as to evoke a feeling of hopes plummeting. But it´s not what Châtelard suspects: ‘If you only knew how little I care about Marcel, even if he is with someone else, and even if it´s with my sister’. When Marie admits that she had really come for him, that she hadn´t wanted to say it but it´s true, the camera pans to a little girl, dressed poorly, with a milk can on one hand and a loaf of bread under her other arm, behind a barred and locked gate that casts shadows inside (Châtelard here calls his house a cage). On one level the little girl is there as a narrative device to demonstrate the intrusion of the public on a private and sentimental moment. On a more metaphoric level, it´s clearly a commentary on Marie herself. But what exactly? It´s a moment that´s given considerable weight. It comes just after Châtelard says ‘Oh, so it´s for me that you´ve come’, at which point Châtelard looks left, and a pan follows his gaze to show us the little girl. Does that mean that there will be another young woman after Marie? Is it meant to signify a younger Marie. And does it mean that her choosing to go with Châtelard will be a kind of prison? I´m not sure but it´s an image that raises these and more questions and thus lingers in the mind (see above).
Carné is clearly in love with cinema and the cinema setting allows him to express it to us. Gabin is filmed against cannisters in his office, we see the projection system, posters, the cinema itself and clips from several films. The cinema also affords a nice contrast to the life and world Marie comes from.
La Marie du Port has two scenes set in Châtelard´s cinema. The first is the easy pick-up I discussed earlier on. The second takes place amidst a screening of F.W Murnau´s Tabu. Châtelard speaks of getting old, of time passing. Odile is off to Paris. Marcel to the cruise ships to become a lady´s hairdresser. Maybe he too will go away, in that boat he´s been fixing in the village. Besides one isn´t alone when one travels he muses. Marie comments that he doesn´t have to be alone. But he replies that, as she can see in the film, there are girls in every port, ones that don´t impose conditions: rings, marriage. This is an interesting rhyming scene with the first scene in the cinema: the newsreel, vs Murnau´s romantic and luscious Tabu; they´re alone instead of part of the crowd as in the earlier scene, and more importantly, Marie walks out on him. She´s not that kind of girl. And he will chase after her, offer her the keys to his business, and make jokes about how at the wedding he´ll tell the officals she´s his daughter doing her first communion.
Seeing La Marie du port again I was struck by how queer it seems to me now and not just becaause Carné was gay and he met his long term partner Roland Lessaffre , the sailor next to Gabin above, on the film : Chatelard, unmarried in his fifties, the open relationship he´s established with Odile, the easy pickups in cinemas, the older/younger pairings and the switch the narrative delivers, the dream of escape to the big city, the dream to be a lady´s hairdresser, the homage to Murnau, the identification with the prostitutes and the lowlife, the handsome sailors, the hypersensitive youth who attempts suicide. It evokes a ´structure of feeling´´or a ´’gay sensibility´of another time without anything being mentioned. I read the book yesterday to see if it was just me projecting: it isn´t. The film follows the book quite closely and is a page turner, more ‘exciting’ than the film, but without the depth or any queer connotations. Claude Viau, Marie´s young lover, takes up less space in the novel whereas Carné gives him a whole set of recurring scenes, his own struggle and dream, plus the way he´s visualised. The other question is, if this is so glaring to me now, why did I not notice it upon first viewing in Bologna where the main topic of conversation seemed to be the discrepancy in ages between Chaterlard/Gabin and Marie/Nicole Courcel, understandable as it´s one of the film´s main themes (in the novel he´s meant to be 37 to her ‘six months short of 18).
La Marie du port was shown as part of the Gabin mini-retrospective at Bologna and he´s glorious in it, understated but alive at every, and in every film he´s got a moment of expression that brings a character alive. The moment below is characteristic. The scene is really about Marcel and his father (Julienne Carette, the poacher in Renoir´s Rules of the Game). Gabin´s just responding. But look at how he responds; his expression evoking a whole lifetime experience of dealing and humouring drunks, completely relaxed and at ease, yet indicating a strength capable of dealing with every situation.: a man who knows how to handle himself. It´s wonderful.
As is the film. It´s a great film that hasn´t yet gotten it´s due, possibly because Carné and Gabin, separately and together, have so many other more famous masterpieces in their filmography. Don´t let that deter you.
A film that makes one re-think notions of good and bad in cinema: On the one hand, Pierre Granier-Deferre is such a heavy-handy director, with the conceptual and symbolic dimensions of Le chat so underlined and over-signalled: birds fluttering outside windows, sirens circling, golden youth of long ago seen through hazy irises in flashback; the little house surrounded by wrecking crews turning the old world to dust; garbage trucks regularly reappearing at their front door, perhaps to pick up the wreckage of the protagonist’s lives: there are times where one can’t control the giggling (see the trailer posted below). On the other hand, any director who can get actors to do what Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret do here, alone and together, deserves all the praise there is. They are so gobsmackingly good — so electric – and the roles they play so great — offering such scope and variety of human character and emotion, and changing through time to boot — that one can only offer admiration and gratitude.
Julien Bouin, a retired typesetter, has been married to his wife Clémence (Simone Signoret) a former circus worker for over 25 years. He now can’t stand her. Everything she does irritates him. Why, she asks? Is it cause she got old and fat, cause she drinks? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that one day he stopped loving her. Because of that, she now hates him too. They shop separately at the same shops, keep their food under lock and key in separate cupboards, cook different dishes in the same kitchen, sleep in the same room but in different beds, do little mean and spiteful things to each other. Every day.
Gabin plays Julien as quiet, all closed-in; neat, carefully dressed. A mild-mannered man who does things carefully, systematically but who won’t be pushed to do what he doesn’t wants to He’s a man who takes pride in doing things carefully and well. Also, he still needs to love; and not the kind of physical love that one can get anywhere either but an outlet for real feeling. He finds it in his cat. It drives Clémence mad that a cat who neither needs it nor appreciates it becomes the recipient of the love Julien should be bestowing on her. She tries to shoo the cat away, attempts to lose him in the supermarket. But no, he returns to steal the attention, the caresses, the love that rightfully belongs to her. So, one day, she kills the cat….
We know Signoret was a great beauty. She’s someone who did speak many languages, and we can believe she plays the seven instruments Clémence claims to be able to. And we can understand the bewilderment, anger, fury that this little typesetter not loving her incites. We see the defiance in every glug of whisky, the determination in the speed with which she manouvers her bad leg through the shops, no limp is going to hold this woman back: the Chinese silk robe in the loud red of someone who demands being noticed. The cigarillo on the side of a mouth. Only the loss a her husband’s love could lead her to crocheting with the fury of someone who wants to commit murder. But the film underlines one can’t hate that much without it being overlaid by love: Signoret communicates the tenderness beautifully. Gabin also.
Le chat beautifully conveys a gamut of human emotion – characters who feel that much is Simenon’s gift to the filmmakers; it is fitting that he is billed alongside the ‘monstres sacrées’ of french cinema and above the title of the film . The director’s gift to the actors is to give them the space to be these people and to showcase them properly for us. Then the actors…well. Watching Gabin and Signoret together play this couple is like watching two great opera singers duet in a Verdi aria: raw, vivid, fine, delicate, explosive…. And watching them seems to me to be essential to anyone who wants to know what great acting in the cinema can be; they bring out areas of human feeling, emotion and experience that lesser actors don’t even known exist.
In the interview that accompanies the Studiocanal DVD, Granier-Deferre speaks about how the producers had not wanted Signoret. Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres, her previous film, had been a failure, and she was (most unjustly) being blamed for it. They went through all the other names of fancy actresses and finally Gabin asked Granier-Deferre: ‘you’ve really got your heart set on that Signoret?’ ‘Yes’. He calls the producer and says ‘If Signoret is not in it, I don’t do the film’. ‘Six hours later I got Signoret,’ remembers Granier-Deferre. Good thing he did too. Because Signoret and and Gabin are the only reasons to watch the film; they make one feel it’s essential viewing; and it certainly is to fans of Gabin, Signoret, Georges Simenon or anyone who’s interested in seeing great acting in the cinema.
1934. A handsome man walking though the countryside in France sees a middle-aged widow get off the bus. She’s carrying a heavy package containing an incubator for chickens. He offers to help her bring it inside and lands himself a job in the farm and a bed with the widow, though that’s not strictly part of the bargain. The vagrant on the road is Alain Delon; the widow is Simone Signoret.
In the first few shots director Pierre Granier-Deferre lays out a location — a farm separated by a bridge over a canal that has to be raised for boats and lowered for pedestrians; a social setting — France in the grip of the economic and political incertitude that followed the Stavisky affair; and dramatises a whole series of antagonistic personal relationships: The widow lives with her father-in-law on one side of the bridge; her in-laws live on the other; the in-laws want to take possession of the old man in order to kick her out and take-over the farm; the widow sees the farm as her right and makes sure she keeps her father-in-law happy to ensure it. On the other side of the canal, her in-laws have a nympho daughter, already with a bastard child, who’s got her eye on the vagrant. Meanwhile the widow Courdec has her weary eye firmly on everyone who wants to take what she sees as hers.
La veuve Courdec is well-made film, an adaptation of a George Simenon novel, where the pettiness of people, their self-interestedness, their plotting for personal advantage, is couched in ideals not quite able to contain and mask the nastiness bubbling underneath them. They’re grasping, base; it’s what’s hardened the widow. She wants Delon, thinks money will keep him, but he’s his own man, goes after the younger tramp, her niece. He tells her quite clearly he fancies her niece because she’s younger. She gets jealous, kicks him out, finds out he’s a killer who has a gun. Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and takes him back. There’s a scene where they sleep together and in the morning he reaches out for her in bed, and his whole body tenses as his hand wonders around the bed. She, looking down on all of this, on him, sees his body relax with relief as he finds her hand and she is moved. She knows his want for her is real. The look that Signoret gives Delon, it’s as if he’s the first person who’s ever showed her any affection.
There’s a great scene after, where we see the widow washing her man’s trousers and lording it over the other women’s disapproving faces. Those women have always disapproved but now they’re disapproving at her flaunting of her pleasure — she flaunts her man’s washing with pride cause she’s still clearly getting some and they’re not – and their displeasure is a further source of pleasure to her.
It’s a very deft film, cleverly directed by Granie-Deferre, and easy to under-estimate. On first glance we might think it akin to a made-for-TV movie but with a bigger budget. And yet, it’s a work that deepens and gets richer upon reflection. In a few shots you have a period, a political background, a rural setting with working people scraping by, each with a motive to hate each other, a killer on the run, a hardened widow too accustomed to petty cruelties, and a cross-set of desires heading in various directions. Granier-Deferre sets out the symbolism of the drawbridge, where people on boats loll pleasantly by but the hatred between the family is entrenched so firmly that lowering the drawbridge is only an opportunity for further hurts. There’s also the incubator, the promise of a richer way of life from giving life, but one that all of society is intent on destroying.
The setting is rural, the look is green, there are the sounds of birds, all Delon wants is some sun, all Signoret wants is a little love. But it’s a world full of hatred that won’t let them have the little they seek. Even the music, a romantic score by Phillipe Sarde, one with elegiac overtones but with a forward movement, evokes that which is dreamed of but will forever be impossible. Speaking of the real feeling between them, between a middle-age woman running to fat and a handsome man in the prime of his life, Signoret tells Delon, ‘Nobody would understand’. ‘Nobody ever understands’ he replies. However, at the end of the film, when we get a little coda informing us that the name of the character Delon plays is Jean Lavigne and that he’d shot two people because he’d simply had enough, we do indeed understand.
Simone Signoret being great
La veuve Courdec has sweeping camera movement, an eye for the image, a feel for period and for people but its core strength lies in its stars, two of the biggest in the history of French Cinema: Delon very effective and Signoret just absolutely great. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she tells Delon her story (see clip above)in front of her deaf father in law, and she raises her voices so her father-in-law can hear her, whilst her mind is still on setting out breakfast, that measures out a life-time of rage, and cuts through the well-crafted, middle-classness of the film into that which hurts, which is real, complex, human, trapped but in revolt. This is the realm of art which the film itself can never hope to aspire to but which the film is the setting and context for. There’s a reason Granier-Deferre attracted all the big stars. He not only helps them shine as stars but provides a platform where they can reach moments of greatness as artists which are not quite within the director’s own grasp.