Friends have been grumbling about this year´s programme at Ritrovatto. Did Musidora warrant so much attention? Did Henry King? Personally, I didn´t have any problem with any of that but I do have questions. The two images that represented the festival this year were those of Musidora, which was on the tote bags, and the image you can see above of Dietrich and Gabin which is the cover shot of this year´s programme. It´s a very striking image, beautifully designed, with the blue of Dietrich´s eyes overlaid onto the black and white image, along with the red of the rose which was made to match the lettering of ‘Il Cinema Ritrovatto (see pictures above).
Why an image of Gabin should represent the festival is understandable. Gabin is arguably the greatest French film star in history with more great films to his name than almost anybody. There was an interesting mini-retrospective of fascinating but lesser known Gabin films curated by Edouard Waintrop titled ‘Jean Gabin, the Man with Blue Eyes’: Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 19319, De Haut en bas/ High and Low (G.W. Pabst, 1933), Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1936), Au-delà des grilles – Le Mura di Malapaga (René Clement, 1948), La Marie du port (Marcel Carné, 1949), Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1951), Maigret tend un piège (Jean Delannoy, 1957), En Cas de malheur (Claude-Autant-Laura, 1957), Le Chat (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1970), plus a documentary on the life and career of the star: Un Français nommé Gabin (Yves Jeuland, 2017)
But why put Dietrich in the picture? She was only represented by one film in the festival, Destry Rides Again, George Marshall, 1939). Did the programmers not think Gabin´s image alone was enough of an attraction? Also since the retrospective is ´The Man With the Blue Eyes,´ why highlight hers?
The choice seems to be purely aesthetic. And there´s nothing wrong with that. It´s a great image. And the designer has done a wonderful job of turning it into a magnificent poster for this year´s Ritrovato. However, if you are going to choose that image, why not programme the film it´s from. As you can see above, the central image is also that of one of the posters for Gabin´s only on-screen pairing with Dietrich, Martin Roumagnac.
Jean-Jacques Jelot-Blanc´s in his biography of Gabin, Jean Gabin Inconnu (Flammarion, 2014) calls Martin Roumagnac, le plus gros échec de la carrière de Gabin/ the worst failure of Gabin´s career (loc 2457 Kindle edition), which I suppose is a reason not to screen the film. But in that case why not choose another image of Gabin, and highlight his blue-eyes?
And Martin Roumagnac being the worst failure of Gabin´s career is as much a reason to include the film in the retrospective as not. The film tries to adapt both Dietrich´s and Gabin´s personas to a post-war world. He´s still a man of the people, Martin Roumagnac is a builder, something of an entrepreneur and integral part of the community he lives in. Dietrich is Blanche Ferrand, only in town for a few years but long enough to have had affairs with the mayor, inspired devotion in the schoolteacher (a very young Daniel Gélin), and cast her eye over a consul whilst being entirely devoted to Gabin, i.e. vintage Dietrich.
The film has some wonderful scenes. Dietrich´s star entrance, which you can see below: the first sight is her legs coming down the stairs, then her voice, then the dialogue ‘vous desiré monsieur´? And you can see from Gélin´s look that he definitely desires and what he desires is her.
Maria Riva in her biography of her mother writes that part of the problem with the film is the incongruity of Marlene as a provincial French adventurous. But it´s no more incongruous than Dietrich as a provincial Spanish adventuress in The Devil is a Woman. And indeed the film gives Dietrich enough of a backstory, a woman of education and breeding descended through circumstances to the depths of Montmartre and Montparnasse but speaking several languages, unlike Gabin, knowing exactly how to behave at table and on the dance-floors of the chicest Parisian nightclubs, and wearing an eye-watering array of Jean Dessez couture with aplomb. She´s in the provinces not of them.
The film´s score almost ruins many scenes. It´s too loud, almost intransigent, and often mickey mousing scenes to Godzilla levels. But even that doesn´t ruin the great moment above: ´What did you say?’ Dietrich asks undressing. ‘Nothing. I wanted….’ says Gabin as he looks her over. ‘What did you want’ she says as she unbuttons her blouse.
Marlene met Gabin during his sojourn in Hollywood during the occupation and was so in love with him, that when he joined the forces, she followed him, first to North Africa, then to Paris immediately after the Liberation. Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné had worked on the script initially but Dietrich demanded so many changes they bowed out and Georges Lacombe took over. It´s a pity. The film is overly symbolic in the ways of seriously bad drama. Here Dietrich sells birds, imprisoned in the shop front window or in cages, some of them, like Martin Roumagnac and Blanche Ferrand, need to be together as they can´t survive apart. But better to set the birds free as Blanche does later in the film knowing that they will die rather than to keep them in cages. At least they will die free. The film is full of such heavy handed quasi literary symbolising.
And yet it has great moments such as the scene above: ´Each day I don´t see you I´m lost´’ Roumagnac tells Blanche. ‘You are so much better than all the others’ she tells him. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. Gabin as Roumagnac says it three times. I wonder if those were lines each insisted on in the script? They certainly feed the legend of each, together and apart.
So the worst disaster of Gabin´s career, definitely not a good film, but an interesting post-war noir, enticingly fatalistic, with great use of the personas of Dietrich and Gabin and with a wonderful death scene for the latter where, like Bette Davis in The Letter he tacitly consents to be killed, we see him waiting for death, and then the death itself becomes a dramatic set-piece, richly visualised. There are many reasons why Martin Roumagnac deserved a place in the program. And really, if you don´t want to program it, why not choose another image to brand the festival? It would make it seem a little less like false advertising.