[I]f one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or birth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world. – Joseph Conrad
In the closing moments of Poil de carotte (1932), a father forms a bond with his son, only after realizing that his neglect and his wife’s anger have driven the young boy to attempt suicide. As the two talk and eat in the French countryside, Monsieur Lepic, the father, tells his son, the redheaded Francois, about the downfall of his marriage and how it produced the mother that now punishes Francois relentlessly. Francois, in turn, relates his suicidal feelings and his sense of worthlessness. The moment is one of immense sadness – both are trapped together in a loveless, selfish, miserable family. They weep, then connect. For the two, there is not escape, but there is at least some relief in sharing sadness together.
The film is one of over seventy films directed by Julien Duvivier between 1919 and 1967. Over the course of his career, he followed the industry from silent to sound to color and also from France to Hollywood. His films stretched across a variety of genres and also stretched the limits of genres. His main characters were sometimes elderly men, sometimes middle-aged women, and sometimes young children. Criterion’s newly released boxset Julien Duvivier in the Thirties, an assortment of films from Duvivier’s leap into the sound era, showcases both his range and the continuity of his worldview. These Duvivier films, be they a coming-of-age or detective story or something else entirely, take place in a world where people try to articulate their sadness to themselves and those around them. Quite frequently, they fail, but we find relief in sharing their struggle.
The four films here have equally bleak synopses: a dying man confronts his spoiled wife and child (David Golder), an unloved red-headed child attempts suicide (Poil de carrote), a hired killer blackmails a wealthy woman into sleeping with him (La tête d’un home), a middle-aged widow visits former suitors who have not lived up to the promise of their youth (Un carnet de bal). But in each film, Duvivier pushes past the punishing pessimism the films promise without pushing too far into melodrama.
While all four feature well-written storylines and dialogue, the confident editing and camera movement make each film work. The camera comes in close to the characters allowing us access to both their hope and desperation and then skips out to reveal the vast emptiness of rooms and landscapes. We try to connect and then are isolated by space, time, and circumstance only to connect again in our apprehension of the gap.
Equally important here is the quality and style of acting, best exemplified by the performances that Harry Baur gives in each of the four films. Baur is balding, fat, sexless and reserved. In each film, his character’s defining quality is his own irrelevance to those around him. Baur acts by not acting, he hangs on the frame drawing our attention to his subdued presence that occasionally opens up into restrained expressions of complex emotions.
All four films are expertly crafted, but Un carnet de bal (1937) deserves the most attention. In it, Marie Bell plays Christine, a newly-widowed woman in her late thirties nostalgic for the promise of her youth. As she visits her former suitors, Duvivier leaves behind the tinges of realism that weigh down the other films, allowing the film to embrace the imaginative and poetic. Christine walks into each man’s life elegantly dressed in either all white or all black, her face having hardly aged since she danced with them all at the age of sixteen. In contrast, their bodies all show the ravages of time – an expanding waistline, a bald head, a diseased eye. She is alternately Christine and the promise of youth and they are alternately themselves and the aborted dreams of old age. It is to Duvivier’s credit that his characters can shift back and forth from literal to metaphorical without lapsing into incoherence.
In a particularly inspired sequence, Duviver angles the camera so that the characters and furnishings seem drawn by gravity into the corner of the screen. Christine’s former suitor's eye slides down his face, lost to an infection years before. The framing and editing is both nauseating and inspired – a crane moves continuously in the background and her suitor’s body thrashes ravished by headaches and madness.
Like Peut de carotte, it ends with a connection between the child and the parent. They cannot beat back the difficulty of life and the passage of time, but they can share it just as Duvivier shares it with us.