The stated aim of The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series is to curate a “selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions”, with each volume “a brief cinemateque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer”. Due to the relative obscurity of the majority of titles in this series, the films are DVD only and with prints of variable quality, however the real goal is to simply make these films available to a wider audience. The previous releases in the Eclipse Series have been divided between collections of lesser known films by important directors (Early Bergman, Silent Ozu, Late Ray, The First Films Of Akira Kurosawa) and collections of films from overlooked directors or movements (Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu, Three Popular Films By Jean-Pierre Gorin, Pearls Of The Czech New Wave, Nikkatsu Noir).
Across the 44 box sets that make up the Eclipse Series to date, I have been introduced to an astonishing number of great films and directors that have greatly enhanced my appreciation of cinema. The latest addition to this series “Julien Duvivier In The Thirties” collects together four wonderful films that I would have been highly unlikely to have seen without this release. My only previous exposure to Julien Duvivier was through his exceptional 1937 classic of poetic realism Pépé Le Moko. Set amongst the criminal underworld in the Kasbah in Algiers, on the surface Pépé Le Moko is a gangster film, however at its heart, it’s a haunting romance, with Jean Gabin’s Pépé ultimately becoming the inspiration for that other romantic icon Pepé Le Pew. A highly successful silent director, this collection captures Duvivier at the beginning of the sound era, incorporating his impressive visual style into the changing medium.
The first film in the set is Duvivier’s first sound film David Golder, which shows a director at ease with the possibilities of the new medium. Duvivier’s visual storytelling skills perfected in the silent era are obvious from the start. The clever use of production design and camera movement to show David Golder’s isolation from those around him throughout the film is flawless, with Golder’s stark shadow filled rooms contrasting with the bright decadence of the life his wife and daughter are living as a result of his success. Unlike many films of the era, David Golder seamlessly incorporates long passages of well written dialogue into its narrative without being at the expense of its visual style.
David Golder is a fairly bleak film, presenting a series of deeply flawed characters. We are introduced to Golder as he coldly dismisses a former business partner’s pleas for help and is unmoved when he hears that the man has committed suicide. The film then introduces the shallow lives and excesses of Golder’s wife, daughter and their hangers-on. The unpleasantness of these characters is left in little doubt by his wife’s reaction (at the prompting of her lover) to Golder’s heart attack being to bully him and demand more money. Harry Baur is quite exceptional in the titular role, so much so that his performance sometimes contrasts a little too much with the considerably lesser talents of several of the actors sharing the screen with him.
The second film in the collection, Poil De Carotte, sees Duvivier remaking his 1925 silent adaptation of Jules Renard’s classic novella as a sound film. Like a lot of films which heavily rely on the effectiveness of a child actor, Poil De Carotte is uneven at times, based on the quality of the performance Duvivier was able to extract from Robert Lynen in any give scene. However, the emotion that Lynen is able to portray in a series of heartbreaking and flawless scenes in the third act, negate pretty much any criticism of his performance.
Poil De Carotte, which translates as “Carrot Top” in reference to the central character’s supposed mop of red hair, is somewhat similar to Cinderella in structure, although considerably more grounded in reality. François Lepic who is disparagingly referred to as “Poil De Carotte” throughout the film is an unloved child, ignored by his busy father and despised by his mother and spoilt siblings (who despite being brother and sister, very much fit the “ugly stepsisters” role). The new maid Annette sees how poorly François is being treated and in a variation on the Fairy Godmother role, does her best to help him be treated better by his family and to improve his confidence. Like David Golder, this is an at times very bleak story, but with perhaps a little more hope than the earlier film.
La Tête D’un Homme is an entertaining and witty crime drama, probably the closest thematically to Pépé Le Moko of the films collected here. Based on the fifth of Georges Simenon’s seventy-five novels featuring Inspector Maigret, La Tête D’un Homme makes it easy to understand why Maigret is such a popular character of French fiction. A droll and brilliantly intuitive detective, Harry Baur plays Maigret with not only the humanity and insight of André Bourvil’s Commissaire Mattei from Le Cercle Rouge, but also with the wit and demeanour of one of Alastair Sim’s classic detective roles such as Inspector Cockrill from Green For Danger or Inspector Poole from An Inspector Calls.
La Tête D’un Homme is an early police procedural, with Maigret investigating the murder of a wealthy American woman in Paris. Deducing that the main suspect has been framed for the murder, Maigret dismisses the obvious evidence at the crime scene and follows his instincts to find the actual culprits. La Tête D’un Homme is a particularly well made crime film that doesn’t suffer from the predictability of similar Hollywood films of the era. Rather than being shown in black and white terms, all of the “criminal elements” in the film are presented in varying shades of grey, with the ending and the actual motivations of the killer taking me somewhat by surprise. Duvivier would later adapt another Georges Simenon novel Panique, with Michel Simon in 1946, which will hopefully receive a similar home video release in the future.
The final feature in the set, Un Carnet De Bal is probably the film in the collection that has stuck with me the most. It is a beautiful film which brings to life the realities of the what “could have beens” of nostalgia and regret. Roughly translated as “Dance Card”, the film follows the newly widowed Christine as she tracks down each of her suitors on the night that she became engaged to her late husband. Seeing this as the single moment that changed her life, Christine is determined to find out what her life would have been had she chosen differently.
Marie Bell is radiant as Christine and it is easy to appreciate the attentions she would have received from these suitors (although probably best not to dwell on the fact that she was sixteen at this ball and some of these men must have been close to forty). Twenty years after the ball, Christine is instantly recognised by almost all of those she visits, with her decision that evening having had varying but lasting effects on all of these men. Christine’s journey takes her across the full spectrum of society, with her past suitors ranging from rich to poor to criminal to clergy. Duvivier cleverly plays with memory throughout the film, several times questioning the accuracy of Christine’s recollections, her wistful reminiscence of “crinoline” is met with incredulity and the ballroom itself, which we see through her dreamlike memories of a grand hall doesn’t match with the reality of the venue she and Fabien visit. In the last few scenes of the film we see the next generation at their equivalent “moment of truth”, as Christine talks with a breathless sixteen year old attending her first dance and later helping Gerard’s son get ready for his first ball.
“Julien Duvivier In The Thirties” lives up to the high standards that have been set by the Eclipse Series. The films in this collection have been a genuine revelation to me and have made me eager to see more of this director’s work. Having only Pépé Le Moko as a reference point going into this set, I wasn’t prepared for the scope and variety of these films, as well as Duvivier’s distinct visual style. At various points in this set, most notably during Poil De Carotte I would knowingly think to myself about how Duvivier had “obviously” been influenced by L’Atalante for this shot or scene, before realising sometime later that Duvivier’s film preceded Vigo’s by two years. I would say that this collection is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in French cinema between the wars in general and poetic realism in particular, but even without that context, this is quite simply a collection of great films.