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Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France

by Charlie Largent Jan 23, 2018

Criterion’s Eclipse Series, an ever-expanding line of esoteric dvd releases, ensures that lesser known titles of important filmmakers remain available to the movie-loving public. They’ve just added another worthy edition to the mix with four films by French film director Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France. In keeping with the wallet-friendly nature of the series, the set contains no extras but features fine transfers, simple but elegant packaging and astute liner notes.

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France
1942-46/ 1:33 / 103 Min., 92 min., 109 min., 98 min. / Street Date January 23, 2018
Starring Odette Joyeux, Marguerite Moreno, Jacques Tati
Cinematography by Philippe Agostini,
Written by Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost
Music by Maurice Yvain, René Cloërec
Edited by Madeleine Gug
Produced by Pierre Guerlais
Directed by
Claude Autant-Lara

In the late fifties, François Truffaut launched a diatribe against a select number of French directors with the phrase “le cinéma de papa”, filmmakers who had labored too long in a moribund studio system and grown, in Truffaut’s word, “stale”. Those directors included René Clément, Yves Allégret and Claude Autant-Lara. In the latter’s case a more apt phrase might have been “le cinéma de fasciste” because in his spare time Autant-Lara was a fervent holocaust denier and by 1989 was serving as a proud member of Le Pen’s National Front.

A cloud hangs over many a european film produced during the war and Eclipse’s latest offering, featuring Autant-Lara’s work during the occupation, only adds to the troublesome questions bubbling up from this particular moral quagmire; the man who ended his career by mocking an Auschwitz survivor nevertheless began it with a series of films filled with insight and compassion.

During the occupation French filmmakers were kept on a short leash, in contrast to the horrors of the world abroad these productions were generally lighthearted fables with an eye on fantasy (Carne’s Evening Visitors) and so-called “women’s pictures” like Pagnol’s The Well-digger’s Daughter. The movies collected in the Eclipse set reflect exactly that; escapist farces with a hint of the fantastic.

Each movie stars the ebullient French actress Odette Joyeux and boasts exquisite production values. The genteel storybook atmosphere sometimes gives the films the appearance of taking place inside an elaborate snow globe but their unvarnished sentimentality and somber undercurrents combine for an undeniably affecting experience.

In Le mariage de Chiffon, Joyeux plays young Corysande, a headstrong teen whose love for one man initiates her marriage to another. The 1942 film is a melancholy comedy whose plot springs into action with the search for a misplaced shoe. While much of the movie is just that frivolous, the story gains an understated power as the player’s masks fall away revealing the poignant nature of the lovelorn threesome.

Joyeux was 28 at the time but her transition from Gidget-like gamine to world-weary paramour is completely satisfying. André Luguet, as a lovestruck colonel and Jacques Dumesnil as a self-effacing playboy, are both charmingly conflicted about their own intentions toward the beautiful but alarmingly self-assured school girl. A (comparatively) young Bernard Blier has a small role as a hotel garçon.

In 1943 Henri-Georges Clouzot directed Le Corbeau, a venomous suspense drama about a community splintered by a series of poison pen letters. Though made with the approval of German authorities, it was a remarkably vivid indictment of mob rule and made Autant-Lara’s own post office-inspired tale appear all the more callow.

That film, Lettres d’amour, was made in 1942 and features the kind of light-hearted mistaken-identity plot that was the inspiration for farceurs from Plautus to Larry Gelbart. Joyeux stars as Zélie Fontaine, the postmistress of a small town who has agreed to act as a decoy by using her own name to receive the love letters addressed to another woman. Naturally the scheme is exposed and Zélie must decide if she will betray her friend or stand accused of a sordid affair.

The film is more brazenly self-indulgent than Chiffon, announcing its decadence with budget-busting pomp and circumstance (thanks to the absence of American and British films in French theaters, there was a surplus of funds flowing into their film industry). That Third Reich-inspired windfall allowed Autant-Lara to train his camera on an opulent soundstage boasting a parade of ravishing costumes by Christian Dior and a plot that culminates in an elaborately contrived Quadrille. Once again the beautiful Joyeux plays a scrappy provocateur whose blunt assessments bewitch older men and make young women blush. The film would be impossibly frivolous without her.

Douce, a powerfully dark romance, followed in 1943. The film begins with a deceptively rosy nursery tale overture; a tracking shot travels across a studio miniature of snowy Parisian rooftops at Christmas time before landing inside a church next to a young woman in the midst of a confession. The priest’s pitiless response, “I won’t threaten you with hell because you’re already on your way.”, pierces the fanciful atmosphere. It’s the first of many daggers to be delivered by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost’s scathing screenplay.

With its four-sided triangle involving an aristocrat, his impetuous daughter, her governess and the handsome manager of the estate, the film has all the elements of a door-slamming bedroom farce. But the emotions are too raw, the characters too misguided for it to be anything but a tragedy. Once again Joyeux is an effortless shape shifter, flipping from brash coquette to disenchanted mistress with the bat of an eye. But the revelation is stage actress Marguerite Moreno as Douce’s grandmother and the matriarch of the house, Madame de Bonafé, at first blush a brash figure of fun terrorizing friends and family but eventually done in by her own poisonous personality.

Made three years after Douce and released just months after the end of World War II,  Sylvie et le Fantôme suggests a retreat from the unforgiving universe of that downbeat roundelay. Joyeux is back and definitely not retreating, once again playing a fifteen year old though the actress was set to extinguish 32 candles on that year’s birthday cake. Sylvie is a farce as light as the aristocratic spirit (played by Jacques Tati) that glides effortlessly through walls and floorboards. Born Jacques Tatischeff, Tati was a bit of an aristocrat himself and remains silent throughout the film (a forerunner of Tati’s mostly mute character, Mr. Hulot).

Young Sylvie is enamored by the legend of the castle ghost and when its portrait is sold off by her cash-poor father, the benevolent phantom takes the opportunity to silently console the impressionable adolescent. Her father is equally sympathetic and hires an out-of-work actor to impersonate the ghost at her birthday party but two young men, each eager suitors of Sylvie, disguise themselves with floor-length sheets bringing the number of phantoms celebrating Sylvie’s birthday to three.
A year later The Ghost and Mrs. Muir floated a similarly spectral approach to romance with a more satisfying emotional conclusion but thanks to Joyeux and the airborne Tati, Sylvie is a reasonably amiable comedy, the most inconsequential of the four films in the Eclipse set but surely a balm to war-torn audiences.

Having completed the unofficial “Odette Quartet” (he would never work with the actress again), Autant-Lara continued what would be a prolific career, taunting the censors with 1947’s scandalous Devil In the Flesh (the British initially banned this story of a tempestuous affair between a young lad and an older woman) and guiding Bardot’s sizzling appearance alongside Jean Gabin in 1958’s  Love is My Profession. But it soon became clear that though the occupation was over, the aging misanthrope was still in its clutches.

In 1963, increasingly isolated and still smarting from Truffaut’s broadsides, Autant-Lara indulged in a classic bit of projection when he remarked that the French New Wave had “made a mess of our industry… those intellectual pictures like Last Year In Marienbad are terrible and boring. People only went to see them out of snobbery. They are twisted in some way.”