Time Regained

Remembering Julien Duvivier, a casualty of auteurism
by Michael Atkinson  posted May 4, 2009
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The case for Julien Duvivier, who’s enjoying what may be his first serious American retrospective ever at the Museum of Modern Art, is something of a standing riposte to the methodologies, such as they are, of auteurist criticism. The obligatory state of revision and flux inherent in the canon is of course whimsical, but it has also generally favored personality over eloquence, power over modesty, extremes over nuance. Too often, having been fortunate with actors and material is all a decades-long reputation requires (I’d nominate here George Cukor, Joseph Losey, and Arthur Penn), while perpetually exalted pioneers like Eisenstein and Griffith are all but unwatchable for very much besides historical interest. Ulmer retains a place on the top shelf largely on the strength of Poverty Row geek-coolness, and Wilder does likewise thanks to his snarky screenplays and the stars that loved them. And so it goes.

Duvivier, whose career lasted from the closing days of WWI to not long before the 1968 Paris barricades, is a casualty of auteurism and has been since auteurist film culture bloomed in the '60s. Aside from Pépé le Moko (1937), Duvivier’s films have all been more or less written out of film history, and his official biography pegs him merely as an able journeyman without signature or invention. Of course, he represented the old guard of French filmmaking against which the rebel critics of Cahiers du cinéma took sides. Michel Dorsday singled out Duvivier in his 1952 Cahiers piece "French Cinema Is Dead"; in a 1957 discussion Jacques Rivette opined that frequent Duvivier leading man Jean Gabin could be considered more of a director than Duvivier; and three years after that Bernard Dort slammed the director’s films as "theatrical (in the bad sense of the word)."

In the U.S. and the U.K., Duvivier’s hardly mentioned at all. He is not listed anywhere in Richard Roud’s seminal, two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, nor in Andrew Sarris’s defining The American Cinema, nor in Movie Magazine’s 1962 hierarchal chart of international filmmakers, great, worthwhile, or otherwise. In David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, in an entry that hasn’t been altered in 25 years of revised editions and could’ve used another verb or two, Duvivier was "a man who always managed to look spruce but seldom original or interesting." In Macmillan’s International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, British critic Dudley Andrew starts out his dance on Duvivier’s grave by saying, "No one speaks of Julien Duvivier without apologizing."

I’ve rarely come across such a yawning discrepancy between the virtually unanimous critical dismissal of a bygone filmography and the films themselves—which, I dare say, fairly leap and swoon with visual cogency, surprising compositional drama, and an epitomically French embrace of narrative life, equal parts funeral and fete. Duvivier was and is an officer in a secret army: the corps of the demi-auteurs, the legions of overlooked and under-remembered artistes who helped build cinema history and often did so with hypnotic brio, and yet remain unpantheonized. (Other nominations: Stiller, Barnet, Fejos, Shimizu, Asquith, Bernard, Kautner,...) Truth be told, Duvivier rarely let a dull or unevocative shot pass through his camera, and his films, particularly the peak output of the '30s, teem with mobile energy. Few if any American filmmakers in the early sound era ever explored the meaning of composition like Duvivier did, and if he proved rather catholic in his choices of adaptable material (Simenon, Zola, Tolstoy, Irene Nemirovsky, scads of forgotten pulp), this hardly distinguished him from dozens of Hollywood auteurs who were seen by the Cahiers contingent to impose their stylistic will upon whatever assignments they were handed. (As it was, Duvivier wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of his films.) There’s no dross or filler on his résumé—or at least not until 1951's The Little World of Don Camillo, a dated drip of hokum that’s still funny. More to the point, perhaps the most and the least you could say for Duvivier is that he used compositions and shadows and movement to tell stories, and he did so with a grown-up’s respect for emotional torque. His sensibility can be expressed by a signature trope: a patient, intimate tracking shot that has the camera and its subject move either toward or away from each other, but in gentle fits, slowing and stopping and then resuming, as if in deference to the dramatic costs at hand.

There’s one of these in David Golder (1930), a walk toward us and away from a phone after a suicide-reporting phone call, in which the great Harry Baur pauses, loosens his tie, struggles for words, gets closer, sweats, hunts for a lost equilibrium, gets closer, and then disappears in a fade-to-black. It’s a stunning, expressive couple of moments in a forgotten film that coincides or predates the movies ordinarily hailed as early-talkie landmarks, but Duvivier’s restless camera hustles throughout, searching for spatial depth and visual significance in this Nemirovsky-derived tale of an ailing Jewish businessman confronting his own family’s bottomless greed. (A sickbed battle over a string of pearls is hair-raising to a degree Edward Albee would appreciate.) Looking at Golder, with its stalking traveling shots and point-of-view shifts and brooding tableaux, necessitates a canon rejigger: suddenly the early-sound camera achievements of Clair, Lang, and Mamoulian were not quite as solitary and uncommon as we once thought.

In those years, Duvivier was an impetuous experimenter—Poil de Carrote (1925), a silent about an abused boy in an Alpine farming village remade by Duvivier seven years later with sound, brims with post-Last Laugh expressionistic capers, including a what-the one-shot way of filming multiple perspectives (in a tense room during a familial faceoff) by shooting into a swiveling mirror, which changes our angle of sight by swinging into and out of the frame. (Calling it "theatrical" is plainly ignorant.) The upshot is characteristic of Duvivier’s approach: the film presents a provincial comic tone as one might present a battery of disease symptoms, and eventually we understand, via Duvivier’s catapulting attempts to manifest abstract ideas visually (the boy’s neglectful father’s dawning awareness of the titular lad’s slave labor is shown as a multiple exposure of the boy performing a half-dozen farm jobs at once), that it’s a tragedy, a drive toward a despairing suicide à la Mouchette.

If Pépé le Moko remains the filmmaker’s best-known and most beloved work, it is perhaps largely due to the story (with its cool exoticism and sympathetic criminal-lover anti-hero) and to Jean Gabin, the exemplar of movie-star fascination. Garbo-like in his ability to anchor our attention without moving a muscle, Gabin starred in six Duviviers (including, interestingly, 1944's The Imposter, shot in Algiers), and it’s easy to see why Rivette thought he was the primary auteur in the bargain. But Duvivier’s Casbah is a fabulously cruddy, secretive, fairy-tale warren of passages, hidden doorways, towers, and underground bustle (shot on location), and his tour of the maze is tasteful and dazzling, moving backward down the Casbah alley-steps, circling around the synchronized bodies of tangoing lovers. Pépé will probably survive all of Duvivier’s other films simply because it invented a narrative paradigm—the weary man of the world whose bottomless cynicism and emotional armor collapses in the face of an impossible romance—that will, apparently, never cease to be exploited and recycled by pop culture at large.

All the same, La Belle équipe (1936) is arguably Duvivier’s best and richest film, a tenderly Renoirian comedy-drama about five poor Parisian friends who win the lottery and decide to pool their money and renovate a guinguette (a riverside beer garden/swimming club once common on the Marne). Gabin and Charles Vanel dominate the quintet, which does not have an easy time attempting to build an equinanimous workers’ paradise in the Popular Front mode, and in fact the film famously comes with two endings: one fatalistic and violent, the other upbeat and humming with solidarité. (Duvivier reportedly preferred the first, but I liked the unmelodramatic generosity of the second; both are routinely shown with the film on French TV, and both will play at MoMA.) Renoir reportedly wanted to direct the project, unsurprisingly—it’s a kind of mashup of A Day in the Country and Le crime de Monsieur Lange, both made the same year—but had Duvivier not stuck to his guns, we may not have been blessed with one of cinema’s most charming and unaffected musical numbers, which begins as Gabin croons "Quand on s'promène au bord de l'eau" to his café crowd in a sun-dappled vision of communal bliss, only to have Duvivier’s camera veer off and amble all alone by the banks of the Marne, shooting through the flowering trees.

After the blooming period in the '30s as part of a production team for Film d'Art’s Marcel Vandal and Charles Delac, and elsewhere in France, Duvivier’s career became peripatetic, bouncing between Paris and Hollywood and England with occasional detours to Italy and Germany, chilled by the war, spurred to MGM by the sublime, wistful success of Un Carnet de bal (1937), sent back to France after the bloated costume-epic failure of The Great Waltz (1938), returning to California for a few films during the war, and so on into the '40s.

Just as visual risk-taking fell out of fashion, the humanistic ardor and sympathy so vivid in the earlier films became harder to locate, but the kind and wise view of personal history to which Duviver naturally responded fairly overflowed from Untel père et fils (1940). The history of the film is itself a classic of wartime resistance—finishing it up as the Germans prepared to march into Paris, Duvivier had reportedly shipped it to Hollywood, where he shot extra scenes with Michèle Morgan and Charles Boyer. Goebbels declared the film verboten, and it saw release in the U.S. two years before hitting post-Liberation French theaters in 1945. An insouciant trip through 70 years of French history, the film follows three generations of a single family as they hold the home front (and, sometimes, get sucked into combat) during three successive German invasions, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The movie hopscotches and elides, the budget seams show, and the robust cast (Morgan, Raimu, Louis Jouvet, Suzy Prim, Georges Biscot) must suffer the indignity of powdered hair, but Duvivier’s tapestry is broad, his notes are compassionate (amid the litany of ordeal and sorrow, there’s an abundance of familial toasts), and his images are bursting with stubborn life.

In the postwar years, as studio productions grew larger and fewer, Duvivier’s filmography grew sparser, highlighted by a severely underrated and uniquely analytical version of Anna Karenina (1948), co-scripted with Jean Anoulih and starring a Vivien Leigh already tensed by bipolarity and on her way to Blanche DuBois, and the effervescent quilt-film Sous le ciel de Paris (1950), which again in typical fashion counterpoints Parisian young love with surreal portents of mortality, and which captured the city streets of 1950 for a nostalgic generation of French filmgoers. Soon, of course, the New Wave that loathed him took over. Duvivier kept working, though, and died in 1967 in a car accident, at 71, just after completing Diabolically Yours (1967). In that rather Clementian thriller Alain Delon, as a veteran of the Algerian war (Duviver’s career is checkered with concerns about France’s relationship with Algeria) also gets in a wreck, but survives, with amnesia. Duvivier himself was already largely forgotten, even as his final film made the rounds of Paris theaters. 


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Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive
Lucas Gridoux and Jean Gabin in Pépé le Moko
Photo Gallery: Time Regained


May 1-25, 2009 Julien Duvivier


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

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Author's Website: Zero for Conduct