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Review: Cinema of Discovery: Julien Duvivier in the 1920s on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

Flicker Alley’s set will go a long way toward restoring Julien Duvivier’s reputation as one of the early masters of French cinema.

4.5

Cinema of Discovery

Julien Duvivier was hailed as a master by no less than the likes of Orson Welles, Michael Powell, and Ingmar Bergman. Jean Renoir even went so far as to say that if he were to construct a monument to cinema, he “would place a statue of Julien Duvivier at the entrance.” The director’s lofty reputation, though, would take a sharp decline in the 1950s when several of Cahiers du Cinéma’s critics began to lump him in with what François Truffaut derisively termed the “French tradition of quality” and “le cinéma de papa.” Flash-forward to the present and with the exception of the 1937 crime thriller Pépé le Moko and the 1946 allegorical drama Panique, few of his films are regualarly discussed outside of France.

While Truffaut pegged Duvivier as one of many of French cinema’s elder statesmen, whose style and subjects had become sterile and outmoded, Jean-Luc Godard went one step further in besmirching the legacy of Duvivier and such notable contemporaries as Marcel Carné with a particularly savage critique in the April 22, 1959 issue of the French journal Arts: “Your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is.” As recently as 1997, film theorist Dudley Andrew continued to fan the flames, quipping that most of Duvivier’s films are “embarrassing to watch.”

It’s difficult to imagine such complaints applying to most of Duvivier’s silent features, which are often as visually dynamic and emotionally vibrant as even the best films of the era. The Marriage of Mademoiselle Beulemans and Le Tourbillon de Paris are perhaps a bit too classically structured and reliant on familiar melodramatic tropes to prove exciting to his detractors. But the nine films included in Flicker Alley’s five-disc Cinema of Discovery: Julien Duvivier in the 1920s make the case that the director’s style transcends mere technical proficiency, elevating his stories with invigorating montages and superimpositions, expressionistic, painterly skies, and deeply intimate and revealing close-ups.

Using a tactic that, ironically, was later favored by the New Wave directors, Duvivier shot a number of these early films on location, including Revelation in Jerusalem and Mother Hummingbird in Algeria. Additionally, Au Bonheur de Dames includes scenes shot on the streets of Paris, while The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’s final sequence was filmed on the actual famed monument. Duvivier’s insistence on using real locations as much as possible, despite the bulky cameras of the time resulting in more challenges, lends these films a verisimilitude that enriches their drama and provides a sense of vitality and immediacy to his images.

Of all the films in this box set, The Divine Voyage stands as perhaps the most comprehensive example of this aspect of Duvivier’s early works. Shot in an earthy seaside town on the coast of France and a remote island, the film is populated with a remarkable assortment of extras, most of whom appear to be locals, whose faces are elegantly captured by Duvivier in heartrending close-ups that reflect the years of hard work and suffering that have fallen upon them thanks to the cruel hand of the town’s lone source of money and power, Claude Ferjac (Henry Krauss).

Duvivier also imbues The Divine Voyage with a unique blend of Catholic mysticism, gothic romanticism, and social realism, resulting in a beautifully transfixing film that draws as much from the pioneering political work of the Soviet montage directors as it does from such Jean Epstein masterpieces as The Faithful Heart and Finis Terrae. It’s an unusual film in Duvivier’s filmography, but one that shows his ability to push wholeheartedly into the poetic expressionism that he typically reined in throughout the rest of his work.

A more typical film for the director is Poil de Carotte, released in 1925. Duvivier remade the film just seven years later with sound, and considered it his favorite and most personal work. Though that later version is more dramatically forceful, the silent version remains a devastating yet compassionate portrait of child abuse. As Madame Lepic, the mother of the titular redhead, Charlotte Barbier-Krauss is a bit too broad. But where her cruelty toward her youngest son, François (André Heuzé), is relentless to the point of almost cartoonish villainy, the more subtle hostility of the young boy’s siblings (Fabien Haziza and Renée Jean), along with the obliviousness and seeming indifference of his father (Henry Krauss), combine to create a multifaceted depiction of familial dysfunction and neglect.

Duvivier’s penchant for psychological realism is again on display in the magnificent Mother Hummingbird, from 1929. As with his earlier Le Tourbillon de Paris, this film is, at least on paper, a fairly customary bourgeois drama, here following a baroness, Irène de Rysbergue (Maria Jacobini), as she leaves the restrictive confines of her dull existence, including her stodgy husband (Jean Dax), and runs off to Algeria with her son’s (Jean Gérard) dashing friend, Georges (Francis Lederer), after he seduces her at a society ball.

Starkly contrasting the extreme formality and listlessness of the baroness’s home life, the scene at the ball is a cornucopia of orgiastic delights. This lengthy sequence has a distinctly musical quality to its rhythms, with rapid-fire edits of shots of couple’s kissing, drinks flowing freely, hands touching women’s backs and legs, and champagne bottles popping—all signaling an escalation of the evening’s joie de vivre. Amid this erotically charged atmosphere, Duvivier homes in on Georges’s romancing of the baroness, slowing the pace of his edits to linger on extreme close-ups of the two future lovers as their eyes meet throughout the evening and following them with elaborate tracking shots as they swirl about the dance floor.

Mother Hummingbird never again reaches the sensual heights of this sequence, but once the film shifts to Algeria, Duvivier captures the exotic beauty of a landscape and culture as it morphs from new and exciting for the baroness to an alienating backdrop to her inevitable, tragic decline. While the film is incredibly sympathetic toward its heroine, it’s regrettably marred by an ending that undercuts her innate desire to free herself from the constraints of bourgeois society. It’s a disappointing finish to an otherwise great film, and, unfortunately, it’s not the only time that this proves to be the case with one of Duvivier’s silent films.

Au Bonheur des Dames, a.k.a. Ladies’ Paradise, comes at the tail end of the silent era in France, released just weeks before René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris would introduce sound and music to cinemas there. Despite the sea of technical changes in the film world that were just around the corner, Au Bonheur des Dames is a startlingly modern film that bolts to a sprint immediately with a dizzying montage of chaotic Parisian street life of the late 1920s.

Au Bonheur des Dames is both the tale of a small-town girl, Denise (Dita Parlo), blossoming in Paris, and of the city’s rapidly expanding capitalist infrastructure annihilating family-owned businesses, including that of her Uncle Baudu (Armand Bour). The glitz and glamour of a new, more modern Paris is embodied by a massive department store, whose flashing lights, elegant decor, and seemingly endless products live up to the promise of “Everything you want at Au Bonheur des Dames.” Duvivier captures the allure of such a place, which is as bustling and intoxicating as the streets outside, but also shows the human cost of such growth as Baudu, whose shop is right across the street, is slowly ground down to a shell of his former self.

While its final five minutes are a complete betrayal of the progressive politics that mark the story up to that point, Au Bonheur des Dames remains the crowning gem of Duvivier’s silent work, for the way he pushes his penchant for stylistic experimentation to its most extreme. It also serves as further proof of his dexterity and flexibility in working in virtually any genre, setting, or time period and bringing his own distinct flavor to each and every one of them. Even if this collection doesn’t completely restore his reputation, it at least pays testament to the massive influence that he had on French cinema in the first half of the 20th century.

Image/Sound

Restored between 2018 and 2021 by Lobster Films in Paris, these nine films all look stunning, with a sharpness and depth of field that maximizes the emotional resonance of every close-up and the details in the backgrounds of the various locations where the films were shot. The contrast is also quite impressive, with a wide range of grays, deep blacks, and consistent tinting. This is most apparent in Duvivier’s frequent, expressive shots of skies where characters are perfectly silhouetted on the horizon. But it’s in Duvivier’s extreme close-ups—of the many sailors in The Divine Voyage or the lovers in Mother Hummingbird, for instance—that these transfers shine brightest. The intricate details in these shots are quite remarkable, with every facial movement, wrinkle, and suggestive glance presented with an almost startling clarity. The new accompanying music, composed by Antonio Coppola, Fay Lovsky, Marco Dalpane, and Gabriel Thibaudeau, is perfectly crisp and clear throughout.

Extras

Video appreciations of all nine films by film critic Hubert Niogret and film historian and author Patrick Brion provide a nice overview of each work, touching on everything from their critical response to their various themes. Both men are clearly experts on Julien Duvivier, and they do an excellent job connecting these silent works to his later films in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Historian Serge Bromberg also introduces all but one of the films, and while his words of praise are rather brief, his enthusiasm comes through every time.

The restoration demonstrations by Chrystel Bonne and Colin Ruffin of Lobster Films are also uniformly fascinating, as the film technicians get into not only the technical aspects of their labor-intensive work, but also how and where various prints were discovered. In one especially interesting anecdote, Boone and Ruffin go into how 17.5mm prints and projectors were used exclusively in rural French theaters and were replaced by the Germans with 16mm projectors during World War II, so that their propaganda films could be shown.

The set also comes with a featurette on the scoring of The Divine Voyage by composer Antonio Coppola and classical ensemble L’Octuor de France and an appreciation of the last of Duvivier’s silent films, Au Bonheur des Dames, with director Patrice Leconte. Lastly, there’s a beautiful 48-page bound booklet with an introduction by Duvivier’s son, Christian, and essay notes by Bromberg, who adds essential historical background to each of these productions.

Overall

Featuring nine brand new, sparkling transfers, Flicker Alley’s set will go a long way toward restoring Julien Duvivier’s reputation as one of the early masters of French cinema.

Cast: Henry Krauss, Edmond Van Daële, Andrée Brabant, Maria Jacobini, Lil Dagover, Simone Bourday, Jean Murat, Dita Parlo Director: Julien Duvivier Screenwriter: Julien Duvivier, Jacques Feyder, Joe May, Hans Székely, Noël Renard Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 857 min Year: 1925 - 1930 Release Date: January 4, 2021 Buy: Video

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