Performer, playwright, director, and all-around self-amused showman, Sacha Guitry was as much of a one-man orchestra as Jean Cocteau, and as much of a creative force in early 20th-century French culture. Despite a long film career that spanned more than 20 years until his death in 1957, however, Guitry was said to have held cinema with disdain as a feeble alternative to the theater (“Film is the negative, theater is the positive,” was a characteristic epigram). The play may have always been the thing for the St. Petersburg-born, Paris-raised auteur, yet the four films collected in the Presenting Sacha Guitry Eclipse box set showcase the kind of unmistakable visual sensibility that eluded fellow wordsmiths like Joseph Mankiewicz or Albert Lewin. Far from canned theater, these works reveal a distinctive cinematic motor purring under their arch verbosity, with the camera weaving and bobbing to Guitry’s rapier wit.
Guitry’s best-known film, 1936’s The Story of a Cheat sets a tone of impish amorality worthy of Ernst Lubitsch. He also stars as the unnamed protagonist, a middle-aged dandy writing his memoirs, outlining a lifestyle anchored by a fateful event; as a child, he realized that the same naughty act that sent him to bed without supper also saved him from the toxic mushrooms that wiped out his entire family. Dishonesty pays! Monte Carlo countesses, Russian agitators, and comely cardsharps follow—puppets one and all pantomiming the protagonist’s commentary. Using the aging swindler’s narration in lieu of dialogue, the picture combines verbal mischief with rapid-fire stylistic devices (reverse motion, transitional wipes, jump cuts, stock footage) in ways that, for all their playfulness, still seem startlingly avant-garde (few films around this time were willing to splinter their narratives as often, or as insouciantly). At the center is Guitry himself, broad-shouldered and eagle-nosed, a bulky presence yet light as air, winking at his own rich joke—that directing a movie is no different from relaxing in a Parisian boulevard café, jotting down ideas and reciting them for the camera.
If The Story of a Cheatoften feels aligned to Trouble in Paradise, 1937’s The Pearls of the Crown in some ways predates The Earrings of Madame… While Max Ophüls follows the trajectory of his film’s titular jewels to trace the waltzing emotions of its tragic love triangle, however, Guitry uses his film’s plot baubles as the center of a dizzying farcical pageant that spans centuries, multiple languages, and dozens of actors (several of whom appear in multiple roles). As the missing pearls of the English crown make their way through the likes of Henry VIII, Catherine De Medici, and Napoleon, Guitry both deflates all-star, historical extravaganzas and vies to outdo their opulence with a sprawling procession of temporal leaps, tableaux vivant, and cheeky cameos (future Children of Paradise alumni Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault appear as the snake-charming Queen of Abyssinia and a callow Bonaparte, respectively). Decades ahead of its time, the movie’s sprinting-vignette technique can be felt in the Truffaut of Jules and Jim and the Wes Anderson of The Royal Tenenbaums, to name just two. Guitry’s professed distaste for cinema notwithstanding, The Story of a Cheat and The Pearls of the Crown positively drip with his pleasure in trying to use the medium to its fullest.
Adapted from his plays, the set’s drawing room-bound other titles suggest a Gallic equivalent of Hollywood’s streamlined deco fantasies. Indeed, Désiré is intriguingly concurrent with My Man Godfrey as a Shavian satire of bourgeois mores, with Guitry playing a suavely amorous valet looking for his next employer (Jacqueline Delubac, the filmmaker’s wife). Innuendo-packed gestures, erotic reveries, and the occasional unorthodox camera angle (a choice overhead shot locates a veritable chessboard of class divides around the dinner table) season the brisk upstairs-downstairs intrigue. Elsewhere, 1938’s Noel Coward-ish roundelay Quadrille casts Guitry as a newspaper editor whose indiscretions involving his mistress (Gaby Morlay) and his star reporter (Delubac) expand to accommodate the arrival of a carefree American movie star (George Grey). Feathery to the point of evanescence, both pictures benefit from the offhand frankness of the characters’ dalliances and their casts’ impeccable delivery. If they seem conventional after the breathless pyrotechnics of The Story of a Cheat and The Pearls of the Crown, they remain distinctly the work of an artist who didn’t so much downgrade cinema as steadfastly reject its established rules.
The Story of a Cheat and The Pearls of the Crown for the most part retain their silvery sheen, yet a certain blurriness is often noticeable in the picture-boxed image, particularly in the early scenes of Quadrille, the most flawed of the four transfers. The mono sound is serviceable.
Astute liner notes by Michael Koresky provide the sole extra.
A sturdy introduction to Sacha Guitry's uniquely cinematic proscenium.