“A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” François Truffaut’s famously excoriating 1954 essay on what he reproachfully called his nation’s “cinéma de qualité,” has long kept the films and filmmakers discussed in the piece out of fashion, respect, or even visibility. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection’s new Eclipse series, Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, takes a step toward curing that unfortunate side effect.
Claude Autant-Lara worked squarely within the establishment against which Truffaut railed, first as a set and costume designer, then as a helmer of French-language Buster Keaton imitations, and finally as a respected director in his own right—a specialist in a kind of frothy, Lubitschean entertainment laced with melancholy. All four films included in this box set adhere to a stylistic package common within the French studio system of the time—a polished mise-en-scène that spotlights fine costuming and set design, meticulous deep-focus staging that occasionally borders on stiltedness, and a conventionally sweeping score—but what Truffaut omitted in his condemnation is their subtle air of rebellion and discontent.
Granted, you’d be forgiven for missing these undercurrents in the earliest two films included in the set, Le Mariage de Chiffon and Lettres d’Amour, both escapist period pieces released to great success in the middle of World War II. The former traces affairs of the heart in Belle Epoque provincial France while the latter sets its romantic roundelay during Second Republic. In each film, Autant-Lara uses props—a misplaced shoe in Le Mariage de Chiffon, the titular love letters in Lettres d’Amour—as vehicles for the narrative’s interpersonal twists and turns, and in both cases the filmmaker begins his story with a decoy, following a male character down a particular path only to eventually divert attention toward his true subject: the precocious actress Odette Joyeux, who appears as a headstrong, passionate, and often disenchanted young woman in all four films.
With her soft features and spunky physicality, Joyeux brings to mind Claudette Colbert, but her withholding eyes and emotional reticence just as often grant her the mystery of Lauren Bacall. It’s a compelling combination that grounds Lettres d’Amour’s quick-witted, Jean Aurenche-penned dialogue in real gravitas and conviction, while also preventing her freethinking characters from being pinned down by their peers and love interests. This fluidity of identity is ultimately the force that dictates Autant-Lara’s narratives, which lurch in circles around the whims of his heroines, who are in thrall to their values (like rejecting a corset as a badge of individuality in Le Mariage de Chiffon) and emotions (affection toward an unlikely suitor) above all else.
In spite of his appreciative foregrounding of Joyeux, Autant-Lara also has a penchant for distributing his sympathies across his ensembles, and his films regularly return to those characters cast aside from the trails blazed by his heroines. Le Mariage de Chiffon, for instance, concludes after consummating its central romance by reconnecting with the amiable colonel (André Luguet) who kick starts the narrative, and whose polite but recessed expression of defeat upon finishing runner-up in his pursuit of Joyeux’s character is the capstone image of an otherwise buoyant romantic idyll.
This ricochet from a happy ending to a puncturing note of despondency is a pattern that recurs in Autant-Lara’s films and often feels like the predetermined raison d’etre of Sylvie et le Fantôme, a film that builds anticlimax into its DNA by focusing on the stirrings of love felt by a ghost (played tenderly by a young Jacques Tati) toward the corporeal daughter (Joyeux) of a royal family. After spending an hour and a half paralleling, via a crafty use of early-cinema special effects, the restless yearning of Slyvie with that of the phantom whose afterimage haunts the aristocratic kingdom, Autant-Lara finally gets to his summarizing gut punch: a shot of a half-opaque, melancholy Tati floating off into the woods above the breathtaking manor, once and for all ceding his passion to a secular challenger.
If Sylvie et le Fantôme is bittersweet in its lack of consolation, Douce, the standout of this set, is downright dirge-like. A Strindbergian melodrama of class warfare and doomed love, the film casts Joyeux as the eponymous only child in an upper-crust Parisian household lorded over by the contemptuous and self-righteous Madame de Bonafé (Marguerite Moreno), and here the star actress’s sweetness registers as hopelessly naïve in a cruelly regimented society. Douce becomes infatuated with her family’s handsome but low-born servant (Roger Pigaut) at the behest of his female cohort (Madeleine Robinson), hatches an impulsive plan to run away with him, and imperils her relationship to her family before suffering a tragic and avoidable death—a scenario that’s baldly deterministic but profoundly audacious, especially under a tyrannical Vichy government, in its depiction of the evil wrought by the rich. The film is replete with imagery that evokes the vacuity and illusion of wealth, whether it’s shrinking Moreno’s abrasive matriarch into the shadowy corners of her regal dominion or severing the members of the household off from one another via an expressive use of mirrors.
Experiencing the inexorable downward fall of Douce helps to recolor the other Autant-Lara films in this set, which, for all their playfulness, all contain to one degree or another Douce’s omnipresent awareness of societal divisions and their impact on the youthful, love-struck spirit. This conscientiousness, the thesis of these Occupation-era entertainments, is bewildering in light of the later public pivot taken by Autant-Lara, whose career flamed out as a deputy of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which has long thrived on anti-Semitism and a scapegoating of the “parasitic bodies” that threaten elites. Some might argue that this makes Autant-Lara’s body of work a dubious one to resurrect, but by the same token, these films, which exude sensitivity and reserve rare doses of animosity only for the disdainful and corrupt, offer a window into a cinematic context in which expressions of warmth and compassion necessarily contended with oppressive gloom. The amber glow of Autant-Lara’s romances, however suspended in time it may seem, thus feels like an enduring tonic.
Eclipse Series 45: Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.