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The Idiot at FIAF

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<em>The Idiot</em> at FIAF

The name Edwige Feuillère probably won’t ring much of a bell for even dedicated cinephiles in America, but in France she was a national idol, especially for her work in the theater. Feuillère first came to notice on film in Abel Gance’s violent Lucrezia Borgia (1935), where she did several nude scenes, and Jean Cocteau wrote The Eagle with Two Heads for her, which she played in Cocteau’s screen version (1947) opposite Jean Marais. In that movie especially, it’s easy to see why Feuillère was considered such a commanding figure on stage; she brings nuance and real star authority to an enormously wordy role (in contrast, Monica Vitti flails around haplessly in Michelangelo Antonioni’s color-knob happy remake, The Mystery of Oberwald {1980}). Feuillère also made two films for Max Ophüls, Sans lendemain (1940) and the very underrated De Mayerling à Sarajevo (1940), in which she brought tact and pathos to the tragic plot. Otherwise, Feuillère isn’t too well-known in this country because most of her credits are in what François Truffaut dubbed “Tradition of Quality” movies, repudiated by the French New Wave of the 1960’s, and only now beginning to be re-discovered in festivals, like the recent Museum of Modern Art retrospective on Julien Duvivier.

At The French Institute’s Florence Gould Hall on 59th Street in New York, there has been a small, ongoing Feuillère festival; earlier in the month, they showed two Feuillère movies directed by Claude Autant-Lara, one of the French New Wave’s biggest targets for scorn. The third film in the series, Georges Lampin’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1946), with a Charles Spaak screenplay, is in many ways an archetypal Tradition of Quality French movie of the time which reduces one of the greatest of all novels to a costume star vehicle for Feuillère and Gérard Philipe. Lamkin’s direction is uninspired; he made only a handful of movies (one of which was another Dostoyevsky picture, a version of Crime and Punishment (1956) with Jean Gabin) but the film’s shortcomings don’t matter much when you’re looking at stars like these. I revere Dostoyevsky, and The Idiot in particular, but I’m not pious enough about his work to discount the pleasure of seeing the otherworldly Philipe play the saintly Prince Myshkin, a role that he was seemingly born for. Philipe, like Feuillère, is an actor we don’t see enough of on our repertory screens because no one revives late films by René Clair, Marcel Carné or René Clément; only his appearance in a Max Ophüls classic, La Ronde (1950), is readily available to film scholars (Feuillère has it doubly hard, since her two collaborations with the unquestionably major Ophüls are early Ophüls and hard to see).

In The Idiot, Feuillère makes one hell of an entrance from behind a closed door, illuminated by the kind of star lighting that might have wowed even Marlene Dietrich, and she stalks around the elaborate sets in her Escoffier gowns like the stage pro she was. In the famous scene where Nastasia Philipovna throws a large wad of money into a fireplace, Feuillère expertly controls the space, but her face is armored and guarded, lit for battle and fairly impenetrable; she does the kind of acting in The Idiot that doesn’t wear particularly well, even if her charisma is unmistakable (still, she’s far more suitable than the miscast Setsuko Hara in Akira Kurosawa’s labored 1951 film version of the novel). Philipe, on the other hand, is one of those miracle movie actors; he played on stage, too, but the camera seems to love him in an intimate way. The audience in the Florence Gould Hall oohed and ahhed appreciatively when his name came up in the credits, and he dominates this movie as he dominated every movie he was in. Philipe doesn’t so much play the unplayable part of Prince Myshkin as he embodies him, moment by moment and as purely as possible. I would hope that, at some point, the French Institute might put together a similar retrospective for Philipe, so that we can all swoon over him in unseen delicacies like The Devil in the Flesh (1947) or Juliette ou la Clé des Songes (1951) or Knave of Hearts (1954). Jean-Luc Godard once famously pronounced that Nicholas Ray is the cinema, and he was right, but Gérard Philipe is the cinema, too, and looking at someone like him is an unavoidably romantic experience; he represents film-going as a site for our feelings, a one-way street of longing and willed vulnerability that makes up for all the bad movies and all the dull actors we encounter on our search for some kind of enrichment.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.