Tuesday 12 July 1994
CHRISTIAN-JAQUE was one of the finest directors of the golden age of French cinema, if not of the stature of Jean Renoir or Marcel Carne, nevertheless like them a master of atmosphere and narrative. The atmosphere was somewhat fetid and the plots invariably pessimistic, often dependent on a down-at-heel milieu. Like Claude Autant-Lara, Christian-Jaque started in movies as designer and art director, notably working with Julien Duvivier, also one of the leading directors of the time.
He directed his own first film in 1932, and for a while turned out star vehicles for Fernandel - like Un de la Legion (1936), which manages that other movie staple of the era: a hymn to French colonialism. Uncredited, he directed most of Les Perles de la couronne (1937), inspired by the Coronation of George VI, for Sacha Guitry, who wrote and starred in it.
Christian-Jaque first came to international attention with Les Disparus de Saint-Agil (1938), of which Graham Greene wrote: 'It would be possible to praise and dismiss the . . . film . . . as a skilful, exciting, rather absurd 'story for boys' (but) one is reminded again and again, in the elusive poetry of the story of escape, of Fournier's great novel Le Grand Meaulnes.' Set in the enclosed world of a boarding school, the passions involved were not sexual but those of hatred: towards the drunken art master (Michel Simon) and the disciplinarian languages teacher (Erich von Stroheim).
With the Second World War, French movie-makers retreated into what Georges Sadoul called 'brilliant fantasy' but which could be better termed 'black whimsy'. However, Christian- Jaque's L'Assassinat du Pere Noel (1941) and Sortileges (started in 1944 but completed after the war) are two of the best of the many allegories made during the Occupation. Again these are thrillers, with the action again set in an enclosed world: villages cut off by snow, in Haute Savoie and the Auvergne respectively. The characters are warped physically, mentally or emotionally, locked into private obsessions or despair; love and pity merge, and though the love is passionate it is doomed to fail. Pere Noel, played by the magnificent Harry Baur, feeds the children fantasies; and we may be sure that the crippled boy urged to walk again is France itself.
Just as surely, Un Revenant (1946) reflects the post-war mood, as a famous ballet impresario returns to Lyons to confront the people responsible for the scandal which had driven him away 20 years earlier. He is played by another actor always in command of a gigantic talent, Louis Jouvet.
Throughout this period - before the war, during the Occupation and in the aftermath - the French cinema refused to face reality head on. It was exciting then (and still is) because its most creative talents used it subversively and because they moved into eloquent depictions of the past, in both historical reconstructions and literary adaptations. After tackling a life of Berlioz, La Symphonie fantastique (1942), with Jean-Louis Barrault as the composer, Christian-Jacque turned in sumptious and rousing versions of Carmen (1943), a co-production with Italy starring Viviane Romance and Jean Marais, and Boule de Suif (1945) with Micheline Presle. La Chartreuse de Parme (1948) is something more than these, just as Stendhal's many-
textured novel is more than Merimee's tale or de Maupassant's novella. The film substitutes the original's irony for a vaguely sardonic tone, but if the perpetually surprised Fabrice of Gerard Philipe remains a philanderer he is still very much a pawn in the dangerously political gales of 19th- century Italy. To take so daunting a novel and bring it to the screen with such mastery and at such length (170 minutes) was a tremendous achievement.
Philipe also starred as an amorous adventurer in Louis XV's army in the remake of Fanfan la Tulipe, which brought Christian- Jaque the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. As a light-hearted look at the past, it was considerably more successful than Barbe-Bleue (1951), despite a pleasingly facetious Pierre Brasseur in the title-role. It was one of the first French films in colour, encouraging Georges Wakhevitch to some of his most exquisite and extravagant designs.
Christian-Jaque also made two of the first portmanteau films, Souvenirs perdus (1949) and Adorables creatures (1952), which had long London runs at the Studio One and Curzon respectively. The first has four different stories centred on a lost-property office; the second has Daniel Gelin seducing the likes of Danielle Darrieux, Edwige Feuillere and Martine Carol. Following tradition (two of his five wives had already appeared in his films: Simone Renant and Renee Faure) he married Melle Carol, Brigitte Bardot's direct predecessor as the French sex-bomb. His handling of her was partly responsible for that in roles such as Lucrezia Borgia and Mme du Barry - but the films themselves were unremarkable.
Christian-Jaque continued directing till 1985, often star vehicles for such as Bardot, Marais, Alain Delon. His literary adaptations of this period - Nana (1954), La Tulipe noire (1964) - are ordinary, but I recall liking (when I saw it in Paris) his 1961 Madame Sans-Gene with Sophia Loren, which in a dubbed version was mauled by British and American critics. La Chartreuse de Parme found distributors in neither country, perhaps because of its length. I have never met anyone who thinks it a second too long.
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