A Gallic version of Noël Coward

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The Independent Online

Have you noticed how many fungi there are this autumn? Well, there are. All round us. And in the Chilterns. We were staying with friend in the Chilterns last weekend, and all through our autumnal walks in the woods we were oohing and aahing over the tall fungi, the ones in big rings, the white ones like little tongues, the bright red spotty ones...

As you can tell, I am unable to identify fungi. The comforting thing about this is that even the French get it wrong too. My authority for this comes in one of the greatest passages ever written about mushrooms, in the opening pages of a novel called Memoires d'un Tricheur by Sacha Guitry, written in 1935.

On the first page of the novel we are introduced to the narrator, then aged 12, and to the other 11 members of his large family. By page two, only the narrator is left alive. They have all sat down to a feast of wild mushrooms, you see, gathered by the uncle in the woods. At least, they thought they were mushrooms.

And why was the narrator spared? Ah, because he had been caught stealing from the family piggy bank, and as a punishment was forbidden to join the great mushroom supper. As a result, he was the only survivor.

"Have you ever had 11 bodies lying around in your house?" he asks the reader. "If you haven't, you will have no idea how they add up. They get everywhere."

When he goes to the funeral, a lone figure following 11 coffins, he feels vaguely guilty, as if his survival somehow made him responsible for their deaths. He hears someone in the crowd say: "Did you hear why the boy didn't die too? It was because he was a thief!"

"Yes," says the narrator, "I was alive because I was a thief. Which meant, of course, that the others had all died because they were honest!

"And that night, lying alone and awake in the deserted house, I came to some highly paradoxical conclusions about the workings of justice and crime. The experiences of the subsequent 40 years of my life have done nothing to change my opinions."

After that wonderful opening, sad to say, the novel falls away, and the hero gets involved with cardsharping and cheating in casinos, and it all gets rather smart and tedious, perhaps a bit like Guitry himself. He was a suave, witty figure on the French scene, not unlike a Gallic Noël Coward. I have now discovered that he made a film of the very same Memoirs of a Cheat, in 1936. An extraordinary film it was too, according to no less an authority than François Truffaut.

Guitry had made several films already, usually of stage pieces, and had got tired of transferring the theatre to the screen. So he decided to transfer a novel instead. In the theatre things happen now. On the screen, things have already happened, just as in a novel. So why not do it the same way? If a character on screen looks unhappy, he normally says: "Oh, I am unhappy." But Guitry wanted to see what would happen if the character just looked unhappy and we heard his off-screen voice say, "Ah, I was so unhappy that day ..."

And that, apparently, is what he did. The actors said very little. All the narrative was in the voice-over. As Truffaut says, "It must be the only fiction film in the history of the cinema in which 90 per cent of the story is told by an off-screen voice." And he adds: "If you agree that the definition of a masterpiece is a work of art which has found its perfect and definitive form, then anyone who has seen Le Roman d'un Tricheur will also agree with me that we have here a true masterpiece."

Halliwell's Film Guide isn't so sure. "A first person singular comedy," it says, "a tour de force performance in which only the narrator speaks, the rest use pantomime only." Tour de force it may be, but it only gets one star from Halliwell. Still, I would like to see it one day. Well, the first 10 minutes, anyway. For the mushroom sequence ...