Jean Delannoy: Film director before the New Wave

Saturday 21 June 2008 00:00

Described by Georges Sadoul in his book French Film (1953) as "an honest craftsman, capable of good work and worthy of his international reputation", Jean Delannoy was the last surviving and last active member of the directing triumvirate of Claude Autant-Lara, Christian-Jaque and himself, who between them were responsible for much of what constituted the "Tradition of Quality" in postwar French cinema.

Incensed at the enormous popularity their sumptuous literary adaptations enjoyed with the cinema-going public, the bright young things of the nouvelle vague dismissed their films as "le cinéma de Papa"; and as the most austerely high-minded of the three, Delannoy attracted the most odium in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. In his seminal polemic "Une certaine tendance du Cinéma Française" in the edition of January 1954, François Truffaut sneered that Delannoy "sees himself as a mystical moralist. But the petty meanness of Garçon Sauvage, the shabbiness of La Minute de Vérité, the insignificance of La Route Napoléon show rather clearly the intermittent character of that vocation."

In Truffaut's own cinematic calling card, the short Les Mistons (The Brats, 1957), a gang of kids destroy a poster for Delannoy's own drama of delinquent youth, Chiens perdus sans collier (The Little Rebels, 1955); while Jean-Luc Godard contemptuously declared of Delannoy that "going into the Billancourt studios briefcase in hand, you would have sworn he was going to an insurance office".

Descended from Huguenots, the son of a civil servant and a schoolteacher, the young Jean was educated in Lille and Paris and, while still at university, found employment as an actor in films, including Alexander Volkoff's Casanova (1927). During his military service he worked in the army film unit and in 1930 returned to the industry as chief editor at Paramount's French studios at Joinville. Graduating to direction, he made his first feature, Paris-Deauville, a low-budget comedy released in 1935. His one pre-war feature still recalled today is Macao, l'enfer du jeu (Gambling Hell, 1939), an exotic melodrama about gunrunners in the Far East with Erich von Stroheim.

It was during the Occupation that Delannoy attained prominence with two enormously popular but contrasting films. Pontcarral, colonel d'empire (1942), despite being set during the Napoleonic era, was eagerly seized upon by French audiences for the contemporary resonances with the Vichy regime in its stress on the need to resist malign authority ("Under such a regime, sir, it is an honour to be condemned"). It was accorded the accolade by the writer Francis Courtade in Les Malédictions du Cinéma Français (1978) of being the sole authentic resistance film of the occupation (one of the military heads of the French Resistance even adopted the name Pontcarral as an alias).

On the other hand, L'Eternel retour (Love Eternal, 1943), from a script by Jean Cocteau – which transposed the legend of Tristan and Isolde to the present day as a vehicle for his lover Jean Marais – although lapped up by wartime French audiences, prompted an ambivalent response in post-war commentators such as Richard Winnington, who declared that "the pristine blondness and humourlessness of the two leading actors must, though, have made it a pleasure for the Nazis to give permission for the production as well as to view the picture".

After the liberation, Delannoy consolidated his position with another huge popular hit, La Symphonie Pastorale ("The Pastoral Symphony", 1946), the only film ever made from a novel by André Gide, which won the Grand Prix (then the highest award) at the first post-war Cannes film festival together with the award for Best Actress for Michèle Morgan as a blind orphan girl in love with Pierre Blanchar's pastor. This, and Les jeux sont faits (The Chips are Down, 1947), from an original screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, demonstrated a preoccupation with religion that would re-emerge in several of Delannoy's later films, starting with Dieu a besoin des hommes (God Needs Men), a drama starring Pierre Fresnay as a verger newly arrived on a desolate Breton island in the 19th century, which shared the International Grand Prize at the 1950 Venice Film Festival.

By the time of Truffaut's denunciation in Cahiers, however, Delannoy's name was becoming increasingly associated with thrillers and glossy international period pieces, including his first film in colour, Obsession (1954), a circus melodrama based a short story by Cornell Woolrich and showcasing Morgan and Raf Vallone as trapeze artists.

Regardless of the depredations of those critics who were to become the nouvelle vague, he remained in steady employment, his output including versions of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (1956), resplendent in CinemaScope and Eastmancolor with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo and Gina Lollobrigida as Esmeralda; George Simenon's Maigret tend un Piège (Maigret Lays a Trap, 1958) and Maigret et l'Affaire Saint-Fiacre (Maigret and the St Fiacre Case, 1959), starring Jean Gabin as Inspector Maigret; and La Princesse de Clèves (1961), a long-in-gestation semi-sequel by Cocteau to L'Eternel retour, described by the film historian David Shipman as "visually exquisite but static".

Delannoy enjoyed a late succès de scandale in 1964 with Les Amitiés Partculières (This Special Friendship), adapted by the veteran screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost from Roger Peyrefitte's 1944 novel about two boys' forbidden passion for each other in a Catholic seminary during the 1920s, which ends in tragedy. His subsequent films, however, were routine, and he was to find a new home in television, usually directing historical subjects.

He seemed a name from the cinema's distant past when he unexpectedly returned to the big screen in his eighties with two more religious films: Bernadette (1988), about Bernadette of Lourdes, who had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858, and Marie de Nazareth (1995), about Mary herself. Having outlasted and outlived most of his contemporaries (not to mention some of the nouvelle vague), he celebrated his century in a ceremony at the small City Hall of his home town of Bueil in Normandy, where the guests included Michèle Morgan.

Richard Chatten

Jean Delannoy, film director: born Paris 12 January 1908; married 1938 Juliette Geneste (one daughter); died Guainville, France 18 June 2008.

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