The Madwoman of Chaillot started life as a play. Written in 1942 during the Nazi Occupation of France and first mounted in Paris in 1945, Jean Giraudoux story imagines good triumphing over evil, life enduring against living death, and above all, the survival of France and all that is unique about the country. Its fantasy quality and 19th century nostalgia are reminiscent of the fairytale and period films French filmmakers were forced to retreat to during the Occupation to appease the German authorities. Some of these films conveyed a veiled message of resistance that only their French audiences would understand. It’s a message that was current when the film was made, and unfortunately, it still reverberates today.
The film announces visually the turbulence of the late 1960s and the forces that will join to set things right: a street protest violently broken up by the Paris police and a tall, elderly woman dressed in fin de siècle garb moving through the streets causing minor havoc—cutting a surveyor’s line so that she doesn’t have to walk around it, pouring a window washer’s bucket of water into a window box of flowers. The woman is our madwoman, Countess Aurelia (Katharine Hepburn), on her way to her favorite café in the Chaillot district. She will ally with one of the young protestors, Roderick (Richard Chamberlain), nephew of the rich and lunatic Prospector (Donald Pleasence) who sets the plot in motion.
Roderick returns to his uncle’s home just as a new addition to The Prospector’s collection of toilets is being hung on the wall—a very rare outhouse from Johannesburg for which The Prospector paid 1.5 million francs. Roderick, bleeding from the blow he received from a policeman’s baton, goes up the stairs to tend to his wound. The Prospector complains that he is bleeding all over the towels. Roderick answers that he has been injured doing something that matters, to which The Prospector sneers that he’s all talk and no action. He then hands Roderick a large suitcase containing a bomb and tells him that if he really wants to take action, he should plant it in Room 22 of the Municipal Hall, where a truly nefarious bureaucrat is making plans for war.
The scene switches to a Chaillot café where The Reverend (John Gavin) and The Commissar (Oscar Homolka) sit at a table awaiting the arrival of the rest of “The Board.” The General (Paul Henreid) and The Chairman (Yul Brynner) arrive in a white limousine. Shortly thereafter, The Broker (Charles Boyer) arrives to tell The Chairman how, with a bit of market manipulation, he helped The General make 5.5 million francs. Happily, The Chairman announces he will pay for lunch, until he recalculates his profit and comes up with only 5 million francs: “You pay for lunch,” he instructs The Broker.
The usual denizens of the café, including a juggler (Gaston Palmer), a flower seller (Harriet Ariel), and The Ragpicker (Danny Kaye), come to The Board’s table, as they do to all the tables. The Chairman rudely dismisses them and shouts insults and orders at their waitress Irma (Nanette Newman). He tells the rest of The Board that he is waiting to see a man he has never met to receive instructions for his twelfth successful campaign. This is no ordinary rendezvous: the stranger will have the very key to the scheme and the proper name for it, and they will recognize each other through some strange look in the eye. As it happens, the man The Chairman is looking for is The Prospector. Indeed, The Prospector comes over to their table and having secured enough dirty secrets from each of them to insure against a double-cross, reveals the secret. He has been all over Paris sniffing and sampling the tap water and finally found what he was looking for—the taste of petroleum at this very café. “There’s oil under the streets of Chaillot,” he declares. The Chairman’s eyes light up as he orders the Board into the café to sample the tap water at the bar, bothered by the appearance of an eccentric—The Countess—demanding her usual table from its current occupant.
The only thing standing in the way of drilling is a pesky clerk who won’t issue a permit. The Prospector has seen to that by sending his nephew to blow the man up. Unfortunately for The Board, Roderick sees a family with small children sitting outside of Room 22 and runs to a bridge over the Seine and tosses the bomb in. He is mistakenly thought to be jumping, and gets punched unconscious by a policeman. The Countess and Irma see to his care. When he comes to, he and Irma lock eyes and fall in love. When Roderick realizes his uncle planned to do away with a simple clerk and the reasons behind the assassination attempt, he reveals all to the good people of Chaillot. The Ragpicker—the philosopher of the group—must explain to the Countess how the world has changed. “I looked at people, and they looked back. Now, they stare back with dead eyes.” Realizing that they are now living in an age of The Golden Calf, the Countess lays a trap to stop The Board from destroying the world. —Ferdyonfilms.com
Bryan Forbes, CBE is an English film director, actor and writer. Bryan Forbes was born John Theobald Clarke on 22 July 1926 in Queen Mary’s Hospital, Stratford, West Ham, Essex (now Greater London), and grew up at 43 Cranmer Road, Forest Gate, West Ham, Essex (now Greater London).
Forbes trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts but did not complete his studies. After military service from 1945 to 1948, he played numerous supporting roles in British films including in 1955 The Colditz Story, alongside John Mills, as well as appearing on the stage, but was obliged to change his name by British Equity to avoid confusion with the adolescent actor John Clark. He began also to write for the screen, receiving his first full credit for The Cockleshell Heroes in 1955. Another noted screenplay of his from this period was for The League of Gentlemen in 1959, in which he also acted.
He formed a production company with his frequent collaborator Richard Attenborough… read more