Going by the sort of things that exemplary archivists Lobster Films and its American kind-of-partner Flicker Alley, as well as some other concerns, have been releasing on DVD in recent years, one gets the impression that late-period French silent cinema was largely concerned with visual hyperbole. Relatively simple stories were given epic, heated treatments by the likes of L'Herbier and Gance, who, like Lang at Germany's UFA studio, built enormous sets and gathered armies of extras to embody their baroque visions, stretching the resources of their own business sponsors to the breaking point. The results of their efforts still look and feel like nothing else—the delirium of Gance's J'Accuse or L'Herbier's L'Argent is irreproducible.
Julien Duvivier, a slightly younger contemporary of Gance and L'Herbier, did not work on such an epic scale as the two other directors, but one look at the matte shot above will tell you that he did enjoy going big with the visuals. 1930's Au bonheur des dames has an unusual atmosphere for a film that's essentially about competition between women's clothing stores. Adapted by screenwriter Noel Renard from a novel by Emile Zola, it tells a seemingly standard-issue tale of an innocent Girl From The Country (Dita Parlo) come to Paris to live and work with her uncle (Armand Bour). Only uncle's quaint little shop is getting swallowed up by the massive department store Au Bonheur Des Dames—"Women's Paradise." And the joint's the only one that's hiring nowadays, either.
Soon Parlo's Denise is overwhelmed by a world of goods and services—the depictions of the store's gigantism, both on the selling floors and behind them, is frequently breathtaking—and naturally swept into a romance with a boss, played by Pierre de Guingand.
It all rather sounds like the sort of thing that Warner Brothers and director Roy del Ruth would tackle a few years hence with Employee's Entrance, a juicy pre-code melodrama that finds predatory exec Warren Williams seducing virginal Loretta Young. The wild differences in perspective would actually make the two an ideally contrasting double feature. As much as Duvivier advances the slight plot, the film is always keeping its eye on the social implications of progress and modernization, trying to grasp the true and ultimate meaning of the "superstore," a setting which the American film merely uses as a prop. And in the meantime, as Denise's uncle sees his life's work falling down around him, his madness takes on a, shall we say, Expressionist form, as in the below image of progress represented as a faceless destroyer.
It all culminates in a nearly operatic climax, after which the film pulls an ideological reverse out of its hat and concludes on a note that's more Ayn Rand-ish than Zolaesque. This Lobster/Arte Video presentation of the film advertises itself as all-region, and features not just a very sharp looking tranfer but voluminous and interesting extras, including an introduction by amiable, voluble French critic Serge Bromberg. Duvivier, whose career sustained long enough that the New Wave kids were able to slam his stuff as "Le Cinema de Papa," has been receiving some serious critical reassessment in recent years, and was the subject this June of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. I myself am only beginning to get familiar with his work, so I can't confidently "place" Au bonheur in the larger context of his ouevre. David Cairns has written some pursuasive pieces on the director, both here and at his Shadowplay blog; and Dan Callahan wrote a fascinating comparison between the French director and Howard Hawks, here.