Two films by Marcel Carné are playing on MUBI in the United States as part of the series Marcel Carné, Arletty, Jean Gabin: Le jour se lève (1939), from June 7 - July 7, and Air of Paris (1954), from June 8 - July 8, 2017.
Marcel Carné’s 1937 film Drôle de drame (Bizarre, Bizarre) feels anomalous when placed next to his classic dramas. Unlike the sincere emotion, heartbreak, and despair which characterize his poetic realist works, Drôle de drame is a lighthearted and rather frivolous comedy of manners. The film depicts a series of absurd events caused by a need to maintain appearances, following meek botanist Irwin Molyneux (Michel Simon) as he lives a double life, writing crime novels in secret. When his cousin, the bishop Bedford (Louis Jouvet), accuses Molyneux of having killed his wife, the married couple go into hiding rather than rectify the mistake. Molyneux emerges with his novelist persona in order to learn more about the “crime,” where he encounters William Kramps (Jean-Louis Barrault), a man who murders butchers. With Molyneux’s botany and Kramps’ serial killings, Drôle de drame draws attention to the non-human, ultimately using it as a counterpoint to the human. Through the progressive valuing of the non-human and denigration of the human, the film produces its social criticism to great comedic effect.
Drôle de drame’s humor derives from skewering the hypocrisy of the upper-class: so intent on maintaining appearances, the characters descend into self-destruction. Exemplified by Molyneux, his wife Margaret (Françoise Rosay), and Bedford, these figures are characterized by an over-intellectualization of life. Rejecting reality for falsehood and lies, they are constantly calculating and plotting to maintain a social veneer. Unable to support itself, this posturing begins to rupture—but it is through a connection to the non-human that these figures may be saved.
The non-human is presented to us first in the form of Molyneux’s plants. Studying mimosas and carnivorous flowers, Carné puts forth for us the image of impossibly active flora: we view the flowers eat flies in stop-motion, while the mimosas sway drunkenly after being fed gin and whiskey. These flowers bring up the key themes of the film: the sincere care and love they generate, their intoxication, and the way which Carné brings exaggerated life and careful attention to the non-human, an approach that disturbs anthropocentrism. This emerges with the plants and is intensified by Kramps as a liminal figure between human and non-human in the film.
Coupled with the human characters’ focus on social standards is their lack of honest emotion. While Molyneux loves his plants, he does not love his wife; similarly, despite Bedford’s vocal moralistic high-ground, he carries with him a sexy pinup photograph, the constant visualization of his hypocrisy. The film puts this posturing in opposition to the genuine affection Molyneux displays for his plants, as well as through the actions of Kramps, who explains that it is for his love of animals that he murders butchers. Though a perverse version of love, Kramps in his bond to the animal can depict real, visceral feeling, as opposed to the strangled shame and affected politeness which restrict his upper-class counterparts. Throughout the film, Kramps is overloaded with unrestrained emotions: he enters the film by publicly shouting out a confession of his crimes, stating that if he does not speak, he will choke. He later falls in love with Margaret at first sight, pursuing her immediately. On top of this is, of course, the murder. Impulsive and effusive, Kramps is an amplification of what the other characters are not, but also the remedy they need to become less “human.” The upper-class figures are an exaggeration of sophisticated delusions, and they necessarily need to be balanced out an exaggerated symbol of raw, carnal truth.
In order to be able to abandon the human rationality which stifles the upper class, Kramps intervenes into Molyneux’s life by intoxication: upon meeting, the two share a drink. Becoming progressively more drunk, Molyneux is able to open up, expressing his fears, desires, and love. Significantly, this is the first time he shows emotion to another person, rather than to his plants. Kramps and the mimosas then become tied: the mimosas, drunkenly swaying, become replaced, with the equally drunken, yet more active, Kramps as a companion for Molyneux, influencing him to abandon upper-class artificiality in an extravagant manner. Through intoxication, we have a breaking down of the cerebral walls erected by snobbery, by way of a blending of the human with the natural within Kramps.
Narratively tied to the plants by intoxication, and aligned with the non-human through his attack upon butchers, the murderous Kramps becomes the active emotional center of Drôle de drame through his contradictions. A human man, he rejects human society for non-human values: base emotions. Solidifying this bond is Kramps’ disrobing in the greenhouse to swim in a pond with some frogs. Joining the animal, he sheds the clothes which tied him to the human realm, becoming a true human-animal, nude and posed as if one with the plants which surround him, naked skin glistening as if he were amphibian.
The non-human is sensual (hungry, drunken, emotional), while the human is calculated (false, constructed, detached). The human, with potential to lose these negative values, is too restricted by upper-class domination: while workers and house staff demonstrate a toned-down version of this posturing, they are subjugated to the whims of those with money and power. The film is aware that the human is animal, and it is the manufactured “human” of the upper-class which binds; as such, the human is not beyond being saved by unsettling its presumptions of superiority. With liquor provided by Kramps breaking down the barriers of the human for Molyneux, we see the mixing of human and non-human in order to emotionally rescue our protagonist from the fraudulent, immoral, and harmful trappings of the upper-class. Allowing for the de-centering of human/upper-class values through a meeting of the human and the non-human, Molyneux is in the end saved by Kramps, who rights wrongs, clarifies the contrivances set up to avoid social shame, and gives Molyneux and Margaret a second chance at real love.
In so many ways, Drôle de drame is an oddity for Carné. By 1937, he had only made three films, the two others being Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche (1929, a silent documentary short on weekend leisure), and Jenny (1936, a stylish drama about a nightclub owner). Of his first three films, it is Jenny which would become most characteristic of his lasting style and thematic interests. A precursor to his later films such as Port of Shadows (1938) or Le jour se lève (1939), Jenny presents the beginnings of Carné’s melodramatic tone and concerns with politics and oppression as they intersect with personal lives. Drôle de drame represents a film quite different from Carné’s poetic realist classics in its broad comedy and absurdist twists, as well as its exaggerated anti-anthropocentric perspective. Yet thematically, the film fits right in to his oeuvre. Focusing on social restraints and class relations, Drôle de drame helps pave the way for Carné’s political interests, while its lighthearted comedy sets the ground for the mix of emotion that would color his simultaneously funny yet sharply dramatic later films, such as Les visiteurs du soir (1942) or Air of Paris (1954). A unique work of anti-human sentiment and a witty comedy unparalleled within his oeuvre, Drôle de drame represents a key film to understanding Carné’s work.