Julien Duvivier's films, currently being retrospected at New York's Museum of Modern Art, form such a rich, neglected body of work, that seeing several at a time is like turning a familiar street corner and finding oneself faced with an exotic, lost continent, a primordial forest of glistening, sometimes decaying, celluloid.
Even as august a work as Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia gets it wrong, insisting that Duvivier made little impact before the poetic realist school of the 1930s got underway, but in fact the writer-director, who made his first film in 1919, had scored numerous hits in the '20s, including the first version of Poil de Carotte, which can be seen as poetic realism avant la lettre. While that genre is not large enough to contain the bewildering variety of Duvivier's work, it's worth noting that his earliest contributions to it predate those of Carne, Allegret, et al.
Poil de Carotte—Carrot-top—is: a novel by Jules Renard; a 1925 silent by Duvivier; a 1931 talkie by Duvivier; several subsequent versions by other hands; a little boy in a French village, whose family do not love him. While the talking version, more subtle and sophisticated, has endured as well as any of Duvivier's films (which have never recovered from the bashing they received by Cahiers), the original has been largely unavailable and neglected, which is a shame, since it's a fearless conglomeration of silent movie techniques, featuring distorted-mirror multi-layered dream sequences, flash-cut flashbacks, expressionistic angles, as well as truly staggering exploitation of spectacular French countryside, which for once is not pastoral and pretty, but sweeping, wild and romantic.
The sound version has, perhaps, more nuanced performances, by Harry Bauer as the father and Robert Lynen as the son (both subsequently victims of the Nazi occupation). The little boy in the silent version, Andre Heuze, has a way of inviting audience sympathy with broad gestures (he rubs his eyes in astonishment, wipes his brow in relief, defecates in the fireplace) which slightly violates the more naturalistic style established by the other players. But his leaping and cartwheeling with joy when anything nice happens to him, embarrassing though it is, is authentically childlike. In any case, much of the film's emotion is created by purely filmic devices, as when the boy contemplates suicide, and is dissuaded, we are told by intertitle, by the thought of those who have shown him affection. Duvivier cuts quickly to the housemaid, a spaniel, and two cats.
Carrot-top's mother, Charlotte Barbier-Krauss, is a moustachioed grotesque, and a sadistic bully, but although the portrait is an exaggerated one, it is convincing. Another filmmaker might have tried to understand the mother, but here at least we get specific forms of evil that seem too detailed and individual to be untrue. Locking her son in his room without a chamberpot, forcing him to use the fireplace, she then smuggles a pot into the room as he sleeps, so she can accuse him of wilfully befouling the room.
This unforgiving approach to one parent allows for unexpected humour when the hero is finally brought to his neglectful father's attention. The boy complains that he wants to die because he no longer loves his mother. "Well, do you think I love her?" asks dad in wonderment.
(Images pilfered from DVDTalk and DVDBeaver.)
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.