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The Forgotten: Pazuzu Dans Le Metro

Yves Montand plays the devil in a 1950s-made, 1920s-set version of Faust with beautiful sets worth going to hell for.
Marguerite de la nuit

There are multiple Fausts. Ever-multiplying, in fact, as if to outbreed all other fictional characters. The good doctor is unusual: Marlowe and Goethe's plays are both classics, and then there's Mann's novel; at least fifteen operas... In movies, Murnau rules supreme, but I like William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster just as much. René Clair's La beauté du diable is one of his best films, with Michel Simon and Gérard Philipe trading places as tempter and tempted, both utterly charming in their quite distinct ways. Sokurov just made another, well liked here at the Notebook. But for sheer visual rapture, Claude Autant-Lara's 1955 version Marguerite de la nuit takes the Technicolor cake and runs cackling all the way to perdition.

Marguerite de la nuit

Based on a novel by author/songwriter Pierre Mac Orlan, who also provided source books for Le quai des brumes for Carné and La bandera for Duvivier, Autant-Lara's movie updates the legend to the twenties and relocates it to Paris—but not just any Paris! This is a studio confection of simplified clean lines, as if everything had been cleared away and rebuilt by Le Corbusier. Even the Paris Opera House gets a modern makeover.

To the Faust legend the director adds screen legends Yves Montand and Michèle Morgan. Montand plays Mephistopheles as a suave gangster, George Raft with a steely touch of theatrical camp: he also lights a cigarette with a flame produced by his thumb, a trick hitherto only attempted by Mr Laurel & Mr Hardy. (After all, "Satan" is just "Stan" with one extra letter.) As in Bedazzled (1967), the Devil finds his natural home in the twentieth century running a night club.

Marguerite de la nuit

Morgan is icy and glamorous, and Palau (one of those single-named French theatricals) makes a crusty cartoon of the aged Faust, morphing offscreen into dapper young Jean-François Calvé, visibly relieved at not having Brigitte Bardot to compete with for the audience's attention.

All of which is diverting, and the jokes about modernisation are drôle: Mephisto needs not fear the sign of the cross anymore, thanks to the advances of science. Now, like Hitchcock, he's only afraid of the police. But the real reason to watch is the consistently amazing and gorgeous sets of Max Douy, whose career takes in The Rules of the Game and Les dames du Bois de Boulogne. It's a Tintin Tativille constructed from great slabs of day-glo color, every building simplified to its Platonic ideal.

Marguerite de la nuit

The visuals seem like the predominant interest, as Autant-Lara's direction is a little sclerotic. One can imagine this film made ten years earlier with more realistic sets and Louis Jouvet in the Montand role, and it would have just worked. Here, there's a self-consciousness about the artifice that slightly hampers the drama—until the unexpectedly moving finale makes the stiltedness look like studied restraint, the gaudy settings just a mask to hide the film's darkly romantic purpose.

Marguerite de la nuit

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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Nice article. Hmm. “Sclerotic.” I had to run to the dictionary.
Wow does this ever look great! It should be pointed out that Autant-Lara started out as a set decorator for Marcel L’Herbier. Francois Truffaut’s radical right-wing screed “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” singles out Autant-Lara films for his scorn.
I like the word “Slerotic”. I also liked the article though…
Very interesting. It looks as if the film was available on DVD as part of a ‘Coffret Yves Montand’ along with a rag-bag of other Montand films: Gates of the Night (Carné), The Big Operator (Pinoteau) and Garçon! (Sautet). This French box-set now seems to have been deleted.
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I’ve noticed Cairns digging up a lot of the “cinema du papa” that Truffaut was against. Never thought of “Tendency” as a radical right-wing screed. I’ll have to read it again more closely.
DO read it closely. Truffaut was the Rick Santorum of the Nouvelle Vague.
Gates of the Night is a neglected masterpiece — I like it just as much as Children of Paradise, It seems to have been judged harshly because they failed to secure Gabin and Dietrich as leads, because it flopped, and because it was the last Carne-Prevert collaboration. The wird thing is that Autant-Lara shifted to the far right in later years, whatever his position was earlier. He became a Euro MP for LePen’s National Front fascists while in his nineties, I believe.
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I think it’s fairly normal for people to get more conservative the older they get. Back to the New Wave, it’s funny how they are now read as either right-wing or intolerant. Truffaut as radical right-winger. Godard as jew-hating misanthrope. Next we’ll hear that Bazin was a collaborator — or am I already late on that bit of gossip?
The “certain tendency” article attacked anti-clerical sentiment in literary cinema, as though grouping it (a social & political stance) in with the poor taste the young Cahiers critics railed against, i.e., those who were not “men of cinema.” I’d say the manufactured controversy of JLG’s anti-semitism persists simply because journalists need something – ANYTHING – to say about Godard that doesn’t grapple with the films or their actual politics, and they don’t bother to read things like (e.g.) Bill Krohn’s great debunking piece on that matter …
Yeah, the anti-semitism seems based on a couple of bad-taste jokes at most. Many people perform some kind of political 180 in old age. Autant-Lara was also, it seems, losing his marbles (his inaugural address to the European parliament went on longer than a Greer Garson acceptance speech and degenerated into near-gobberish… So maybe all that racism was just the senility talking. Truffaut seems to have been attacking cinema du papa not just for anti-clericialism but for failure to be faithful to the books they were adapting. It’s preposterous, really.
The sets are very attractive visually, even if the pacing is a bit on the static side. And Montand makes for a great Mephisto. All else aside (right-wing, intolerant), I much prefer “cinema du papa”, I’ve found many of Truffaut’s films to be overrated (especially The Bride Wore Black) and Godard’s films to be excruciating (especially Weekend). I realize I may be in the minority for expressing this but what else is new. I much prefer Carne and Duvivier over the younger pups.
Truffaut is variable to say the least, but nothing will put me off his best work (the first three, L;Enfant Sauvage, Day for Night). I don’t think you have to choose between the two eras, but I do think Cahiers did a lot of damage by assassinating the reputations of some great filmmakers.
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Can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
Isn’t it a little like if Scorsese had begun his career by trashing his illustrious predecessors? In fact he’s widely admired for his supportive attitude to the cineastes who came before him. Of course, the Cahiers critics achieved much good by praising Hitchcock and others, but their influence on appreciation of French film history strikes me as in the main negative.
Love the “Pazuzu” title, David. As to the trick with the thumb … I believe that Ray Walston had something similar in the “Damn Yankees” movie at about this time.
A direct influence between the two seems unlikely. Must’ve just been Flaming Thumb Time.

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