Heavily backlit like some film noir fugitive, the towering figure of Father Christmas lurches towards us from the night, a bearded Frankenstein monster, maw agape, eyes rolling, outstretched arms gyrating blindly. A zombie Saint Nick. This looks promising, doesn't it?
L'assassinat du Pere Noël (1941) seems to have the distinction of being the first film made in occupied France. It's probably the most festive film ever produced by Nazis. But although Continental Films was a German company, it quickly became known as a better place to work than the French studios, since the censorship was less oppressive there, and since the company was being run by a Frenchman of talent and integrity, Henri-Georges Clouzot.
The movie somewhat resembles others Clouzot would direct, and features several of his favourite actors. That, and its small-town setting, makes it seem at times like a yuletide version of Le Corbeau. But the director is Christian-Jaque, a former journalist, film critic and production designer, and a leading light in what would later be called, disparagingly, "the tradition of quality" or "le cinema du papa."
Christian-Jaque is, let's face it, a stylist, an aesthete, the kind of filmic dandy often frowned upon by those with a fetish for rigor and simplicity. In C-J, the serpentine movements of Ophuls unite with the zip and bang of 30s Warner Brothers. Upon entering a set (after arcing and spiraling around on location), his camera pushes forward while craning its neck in all directions, like a small child in a sweetie shop. It's too focused and clear in intent to be called hyperactive, but it's energetic as hell, and beautiful to boot.
C-J differs markedly from Clouzot, of course: his films are lighter and more fantastical (the swashbuckling comedy Fanfan la Tulipe is probably his best-known work). So what we get here is a blending of Clouzot the producer's fondness for complicated criminal plots, and his abrasive view of human nature (which is not, however, lacking in a certain skeptical warmth) with the director's love of fairy tales and adventure. From the start, this is a world observed with a satirist's eye (where the schoolteacher leads a freethinkers' parade past the church during the Christmas service, and bribes the children to attend), but the world itself is fabulous, romantic and strange. The plot gets going when the young baron returns from ten years' travel, disillusioned and tainted with leprosy. Instantly he meets and falls in love with a young dollmaker, raised on fairy tales and scarcely able to recognize reality. Her father, a manufacturer of globes (the globe of the Earth is a key image in Le Corbeau: half in light, half in darkness, if you recall) plays Santa Claus once a year, visiting all the children and getting plastered on the various beverages dispensed by their parents. And, as the title warns us, he's soon found dead in the snow with a bullet in the head.
(The slaughtered Santa is played by the ebullient and avuncular Harry Bauer, a hugely respected French actor who was murdered himself, by the Nazis, not long after playing dead for Continental Films.)
Even the blasphemous image of an assassinated Santa doesn't spoil the film's exuberance and glamor, which finds expression in the way the light hits the gaunt face of the village's melancholy madwoman, in the camera which hurtles in orbit around a jilted lover, as drunken revelers dance in a ring, and in the script's relentless welding of the sentimental to the savage, the disturbing to the bittersweet, the eccentric to everything.
It's astounding that French cinema survived both the loss of independence and the loss of so much talent (Renoir, Duvivier, Gabin and others having fled to America) and actually experienced a boom in a certain kind of cinema which evaded censorship by an ascent into fantasy, and discovered there strange allegories for the country's plight. Most famously, Carné and Prévert ended Les Visiteurs du Soir with the protagonists turned to stone, but their hearts still beating. When partisans seized on this image as a metaphor for the imprisoned nation, Carné became alarmed for his safety. The fairy tale dart had struck a bullseye.
Things are cloudier, less obvious, in L'assassinat du Pere Noël, but the clash of innocence and corruption, the testing of old myths with new realities, and the interplay of gossip, suspicion, denunciation and secrecy within a close community all make the film as much a product of its troubled times as the more infamous Le corbeau. Such are the complications and reversals in Charles Spaak's script (adapted from Pierre Very's novel), that most of the stuff I've told you so far isn't actually true.
There's also this little seasonal homily, delivered by local lunatic Marie-Hélène Dasté, who spends the film looking for her lost (imaginary?) cat, and is spurred into monologue by speculation in the tavern as to which bit of the leprotic baron will drop off next:
"Everyone, every day, loses a piece of life. It doesn't scare anyone. A little finger. A piece of an ear. A thing you love. A part of your life. Another finger. Another ear. All your life. Then... that's it."
Fade to black.
Yo ho ho. Such sepulchral musings, however, are only a sort of spice in a pudding which will resurrect Santa, restore the stolen jewels (Oh, did I forget to mention? The entire plot revolves around stolen jewels) effect a genuine miracle cure, see true love triumph, and leave you giddy with the sparkle and swirl of Armand Thirard's stunning cinematography.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.