THE WANDERING JULIEN
During his American phase, exiled from France in the occupation, the great Julien Duvivier made an anthology film called Flesh and Fantasy (he seems to have had a particular affinity for this format, returning to it several times over the course of his long career). As with his previous US anthology, Tales of Manhattan, one section was removed before release to make the film shorter.
A while after, a movie called Destiny was released, credited to studio hack Reginald LeBorg. It actually contained the excised bit of F&F, packaged within new material shot using Duvivier’s leading man, in an attempt to create a feature-length movie from the abortive short. It’s a very strange piece of work. While J.D.’s portion of the story benefits from the extremely elaborate production design and elegant, gliding camerawork that was his stock-in-trade, the rest is cheaply shot on pasteboard sets, with pasteboard actors and pasteboard dialogue. Also, it has at least three long opening sequences, none of which go anywhere, forcing the screenwriter to keep restarting the narrative – another beginning, and then another – until the new material collides with the old and things pick up a bit, although one can’t help wondering what this new, mystical allegory has to do with the crummy film noir it just hatched out of. And then Duvivier’s tragic, supernatural ending is converted into a dream sequence, and a new, happy ending is slapped on. The End.
I mention this bizarre incident partly because Destiny is a weird, sloppy piece of work that’s worth seeing just because it’s so malformed (even the cheapest B-movies were usually better thought-out than this abortion), but mainly because the Duvivier segment is the only piece of his I’ve seen that relates to the item under discussion – Marianne de ma Jeunesse. Made in France in 1955, during the period when Duvivier's brand of poetic realist high-gloss entertainment was under increasing attack by the critics of Cahiers du cinema, it’s a peculiar piece of overwrought lyrical mysticism that achieves a searing shade of purple only detectable in a few earlier Duviviers (the campy Strauss biopic The Great Waltz, which seems like a rehearsal for Ken Russell films to come, and the romanticized musical fantasy scenes in Carnet du Bal and its quasi-remake Lydia, perhaps).
FROM PAMPAS TO CAMPUS
Both Destiny and Marianne foreground characters magically in tune with nature. Marianne’s charmer is Vincent, a schoolboy at a Bavarian boarding school, a Hogwartsian gingerbread castle in the woods, by a lake. A German teenager raised on an Argentinian horse farm, his mere appearance (he’s pretty) is enough to lure deers from the forest. Like Orpheus, he can charm all and sundry with his music, but as in many myths (and Marianne is nothing if not self-consciously mythic) he also inspires jealousy and suspicion in some of the other boys, as well as a seething, unrequited lust in the headmaster’s granddaughter. This manifests itself in her tendency to take all her clothes off whenever she gets him alone (why don’t more girls try this? It would totally work). But Vincent has eyes only for Marianne, who lives in the “haunted house” across the lake, and who may be (tick one) (1) insane; (2) imaginary; or (3) a ghost. The fact that she’s first seen through an empty mirror frame is a broad hint as to her ambiguous nature.
The cast of characters surrounding her does nothing to reassure us of her flesh-and-blood status. Her guardian, the Chevalier, is thought to be the ghost haunting the house, and remains unseen until the very end of the story. Apart from two savage dogs (who are putty puppies in our hero’s hands, since he has power over nature), the only other person in contact with the sylph is a bodyguard, a scowling sumo boulder adorned with a single great hedge of eyebrow you could shove under a door to keep out draughts. So, basically an ogre.
A NYMPHOID BAVARIAN
Things develop deliriously. Vincent crosses the lake, meets Marianne and returns, mysteriously changed. A thunderstorm wrecks half the castle. The headmaster’s granddaughter strangles Vincent's favourite doe in a fit of pique and is trampled to death by woodland creatures, an event disposed of in a line of voice-over. I’d heard about a streak of misogyny in Duvivier’s cinema, but had managed to see a dozen of his films without encountering it. He certainly takes seriously the idea of the Evil Woman, and this is a theme that seems to flower in his later, more noirish movies.
Balancing that archetype is Marianne herself, who comes from a castle that sits on three national borders, (I’m speculating, but the three nations may possibly be Faerie, Hell and Madmentalcrazyland) and who represents virtue and beauty. Viewed as a character, she’s a little insipid, but so is everybody except the monobrow-wielding henchman and the deer-strangling bunny-boiler. The film polices its adolescent fantasy-world so absolutely, that humour and character nuance are controlled substances, removed at customs before anybody can enter this movie. Only the youngest boy is allowed any naturalistic expressiveness, and I suspect they probably tried to beat it out of him. This certainty of tone, unity of effect, and archetypal, arguably one-dimensional characterisation, isn’t necessarily an artistic flaw, just a local peculiarity. They do things differently here.
ORPHEUS AND MORPHEUS
What allows Duvivier to get away with this, or at least not look like an idiot for trying, is the film’s phenomenal visual beauty. Every forest scene
is seen through drifting smoke haze, picking out the shafts of light as they filter through the lofty branches. Every interior is lavish and vast, designed to the hilt in strange and dramatic shapes. Every actor is a carefully chosen type, grotesque or gorgeous. The camera glides like a sleepwalker, lulling us into a rather sweaty and agitated dream-state, the music unlocks the doors to enchanted kingdoms where imprisoned princesses lie.
No wonder the people who obsess over the movie at the IMDb seem to have all encountered it aged twelve. Like Coppola with Rumble Fish, Duvivier would appear to have deliberately made "an art movie for kids." I expect at that age, and for the right kind of person, this hormonally supersaturated phantasmagoria is probably the best movie in the world.
Duvivier is full of surprises, incredibly skilled, and almost entirely forgotten.
The Forgotten is a weekly Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay