Maria Chapdelaine (1934)

13 06 2009

At last, a Julien Duvivier film that works for me. I suppose one out of three isn’t bad, especially since I moderately enjoyed both Pepe Le Moko and Au bonheur des dames, but there’s definitely something special going on here that must be absent in those films, unless I just forgot to notice. Perhaps the limited running time (of 73 minutes) helps since I think Duvivier’s other films struggle to reach their conclusions, but overall, I’d say this is a much more impressive effort technically and a far more enjoyable one as well.

Jean Gabin plays one of three men who fall hopelessly in love with the titular character, a young woman living in rural Canada. She is pursued by a respectable aristocrat from France, as well as another lumberjack, one that is far less charming than Gabin’s. Chapdelaine herself seems to only share these romantic longings with Gabin’s character, but needless to say, things don’t come out ideally – do they ever? Thus, Maria finds herself settling for a less attractive option, which possibly means living a life in the big city, far away from her close-knit family.

Duvivier uses a lot of rear projection here, to say the least. Nearly every close-up of every character is obviously shot with a fake video backdrop. Duvivier seems to embrace this archaic technology, and almost turns it in to some form of genuine expression. The scene with Gabin marching through the snow storm is a perfect example. The backdrop here is inexplicably rotating around, perhaps intended to be a very simplistic attempt at reflecting the character’s internal struggle. The sequence also works as being bizarrely kinetic. Clearly fake, but extremely visceral all the same. It helps a great deal that Duvivier’s editing, in this sequence in particular, seems as refined as any modern montage-heavy film. Needless to say, it is quite a sight to behold.

While Duvivier has unquestionably made a technically competent film here, he does begin to lose his footing when he starts to deal with his characters. His characters aren’t fully-developed or what not, but that’s a improbable task to complete within 73 minutes. Perhaps I make this comparison more often than I should, but I couldn’t help but think of Hiroshi Shimizu’s best work here. While Shimizu thrived shooting on-location, Duvivier made a good deal of this film in a studio. In the simplicity of the characters, though, there is a poetry. It’s a dreamy retelling of a realistic and tragic myth. It’s not something that many people can specifically relate to, but the narrative ultimately works because of the skill of the filmmaker. No doubt, one of the most impressive French films of the 1930s.

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