La Belle équipe (1936)

30 07 2009

If only this film were better known, it would most definitely be considered the male bonding classic of pre-war cinema. Just think about how enamored modern men are in the whole “bromance” bullshit that invades popular culture. Duvivier’s film is of the same vein, but its different. The biggest difference being that I find all the characters in his film to be likable, perhaps even more fully realized characters than the real people occupying our TV sets through reality television. Gabin and company are so genuine in their slightly skewed sense of morals, including the whole “lets not women get in our way” mentality. It’s been played to death, not just exactly in films, but whatever the case, Duvivier makes nearly every second of it work.

The story concerns five seemingly longtime friends (hence the English title They Were Five) who are all facing their own sort of problems. Charlot is having problems with wife, who has, following their unofficial split, has gone on to a very successful career as a model. Mario, on the other hand, is caught in a successful relationship but the problem lies in the fact that French officials are looking for him, in order to deport him as soon as possible. Jean, Raymond, and Jacques aren’t much more successful, but things look up for the group when they win 100,000 Francs via the French lottery.

The gang decides, thanks to a pitch by Jean, to put their winnings together and instead of going their separate ways, open up a group-owned dance hall in the rural parts of the country. As Jean says, “it’s better to be busy” and the gang quickly starts working on an old, abandoned, and decaying building. Things go smooth at first, but it soon becomes evident that despite their project, some problems will never go away.

There’s many things to love about this movie, but the most obvious (and expected on my part) is the gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Marc Fossard, a common Duvivier collaborator, and Jules Kruger, who is responsible for the visuals in France’s most well-known silent films – most notably L’Argent and Napoleon. It is the usual sweeping and stunning tracking shots that moves ever so gracefully through Duvivier’s world. He is to France what William A. Wellman was to America, or what Kenji Mizoguchi was to Japan. This is some pretty impressive company and unfortunately, Duvivier’s legacy is not nearly as strong as Wellman’s or Mizoguchi’s, but it definitely should be.

There’s something very unique in the relationships Duvivier focuses on in both film and Poil de carotte. Here, the central relationship is the friendship of Jean and Charlot, and the woman, Gina, who threatens to get between them. In Poil de carotte, the unique relationship is the one shared between the titular boy and his maid. Both relationships are uncommon, but that’s what makes them feel so right. Only someone with plenty of great human experience could write the things in these two films, because the emotional pull comes from a connection that is not love. Honestly, aren’t all films about love of some kind? Duvivier’s film are about love, but very few have made such mature depictions. There’s nothing “sensational” about the drama between the characters (at least not until the film’s “pessimist ending” which is totally inferior to the alternative and more upbeat one) and nothing “sexy.” It makes Duvivier seem all the more genuine in his convictions regarding friendship and more importantly, life.

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