289: Julien Duvivier Silents

Archival Spaces 289: Julien Duvivier Blu-Ray Box Set

Uploaded 18 February 2022

Julien Duvivier

For many years, Julien Duvivier was considered one of the greatest directors of the pre-World War II French cinema, celebrated not only by critics, but by the likes of Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, and Michael Powell. But the French New Wave hated their predecessors, damning the generation of Duvivier, René Clair, and others ungenerously as an uncinematic “cinema of quality.” Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were particularly vitriolic in their attacks on Duvivier, who nevertheless continued to make films, like the two Don Camillo films (1952, 1954), which are still childhood favorites of mine. The bad rep probably came from the fact that Duvivier was extremely prolific, eclectic, uneven, and supposedly lacked an auteurist sense of style. In point of fact, as Ben McCann has argued in an appreciation of Duvivier sound films  in Senses of Cinema (Nr. 82, March 2017): “Duvivier did much to establish the formal and aesthetic norms of French poetic realism. La Bandera  and Pépé le Moko both blended elements of populism and melodrama and wrapped them in a highly expressionistic mise en scène.” Even the Cinémathèque Français has come around, dedicating in 2010 a virtually complete retrospective to Duvivier. Ironically, Duvivier’s prolific output during the silent era has been a blank page, due to inaccessibility.  Flicker Alley’s new blu-ray nine-film box set demonstrates that Duvivier’s expressionist cinema was already fully-formed in the 1920s, the stylistic obsessions and thematic concerns of his 1930s work already in full bloom.

Born in October 1896 in Lille, in northern France, Duvivier was educated by the Jesuits, before becoming a stage actor in 1915 at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris. By 1917 he had moved to film as an assistant director to André Antoine and Louis Feuillade. Although he directed his first film in 1919, he really hit his stride with Poil de Carotte (1926), which he remade as a sound film in 1933. Duvivier’s other stand-out films in the 1930s beyond those mentioned above included David Golder (1930), Le Golem (1935), Un carnet du bal (1937), the latter remade in Los Angeles as Lydia (1941), and La fin du jour (1939). In the late 1930s, Duvivier traveled to Hollywood, where he directed The Great Waltz (1938) at MGM, then after a brief retour to France, spent the war years in America, directing Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Imposter (1944). After returning to Paris, he was responsible for the film maudit, Panique (1946), today acknowledged as a masterpiece, although it bombed in its original release. With Deadlier Than the Male (1956), Duvivier again achieved a degree of critical success, before dying in a car accident in 1967.

Poil de carotte (1926, Julien Duvivier)

Restored by Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films, in conjunction with the CNC, Cinémathèque Français, Amsterdam’s EYE Institute, among others, the nine silent films presented reveal a unique visual talent who reveled in the possibilities of cinematic technique, especially to capture subjective states of mind. At a time when the cinema was gravitating towards more realistic film styles, Duvivier continued to construct unabashedly expressionistic visions of his sometimes tortured protagonists. Duvivier gravitated towards family melodramas (or comedy), narratives in which the unity of the family is threatened by wayward wives or cold-hearted parents until a crisis precipitates a return to order in the family unit.

Poil de carotte (1926, Julien Duvivier)

Poil de Carrot [Carrot Top](1926) begins with a subjective montage of village gossipers to visualize what we will perceive as the broken marriage of the Lepic family, who neglect and abuse their youngest child, nicknamed Carrot Top. In a nightmare sequence, Duvivier employs one of his favorite techniques, layered multiple exposures in order to visualize the boy’s tortured vision of his scolding mother, leading him to attempt suicide from which he is saved only in the last moment by his father.  Panoramic images of the countryside around the Lepic’s village indicate Duvivier’s geomorphological interest in natural and urban landscapes through long moving camera shots.

Au bonheur des dames (1930, Julien Duvivier)
Au bonheur des dames (1930, Julien Duvivier)

Similarly, the director’s last silent film, Au bonheur des dames  [Ladies Paradise](1930), opens with a country girl (Dita Paolo) arriving in a Paris train station, which is a tour de force of editing and super-impositions, capturing the subjective chaos that is a modern city. Later he visualizes the nervous breakdown of her uncle, whose small shop is being destroyed by the large department store of the title, rapidly intercutting repeated shots of a construction worker wielding a pickaxe, before the despondent uncle takes a gun and starts shooting customers in the offending store. Duvivier’s over-determined ending, though, papers over the film’s central struggle between small business and big capital with a happy end, reflecting the conservative values manifest throughout his work.

Le Tourbillon des Paris (1928, Julien Duvivier)

In Le Tourbilllon de Paris (1928), Duvivier encapsulates the central conflict between Lord Abenston and his wife, the former actress Lady Amiscia (Lili Dagover), in an image that shows the couple facing each other in a foyer, while layers of superimpositions on both sides of the screen illustrate their divergent views of their marriage. Indeed, Duvivier experiments with complex traveling shots, split screens, superimpositions, and flashbacks, while his narrative moves from what initially looks like a mountain film, to a marital drama in an affluent urban environment.

Le tourbillon de Paris (1928, Julien Duvivier)
Le marriage de Mademoiselle Beulemans (1927, Julien Duvivier)
Le marriage de Mademoiselle Beulemans (1927, Julien Duvivier)

Le Tourbillon de Paris also illustrates Duvivier’s geomorphological interest in landscapes, opening as it were a mountain film in moving camera shots of the snowy vistas, some shots recalling early cinema images from the front of a train. Poil de Carotte,  Mamam Colibri (1930), and Le mystère de la Tour Eifel (1927) also feature moving camera panoramas through landscapes, while Duvivier also privileges long, moving camera shots through crowds, whether in a department store, night clubs or at costume balls.  Le marriage de Beulemans (1927), opens literally with a picture book sequence of views of Belgium, its countryside, and quaint villages and towns, like Bruges and Ghent, before zeroing in on a local brewery, owned by the Beulemans family of the title.  

Francis Lederer in Mamam Colibri
Mamam Colibri (1930, Julien Duvivier)
Maria Jacobini in Mamam Colibri

Finally, what may have bothered the New Wave critics was Duvivier’s now thoroughly modern genre mixing, already in evidence in his silent films: Le Tourbillon starts as a mountain film and ends a marital melodrama, Mamam Colibri begins as a society drama with a middle-aged lady straying from her husband then morphs into a Foreign Legion story, while Le mystère de la Tour Eifel is a circus-detective-social drama.

Given his Jesuit upbringing and conservative values, it’s not surprising that Duvivier also specialized in religious films, but the three included in this box set will have to await my next blog. Suffice it to say that the films are all beautifully restored with new musical scores by Antonio Coppola, Marco Dalpane, Gabriel Thibaudeau, and Fay Lovsky.

Le mystère de la Tour Eifel (1928, Julien Duvivier)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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