I believe that this is the third, widely-spaced, time I have seen this film and each time I have come away with a totally different impression of it. The first time I was bowled over by the teeming vitality with which Marcel Carné depicts the Boulevard du Crime, the mass of production detail, Trauner’s set designs, the romanticism of the story of the production – using Jewish technicians and actors under the noses of the Nazis. This was all new to me at the time, in the days before I had read Balzac. Frédérick Lemaître seemed a likeable ham but it was obvious that the true hero was Baptiste Debureau with his striving for romantic ideals and his tragi-comic poetry of movement.
I saw it again about ten years later. This time I found Debureau’s whining self-pity rather tiresome. His vain pursuit of Garance through the swarming carnival crowds at the end instead of being a heroic act crushed by brute reality was mere self-indulgence. My sympathy was more with Frédérick this time – a good-hearted, generous, more likeable figure.
Now there has been a gap of over twenty years. The flaws of the film are more apparent but I am also aware of how much the film has altered in my mind, how much of it I had forgotten. For example, Lacenaire is much more central to the action than I had remembered. In previous viewings, the poeticising orotundity of Prévert’s script had not bothered me. All the main characters – and some of the minor ones, eg Jericho the old clothes’ man – are given to flights of rhetorical speechifying, with the exception of Garance. It gets a little wearying to hear all these flowery speeches about love and about the intense emotions each character is feeling. Lacenaire is a partial exception: he tends to be more coldly analytical and there is an edge of laconic, understated menace and savagery in what he says. This time, he jumped off the screen as by far the most intriguing character. Baptiste is still rather irritating. Frédérick is still the most likeable but even his flights of oratorical fancy began to grate. Maybe next time, I will be drawn to Comte Edouard – Garance’s priggish snob of a protector. I hope not. Even he, though, is partial to declaring his love at extraordinary length.
The patterning of Prévert’s script was more apparent to me this time. One after the other, Frédérick, Baptiste, Edouard come forward to tell Garance how intensely they love her. She seems to drift through life unscathed. Yes, she does declare at the end that she has never stopped loving or thinking of Baptiste but she, alone of all the major characters is able to control her emotions and walk away. It is like a text-book example of Surrealism – the amour fou and the unattainable object of desire. Amongst the men, a partial exception is Lacenaire. At the start, he coldly and dispassionately tells her that he does not love her. Yet his desire to kill the Comte is at least partially motivated by jealousy – the other part by a need to kill a man who has been offensive to him – and he was motivated to try to kill Frédérick too, except that Frédérick disarmed him by sharing his money and food with him. The script sets these two up as mirror-images of each other. One is cold, the other warm. One is histrionic, the other polished and refined. One is charming, the other charming only in his perversity. One plays a ridiculous bandit escaped from prison; the other actually is a bandit who has been in prison.
Of course, this is not the only reflective pattern in the film. Frédérick cannot play Othello until he experiences jealousy in his own right, watching what Garance feels for Baptiste. Baptiste’s plays reflect his emotional life, his longing for the unattainable beauty. Jericho is echoed in the onstage clothes’ seller in the play. Othello kills Desdemona in a state of heightened emotion; Lacenaire, equally theatrically but in a perversely cool way, kills the Comte and awaits his fate.
The verbal mannerisms of Jericho pall – he always introduces himself in a string of three newly-coined nicknames. The depiction of the people in the balcony – les enfants themselves – is rather patronising: Baptiste assures us that they have dreams too. But there is sufficient humour to make you almost forget the flaws. The authors of L’Auberge des Adrets are very amusing as is Frédérick’s demolition job on their play – it seems that something similar really happened. The play was played straight on the first night and flopped. On the second night, they played it as burlesque and it became a success. The way the director of the Funambules is constantly dishing out fines to people is amusing too. It is a film with a lot of life but it does get bogged down at times in its own seriousness.