Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
Henri-Georges Clouzot as a Christmas fabulist? Well, his Quai des Orfèvres (1947) does race over a Christmas time-frame. But where is the “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”? At the end, the principals do stagger up to their living-room Christmas tree and a day of celebration. But, despite fulsome protestations of their love for each other, one of them is just a few hours past attempting suicide and the other has frequently and convincingly given her partner (her “flame”) to understand that she hates him. Surely that punishing scenario, as guided by a notoriously hard-boiled auteur, could never yield a cogent dispensation of love, to make the season bright?
If we reflect a bit more, however, and take a close look at this very hard to define vehicle—action thriller? murder-mystery comedy? historical slice ofFranceadrift after the War? sentimental suspense? assault upon the French film and music industries? or ridicule of the quality of policing inParisat that time? (A police inspector is taken to task: “You don’t look like a policeman to me. You don’t even have a raincoat…”/ “It was stolen…”)—we might not only discover a fresh holiday treat, but a more comprehensive way of appreciating Clouzot’s quite bewildering (though directly impressive) art.
How could one, you might retort, see this as a slight against music hall performance, when we have such a pair of likeable practitioners in the form of Jenny and Maurice, she a bundle of sparkling, child-like energy and savvy delivery of Belle Époque-reviving risqué songs, and he a piano accompanist, so intent upon keeping his young wife away from reckless self-destruction that he brings to mind a melancholy, overweight sheep dog? Jenny and Maurice, and the almost laudable mischief they proceed to frantically dish out, occupy a center of attention that comes close to completely overshadowing others in their orbit—others whom Clouzot must introduce as supporting players, but not “mere” supporting players. In an opening peal consisting of scene-after-scene of unfolding choruses of one song (having something to do, therefore, with the sense of widespread and gratifying urbanity in saluting the timelessness of a song’s take upon love, as revealed at the outset of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight), we have Jenny and Maurice, first bundled up at a music publisher’s unheated studio working their way toward selecting their next hit, a novelty number playfully emphasizing the reign of rutting. “She had her tra-la-la…/ It drove them crazy with lust!” Jenny’s delivery of the certain success goes through several stages from its point of departure in the icy confines, where others doing business with the song collector rush close to her to savor the ingratiating pizzazz of a true pro: she’s with her friend, Dora, a reserved, gorgeous and quietly enchanted audience, for her trial run with piano accompaniment; she’s onstage rehearsing at a drafty theatre, blocking out her delivery (and eliciting from another act on the bill [trained dogs] waiting its chance, a tiny pup standing on its hind legs and biting down upon his front paw, with a quizzical and rather stilted cute puzzlement on his face); and she’s on that stage again, now show time, in the full froufrou regalia of more effectively heated times gone by, knocking her many fans dead with bubbly lines and apt body dynamics—“…a secret weapon by which he’d been thunderstruck…”—an adolescent pulling a band of his chewing gum from his mouth, from out of the transformation wrought by her; but a baby in his mom’s arms, up in the gods, throwing a noisy tantrum of a no-vote. (On her finishing basking in curtain calls, a squeaky-voiced girl as MC announces the next act, clowns on tricycles, calling themselves “the Wheeling Winos.”) Backstage, Jenny flirts with admiring elderly crew members (thinking to be charmingly funny in referring to her “stage fright” and its consequence—“My undies are soaked!”) And then we cut to her posing for promotional photos exploiting the hot new charts-topper, Dora being the photographer.
During the rush to capitalize upon a Lady-Ga-Ga-like Pavlovian stampede of lucrative traffic, we have the opportunity to seize the makings of a remarkable alignment of dramatic interaction, being teased our way from under the glare of Jenny’s supernova explosion of show-biz balls. The shoot orients upon her tra-la-la, with maximum scope given to her shapely legs. From her vantage point of this week’s talk of the town, Jenny lords it over Dora, whose studio is a modest art deco tribute, all-white walls with a few choice streamline touches emergent, in marked contrast to the blousy clutter of Jenny’s presence and the Laplandish, anything-goes functionality of her various work sites. (Have Paris and its Parisians ever looked more drearily lumpen than in this widely location-based film?) Stung by Jenny’s shrill demand that she not “paw” her when setting up a pose, Dora wonders out loud about her childhood friend, Maurice, when it comes to physical contact, and gets lipped along lines of, “So you want to know about the on and the off days?” Dora retorts, “You’re so aggressive.” Jenny, from her supposed unique elevation, thinks to quell the rebellion with, “You’re so nosey… Photographers can be such a bore…” She goes on to try to calm that turbulence with Dora, someone not even her swollen ego can entirely fail to recognize as special, by laying out the stresses and disadvantageousness of her life at that moment. “I want to make it big! … It sounds nuts, but Maurice is my flame…” Jenny “Lamour” has struck a mawkish lover-girl pose for Dora and right after the shoot she uses the same pose to steam up Maurice, whose pot of soup boils over.
This bit of Britney miasma acts as a sort of tropical depression spawning the nasty chaos sure to follow, the flashpoint of which is the toad-like, hunch-backed and spending-spree-prone, Brignon, interrupting the antithetical camerawork, between Dora and Jenny, with a commission of his own. Somehow having controlling interests in blue chip industrial companies, he has been able to indulge such offbeat interests as, on that day, having Dora photograph protégés of his in the nude and in attitudes that inspire in him remarks like, “Delicious! And so chaste!” And he also invests in motion picture productions, more than likely just for the sake of securing controlling interests in the sexual output of performers interested in playing parts before the movie cameras—but you never entirely know where film output stems from. In any case, all he has to do is give famous and infamous Jenny a leer and a promise (“I have something for you”) to get her make-it-big-express going, replete with airheaded bravado to put Dora’s cautioning her in a contemptibly timid light. “I’ll take him for a ride! And what a ride!”
Jenny’s planned rendezvous with one of the more enterprising connoisseurs of tra-la-la is brought to Maurice’s attention by Dora, and thereby the rising star can dis, at one and the same time, the too cool fixer (in her eyes) and the fizzling flame (in everyone’s eyes), in striking the pose of a paragon of daring striding past lesser beings. “I had a drink with a very important man.” Leading off with, “Brignon is dangerous scum!” Maurice hopes to contain her ambitions. And, after a peppy performance doing even more for them than for their rapturous audience, they seem to have begun to enjoy being on the same, largely predictable, plane. But by next morning she has resumed her erratic drive to the top, Marcel countering with driving her to the restaurant and its intimate dining rooms, leaving her in the car and crashing Brignon’s party scene, loudly and widely heard to be threatening his rival with death if there were any more such disconcerting joie de vivre. (At the outset Jenny was OK with an aged music producer putting his hand on her thigh as she once again blocked out a masterpiece of bawdy seduction. The old guy explained to sourpuss Maurice, “In Marseille we sing with our hands!”) Her musicality and his decency notwithstanding, the hysteria at the core of each of our protagonists finally asserts itself here, bringing the frisson of utter desolation to their pretext of heading somewhere big and good. Jenny dashes to Brignon’s well-appointed lair. As she tearfully explains to her mainstay afterwards, “I went there to sign my contract (bitter tears)… I killed Brignon… hit him very hard with a champagne bottle! I’m scared, Dora, so scared!” At the same time, Maurice discovers Brignon’s address in Jenny’s handwriting, fetches his pistol and rushes there, only to find the wheeler-dealer lying in a pool of blood. He scrambles out of there—now distraught that not only Jenny but he himself has been caught up in a web of horrific suspicion. (He had replayed Jenny’s retort to his, “I’ll kill you both!”—“You’re too clumsy [to bring it off]. You’ll go to the guillotine!”)
With both of the impetuous artiste-lovers prostrate with fear and self-contempt, Dora sets about to save their bacon. Jenny asks her, “I’ve been so mean to you… Why are you doing this for me?” And her reply is like an excuse you’d hand to a child. “I’m doing it for Maurice.” Right from the publicity shots, where it’s quite evident the camerawoman is as fond of Jenny’s legs as was Brignon, there are little visual touches indicating that Dora relates to Jenny with unusual intensity. Maurice proving to be a deadened, resentful, conventionally correct lump only intermittently induced to warmth by Jenny’s incoherent depths, Dora would position herself in line with a quip she runs by the bittersweetheart, “Men can’t really understand us.”
The narrative thrust following from Brignon’s murder unobtrusively deals with the question, “Why are you doing this for me?” And thereby it quite winsomely recasts the spirit of Christmas. Dora’s rushing over to Brignon’s to wipe Jenny’s prints from the bottle (and to fetch her “fox [predator’s] fur” which she chaotically left by the corpse) was one thing. Later that night, pouring a stiff drink for Maurice, blubbering to her, “I didn’t kill him! You believe me!”/ “You don’t look like a murderer [or like anyone with unruly depths of discernment], that’s for sure,” was another thing. But the emergence of Inspector Antoine from the homicide squad at Quai des Orfèvres, introduces a valuable new stream of evidence toward fathoming Dora’s taking the trouble to mess with insistent cry-babies like Jenny and Maurice. At the first few scenes where we encounter her, Dora sports a blouse on which she has had her name inscribed. First of all, that little touch speaks to her photo salon and the catchy mystique of her glamorous service. Secondly, it involves including in her vast and lovely composure (which does not stoop to the general shapeless bulkiness and pinched self-protection against relentless chill) an eagerness to embrace others in a generous way. But, just for fun, it’s like a Superman logo; and, come to think of it, she is something super. Antoine could never be compared with Superman. He explains, in chatting with the guy sent to round him up in the middle of the night to begin work on the Brignon case, “I wanted to be a pilot too [his sleeping young boy, derived from a liaison with an African woman while he was in the French Foreign Legion, keen for such a future]. Then I came down to earth… I could never be Chief—I don’t have the kisser for it.” But he does pack a mixture of canny doggedness and uncanny instinct, and soon has the death-threat naughty under arrest, then under medical emergency due to the suicide attempt, followed by getting a straight word out of Jenny and Dora and going on to nail Paolo, who had stolen Maurice’s car while the latter was floundering around Brignon’s corpse, and who had shot bottle-brained Brignon—dazed but hardly murdered, yet—along lines of opportunism well known to Jenny. “I pulled the trigger. It could have been my lucky day!” On hearing from Dora that she created some difficulties for the investigation because she loves Jenny (“well or bad”), Antoine promises to try to deliver a happy ending for the child-like star, and then, turning to this very low-key Wonder Woman, he declares, “I’ve taken a liking to you. We’re two of a kind… When it comes to women we’ll never have a chance.”
Being “two of a kind” means more than that, but we’ll have to dig for recognition from them that this is so. At a number of points Antoine advises one or other of the three commanded visitors to Quai des Orfèvres that those they see in the building are not to be contemplated. “Don’t ask. He’s from another world.” (Or, introducing himself to Jenny and Maurice at their flat, she having him wear slippers to protect their newly polished floors, “I’m in homicide. It’s another world.” Not only are abysses of violence forbidding to the likes of Jenny, but, as an expert about them, Antoine has been unable to attain to any effective harmony in his professional life (vis-a-vis adamantly domesticated, conventional, egotistically prosaic associates). He managed no serious advancement during fifteen years with the Foreign Legion (“I shot my mouth off too much”); and a confrontational relation with his co-workers and superiors at the Quai des Orfèvres means he frequently hits a wall of guarded subversiveness. Paolo’s saga “doesn’t amount to diddly-squat;” and, in his checking out Maurice’s whereabouts at the time of the murder, a cigarette girl at a music hall, where he showed himself to create an alibi, gushes about how polite he was, in marked contrast to her rude boyfriend, only to be met by, “Who gives a damn?” At headquarters, he rattles off to Maurice, by way of preliminaries to interrogation, “You won First Prize in Harmony at the Conservatory…” and clearly he couldn’t be less impressed. Being a “Sunday photographer,” Antoine, like Dora, would know a thing or two about bringing forward generally hidden energies (harmonies) in people and places. (That ironic gulf at the expense of Maurice draws to itself the early remark by a stagehand, concerning Maurice’s being such a killjoy—“His folks were bourgeois, so he sees vice everywhere…”) During the pianist’s near breakdown at Dora’s, the poise of her body language spells “another world.” On hooking him up by phone to Jenny at her granny’s in the provinces, to prove her friend is as domesticated as he is, she lies back on her sofa-bed, blows art-deco-steamship clouds of cigarette smoke into the air, caressing, as they go, her very kissable lips, and softly neutralizes his seeing her as the one he should have married, with the phrase, “I’m a funny kind of girl…” (During the run-up to the third degree, Maurice shows how unfunny he is, by thinking to account for his family’s recoil from Jenny’s “disgusting past,” in terms of, “Dad’s a professor…”)
Bourgeois fortune-hunters that they are—Jenny roars at Maurice, “You’re jealous of the rich! I want my share of their dough. I’m all for royalty!”—the home-for-Christmas cuties would have no idea that rare, tenuous and disinterested love has lighted their way. (Dora explains to Antoine how not-on any love for Brignon would be: “He was bourgeois. Very shy. I’m too off-putting.”) Jenny could intone, in the spirit of a cheap melodrama, “He may not shine brightly, but he lights my way!” in virtually complete obliviousness to real light, real generosity, real love. One of the horde of sensational journalists hanging out at the cop shop, a geezer with a wider perspective than his colleagues, assures them that this case is “petit, petit, petit.” (An echo of that damper comes to bear as Jenny and patched-up Maurice plod homeward on Christmas morning after a Christmas-eve-from-hell. The concierge hopefully teases, “Been living it up?” and Maurice replies, “In a funny way, yes…”) But the Quai where the investigation takes place rests upon an ancient district once populated by goldsmiths. Our two rather unlikely producers of treasures make this a memorable Christmas. Their artistry, as cinematically brought to life, derives from so thoroughgoing and composed an involvement, with the desolating stakes of a loving but unforgiving dynamic, as to discern an imperative to extend (with apt volatility and wit) that primal loveliness to every entity in play, no matter how grotesque. That traffic jam in this context tends to reveal itself in processes of high-maintenance, high-volume delusionists all but crowding out quiet overtures from “another world.” Soon after they arrive home on Christmas morning, Antoine comes by, to deliver Jenny’s fox fur, in aid of years ahead marked by foxy moves. (Seconds before, in the first ambience of their Christmas tree, Jenny coos, “I’ll take care of you, and you’ll forget what happened.” This is not, of course, introduced by Clouzot as a totally fake sentiment, but, as throughout, a cursory and compromised directing of love, barely in motion before being devoured by countervailing impulses.) From down in their courtyard he calls up Maurice to come to the station tomorrow to finalize some documentation their foxiness has incurred. From their window they laugh as he’s pelted with snow by his son, en route to their taking “a bit of a bite” by way of festivities. He joins in the laughter, being inured to looking like a forgettable bumbler in the eyes of a critical mass of forgettable bunglers. (On their first encounter, Jenny mistakes him for a pedlar of vacuum cleaners.) That tinge of joviality mixed with ruthlessness adds up to a very strange but unforgettable celebration of celestial love.
A bonus gift for those familiar with French movies is the music hall’s peppy MC with the sea-sickness-inducing voice. She resurfaces, and thereby multiplies the bounty, thanks to Jacques Demy’s attentiveness to this glorious little bullseye by Clouzot. In the former’s A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), a similarly questionable expressivity introduces a chanteuse to her adoring, progressive fans at aMontparnasse theatre. Included in the throng of beautiful people are none other than Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni (lovers at that time, as were Clouzot and his Jenny, actress, Suzy Delair), at the embarkation point of a tale of public disturbance, due to the overweight male lead’s being tempted into the role of kinky celebrity (and darling of cool urbanites) in the form of a super-sensational instance of male pregnancy. Ms. Deneuve has never looked more beautiful and (by-and-large) serene—like Dora, in fact. But, thanks to Demy’s playful but corrosive wit, her formidable carnality can do no more than sustain lucrative triteness, as in the case of Jenny. Though he could not see his way clear to effectively marshal in his own films the equilibrium Clouzot felt compelled to accommodate, Demy did evidence taking it into consideration as a gift, never to be found under his Christmas tree.