by Allan Fish
(France 1931 47m) DVD2 (France only, no English subs)
Ou est l’Hebrides
p Pierre Braunberger, Roger Richébe d Jean Renoir w Jean Renoir, Pierre Prévert play Georges Feydeau ph Theodor Sparkuhl ed Jean Mamy m Paul Misraki art Gabriel Scognamillo
Marguerite Pierry (Julie Fallavoine), Jacques Louvigny (Bastien Follavoine), Michel Simon (M.Chouilloux), Olga Valéry (Mme.Chouilloux), Nicole Fernandez (Rose), Fernandel (Truchet), Sacha Tarride (Toto),
It’s not a film that you will find many Jean Renoir experts enthusing about, an early talkie piece of filmed theatre based on a one act play by master farceur Georges Feydeau. The glories of La Chienne, La Nuit de Carrefour and Boudu were just around the corner, so it’s perhaps understandable Bébé gets lost in the melee, but it deserves to be rediscovered.
Bastien Follavoine has a stressful life. His porcelain manufacturing business is struggling and in need of a government contract to equip the army with toilet equipment. He invites the War Ministry bigwig Chouilloux to his house to discuss the matter and to demonstrate the effectiveness of his ‘unbreakable’ chamber pots. But as he’s preparing, his seven year old son Toto asks him where the Hebrides Islands are. As such we first meet him scouring the Zs (for Zebrides) in look for the islands, only to find that they’re not there. He calls for the maid’s help. “Do you know where the Zebrides are?”, he asks her. “No, madame must have put them somewhere”, she replies. He tries to explain that they’re not an object in the house but the name of a group of islands, but then has to explain what an island is. Still the maid is confused; “I haven’t seen them. I haven’t been in Paris long.” Exasperated he sends the maid to fetch his wife.
His wife, Julie, is in the middle of trying to give little Toto a laxative purge for his constipation but little Toto won’t play along. She’s told to come to her husband and comes, still carrying Toto’s pee bucket with her, and eventually Bastien asks her about the Zebrides. She laughs, saying that he was looking in the wrong place, and proceeds to look in the Es, before a final realisation takes her to the H’s. With that little problem solved, Bastien mentions the visit of Chouilloux, who Julie remarks was the cuckold whose wife was sleeping with his friend Truchet. He berates her for carrying the bucket of urine into his study, but does so while holding up one of his chamber pots. She accuses him of hypocrisy, while he sees his chamber pots as works of art.
Soon enough Chouilloux arrives and he and Bastien retire to the hall where Bastien tries to demonstrate that his chamber pots are sturdier than the alternatives Chouilloux was looking into. He offers to toss his pot – entendre quite deliberate – to the end of the hall to demonstrate that it doesn’t smash. We know from Bill Fields’ indestructible tyres that it’ll smash and so it does. He offers to do it again. It smashes. And again…it smashes. A million to one shot he exclaims.
Feydeau’s original play was written in the halcyon days of 1910, so Renoir and Prévert tamper with a few lines here and there to bring it up to date, such as when Simon tells of how he caught enteritis in the war. “1914?” asks Julie. “No, 1922.” “There wasn’t a war in 1922”, Julie replies. “No”, he says, “I meant the War Ministry.” There’s a typically memorable Feydeau expletive, as Toto tells the guest to “fuck off”, while later, when told by Chouilloux that such shirking of his duty as to not take his purge would not be tolerated in the army in wartime, Toto replies that he’d go to Switzerland.
In essence, what Renoir is interested in here are the dynamics of acting in the sound cinema, and in how to seamlessly edit between one room and another. As the harassed Bastien, Louvigny is a delight, while Simon is at his typically effortless best and there’s even a small debut role for Fernandel as the most unlikely or lovers. Best of all, though, has to be Pierry, wandering around the apartment in her dressing-gown, carrying that infernal bucket, causing all sorts of problems and being the first to blame it on the others. It’s an imperious performance in a too long neglected little diamond.