by Allan Fish
(France 1934 164m) not on DVD
The clock has stopped
p Marcel Pagnol d/w Marcel Pagnol novel Jean Giono ph Willy Faktorovitch ed Suzanne de Troeye, André Robert m Vincent Scotto art Charles Brun
Orane Demazis (Angèle Barbaroux), Fernandel (Saturnin), Jean Servais (Albin), Henri Poupon (Clarius Barbaroux), Edouard Delmont (Amédée), Annie Toinon (Philomène),
Between parts two and three of his celebrated Apu trilogy, Satyajit Ray took time off to produce The Music Room, which Ray’s sincerest adherents often put up as one of his masterworks. Twenty or so years earlier, Marcel Pagnol was in the process of filming a trilogy, this time based on his own saga of life on the Marseilles sea front. The first two films in the triptych were directed by effective hired hands, Alexander Korda and Marc Allégret, but Pagnol was the real creative force behind them. Maybe he always intended to film the last part of the Marseilles trilogy himself, but before turning to César, he made several other films, of which Angèle is both the most famous and the least seen. Georges Sadoul had been in no doubt, naming it Pagnol’s best film, and many other critics have agreed with him, yet many of them have seen something like the full version. The only English subtitled version that can be tracked down – and even then with great difficulty – is shorn of over half an hour of footage, has subtitles that lose much of Pagnol’s rich language, obvious even to non Francophones, and the subtitles we do have are nearer to the centre than the traditional, less obtrusive foot of the frame, appearing much as copyright warnings flashed onto copyrighted material on the internet.
As with all Pagnol’s stories, it’s a simple tale, following the fortunes of the young daughter, the eponymous Angèle, of a simple farmer, Clarius Barbaroux, who lives at home with her parents and their adopted farmhand, the simple Saturnin. One day, Angèle finds herself the object of attention for a local parasite who sees women as his playthings, and before you can say “sacre bleu!” he’s had said girl in a secret outdoor tryst, put a proverbial floury bap in her oven and convinced her to run away with him to Marseilles. When she does, unsurprisingly, he scarpers, leaving her to sell herself to feed both her and her young illegitimate son. It’s Saturnin who tracks her down and attempts to persuade her to return home to the sorry family home. There she is effectively given her own prison cell in an outhouse cellar, and forbidden to set foot in the main part of the house. In the meantime, her seducer tries to find her again…
Losing so much footage certainly doesn’t help matters, and then there’s the problem of Demazis. As Pagnol’s then squeeze he seemed obsessed with showing off her moon-faced features, and seems so besotted with her that it may be hard for a modern audience to see what would drive anyone to be after her. Demazis was not one to stir the heart, so unlike in the trilogy she was rather perfect as the girl who forlornly stays in the shadows, admiring unrequitedly the hero while he moons after some flippity gibbet. Those who’ve seen her Éponine in Bernard’s Les Misérables will know what I mean, and none of her other work for Pagnol has the same poignancy or excellence.
Others may wonder at the absence of Raimu, and yet it’s hard to see him being so hard a father as Poupon. Servais has a thankless task really, concentrating on lifting girls’ skirts twenty years before trying to lift small fortunes in Rififi. It’s left to Delmont and the irreplaceable Fernandel to dominate, and yet even they seem unimportant compared to the true sense of realism afforded by Pagnol’s filming on a real farm. Without knowing it, he’d pre-dated neo-realism by a decade (and harked back to Antoine’s silent La Terre), and as such it compares well even with Renoir’s not dissimilar Toni. Here we have abandonment, destitution, prostitution and redemption, and of course a happy ending with the lovers striding up a hill to a brighter future (the same would happen in César), so that there’s more than enough here to see that, though as it stands, it may not quite be a masterpiece, it’s still one of the forgotten milestones of French thirties cinema, and if they ever remaster a full print, it could still be a great…