Lush cinematic worlds created by the French filmmaker at a period of time under German occupation are on view in the latest Eclipse DVD series.
Late January brought the Criterion release of a quartet of works by French director Claude Autant-Lara. These four films were created under German occupation and watched over by censors. In such a limiting situation, Autant-Lara made rich period films with only subtle hints at resistance. Le Mariage de Chiffon (1942), Lettres D’Amour (1942), Douce (1943) and Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946) all occur in a timeline separate from the scarcity and oppression under which his country was living.
Each film in the Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France Eclipse series stars actress Odette Joyeux; in three of them she plays ingénues. With her large eyes and the posture Joyeux assumes in these roles, the actress, in her mid-twenties at the time, is almost believable as a teenager.
She plays the title role in Le Mariage de Chiffon of a sixteen-year-old courted by a much older colonel (André Luguet, Paris Blues), who is enchanted by her lack of guile. Chiffon doesn’t deflect his attentions; marriage to him would bring money for her favorite “uncle,” an inventor. Besides Joyeux, the considered composition of shots and lighting are the strongest elements this Belle Epoque-set film has to offer. The incest-y vibes (the uncle she is in love with is her stepfather’s brother, so…) and the ickiness of man in his late 40’s romancing a teenager are a bit hard to look past.
Douce is the lone drama of the four. Douce (Joyeux) is a spoiled teen infatuated with her grandmother’s handsome steward, Mr. Marini (Roger Pigaut). Douce’s governess Irène (Madeleine Robinson, Camille Claudel) has a contrasting storyline, torn between her ne’er-do-well ex-boyfriend and temptation of a loveless marriage with Douce’s rich papa (Jean Debucourt, Mayerling). The 1943 film has a darker tone and uses low camera angles to enforce a feeling of imbalance, whether between the staff and the family members or Douce and her eventual lover. Joyeux captures the girl’s manipulative yet naive nature, which has tragic consequences.
Fantastical Sylvie et le Fantôme pairs Joyeux as a modern-day teenage romantic — the actress was in her thirties at this point — with a ghost played by Jacques Tati (in a silent feature film debut). Sylvie’s family lives in a haunted castle with secret passageways and a few random men drop by for a birthday party scheme. The film lacks momentum, and the plot throws in so many characters that Sylvie is left a supporting character in her own story. The special effects are stunning, even if the movie is a bit of a mess.
Romantic comedy Lettres D’Amour is the best of the bunch. Here, Joyeux actually gets to play a character her own age: young widow Zelie, who runs a business in a rural French town. Zelie is enchanting and honest, acting as a go-between for her married friend and her paramour even if it may get her into trouble. With mid-19th Century era costuming by Dior and a witty screenplay that touches on class differences (the wealthy “Society” and the working-class “Shop” townspeople have a sort of dance-off), this film is a winner.
Whether delving into class divisions or providing audiences a light, frothy romance, Claude Autant-Lara made a name for himself with these works. His period films would be derided by another generation of filmmakers — and in a disappointing footnote, Autant-Lara would in later life become a politician on the far-right — but the worlds he was able to create surely offered French audiences in those years some quick respite from their grim reality.