Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

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Jim Roots

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Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostMon Feb 13, 2017 2:03 pm

Following up on the Criterion sets of Pierre Etaix and Julian Duvivier, I rolled the dice on a third Frienchman’s partial oeuvre, Sacha Guitry.

Unlike the first two, Guitry’s name was a familiar one to me. Having fallen for all that romantic Lost Generation stuff of Paris in the Twenties back when I was in my own twenties, I had come across his name many times in the histories of that time/place. Usually it was pronounced with a sneer: he was supposed to have been a playwright of the Feydeau type and immensely, incredibly popular, which of course made him a contemptible sell-out to the hipsters of the day. The books written from hindsight usually added the further disparaging note that those plays have become obsolete, deservedly forgotten, and unreadable/unplayable today.

Since I had never been able to find anything he had written, I wasn’t in a position to assess him for myself, but those accounts certainly left an impression. It was with considerable reluctance that I bought Criterion’s set of four of his films from the 1930s. If they hadn’t been half-priced, I would have passed them over (again).

They have proven the point that you shouldn’t judge a film before you’ve seen it.

Guitry was prodigiously prolific. He wrote over 120 plays. He made nearly 40 films. He could knock out five of each in a single year, and star in all of them. Virtually all of them are pretty much lightweight comedies in the peculiarly voluble French style, with quite a few set in the fancy-wig past. Aside from that historical bent, you could easily describe him as an early version of what Woody Allen has turned into, except even in old age Guitry was a lot funnier than old-age Allen. (The young Allen was something else.)

His first big hit in the talkie era (he disliked silent films and was unsuccessful with them) was The Story of a Cheat (1936), first in the Criterion set. It’s about a man – as with nearly all of his films and plays, Guitry played the lead, again presaging Allen – who as a child is the only survivor of a mass family poisoning, because he was being punished at the time for theft and thus missed eating the bad mushrooms. He concludes the only way to survive is to cheat; whenever he tries to go straight, disaster occurs.

For someone who really didn’t care for films, Guitry demonstrates an amazing confidence in playing around with film technique. The film is breezy, tremendously amusing, fast-paced, and shrugs aside conventional approaches by having Guitry narrate the entire thing in voiceover … including all the dialogue, which the actors can only mouth on-screen. He pulls it off, too.

However, it signals his greatest weakness in movies: this guy absolutely loves to talk. Part of his shrugging-aside of film convention is a tendency to have his characters stand or sit around talking in virtual monologues for 10 or 20 or even 30 minutes at a go, as if they’re on a live stage in front of a mesmerized audience. The Story of a Cheat has so much action and such a quick pace that the spoken narrative seldom calls attention to itself; he manages the liveliness again with the second film in the set, The Pearls in the Crown (1937), but the talkiness spikes the climax of Desiré (1937) and drags down Quadrille (1938).

The Pearls in the Crown is a highly enjoyable picaresque romp through 300 years of history in pursuit of three stolen pearls, part of a set of seven pearls of which the other four are embedded in the crown of England. It’s packed full of French insouciance: at one point, the modern-day Guitry blows into his own office and off-handedly informs his girlfriend that he has just finished tracing the history of a missing pearl “300 years in the past 12 days”, without a word as to how he managed to do that. It’s a film full of inventive wit and imagination and tossed-off historical nonsense; like The Story of a Cheat, it’s highly recommended.

Desiré sees Guitry as a middle-aged man-servant (he claims to be about 30 years old, but was actually in his 50s at the time, and looks it) with a murky reference from the merry widow who was his last employer. He joins two good-natured female servants – one played by the appallingly slump-shouldered legend Arletty – in the house of a young sexpot living with a stiff politician. Though not as feisty as the two earlier films, it’s a fine and unpretentious comedy … until the climax, in which Guitry stands in one spot and talks on and on and on without cease for what feels like 20 minutes but was probably 10. The rant isn’t even particularly coherent, and I don’t think the translator can be blamed for that. It brings the film to a standstill, needless to say, but at least that’s the end of it. I’d recommend this movie with the caveat about the last reel.

This brings us to Quadrille, in which a bouncy and extremely handsome young “American” movie star precipitates romantic entanglements with two attractive young women and a significantly aged-looking Guitry (hence the title). It bops along very much like a Woody Allen film – if The Story of a Cheat was Guitry’s Take the Money and Run, then Quadrille is his Purple Rose of Cairo, or maybe Everyone Says I Love You. Then we get to the obligatory Guitry static monologue scene that brings everything to a halt. This time the exposition is rather more interesting than it was in Desiré, because he’s explaining to his live-in lover how her infidelity impacts on their marital prospects, and he does have a slightly intriguing take on this question. Plus, there’s a tiny bit more give-and-take with the woman stuck listening to him. Unfortunately, it goes on even longer than the hectoring in Desiré – at least 15 minutes. I really got quite bored and annoyed by it.

As a set, this is really an excellent exposure to Guitry on film. The first two movies are delightful; the third is good; the fourth is routine entertainment. As hinted throughout this review, if you like Woody Allen’s “mature” films, you’ll like Sacha Guitry.

Jim
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Re: Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostMon Feb 13, 2017 3:22 pm

According to my lists, I've seen three of Guitry's movies. Unlike your opinions, I think Story of a Cheat is very good, The Pearls of the Crown good, but Quadrille is excellent, verging on greatness. I suppose this is because of my reading in French drama, which tends to be structured more formally than American drama. Add some humorous liveliness and it tickles both my funny bone and my sense of pompous learnedness,
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Re: Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostMon Feb 13, 2017 6:00 pm

There have been a couple of recent essays about Guitry over at Streamline: The Official FilmStruck Blog (formerly Movie Morlocks: The Official TCM Blog).

Here's one on his later film La Poison (1951), and another comparing La Poison to Robert Altman's The Player.

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Re: Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostWed Feb 15, 2017 11:38 pm

I have owned this set for years and feel guilty about never watching any of it, because I've stayed at Guitry's house. Not so rare an accomplishment; it is now a hotel in Nice, and when I saw that fact about it, I booked it immediately, 19 years ago. I see that Trip Advisor now ranks it #1 of hotels in Nice, ahead of the grand Negresco or anything else. Which means someone has put money into spiffing it up since then; it was, let's say, a bit shabby-genteel then, but a pleasure nonetheless—like Guitry, it might be a bit old, but it is full of character. In any case, the only film of his I'd ever seen, many many years ago, was his last film (Three For a Pair) in a series devoted to last films, an eccentric notion for a retrospective that seemed to consist mainly of weak films made one or two after a very fine summing-up film—so, Seven Women rather than Liberty Valance, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse rather than The Indian Tomb, etc. I don't know if that was true of Guitry or not.

Anyway, so I promptly watched The Story of a Cheat. You will like this or not depending on how you like Guitry's voice or not, the voice of a droll raconteur who hits occasional surprise notes of melancholy or resignation, because that's 90% of the movie—most of it is pantomime narrated by him, with only a few framing sequences throughout the movie (if you can frame a movie from the middle...) in full dialogue and realistic presentation, more or less. No one else besides Guitry's card cheat who has a long life of being taught wrong lessons by life is really a fleshed out character, but it doesn't matter, it moves along fleetly, amusingly, with weary wisdom about the world. I was sucked in by his authorial voice, and so, I guess I will now work my way through another Eclipse French set.

Three possible influences I noted in this film: 1) The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to owe something to its air of mild absurdism and the sheer delight in grand hotels as vast meeting spaces where chance can play a part; 2) Kind Hearts and Coronets is similarly framed by someone writing his memoirs while his life is told in sometimes comically abbreviated blackout sketches; 3) that opening series of titles in which the cast is introduced in real life (sort of) as Guitry narrates it... could it have inspired this famous rules-breaking trailer? Update: I just read the Filmstruck blog post on La Poison and it seems likely...
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Re: Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostSun Feb 19, 2017 7:43 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:could it have inspired this famous rules-breaking trailer?

Certainly seems so. Welles mentions Story of a Cheat in the Bogdanovich interviews and was definitely aware of Guitry and his work.
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Re: Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostSun Feb 19, 2017 7:45 pm

Jim - nice write-up. I strongly suggest the any of Guitry's other 30's films, particularly Faisons un rêve... (1936). I like what I've seen of his later films as well, through the 50's, but the 30's work is essential.
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Re: Criterion's Eclipse Series: Sacha Guitry

PostSun Feb 19, 2017 8:57 pm

Well, of course one reason he's undoubtedly aware of Guitry is because Guitry directed him in the part of Sir Hudson Lowe (Napoleon's warden on St. Helena) in 1955's Napoleon. But they were no doubt kindred souls before that.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier

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