by Mark Steiner
Several years ago, an anonymous donor contacted Scarecrow and asked if we could use funding for specific rental items that might be too costly for Scarecrow’s budget. Out of that came the first iteration of our Wish List Collection, and accordingly, a bunch of upgraded titles previously only on DVD, as well as some higher priced, English-friendly blu-rays and DVDs imported from France. Then, this year, a different anonymous donor came forward and asked the same question, and again, we were able to bring in another generous helping of French imports to add to our collection. Over the next few weeks we’ll be introducing these to you via our blog and newsletter. You can read the previous installments of this series here and here.
Battement de Coeur aka Beating Heart (Henri Decoin, 1940)
If you’ve been thinking about dipping into Bertrand Tavernier’s 8-episode Journeys Through French Cinema, the films of Decoin and Danielle Darrieux (Decoin’s wife at the time) would be an excellent place to begin your side research. Decoin is featured prominently in the first episode, due to his wonderful sense of pace and the grace and sensitivity bestowed upon his characters, both of which are on dazzling display here. A 22 year old Darrieux, already with 30 films under her belt, brings a vitality and elegance to her role as a reform school graduate trying to go on the straight and narrow, who gets hooked into a pickpocket scheme that results in her falling for her victim. And that’s just the setup. What follows is a delightful and heartfelt look into class distinctions and the hypocrisy of those who seek to take advantage of such things. Decoin was well aware of the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, and as I was watching it, thought it could have easily been remade by Wilder or Lubitsch with Jean Arthur in the lead role. As it happens, it was remade in Hollywood six years later as Heartbeat with Ginger Rogers. Released in February of 1940, months before the Nazi invasion of France, Battement de Coeur was a welcome respite for filmgoers seeking diversions from the ever darkening world around them, and accordingly was a huge box office hit at the time. (Blu-ray)
Premier rendez-vous aka Her First Affair (Henri Decoin, 1941)
One year later, after Decoin and Darrieux divorced and the Nazis had taken over France (and accordingly the French film industry,) the director and star collaborated on another light, frothy comedy of manners, again featuring Darrieux as a seemingly naive waif who’s naturally sharper and more self-sufficient than anyone else in the room, this time AWOL from an orphanage (less imposing than a reformatory but just as restrictive.) Through a series of misunderstandings and mistaken identities, she ends up in hiding at a school for boys, winning their respect and admiration, and winning the love of a Prince Charming just as graceful as she is. The film itself isn’t as perfect as Battement de Coeur but considering the behind-the-scenes circumstances, it’s pretty impressive that it’s still a wonderful comedy. In Voyages, Tavernier refers to the Decoin/Darrieux films as “a display case for a dazzling Danielle Darrieux, who goes from sweet nothings to farce with an absolutely baffling grace” and he’s right. She’s fascinating to watch as she takes over the narrative by just being herself. As a side note, the aforementioned Prince Charming is played by a very young Louis Jourdan. I am used to seeing him as the archetypal “aging lothario” (as in Gigi, for example), but in this film he’s so overflowing with youthful exuberance that he was almost unrecognizable at first. (Blu-ray)
La Petite Bande / The Little Bunch (Michel Deville, 1983)
How to even begin to describe this delightful Faberge egg of a film, which gently undercuts our expectations of what we expect to see and hear and feel for most of its breezy 90 minutes, while simultaneously enchanting us as we follow 7 children on an anarchic, idyllic, dangerous, and mysterious sojourn through Western Europe. It’s as if Jacques Tati directed Picnic At Hanging Rock starring the Little Rascals, but that would be too restrictive. The best thing to do with this Little Bunch is ignore any synopses you might find, let go of any expectations you might have, and surrender yourself to its charms, which are abundant. (DVD)
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