In the 1951 “Juliette” Marcel Carne attempts to evoke Cocteau but mostly succeeds in calling attention to his unCocteauness. The movie is gauche where it needs to be lyrical, deliberate where it needs to be suggestive. The narrative concerns a condemned man, Michel, played by the flame-coiffed Gerard Philippe, whose dreams of a one-time crush named Juliette serve as a temporary reprieve from imprisonment. While sleeping he visits a dreamworld known as the the Land of Lost Memories. Aware of nothing but the present, its residents wander about in an idiot fog, often amusing themselves by speculating about the wild adventures they might have experienced and then promptly forgotten. It’s a world of rampant self-delusion (the palm readers peer into the past rather than the future), but one in which nearly everyone seems content. Michel is the sole exception: his pained longing for Juliette makes him something of a Debbie Downer. So it’s odd when the object of his obsession turns out to be so boring. Played by the saucer-eyed Suzanne Cloutier (she would later serve as Welles’ Desdemona), she has a gaga blandness that undercuts the movie’s motivational design. Why, you wonder, is Michel so enchanted by her? Probably, her dullness is intentional; it’s Carne’s way of suggesting that our aspirations are little more than mirages, as illusory in their way as the invented pasts of the amnesiac townsfolk. This theory is borne out by the paradoxical visual strategy employed by cinematographer Henri Alekan. He bathes the fantasy sequences in a hard, all-over light and reserves the suggestiveness of Poetic Realism for the “straight” scenes which bookend the movie. It’s clever all right, but by the time it registers the plot has become something of a botch, especially in its clumsy incorporation of a subplot which draws equally from the Blue Beard fable and Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door.” (There’s a metaphor for the Occupation tucked in there too — is there a French film from this period that doesn’t have one?) In the end, Michel lacks the imagination to win the dream girl and the material wealth to keep the real one. He fails to deliver on both levels. So does the movie.
(The device of a man whose erotic obsession gives him passage to alternate realties may have given Chris Marker an idea or two, and the hounds kept by the Blue Beard character seem like antecedents of the much more evocative dogs featured in Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.”)