Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Directed by Jacques Becker in 1951, this concise, smartly worked-out marital farce is a cynical companion piece to Becker’s earlier “Antoine et Antoinette.” When Daniel Gelin’s Edouard allows his wife Caroline to talk him into giving a piano recital for her rich uncle, he knows he’s in for trouble. But he doesn’t anticipate the chain of disasters that follows in the wake of his slapping Caroline in the heat of an argument. Caroline immediately goes on the warpath, disrupting the party and resuming a flirtation with her dandy cousin. Edouard would talk to her, apologize to her, explain his feelings to her — if only he could catch up with her. Where love is concerned, he’s hopelessly outclassed.
There’s a Guitry-like blockiness to the scenario, which often feels like something developed for the theater. Becker’s style, though, derives from the movies. It’s especially reminiscent of silent comedy, particularly the work of filmmakers like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Leo McCarey, men who knew how to amplify gags into complex narrative streams. Most of the action in “Edouard et Caroline” is organized around physical bits of business — the reworking of a gown, characters dressing and undressing, Edouard trying to focus on the piano. These Becker and his actors complicate and expand upon, revealing the movie’s characters in the process. (For Becker, the smallest actions reveal character. Everyone remembers the bit in “Touchez Pas au Grisbi” wherein Jean Gabin, while hiding from his enemies, coolly smears pâté onto a cracker.) To this end, the picture proceeds in something close to real-time, and the actors are often framed by plenty of space. Their actions are thus connected to their settings, their contexts. It’s a marvelously controlled movie: no shot feels out of place, no cut ill-judged.
As written by Becker and Annette Wademant (the latter went on to contribute to Ophuls’ great “Madame De…”), the movie captures something essential about the nature of male-female relationships. Caroline creates crises, hoping to jolt Edouard out of complacency, and Edouard does what he can to bring order to the chaos engendered by her scheming — though, more often than not, his bungling only worsens the situation. (It takes a boorish American to finally set Edouard straight regarding women.)
As Caroline, Anne Vernon is whipsmart and devilish; when Edouard slaps her she responds to his hasty apology with a flurry of overhand blows, then bites the air, snapping like an over-teased spaniel. Years later Vernon would bring a similar tartness to her role as Catherine Deneuve’s mother in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” She’s a delightful actress. Naturally, all ends well. The movie concludes with a tonic variant of the conclusion of “The Awful Truth.” The couple’s reconciliation is the kind of happy accident that results from careful, if unadmitted, planning.
- Though “Edouard et Caroline” is not available in the States on DVD, Criterion has released Becker’s “Le Trou,” “Touchez Pas au Grisbi,” and “Casque d’Or.” I especially love the first two.
- A recent re-release of Becker’s “Antoine et Antoinette” met with rave reviews.
- Becker’s son Jean directed one of the most idiosyncratic (and sexiest) French films of the ’80s, “One Deadly Summer.” I know Paleo Retiree is a big fan. Available on DVD here.
Great appreciation. Man I do love a good farce. I guess they’re insanely hard to do, though, at least well. And hey I loved “Touchez Pas Au Grisbi” too.
Love that review of “Grisbi.” Funny to see you picked up on some of the same things in Becker’s work that I did — namely the focus on people engaged in everyday bits of business. He’s an impressive filmmaker.
This one is too reined-in to play as a total farce, but it occurred to me while writing about it that that’s basically what it is. It’s not nearly as poeticized as “Grisbi” or “Le Trou”; it’s in a more hard-edged, realistic vein. It’s also way more modest. Just a funny little film about a married couple.