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Arte & Facets Video bring us Julien Duvivier's 1925 silent film Poil de carotte, an interesting family drama from a 1900 play by Jules Renard, a Frenchman credited with inspiring Somerset Maugham to publish his journals. Director Duvivier liked the story of an unhappy childhood so much that he remade it seven years later as a talkie with the famous actor Harry Bauer.
Duvivier was an assistant for several years before directing pictures of his own, under the famous Louis Feuillade, Marcel L'Herbier and others. Poil de carotte is often discussed in connection with Jacques Feyder's Visages d'enfants, another psychological study of an unhappy boy. Poil de carotte is remembered for its simplicity but also for its progressive use of superimpositions to show its characters' thoughts and fears.
Renard described his own childhood as difficult and sad, and put that experience into Poil de carotte, his most famous work. Duvivier moved the story to a town in the French Alps, which provide beautiful backgrounds.
Mother reserves her praise for François's older brother Félix (Fabien Haziza), an irresponsible, dishonest student who forms a crush on Ernestine, a Parisian cabaret singer (Renée Jean). François has a sister, but she is also not friendly to him. Mother spies on François, makes him do all the chores and punishes his every attempt to have fun. She berates him for playing with the little girl on the next farm, and plots to keep him from accompanying his father (Henry Krauss) on hunting excursions.
Poor François is desperate to be wanted; he literally jumps for joy at good news but often goes off by himself to cry. His siblings tease him and the mother of the girl next door warns him to stay away. Only the new maid shows sympathy. The key of course, is Father, a bearded pipe smoker who takes things easy and avoids confrontations with his horrible wife. Father takes a passive attitude toward François as well, inadvertently ignoring the boys' needs. Mother literally pinches François's ear until he says that she loves her more than his father, just do Dad can overhear.
Director Duvivier plays his scenes in a natural, non-theatrical manner, aided by excellent photography that blends interiors and exteriors and avoids a studio look. He often stages scenes in a modern-looking deep focus, with figures in the foreground balanced against others in the middle distance. Clever effects work allows Duvivier to accomplish complicated psychological effects. When François thinks about his unhappy family, the faces of his parents and siblings appear on his school paper. Similar double exposures are used to show his fear of ghosts in his bedroom at night, and phantoms that seem to appear when his mother sends him out to close the henhouse. Duvivier also uses superimpositions to indicate that Father is hearing Mother gossip with the neighbors. Her face appears above his chair, prompting him to go to the window to verify that the woman is talking just outside.
At one point Father realizes that poor François is doing all the chores. When he walks outside, a five-way split screen shows five different François's doing five different chores at the same time.
To execute perfect swish-pans between characters, Duvivier apparently places a mirror in front of the camera and rotates it quickly instead of panning. That's fairly effective, but Duvivier also creates ersatz split screens by sliding or pivoting a mirror partway in front of the lens. He gets what he's looking for -- two actors in the frame at the same time -- but the trick draws too much attention to itself and wrecks the established spacial relationships in the scene.
Poil de carotte reaches an emotional ending during the town's celebratory election day. Father is up for mayor, and is shocked to find out that his peers all believe that François is mistreated and Félix is creating a scandal with his immoral woman from the city. At the fair, he learns from the maid that François has gone back to the family barn to kill himself. Father rushes home in hopes of saving his son.
The acting is mostly smooth. Young André Heuzé is charming, if a little hyper, as François. We almost thought a man was playing the mother, as she has harsh features and a prominent mustache.
Arte and Facets Video's DVD of Poil de carotte is a good B&W transfer with French inter-titles (subtitled in English). Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films does an on-camera introduction, explaining that the film was reconstituted from three different sources, one of which had original tints. A few shots show light signs of the beginning of nitrate decomposition, so it's possible that the film was saved just in time.
Another extra discusses the recording of the new piano music track. A clip of Visages d'enfants is offered, showing that film's young star rebelling against his stepmother. A stack of promos highlight other silent film holdings available from Arte.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Poil de carotte rates:
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