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One of the first lessons taught in film school is that the arrival of talking pictures was a big inhibitor to silent film art, which had reached a level of expression all its own. When we saw Murnau's 1927 Sunrise it became obvious that an entire language of silent movie communication had been pushed aside by microphones and talent from the New York stage.
DVD has been unearthing vast treasures of European films more or less unseen in the U.S., and among them are always a few dazzlers from the silent era. A few months ago Arte and Facets introduced us to Julien Duvivier's 1925 Poil de carotte, a progressive silent that makes use of many experimental camera effects. Duvivier's Au bonheur des dames (Ladies' Paradise) is one of the last French silent films, released early in 1930 as a silent and then later in the same year with a synchronized soundtrack. It's a socially conscious melodrama adapted from a book by Émile Zola. Essentially a proto- Wal-mart story of a small shop crushed by a huge department store, Au bonheur des dames is an affecting, emotional drama starring one of the more famous European actresses of the time, Dita Parlo.
The orphaned Denise (Dita Parlo) comes to Paris to work in the shop of her Uncle Baudu (Armand Bour), which has lost its clientele to the enormous "Bonheur des Dames" department store across the street. Bonheur mogul Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand) plans to expand to fill an entire block, and is waiting for Baudu's business to fail so he can commence. As Baudu can't feed his own sickly daughter Genevìeve (Nadia Sibirskaïa, of Ménilmontant) and her fiancé Colomban (Fabien Haziza), Denise asks for a job at Bonheur des Dames. Mouret takes an instant fancy to her, and sees to it that she is hired as a model. Denise is harassed by Clara (Ginette Maddie), a co-worker who has been flirting with Colomban. A personnel man terrifies Denise when he tries to force his attentions on her in the company canteen.
Helping Mouret to finance his proposed store expansion is Madame Desforges (Germaine Rouer), a socialite who expects his romantic loyalty in return. The deal goes through, but Madame Desforges discovers Mouret's infatuation with Denise and sets out to either win him back or see him ruined. Denise suffers in the middle of all this dramatic confusion, while demolition crews begin to take down the entire city block around Baudu's pitiful shop.
Au bonheur des dames impresses from its very first shot of a train entering a Paris station. Duvivier is stylistically versatile. Complex multiple exposures express Denise's wonder and confusion in the big city. A Soviet-style montage dominates a later sequence in which the demolition machines seem to bombard the elderly shopkeeper Baudu. A real, enormous Paris department store stands in for Mouret's Bonheur des Dames, and Duvivier makes sure that every shot features hundreds of store patrons, pushing, consuming and making Mouret rich. Duvivier doesn't "cover" his scenes; every new image enlarges our understanding of the story. Mirrors figure heavily in the models' changing room, where Denise is hired and makes her first enemies. Duvivier frequently moves his camera, trucking with characters and pushing in to relevant elements in the frame. One early street shot reveals the director's camera dolly in the reflection of a bus. It's some kind of large-wheeled wagon, pushed by hand.
Duvivier expresses his sympathetic nature by observing human faces. His close-ups reveal attitudes and reactions that delineate relationships and take the place of verbal communication -- subtitles are reduced to a minimum. The magnetic Dita Parlo looks ordinary one second, and beautiful the next. Her eyes twinkle in a way that reminds us of Clara Bow. Her Denise is humiliated and frightened when asked to disrobe in the models' bullpen. She's at first an awkward clotheshorse, which is interesting because Dita Parlo's name is often associated with high fashion of the day.
The politics of Au bonheur des dames are a little strange, and include an unlikely ending that we're told matches the one in Zola's book. Mouret and his capitalist élite wipe out the competition in the name of progress and profits. As expected, the film makes a big deal out of Baudu's misfortune -- his despair seems to contribute to the ill health of his daughter Genevìeve (another riveting face illuminated by Duvivier's camera). Yet the film resolves as a simple sentimental problem that would disappear if the "little people" affected by Mouret's greed were taken care of. Compared to the more naturalistic The Crowd, Au bonheur des dames is a trifling fantasy in which the poor girl redeems the rich autocrat. Mouret's predatory ambitions are ultimately endorsed -- he just needs the love and counsel of Denise to show him the way. This thematic reversal is almost as puzzling as Thea Von Harbou's simplistic Metropolis.
The dated story probably keeps Au bonheur des dames from standing out as a classic, but its visual excitement is comparable to The Loves of Jeanne Ney and other silent melodramas distinguished by highly expressive camera direction. Duvivier's use of camera angles, dynamic composition and the moving camera is very, very modern.
Arte and Facets Video's DVD of Au bonheur des dames is a nearly flawless presentation of this 79 (!) year-old movie. The film is stable and cuts are smooth; the B&W images are rich and detailed. The many special effects makes ample use of matte paintings by the famed Percy Day. Some are quite perfect and others more on the artificial side. The final one is almost offensive: an animated wipe replaces Baudu's crumbling shop with the entrance to the new Bonheur des Dames store. It's as if Denise is celebrating Mouret's triumph over her uncle's grave.
Adding greatly to the film's effectiveness is a handsome new orchestral soundtrack composed by Gabriel Thibeaudieu. It fits the film like a glove and makes excellent use of a solo soprano. One brief Dita Parlo dialogue line is made part of the soundtrack, and stands out quite dramatically when Denise suddenly speaks "in synch". Unfortunately, it's not translated in the subtitles so I'm not sure what she said.
The film comes with original French inter-titles accompanied by English or German subs as desired. Serge Bromberg introduces the film with a rather theatrical lecture. A longer featurette covers the recording of the new score. The final extra is a 1930 short subject called Le Ventre d'un Magazin, which I believe translates as "the belly of the store". It documents the enormous kitchen of a department store commissary that feeds thousands of employees daily. Huge machines are used to fry, roast and bake vast quantities of food. Don't watch it hungry.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Au bonheur des dames rates:
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