“I’d spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds.”
“I’d settle for less.”
It’s hard to believe that this monolith of a film was put together under the World War II circumstances that it faced, its completion amounting to an act of cultural defiance. How far you believe the tales of the production’s struggles is up to you – there would certainly have been room for a few hundred Resistance agents among the hustle and bustle(s) of the hordes of sumptuously dressed extras. The very two-act structure of the picture is seemingly down to Nazi restrictions on film length: the response was to simply split the reel into two films. What’s certain is that the whole thing is a rousing paean to life, soaked in a cheerful cynicism and breathing a tehnicolour vitality through its silver.
The hinge of the whole chest of wonders is savvy, sphinx-like coquette Garance (Arletty), pursued by a veritable coterie of men through 1830s Paris: irrepressible actor Frédérick (Pierre Brassuer), dandy villain Pierre (Marcel Herrand), angular mime artist Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and oddly coiffed Comte du Montrey (Louis Salou). Arletty, 47 at the time of release and somehow luxuriating in a near-magical coalescence of girlish cheer and very womanly sophistication, has a sultry, unique magnetism. Whether she’s tempting fey and tortured Baptiste or getting uppity with a gendarme, that sardonic smile provides a wry anchor for all the frothy melodrama the plot can throw at her (and at 190 handkerchief-clutching minutes, there’s no shortage.) Each of the male ensemble bring their own charm to the rich pot, with Brassuer’s twinkling, gamey eye a particular pleasure.
There’s humour aplenty among the breast-clutching and woe, much of it provided by the hysterical theatre director, all but vibrating with stress and contrary pride at his establishment’s bawdy vigour. The mime pieces, so key to the heart of the movie, are often gorgeous, and sometimes very dark indeed. Gorgeously theatrical, stagey in the very best sense of the word, the whole thing is so smartly daft, so earnest yet cynical, self-assured yet self-effacing as it glides and billows across the screen, that it’s a tall order not to fall a little bit in love.