Jul 27, 2010 0
I am often asked which films turned me on to cinema. It’s hard to to determine the exact tipping point, but I think I became a die-hard cinephile, a true stickler-of-the-celluloid when I was taking an afternoon French class at the Alliance Francaise. They were doing a retrospective of Sacha Guitry films all summer and after class I would stick around the quartier waiting for the film to begin, perhaps going to Fauchon (which — dégueulasse! — no longer exists) or Central Park in between. I would then join the thirty-odd senior citizens and show my membership carte for free entry, and was subsequently sucked into his Guitry’s entire oeuvre. (Whether or not you *believe* in auteurism, there is nothing like the experience of finding an director that you truly appreciate to usher you into the art of cinema via his or her unique vision.) Guitry did it for me and I was hooked.
What did I love about these films? I think it was a combination of the joy of being able to follow a good part of the French (for these actors, unlike their New Wave successors, had excellent elocution) and an overall playfulness with words that I regarded as the height of sophistication. I recognized Guitry’s films as mannered and artificial and I loved the stylization of reality — the wit, the unbelievable conceits, the unflappable comic arrogance of Mr. Guitry himself. I adored Jacqueline Delubac and Raimu and Fréhel, eccentric stars that to me could only thrive in French films. There is a scene in Les Perles de la Couronne in which Jacqueline Delubac is forbidden to speak in anything but adverbs because her husband suspects her of flirting with another man. Let’s just say his attempts to limit her communicative powers are in vain, and there isn’t a soul who has used a single part of speech more suggestively, ever. (Good grammar is sexy, folks. Well, at least to me.)
Heureusement, the new box set from Criterion includes four of the best Guitry films (though I do wish I could swap out Quadrille for Mon Père Avait Raison) and it is a glorious introduction to his substantial and overlooked contribution to cinema. The beginning of Le Roman d’un Tricheur is a tongue-in-cheek, behind-the-curtain peek at the stagecraft of cinema, and a good taste of Guitry’s irreverent, let’s-poke-fun-at-haute-culture approach. (Also, if you notice, Kind Hearts and Coronets is as indebted to Le Roman d’un Tricheur as Bladerunner is to Metropolis.) For better or for worse, these are the films that initiated my love affair with cinema.