The story of how the people of Paris cope with the strains and struggles of war, from the siege of the city by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 to the invasion by the Germans in World War II.
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The first film made up of sketches made by different directors.(unlike Duvivier's works ).All deal with the return of prisoners in their native France after WW2.Of course the quality is uneven,but all are perfectly acceptable,some highly commendable.
SEGMENT ONE:The return of Aunt Emma or "Will evil never end?"
Aunt Emma comes back from the Concentration camps .Her psyche is shot,she's lying on a bed ,she hardly utters one word ,and she has only eaten a "Petit Beurre" (French biscuit)..Enter her family: they seem to come from a Maupassant short story.False smiles,false compassion,false emotion .Gaston (Blier) seems the good guy whereas Charles (Lucien Nat) seems despicable.But all in all ,both strive towards the same aim:make pitiful aunt Emma sign the papers so that they' ll be able to latch on to their inheritance.
This is Charles Spaak at his most ferocious and André Cayatte's directing is up to scratch.The way he films aunt Emma is stunning and the last picture (her face as the light fades out) reveals all the horror she endured ...no flashback needed.
SEGMENT TWO:the return of Antoine or "eight women and more"
Antoine (François Périer) finds again his job of a bartender in a hotel but the place has been commandeered by an English all female regiment.Probably because of censorship,the story never takes off .Probably intended as a comic relief,it's not really funny ,in spite of Périer's talent.
SEGMENT THREE: the return of Jean or " horror is timeless". By far the best short of the lot.HG Clouzot was a genuine genius of the cinema ;in his relatively small output, with the eventual exception of "Miquette et Sa Mère" ,he never produced anything mediocre.In "the return of Jean,he's at the top of his game .Unlike the other sketches,this one is timeless and could happen anywhere any time.A more recent work such as Polanski's "Death and the maiden" deals with the same subject.
A person who was wounded during the war,Jean, has become bitter and desperate.One day,in the boarding-house where he lives,a wounded German takes refuge.At first,against all odds,returning good for evil,he wants to help him;but his pal ,the doctor,tells him he was a torturer.Still, Jean wants to know WHY a man can act like he did: so they give him morphine and a terrifying dialog begins...
Clouzot's lines are hard, dissecting the darkness of the human soul,and finally coming up against the terrible question:why?By far the best of the whole movie, Louis Jouvet's performance will leave you on the edge of your seat .
SEGMENT FOUR The return of René or "the known soldier"
The two final segments are by Jean Dreville who cannot match Clouzot's brilliance,but who makes decent efforts.
René is the 1500th soldier to come home so it's cause for celebration.Best moments come at the beginning;the speech ,by a government representative ,sounds hollow: the man who probably waged war in his office has no idea of the sufferings endured by the humble soldiers;then those present rush to the buffet where they make a clean sweep of wine and biscuits.René finds his wife gone (but do not worry ,the Concierge says,she 's gone with a resistant,not with a collaborator!) and his apartment occupied by a family.But,like the fifth segment ,it will end on a note of hope ,after all ,the 1949 audience was in need of optimism.
SEGMENT FIVE:The return of Louis or "guess who's coming to dine"
Louis is welcomed at the railway station by his mother and the mayor of his village.But he is not alone.He 's got a wife with him and she's German!With hindsight,it seems normal,but if you had been in those people's shoes,you might have thought the same.Louis and his wife become outcasts -Louis's sister's husband was killed during the war- and their life becomes unbearable.
Serge Reggiani shines all along the sketch and ,with the staggering exception of Jouvet's ,gives the finest performance of "Retour à la Vie" .That said,the ending is melodramatic to a fault ,but once again ,it was necessary to conclude on a happy note.
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