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"Nez de Cuir" is virtually forgotten in France today and it's really a
pity,for it is probably Allégret's sleeper.
The black and white cinematography is dazzling :a lot of scenes take place in the forest and we really feel its atmosphere,hundred-year -old trees,brooks,where men go hunting with hounds or walk through the trees to hide their secret liaisons.When the characters venture into a dangerous place or when their suffering grows too hard ,Allégret films them in the middle of the night:Nez de Cuir helping Judith come into her mansion ,the hero in the monastery where hooded monks walk along the dark corridors.
A gentleman was disfigured during Napoleon's wars.
He does not believe in God anymore,and ,behind a mask,he multiplies his love affairs .Allégret's cynicism ,which was present in " Manèges", comes back tinged with romanticism.Jean Marais ,a thespian extraordinaire ,regains the desperate accents of "la Belle et la Bête" .
Cocteau's influence anyway hangs over the whole movie.There's something magic ,mysterious in the air:the ball where the aristocrats ,a social class which repeats its pathetic etiquette , are welcoming the "survivor" ; the meeting near the pond when Judith confesses her love to the hero;the dark bedroom where the doctor (Massimo Girotti) treats him ("It's only your face!You can walk ,ride a horse,me,says the doctor,War made me an eunuch!) Hunting with hounds becomes a transparent metaphor.Once a triumphant man who would seduce every woman in sight ,the hero was caught out at his own game like the deer tracked down by the dogs in the river.The score during the cast and credits is a fanfare of hunting horns.
I was under the impression that this was a romantic swashbuckler in the
vein of CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1950), given its deformed protagonist; the
fact that it starred the athletic Jean Marais seemed to point even more
in this direction. However, the character it draws most on from the
actor's canon up to that time is The Beast (ugly but desperately in
need of love) in Jean Cocteau's sublime fantasy BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Actually, the opening sequences of the film are pretty grim with Marais picked up half-dead from the battlefield and then discovering that his facial features are ruined. Still, he slowly recovers thanks to the doctor played by Massimo Girotti bemoaning his fate, the latter offers Marais some consolation by confessing that he was himself rendered a eunuch by the war (both actors' performances are very good)! Anyway, the hero soon throws all initial gossip aside and is back at what he does best romance every young woman who crosses his path (rather than squirm at his appearance, which he covers behind a leather strap and eventually a mask, they seem to find him even more fascinating!).
That said, his attitude has changed to a more cynical one resulting in a number of heartbroken (and usually married) women. He's even cruel to the one girl he genuinely loves (Francoise Christophe); his alienating behavior forces her into a loveless marriage with a much older man (but who happens to be friends with Marais). When the latter's death results to have been an unnatural one, the hero leaves in disgust but is crippled soon after in a riding accident! He subsequently takes to hiding in a convent; following a final encounter with the leading lady, he's visited by Girotti to whom he admits that life has let him down regardless.
Though undeniably stylish, the film is far from the typically breezy costumer (there are, in fact, no action sequences to speak of apart from the short scene on the battlefield and a stag hunt with dogs which ends in a stream) and, ultimately, isn't quite in the same league as the contemporaneous FANFAN LA TULIPE (1952; which, hopefully, is a future Criterion release). LEATHERNOSE is let down by a relentlessly verbose script which generally sees the French aristocrats gathered for a hunt, a ball or a dinner engagement discussing the hero's exploits, Marais himself juggling one affair with the next in the middle of the night, and some soul-searching in the clandestine meetings with Christophe (including a self-unmasking).
As I said earlier, the star had always been a regular in French costume pictures but he became even more so after the dissolution of his collaboration with the afore-mentioned Jean Cocteau in the early 1950s almost as if he set himself up for the title of the French Errol Flynn! In fact, starting with the film under review, he made a multitude of period pieces/swashbucklers including film versions of perennial favorites like THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (1955), LE BOSSU (1960), CAPTAIN FRACASSE (1961), THE IRON MASK (1962), etc. but, given that he rarely had notable directors at his disposal, practically all of them are virtually forgotten today. Having said that, Yves Allegret was a distinguished director and this film is indeed pictorially impressive (courtesy of the black-and-white cinematography of Roger Hubert) although, at times, the beat-up print I viewed was far too dark and murky. Incidentally, Marais and Allegret had previously collaborated on MIRACLES ONLY HAPPEN ONCE (1951; an Italian TV screening of which I recently missed out on).
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