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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Just how long is this film? Melissa E. Biggs lists the film's length as
198 minutes in her book, French Films, 1945-1993 (McFarland, 1996).
Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide lists the European running time as
170 minutes but the American video running time as 145 minutes. The
notes I'm making are based on this truncated video version. The 1958
New York Times review of the film gives the running time as 137
The first 45-50 minutes of the print I saw seem intact. This covers Julien Sorel's arrival at the Rénal home in Verrières, where he is to tutor the mayor's two children, and Sorel's seduction of the mayor's wife, Louise. When gossip about their affair becomes widespread and M. de Renal suspicious, Louise and Julien are able to avert his suspicions. But Julien leaves the Rénal home and returns to a seminary to further his studies for the priesthood.
When Julien goes back to the seminary at Besançon, I suspected there were some cuts, for Julien is not long at the seminary before he's off with Pirard, a Jansenist, for Paris.
In Paris, Pirard arranges a job for Julien as private secretary to a wealthy and influential nobleman, the Marquis de la Mole. Julien lives in the de la Mole household, and under the tutelage of the Marquis and his son, learns to dress and act as a gentleman
But Julien is interested in the Marquis's daughter, Mathilde, an attractive but silly girl, living in a world of romantic fantasies; however, her beauty, social snobbery, and disdain for Julien ignite him. In a short time, Julien becomes Mathilde's lover.
It was apparent to me that beginning with the Paris section, the film has been heavily cut, and as it went on, the narrative line became virtually incomprehensible unless one was familiar with the plot of the novel.
Julien and Mathilde's relationship soon comes to the Marquis's attention, and he doesn't approve because he considers Julien his daughter's social inferior. He has other plans for Mathilde, but she stubbornly insists that she wants to marry Julien.
Before the marriage occurs, the Marquis makes inquiries about Julien in Verrières. This leads to his receiving a damaging letter from Louise, which Louise's confessor had dictated to her.
After reading Louise's letter, the Marquis blocks the marriage, and Julien immediately goes to Verrières to avenge himself on Louise, which he does by shooting her in church while Louise is kneeling at the altar rail in prayer. He doesn't kill her; he merely wounds her. Paradoxically, Louise seems gratified to be shot; it's a moment of ecstasy for her because she interprets Julien's attempt on her life as proof that he still loves her.
Julien is apprehended, accused of attempted murder, tried, found guilty and sentenced to the guillotine. Louise is determined to go to him although her husband says that if she does, she will never see her children again. She goes, and we have a hokey romantic ending
In Julien's prison cell, Louise and Julien declare their eternal love to each other in purple passages fit only for a trashy romance novel. Louise must say such nonsense as, "I feel for you what I should feel for God." This dialogue is backed by a choir singing to suggest a religious experience. Even a Douglas Sirk melodrama wouldn't go this far.
This truncated version has nothing of Julien's getting Mathilde pregnant before marriage nor the grisly business of Mathilde obtaining Julien's head after he's guillotined and burying it to satisfy her romantic fantasies--all part of the novel's plot.
Julien Sorel is an early version of Joe Lampton of "Room at the Top." He's a carpenter's son, very interested to rise in society, but extremely sensitive to what he perceives as social slights directed at him. I was never able to feel anything for Julien because Gèrard Philipe does not act his role well enough to draw me in. Although Gèrard Philipe is dashing as Julian, looking especially fine in thigh-high leather boots that he struts around in, Philipe is never able to convey convincingly Julien's selfishness, cynicism, and world-weariness. Darrieux looks beautiful, but there are no sparks, no chemistry, between her and Philipe. We could be dealing with two paper dolls rather than human beings here.
Antonella Lualdi who plays Mathilde doesn't bring that character into more than two-dimensions, but that may be a result of the writing. Jean Mercure does a decent job as the Marquis de la Mole. The rest of the actors are playing little more than bits in this heavily populated story.
Miss this film in its presently available video version. Unfortunately, the 1993 (English) and 1998 (French) miniseries versions are currently not available in the U.S.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This adaptation of Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir is a strong effort,
hampered by conservative, static cinematography, dialogue-heavy script
and staid, wooden acting. For those reasons, it is perhaps best
compared to the notorious literary adaptations produced by the BBC.
This film has some advantages that lift it above the BBC's efforts at costume dramas, however: most notably, it has a lighter feel than the ponderous British efforts and a brighter colour palate. Unfortunately, although these colours make the film more pleasant to watch than a sombre-hued BBC effort, they aren't used to particularly great artistic effect. Although colour films were only just starting to become common- place in 1954, Autant-Lara shows little imagination in their use and they do little to develop the film's themes.
In terms of the acting, Darrieux is off-form here and Philipe never really convinces us he is such an iconic figure of world literature as Julien Sorel. He does not display the ambition or the vanity the character exudes in the novel in which he as a child of the Napoleonic era.
Fortunately, however, the film does contain an impassioned yet subtle anti-military theme. Autant-Lara's work in this area would later become more fully-developed when he made his classic about conscientious objection, Tu Ne Tueras Point. This stance alone, particular brave one to take at the height of de Gaulle's reign, elevates the film far above similar works.
Ultimately, the film is worth watching because of its anti-military stance. This fully redeems it from its technical limitations and lack of development. Be warned however, it falls into many of the same traps as BBC dramas yet manages to be of a slightly higher quality than the fare typically produced by the British corporation.
Finally, in response to the other reviewers' discussion on running times, I purchased the full version (spread across two DVDs in the set) whilst I was holidaying in France in 2010, so it is on the market.
Claude Autant-Lara had intended a three and a half hours movie,but the producers were not prepared to accept it;two shows a day was not profitable for an expensive movie filmed in color ,which was rare in France of the fifties;the precedent user was probably right when he wrote about the producers'cuts .SO the movie was divided into two parts ; the audience had to come twice (and to pay twice of course!) Autant-Lara was an auteur:his then anti-clericalism ,anti-militarism and he held in contempt the bourgeoisie (no Chabrol did not invent it,nor the N.V),hypocrisy and so called sacred values ."Douce" and "LE Diable Au Corps,among others,had already been released .The story like,romantic ,human side of the novel is almost absent .Madame De Rénal (who could remind the viewers of the female role of "Le Diable Au Corps" and mainly Mathilde De La Môle are relegated to supporting parts:and however they are played by Danielle Darrieux and Italian beauty Antonella Lualdi (co-production outcome)!The director and his screenwriters,Bost and Aurenche focused on the social side :Julien,a carpenter's son,dreams of social promotion ,but he does not belong there ,in the world of privileged persons ,protected by the Red (the army) and the Black (religion) .He puts his head in the guillotine because he is an intruder under the very reactionary reign of Charles the Tenth,like the young student of "Diable" or the proletarian couple of "Douce"....and later the conscientious objector in "Tu Ne Tueras Point".
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