*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The opening of this film relating the finding of the word 'Ananké'
(which the English-language narrator irritatingly mispronounces as
'Anankh'!) on the wall of the cathedral signals that Jean Delannoy
has given us the best cinema version of 'Notre Dame de Paris' yet. It
is the closest in spirit to the book in picaresque colour and in its
final tragedies. *Some spoilers follow, comparing the book and the
film, and touching upon other film adaptations.*
While international distribution (especially in the US) meant that Delannoy still had to fudge Claude's priesthood (being addressed as "Maître/Master Frollo"), his sober dress and the fact he works in Notre Dame make it implicit indeed, obvious to anyone familiar with the book, as French audiences are. His younger brother Jehan is thus restored to his (im)proper and impish self as a wastrel student (Maurice Sarfati), who first appears dressed as an imp for the Feast of Fools. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, Jehan became a middle-aged substitute for his brother in his relationship with Esméralda.) There are, nevertheless, differences between the French and English versions. Because of the Hays Code, Quasimodo is made *King* of Fools, *not* Pope, in the English dub, the scene being shot with two different crowns. The French version also includes scenes with Pierre after Esméralda's arrest, and an extended scene of Claude's breakdown, returning to La Falourdel's, corresponding to the book's chapter 'Fièvre' presumably cut because the English title overemphasises Quasimodo.
Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida have top billing, but Alain Cuny quietly dominates the film as he should. Claude, not Quasimodo, is the most interesting central character: the brilliant, tormented scholar and scientist as Romantic tragic hero/anti-hero. Although over a decade too old for the role, Cuny has the right air of anguished intensity and self-destructive passion. Even as he brings suffering on others, he himself suffers still more deeply, all haunted eyes and strong cheekbones. (An acquaintance observed his hairstyle is too 1950s, but the anachronism is less significant than the fact he has so much hair at all: book-Claude's hair has receded into his tonsure!) This is the only film version that shows his alchemical researches, and sets Louis XI's incognito visit, as 'Compère Tourangeau', in his laboratory, rather than in his rooms in the cloisters. This atmospheric scene captivated me when I first saw the film on TV as a child, and as a teenager I fell in love with Claude in the book (recognising a fellow-Aspie). My chief regret is that (as usual) the passionate confrontation in prison from 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza' is omitted: this Claude is certainly handsome enough for some chest-baring cassock-ripping He gives us the film's most memorable moments: his rapt face framed by the broken window of the Grande Salle of the Palais de Justice, while in the adjacent pane we see the reflection of what grips his attention Esméralda dancing; how he intones her name over his experiments (which reminds me of Ezra Pound's marvellous 'The Alchemist: Chant for the Transmutation of Metals': "Midonz, gift of the God, gift of the light,/gift of the amber of the sun,/Give light to the metal"); his torment at La Falourdel's, watching Phoebus (Jean Danet, suitably smug and flashy) seduce Esméralda; scratching 'Ananké' on the wall, watched by an uncomprehending Quasimodo; returning to the cathedral by moonlight, and crossing himself (cut from the English-language dub) when he sees Esméralda in ghostly white. In his last moments, he stretches out his arms, crucified by his forbidden desires, before falling. It is a superb performance, unshowy, but emotionally wrenching.
Gina Lollobrigida is somewhat mature and overtly sexy to be entirely convincing as a virginal teenager, but she has glamour, vitality, and (with choreography by Massine) dances better than most screen Esméraldas. It is believable that an otherwise ascetic and intellectual priest could be driven to crime and madness for such a beauty. Of course, with such a bright and spirited Esméralda, the question remains as to how she can be so stupid as to fall for Phoebus's smarmy charms, but that is part of the tragedy of the book and, indeed, such calamities happen in life. Her comic relationship with Pierre Gringoire (Robert Hirsch) is delightful, with a very cute Djali as the third party in their 'marriage'. It is wonderful to see so much of Pierre, without him being rewritten as a conventional romantic lead (as in 1939 and 1982). Clopin is played somewhat younger than usual by Philippe Clay: Villon-esque, a figure from Bosch or Breughel. Quinn is the best film Quasimodo: alarming and touching by turns, unsentimentalised, and believable. Unlike Chaney or Laughton, whose deformities were far too exaggerated, he looks as if he could have survived childhood in 15C. He is deaf, and seems to have learning disabilities, as the book implies. Fleur-de-Lys (Danielle Dumont) and her friends, in their henins and colourful gowns, look as if they could have stepped out of an illuminated manuscript. Phoebus is as obnoxious and shallow as written: only in the English dub is he softened slightly by being made to regret that he could not have saved Esméralda himself.
The last part of the story is truncated because of the running-time, hence the change in the events at the Bastille, and in the circumstances of Esméralda and Clopin's deaths. However, it is still far more effective than the bowdlerised 'happier' endings imposed by the 1923, 1939, 1982, 1996 and 1997 versions. The conclusion at Montfaucon is retained, and is movingly portrayed. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, which gives a better impression of the novel than any other cinema adaptation to date, and confirms my belief that French literature usually fares best in the hands of French film-makers.
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