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George Bernanos, the royalist French writer, prepared in 1947 a screenplay for a film that never was made, Les Carmélites. (Bernanos' screenplay was based on a 1931 historical novel by Gertrud von Lefort, Die Letzte am Schafott.) The old-fashioned word for screenplay in French is "Dialogue." This "Screenplay for The Carmelites," (Dialogue Des Carmélites) was published shortly after Bernanos' death in 1948.
Francis Poulenc wrote an opera, which premiered in 1957, using Bernanos' very words (but not all of them). Poulenc's opera is one of the most important of the XX Century, and it is an intoxicating blend of austere religion and sensuous music. The opera is mostly about fear: the fear of a young girl, Blanche, who enlists as a Carmélite novice to find a refuge from crippling anxiety, just when religious orders are threatened during the French Révolution. The opera is called Dialogues des Carmélites (plural), and it is available on DVD in many versions.
Now, back to the movie. This is NOT the aborted movie that Bernanos wrote his dialogue for. Actually, the text of this screenplay is not faithful to Bernanos' stylized words. This movie - which was shot after the opera's première - is much more realistic than Bernanos' screenplay, or than the opera. This is not a great movie. Seen on its own, it is almost dull. But it helps one appreciate the opera better. One understands more clearly than in the opera why Mother Marie does not join her sisters during the final slaughter, for instance. Where the opera is very much about Blanche, and very much about anxiety, the film is about the loss of religious freedom during political upheavals (less gripping, but interesting too). The idea of "exchanging deaths" which is capital in the opera and in Bernanos' text, is not as primordial in the film.
The movie helps us detect an unfortunate recent tendency to camp up the opera. The atmosphere of the earliest recording of the opera (Dervaux - EMI) is quite similar to that of the film: restrained, dry-eyed. Nowadays, the opera is often closer to the hysterical atmosphere of Queen of Spades, or even Elektra, if you follow me. Nowhere is it more apparent than with the character of the old prioress. In the movie, she is underplayed by sweet and poignant Madeleine Renaud. In a 3,000 seat opera house, she is often played as a hammy grotesque these days (great singer-actresses such as Helga Dernesch and Anja Silja were particularly awful this way). If I were to stage the opera, I would have the cast sit through the movie, for sure, to help them ensure balance.
Back to the movie: Madeleine Renaud is wonderful, as I said. Jeanne Moreau is compelling in the role of Mère Marie (a larger, more fleshed-out role than in the opera). Alida Valli, with her whiskey and cigarettes voice and her sensuous gaze is an odd choice for the new prioress. (Her scenes with Pierre Brasseur bring back memories of Eyes without a Face.) Pascale Audret is not as good as Blanche: too pretty, too sane.
This movie will be of great interest for those who love Poulenc's opera, and for fans of Jeanne Moreau and Alida Valli. Otherwise, it is low-key historical entertainment with a simplistic anti-revolutionary message.
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