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This is a bi-lingual film, as it happened quite often in French cinema, when there was a necessity for it: French actors (mainly actresses) speak French, German ones speak German, and they quite often offer their own translations, vocally.
This is not Duvivier's first talkie. He had already directed a melodrama, 'David Golder', with Harry Baur, then the outstanding (at least for the editing, if not for the story) 'The Five Accursed Gentlemen', both in 1931.
So, after 'great' (and somehow heavy) melodrama and exotic adventures flick, Duvivier is now entering another genre, some sort of ciné-roman, a sentimental story. But in flying colors!
First, the story. Simple and complicated in its details, but easy to follow for the viewer, it is tightly waterproofed. Duvivier shows there his trademark respect for the audience.
Then, the means. The score is not the movie forte, though it's not negligible nor boring. Once again, it is the editing which make the job. Many sequences are based on short cuts giving fast pace: the evocation of the main protagonists' work (the telephone linking the world together), the Paris tour (with recurrent gags), the solemn arrival of the 'President of the Trans-oceanic Republics' in Berlin under a driving rain, the official banquet, the final brawl. Through frames and cinematography, some images are testimonials to German impressionism. And the actors. They have the age of their parts (Josette Day was 18, Wolfgang Klein 20) and they act the way it has to be done in talking movies, already far from silent movies habits. (Nevertheless, you'll notice that the movie is almost entirely understandable without any sound: Duvivier gives a great importance to the writings, letters, telegrams, signs in the street, train station boards, clocks.) The rest of the cast is up to the task: Germaine Aussey, Karel Stepanek and Hans Henninger the Berlin pals, and Charles Redgie, in one of his usual parts seen elsewhere (Maurice Tourneur's 'Samson', Yves Mirande's 'Café de Paris'), verging to slapstick, but noir-ish, this time.
Finally, the meanings. All Duvivier's obsessions and concerns are already here. Innocence lost (the litteral deception of the heroes but also the strange insert of this 'president-king' surrounded by his many wives-virgins), loneliness in modern times (the 'Automat' restaurant in Berlin, the song in Montmartre cabaret and its effect on the audience), modern forms of consented slavery (work in the telephone centrals, stupid mass touring in Paris), and last but not least, the need and power of love (the song in Montmartre the Christ is not that surprising, it's a wooden statue not misplaced here, a 'haut lieu' of artistry, the happy resolution, which is not contrived and has many aspects, since not only Lily needs to forgive and show she's willing to, but Annette has the same though a bit twisted need for love, through seduction, and is too happy to see her former lover come back to her).
The movie takes us through an early thirties Paris (and then in a 'decaying' Berlin), and uses opposite or at least very different locations to contrasts the characters and their goals: 'Le Bal nègre' for Annette who tries to seduce Erich, 'Le Lapin à Gill' where Lily brings Max (she thinks he is Erich) and where is heard the song, 'Chanson lasse', our friend dbdumonteil told us about. (By the way, mon cher Didier, this is not the first mention of Duvivier's name inside the movie: the 'pneumatique' sort of telegram Annette is sending to her lover Dumont has "rue Duvivier" for subscribed address!)
Among the bizarre and/or funny inserted pieces, there is also this sequence with the 'Trans-oceanic' orchestra after using German, then French, then English, the understanding will come through the 'Trans-oceanic' language, obviously invented, a moment that predates one of the funniest scenes of Guitry's 'The Pearls of the Crown'.
Well, that's enough to say my point: the third talkie directed by Duvivier is already a masterpiece, with great inventive editing, arch-efficient pace and tightness of the story-telling for this ciné-roman already full of Duvivier's vision and visions.
A powerful romance.
NB: I see on the IMDb page that the music of 'Chanson lasse' is here attributed to Armand Bernard (a French character actor of the funny kind who knew how to write good music too), but in the movie, during the sequence in 'Le Lapin à Gill", the Montmartre cabaret, it is announced like this: "lyrics of Julien Duvivier, music by Karol Rathaus", the author of the film score.
(Didier_fort at hotmail.com)
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