Sunday, 26 November 2017

Wild at heart… Le diable au coeur (1928)

I believe it was George Harrison who once remarked, “she’s got the Devil in her heart oh no, no, no-oh…” but it might have been John Lennon? Here Betty Balfour, our own Queen of Happiness, is infected with the most spiteful of quick tempers and shows how her impulsive chaotic charm could be turned to destruct mode. The film’s translation reads as Devil May Care but I prefer The Beatle’s description… although I’m not entirely sure that Ricky Dee Drapkin had her in mind when he wrote the song.

Betty was 25 and at the height of her powers in 1928 with Mr Hitchcock to be her next director after Marcel L'Herbier. This film is a world away from the light comedies I’ve mostly seen her in but she plays well and dominates the film with eye-catching intensity. I wouldn’t go as far to say I don’t get what L'Herbier saw in Jaque Catelain but he’s slightly limited in comparison to the Balfour emotive engine. He’s so much a product of his director’s odd worlds that I can’t imagine him in a British film whereas Betty is positively protean with a cross-border and cross-genre appeal rivaled by very few.

It is not so much of a stretch to accept this tiny woman as a child as she is in the opening sections of the film. She is a tear-away, leading her parents a merry dance, not just with her maniacal brothers in tow but many other juniors from the small port of Le Harve in Northern France, the gateway to England should anyone want to go there.

Little miss mischief
Betty plays Ludivine Bucaille, “une fille étrange…” who is indeed a little beyond the usual as she drives her father Maurice (Auguste Picaude) to drink and her mother (Catherine Fonteney) to distraction. There are some convincing scenes of childish mayhem as Ludvine energetically marshals the local lads of misrule in endless japes, hiding from the police, trespassing and pretending to be handicapped.

Ludivine has still to understand the power she has over her surroundings and when she launches a cruel attack on the house of the Leherg family for no good reason other than their piousness, she causes more upset than she bargained for. They smash a window and the kids scatter as Mr Leherg (Roger Karl) and his young son Delphin (Jaque Catelain) come out to catch their tormentors. Ludivine is caught by Delphin and an instant flash across their eyes confuses her enough to wish both he and his father dead. The young fisherman exposed a weakness she was not expecting and as she spitefully tries to mask her romantic urges with distaste she protests far too much.

Jaque Catelain
Disaster strikes though when the Leherg’s boat goes missing in a storm. Everyone believes them drowned and Ludivine assumes it’s her fault and that she has wished death upon them. There is a very poignant scene in which the fishermen mournfully trudge from the dockside only to encounter Ludivine and her posse laughing and skipping without a care in the world.

The young woman’s spirits crash to earth and when, joy of joys, she finds Delphin alive and wandering in shock, she cannot do enough for him. He loses his mother soon after from the shock and is soon out of house and home but with no option but to leave. Ludivine persuades her parents to offer him board and cleans up their house, applying her energy with a new, more adult, purpose.

Balfour’s ability to switch from comic childishness to these more dramatic emotions is rare and she imbues even the most slapstick of moments with an edge; a twinkle in the eye that conveys joy and devilment. Her character is conflicted fighting a battle between denial and desire that can only end with her growing up.

Lauderin trying to impress Ludivine with his largess...
She meets her match when a showman, Pierre Lauderin (André Nox) comes to town with a gaggle of dancers and other performers. He calls her bluff and is more than amused to see how she responds. We’re unimpressed with his fascination with the girl and so is she.

Soon Ludivine’s not the only player struggling with integrity as her parents are made an offer they find hard to refuse by the scheming Lauderin who will clear their debts if he can marry their daughter. Ludivine’s ability to take offence leads to a pointless stand-off with the man she really loves, and she succeeds only in making things worse… The Devil is in her heart again and she will have to work hard to overcome the impact of her temper…

L’Herbier shows us gorgeous locations and this is as an emphatic a view of the natural world as L’Inhumaine and L’Argent are of the stylish built environments. We even get some typically flamboyant mise en scène at the port-side hotel at which the old lech is about the entrap his young prey… the huge deco space almost repels Ludivine as she longs for the salty freshness of her honest fisherman…

Then there’s the tunnel through which Ludivine must walk to reach the adult world of Lauderin’s show bar, the Eden, in which the men drink and where she finds Delphin making eyes at Thania (the aptly named Kissa Kouprine) and fighting with another man for her favour… It’s a passage to another world and one you need to navigate both ways. Again, L’Herbier’s design is around his emotional narrative and almost built form the characters outwards. Lauderin looms watching in the shadows behind Ludivine as she looks down on the unknown pleasures below.

Lauderin is a truly disturbing creation from Nox as he emerges to leer over the young woman. If the film is about her emergence from childhood, then he represents all of the darkness she must avoid… repeatedly using money – he offers her mock-beggars a twenty franc note on their first meeting – muscle and manipulation he’s a user and abuser. The wicked warlock to Delphin’s handsome prince: a shady character indeed.

After rebuffing Lauderin’s offer, Ludivine is then gobsmacked to see Thania’s delight at Delphin fighting for her… what a strange world it is and, indeed, continues to be…

The film's sets were designed by Lucien Aguettand, Claude Autant-Lara and Robert-Jules Garnier. The cinematography from Lucien Bellavoine, Louis Le Bertre and Jean Letort makes the most of the spaces, light and shade to create a complete world. Holistic L’Herbier.

This film is currently available on Vimeo and is a copy of the Archives Francaise du Film 2007 restoration with a zippy accompaniment from Pierre Mancinelli, Michel Peres and David Mancinelli, improvised and recorded in live conditions. It is to be hoped that it will get a proper digital release for the many Balfourettes who can't get enough of the lass from Chester-le-Street.

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