Thursday, 27 September 2018

Are we being served? Au Bonheur des Dames (1930), Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Every so often you just get blown away and tonight, even after so much recent film, Julien Duvivier’s final silent film coupled with Stephen Horne’s multi-tasked and richly varied accompaniment, duly removed our socks and deposited them somewhere near the Oval.

Au Bonheur des Dames looks and feels like total silent film incorporating so many techniques of mature silent film – German camera mobility, Russian montage, Hollywood crowds and French tracking shots - all making the most of an excellent cast. The film was selected as one of Kevin Brownlow’s Top Ten in his recent audience at the Cinema Museum and here it was for us to see just why, even Kevin – especially Kevin – was impressed.

Émile Zola’s novel was published in 1883 and here it is updated to the 1920s and based at the Galleries Lafayette which was being expanded at the time before the global crash put paid to the grand designs (the façade of the Samaritaine is also used). The building is still there today, and still spectacular, a cathedral of commerce designed to offer a larger-than-life retailing experience for the aspirational elite.

A matt-painted outer shell adding to the impact plus Samaritaine which is still down the road.
Zola was naturally concerned with this growth in big business and the impact it would have on traditional family retailers and all of this was well before Walmart and Tesco… I’ve not read the book, so I can only comment on the film’s sentiments: this is done in the name of progress and unexpectedly progress is seen to win out. Then again perhaps no one expected Madame Raquin to be slowly poisoned or the lead character of L'Assommoir to waste away under the stairs… Zola wasn’t called a “realist” for nothing and a happy ending is often deceptive (as here, but hush my mouth!).

Dita Parlo (later to feature in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Jean Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion) plays Denise an orphan who heads to Paris to stay with her Uncle Baudu (Armand Bour, who hangs heavy with the sense of his chracter's defeat) only to find him on his uppers as his tailoring concern is overshadowed, lierally and figuratively by the massive store, Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) over the road.

Talk of the town
Denise arrival is full of the director’s technique as she is shown pushing through milling crowds with advertising for the store literally everywhere and getting more and more prominent, even to the point of a row of people in sandwich boards spelling out the name of this “Temple of Temptation”. You can’t avoid the oncoming story and rapid cutting and montage are used to propel Denise towards her narrative destination.

He cousin Genevieve is played by the spellbinding Nadia Sibirskaya who look slight and wan next to the hale and hearty Parlo, electric blue eyes already indicating a sadness, specifically in her partner Colomban (Fabien Haziza) – is this a world where only the strongest will survive?

Armand Bour wearing a face he keeps in a jar by the door
Denise decides that if you can’t beat them you might as well work for them and starts life amongst the mannequins who are often mistreated by Chief of Staff Sébastien Jouve (Fernand Mailly) as well as alpha female Clara (Ginette Maddie) who only has to wink at Jouve to make him do her bidding.

Clara engineers a fight that almost see Denise out on her ear, but she’s caught the eye of the store owner Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand) – a character with form in previous episodes of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and here a kind of softer-hearted womanising, capitalist.

Dita Parlo and Andrée Brabant
Mouret’s lady friend Ms. Desforges is played by the stunning Germaine Rouer who I first saw in La Terre as a peasant heroine. Here she’s rather different as an aggressive defender of her hard-won position with Mouret but she can’t stop him falling for the new girl and it’s genuine too… Denise is no easy conquest.

But, as the romance develops matters get worse for Uncle Baudu as Mouret, refinanced by Baron Hardup sorry Baron Hartmann (Adolphe Candé) makes his move to expend the shop over and through the little shop across the way: he’s goaded into more competitive action by his backers and the board.

Dita Parlo and Pierre de Guingand
Naturally this drives a wedge between Mouret and Denise whilst matters turn tragic as Colomban leaves Genevieve for flighty Mary sending her into a steep decline; Sibirskaya sometimes looks so faint she might fade away.

“The future is being built on ruins…”

This is a world in which social justice is not guaranteed and the film takes a slightly ambivalent if not fully-blown ironic, view of progress. It should be required viewing for Western governments.

Throwing himself into this maelstrom of commerce and cruelty was Stephen Horne armed only with a piano, an accordion, a flute and sundry other devices out of which he crafted a stunningly cohesive improvisation that had the audience clapping their hands raw at the end. The Bioscope audience is as coolly appreciative as Ronnie Scott’s for jazz or The Globe’s for Shakespeare… it’s only silent film but we like it. A lot.

Ginette Maddie
Nadia Sibirskaya betrayed by the attractions over the road...
Germaine Rouer and untrustworthy husband played by Pierre de Guingand

On tonight’s undercard were some fascinating shorts all graced by Lillian Henley’s crafted accompaniment.

There was a trailer for Saving Brinton (2017) which is screening on 25th October at the Cinema Museum and looks unmissable in the manner of Dawson City albeit with a more conventional narrative. This was followed by the last reel of a film missed off from the Bioscope’s Train Day, called Juggernaut (1915) and directed by Ralph Ince. It depicts the build up to a rail crash and they only went and made one! It’s a spectacular which apparently cost $25,000 and comes complete with a desperate struggle to rescue survivors.

Then we had a Bobby Bumps episode, Fresh Fish (1922) which combined cartoon animation with superbly timed live action including “punk scenery” and an evil cat (is there any other kind?).

Au Bonheur des Dames was restored by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films and released on ARTE DVD in 2008, it's now hard-to-find and could do with a Blu-ray.

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