Le parfum de la dame en noir (1931)

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9 December 2017 | kekseksa
Charm unfaded and still some éclat
The reviewer with the French name certainly does leave out a few names - Proust, Baudelaire, Rimbaud etc etc but even when it comes to films, there is also Zola (L'Assommoir, Germinal) and Pagnol (not all the film versions by any means made by himself) and Paul Féval (Le Bossu) although it is true that the last-named is much better known inside France than anywhere else. There is of course also Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre (authors of Fantômas).

He is also quite wrong in supposing that the L'Herbier adaptations are the first. Both novels were adapted in 1913/1914 by Émile Chautard and Maurice Tourneur and, if anyone can find those two films, please let me know.

The commentator who talks of "silent film" style is evidently correct but should not on any account be considered a negative. As I have suggested elsewhere this "mixed style" was very deliberately used by European film-makers after the advent of sound as a means of trying to fight off the trivialisation that sound brought (you have only to look at the enormous quantity of complete dross turned out in the US in these years although there were evidently some good and even great films among them)and to try and maintain the visual values achieved by the end of the silent era. Some of the great masterpieces of cinema were made in this period and essentially in this style (by Clair, Renoir and Vigo among others) and not necessarily by film-makers who weer "left over" from the silent era (Vigo had never made a silent film ad Clair had made very little before the sound era).

These two films are, it has to be admitted, not among the masterpieces but they do have some very interesting features. Both make a very particular use of sound in a manner intended to be non-trivial (diagetic sounds absolutely abound and are made the focus of attention when they occur); another similarly deliberate use of sound are the spoken credits, used here before Guitry, before Welles (influenced by Guitry) and long, long before Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451). This use of "significant" sound (as opposed to dialogue, which is generally de-emphasised and non-diagetic "score" which is non-existent) is completely typical of the "mixed style".

The second of the two Rouletabille stories, although far less well known in book form than Le Mystère de la chambre jaune, works better as a film. This is equally the case with the most recent versions of the two (2003 and 2005) by Bruno Podalydès. The 1940s versions of the two I have not seen. These L'Herbier films survive in relatively poor prints and with relatively poor sound quality, not necessarily in case a genuine reflection of how they originally were and this is a great shame because the stories are confusing enough in themselves without such added difficulties.

The first film I prefer to the 2003 Podalydès for one very simple reason. It gives proper value to the wonderfully silly but very beautiful nonsense phrase for which the novel is famous - "Le presbytère...etc". Podalydès decides for reasons best known to himself to have the phrase spoken hastily every time it crops up(perhaps on the grounds that is so well known). This is an unforgivable error. One can never hear that phrase too often and too clearly!

I understand why anyone might prefer the Podalydès film of the sequel; it is marginally rather easier to follow. One is also treated to some bizarre submarine adventures and some sensuous fish-gutting (for those who have a taste for such things) but there remain two important respects in which it cannot compete with this version - the beautiful art deco designs by Pierre Schild (including the sinister valets in swastika-costumes) and the fine cinematography of Georges Périnal. Schild and Périnal,who had not worked on the earlier are the main reason why this sequel is better and well worth giving a second viewing to fully appreciate without having to try and decode the stupid plot. The Podalydès films are shot in a much blander. soft-focus "realistic" style (school of Claude Berri - the man who did his best to take the magic out of Pagnol).

These films are not the best of L'Herbier (they are more in the nature of a simple jeu d'esprit) but remain an important example of the "mixed style" that has yet to gain the appreciation that it deserves.

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