29 April 2006 | dbdumonteil
Everybody's celebrating!And Duvivier's triumphing one more time!
What can I say of "La Fête à Henriette"?It's stating the obvious to say that Julien Duvivier was one of the most inventive directors of the French cinema.He almost never looked back,pushing his experiments forward for most of the films he made.
"La Fete à Henriette" did not come out of the blue:it's the son of "Sous le Ciel de Paris" one of his most extraordinary achievements.I will try and explain the connection:the 1951 work was made of little stories ,subplots -"Magnolia" was not that much an innovation for that matter- and Duvivier already displayed a compassion for his characters ,he was some kind of puppet master ,a God in miniature who was fascinated by the whims of fate.
"La fete à Henriette" is at first a more demanding -less entertaining maybe -,more free-form ,but when you've watched it ,all you have got to do is stand and applaud.There are many more ideas and innovations than in ,say,Truffaut's "day for night" ("la Nuit Américaine").
Two scenarists see their last screenplay banned by the censorship .That 's why the movie begins with ???? and ???? and ????? in lieu of cast and credits.They've got a whole screenplay to write,and according to the mood they are in,"La Fete à Henriette" will be in turn romantic,dramatic,zany , satirical,you name it.Henri Jeanson lets his inspiration flow and his lines,his ferocious lines never lose their bite ( A VIP from the French government is about to die and the journalists around the mansion are exchanging nice lines such as: "the ideas he has! dying on the 14th of July! or "Hope he 'll kick the bucket before aperitif time!")
It is Henriette 's fete ,the 14th of July ,French Bastille Day!A gorgeous girl ,played by the young romantic female lead of the era ,Dany Robin (most of the users saw her in Hitchcock's "Topaz"),has a fiancé , a photograph who has a -professional,that's what he says that is- rendezvous with a glamorous horsewoman (Hildegarde Kneff).Henriette is cross and she starts to flirt with the first to come .That character whose name is subject to several changes is played by highly talented Michel Auclair.The narration is not linear ,since Auclair's character is now a crazy person fresh from the asylum (and Jeanson gives one of his best anti-militarist lines ever- Auclair to a general:"you see me and you do not stand to attention!),now a b..... who tries to rape the heroine,now a hoodlum with a big heart,now a wealthy family's son....The whims of fate! Duvivier himself reveals as he never did in this work:although it's meant to be a "happy" tale,his legendary pessimism resurfaces now and then.
Duvivier's style is constantly superb and the camera work is dazzling.When the story (ies) become(s) too far-fetched ,the scenes are filmed obliquely.The plot often stops since the two writers do not agree and they have endless discussions about what will happen next.They even quote their colleagues: one of them mentions the script (a news item in the paper he's reading ) of "ladri di biciclette " ("That would not make a good film!") ;later they will parody Marcel Carné as they introduce for a short while a blind man who epitomizes ...fate of course (remember "les Portes de la Nuit").Even the last scene of the fireworks verges on a spoof on romantic drama.You can go as far as to write that Duvivier appropriates René Clair' s "Quatorze Juillet" ,but he effortlessly beats his predecessor at his own game.
Expect the unexpected and till the last pictures! The unexpected final twist is witty and as the cast and credits finally appear after the final "revelation" ,we feel how much "Henriette" was ahead of its time,not only because it was remade by Richard Quine in the sixties ( the so-so " Paris when it sizzles) but because many of its strokes of inspiration we found them back in such later works as Michel Drach's "Les Violonsdu Bal" (the subject has nothing to do with "Henriette" but it imitates the ending)or Peter Weir's "Truman Show".
Did we need the Nouvelle Vague so bad when we had a great director like Duvivier?A writer like Jeanson? WE DIDN'T!!!!