28 October 2005 | dbdumonteil
Swing low,sweet chariot.
That was Duvivier's last work before WW2 ,and a remake of Victor Sjostrom's eponymous movie,adapted from Selma Lagerlof.I've not seen the silent movie so I will avoid any comparison..
Duvivier's precedent movie " la Fin du Jour" still compares favorably to "Sunset Blvd" when it comes to depicting the aging thespians's tragedy.Duvivier is the French prince of the film noir,but I guess he could not provide the terrified 1939 audience with another of his despairing movies.
"La charrette fantôme" is looked upon as a failure by most of the French critics as the follow-up ("Untel Père et Fils") is but it should not be dismissed so quickly.Its conclusion might seem ponderous ,full of finer feelings ,a bit Capraesque.But the overall atmosphere is black:"it's not the infected beds they should burn,it's the whole humanity!" a character says in the house for homeless the Salvation Army has built.Pure Duvivier line.Most of the movie takes place in the dregs of society where a sister (Micheline Francey) suffering from TB is desperately trying to save an alcoholic tramp (Pierre Fresnay) and to bring him back to his wife and kids.He had a friend ,one of the last lonely and wretched like him ,(Louis Jouvet)who died the last day of the precedent year and became the coachmann of the "Ghost Wagon" (hence the title).And the sister fears he might be the next coachman as he might die at the end of this year.
The realistic story and the supernatural one do not hang well,and the line ("get out of your prison") the coachman repeats to the dead is a bit ludicrous (but we have seen worse by today's standards).The special effects are not that much bad for 1939 and were probably inspired by previous experiments by Abel Gance ("J'accuse" ).
Despite these reservations,Duvivier's directing remains impressive.There are great scenes in this uneven effort: a burning with fever Jouvet crawling on the snow-covered roof of the hospital;the old lady too tired to carry on her earthly ride;the luminous beaming face of Micheline Francey Duvivier lovingly filmed;Fresnay in a bout of delirium tremens trying to force his way in his house ;his wife thinking of poisoning her children before herself.
Duvivier was probably a believer:after all,he directed a life of Saint Therese de Lisieux well before Alain Cavalier,and even though most of his brilliant filmography depicts a terrifying humanity when he reportedly lost his faith,he probably never lost his faith in a superior strength.And on account of the impending mortal storm (to quote Frank Borzage) that was to fall on the human race at the time,who could blame him?