Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What I’m even more unclear on, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 60s. With the cutesy frivolity Galia, I got a glimpse of what it looked like when an old-guard French director attempted to appear as hip & With-It as his New Wave dissenters, a disguise few people bought. Stately, well-behaved French cinema before the New Wave’s arrival is more of a mystery to me. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. The first of four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII, Le Mariage de Chiffon has enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. It’s also a frivolous romcom, charmingly so.
Odette Joyeux, who would go on to appear in all four of Autant-Lara’s German Occupation comedies, plays half her age as the 16y.o. aristocratic brat Chiffon. While running wild in the darkness of nighttime Parisian streets, she innocently flirts with a noble military man who immediately takes a liking to her prankish charms. He also mischievously pockets her left shoe as a keepsake, hoping to stage a Cinderella-inspired investigation of who, exactly, stole his heart in the dark. The answer is ultimately unsatisfying, as Chiffon is obviously & obliviously in love with her own uncle (by marriage, but still), a disgraced innovator in the early discoveries of aviation who is widely understood to be a dandy & a kook. Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon. A total brat who squabbles with her uptight mother for sport, refuses to corset her body, and documents her teenage mischief in a journal she titles The Boring Diary, Chiffon is an adorable element of chaos that breaks down the rigid social rituals of high society elites. It’s the exact social anarchist function you’d want in any comedic lead, from Harpo Marx to Divine to Tom Green and beyond. The picture that contains her just happens to be more well-behaved than she is. The most Autant-Lara deviates from traditional comedy & romance beats is in a couple quieter moments of dramatic fallout, where the camera lingers on the downer imagery of a dilapidated house foolishly purchased as a love offering or aviation equipment being seized in a bankruptcy proceeding. It’s difficult to know if there’s any subversive intent behind these tangents, though, since most of the film is concerned with the follies of a deliberately frivolous girl who is in love with her own uncle (by marriage).
If there’s anything illuminating about how Le Mariage de Chiffon stacks up to its American contemporaries, it’s how more honest traditionalist filmmaking could be without Hays Code censorship breathing down its neck. The moral center & gender politics of the film seem to belong to a Conservative past, where it’s romantic that older men, even strangers, feel entitled to carry Chiffon around in public or lead her by the small of her back in private. The way she openly discusses adultery & sexual desire (specifically that she’s afraid to marry anyone because she knows she’ll be tempted to cheat) is far too honest for the heavily-censored American films of the period to echo. The soft-incest implied by her desire for her uncle (by marriage!!!) also feels morally risky for the time, especially in scenes where they “innocently” help each other undress, practically panting throughout the process. As traditionalist as the film can feel on a formal level, too, we always understand Chiffon’s troublemaking as the admirable alternative to high society stuffiness, especially when she’s being admonished in statements like “A woman is more womanly in a corset” and “Your behavior shames us all.” Chiffon may be a brat, but she’s our brat. When her elitist nemesis is perplexed by something as simple as a misplaced shoe, they shout with incensed incredulity, “It’s a prank to ruin me!” Chiffon, as aggressively frivolous as she can be, is portrayed to be the sensible one by comparison. I’m not sure that a bratty harbinger of chaos would have been allowed that moral upper-ground in a contemporary American film (without being pushed to change their ways). I do know for damn sure she would not have been allowed to be so honest about her sexual desires & the blatant hypocrisy of how adulterous impulses are reconciled in the social institution of marriage. That’s not something I’m used to seeing in 1940s comedies, stately or otherwise.
Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching Le Mariage de Chiffon if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the picture is Odette Joyeux’s endlessly lovable performance in the titular role, a mischievous character who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic picture that (barely) contains her. Le Mariage de Chiffon is a handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedy, even if it is nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most its wartime context benefits it is in affording the film an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit it as a cultural object, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.