The library where I work recently acquired Criterion’s “Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France” boxset and we’ve been making good use of those DVDs in my household. Three of the four films in the set were made and released during the German occupation of France during WWII. The last film, Sylvie et le fantôme, came out the year after armistice that ended the war. Brandon covered the first film in the boxset, Le Marriage de Chiffon, back in June, so if you’d like a little more background on the filmmaker or the context these four films were made in, go check out his review!
The second film in the boxset, Lettres d’Amour, opens with a scene of conflict between the petty bureaucrats of Napoleon III’s empire and Zélie Fontaine, a widowed, small-town postmistress and stagecoach owner. The bureaucrats argue that Fontaine does not respect their authority and, as a woman, is not fit to hold such an important public office on her own. Her rebuttal: a Bronx cheer to them and to all who make up “la Société,” the over-privileged elites who are engaged in a class war with “la Boutique,” the simple shop class trying to better themselves through hard work. It is interesting that this film was released uncensored during the Nazi occupation of France, considering its rebellious tone of lauding the common folk versus the government.
La Société’s case against Fontaine is hinged on a scandalous love letter ostensibly addressed to her from a mysterious beau who uses the pen-name “hedgehog.” Little do they realize the letters are intended for her best friend, wife of the local prefect and chief plaintiff in the case against Zélie. In a classic romance twist, once the “hedgehog” meets Zélie, he realizes that she is a far more likeable person and an all-around better romantic partner. Eventually, the town squares off with Zélie and her hedgehog on one side versus her former best friend and the rest of “la Société” on the other. But what form does the climactic clash take? Very polite dancing.
As Zélie says to her motley crew of commoners before they crash the quadrille of the wealthy, “This evening we do battle.” Dance battle, that is. A dance battle where everyone is wearing couture gowns designed by Dior and the only thing that gets hurt are some feelings (not a single toe gets stepped on!). This feminine, frothy set piece is pure, exquisite escapism – a perfect antidote to the grim lives of the French citizens who saw the film in its original run.
As with many other films that purposely appealed to women in this era, Lettres d’Amour failed to garner critical support (too sentimental, too trivial) during its initial release. While it certainly deserves reappraisal, its revival is somewhat tainted by the director’s late-in-life remarks that denied the Holocaust. How strange that a film that felt so progressive was made by a man who spouted vile epithets years later. At the end of the day, though, I still really loved this picture. Odette Joyeux, who stars in all four of the films in this box set, is a joy to watch as the stubborn leader of a minor rebellion. Her comedic timing is perfection and the jokes are surprisingly fresh despite being 60+ years old. The costuming is exquisite, and the setting is picturesque. I’m hoping the second half of this set will be as delightful as the first!