As we’ve been working our way through Claude Autant-Lara’s set of romantic dramas produced during WWII in German-occupied France, the films have been understandably light in tone & effect. Autant-Lara seemed to be intentionally staging escapist fantasies during this era, providing an entertainment release valve for people who could use relief from the grim world outside. Although they’re both handsomely crafted, The Marriage of Chiffon is at heart a whimsical romcom about a teenage prankster and Lettres d’Amour functions as a political farce that climaxes with a You Got Served-style dance battle. Odette Joyeux is an adorable joy to watch in both instances, playing half her age as a merry teenager who disrupts social order in her anarchic pursuance of young romance. That’s why the third film in the series, Douce, is such a punch in the gut. There are certainly touches of escapist romance & mood-lightening comedy present in the film, but overall it operates more as a tragic, grim drama that deploys Joyeux’s apparent youthful innocence for a much more devastating effect.
Joyeux stars as a wealthy Parisian brat in Belle Époque France who risks the lives of her home’s working-class employees out of teenage boredom & romantic longing. Her governess is torn between the romantic intentions of her father & the man who works the stables, as Joyeux looks on in jealousy. The governess is at risk with either beau she chooses to entertain. The stable worker has a secretive extramarital past with her that precedes their employment in the house, which he threatens to expose at her refusal of his affections. The father, in turn, is asking her to marry outside her class at a time when those divisions were aggressively policed, both socially & legally. The real danger, however, is presented by Joyeux as the titular Douce, whose secret crush on the stableman & protective touchiness over her widower father puts the governess at great risk of losing her job & home, despite being pursued by these men through no fault of her own. Douce’s girlish romantic fantasies & petty jealousies turn an already precarious situation into an inevitable tragedy. She’s still as adorably youthful as always, but here in a context where that naivety is deadly dangerous.
That’s not to say there’s no escapist entertainment to be found in Douce. The film is set during the sentimentality-prone season of Christmastime, even opening with a snow-covered miniature of Paris to set the mood (including a mid-construction model of the Eiffel Tower in the foreground), as if the entire drama unfolds in a snow globe. There’s also consistent comedy to be found with Douce’s eternally grumpy grandmother, who polices the house’s class divisions with the incredulous self-bemusement of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. For the most part, however, the film’s love triangle conflict is played for emotional devastation rather than socially anarchic laughs or romantic fantasy. That more dramatic intent is best evidenced by the film’s conclusion at a ballet performance that erupts into lethal, fiery chaos in a massive set piece counterbalance to the opening’s miniature. It’s a far cry from the hilarity of Lettres d’Amour’s climactic dance battle, one that is made all the more devastating when considered in contrast with the lighter fare Autant-Lara had established a pattern of delivering in the era. When considered as a part of a set, it’s a total tonal sucker punch.
Of course, comedy & romance aren’t the only modes of escapist entertainment; they’re just the most easily effective. Whenever I’m in a grim mood myself, I tend to seek out art that reflects & deepens that emotional state, so I can see how some audiences at the time could find escapist pleasure in sinking into someone else’s tragedy for the length of a film to distract from the grim realities of German wartime occupation outside the theater. The widower father suffers from an amputated leg as a result of a past war’s wound, but most of the film dwells in the sentimentality of Christmas and the high emotional stakes of unrequited love in a way that feels entirely divorced from the concerns of war. If all the films in this set are meant to be understood as escapist entertainment, Douce is one meant to satisfy the most morbid of Parisians, ones who’d prefer a weepie over a farce. It’s just as handsomely staged & playful as Autant-Lara’s other German-occupation romances, but its overall effect is exceptionally grim for that context.