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’s even more unclear to Americans, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 1960s. 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.
The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series box set Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. Its four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII have 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. They’re also, for the most part, frivolous romcoms, charmingly so.
Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he was 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 the films in this set if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the pictures is actor Odette Joyeux, who is endlessly lovable as the lead performer in each film, a mischievous persona who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic pictures that (barely) contain her.
Autant-Lara’s escapist romances are (with one major exception) handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedies, even if they are nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most this set’s wartime context benefits it is in affording the films an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit them as cultural objects, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.
For individual reviews of each film, follow the links below or check out our podcast discussion of the entire box set.
Le Mariage de Chiffon (1942) – “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.”
Lettres d’Amour (1942) – “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.”
Douce (1943) – “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.”
Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946) – “Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Jacques Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of ‘le Fantôme.’ As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.”
-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman