Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France

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

Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946)

The final film in the Claude Autant-Laura box set Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (for our other reviews look here), Sylvie et le Fantome is the most famous of the four due to its clever visual effects and a starring role for future beloved director Jacques Tati. Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of “le Fantome.” 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.

Sylvie et le Fantome is a lovely romantic fantasy involving a lovelorn girl on her birthday and an assortment of ghosts, both real and hired. Sylvie (played by Odette Joyeux, who stars in every entry in this series) is a spiritual predecessor of Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, a dreamy girl who has convinced herself she in love with the ghost of her grandmother’s long-deceased lover, Alain de Francigny, who died in a duel for her honor. Although Sylvie’s once-wealthy family lives in a large castle, they are reduced to selling off their antiques to an art dealer. In both an effort to raise money and wean Sylvie from her impossible infatuation, her father schemes to sell of an heirloom painting of Alain from under Sylvie’s nose using the house’s secret tunnels. During an encounter in the tunnels, the son of the art dealer develops a crush on Sylvie and unintentionally rattles Alain from his long-slumber. Now freed, Alain, played by Tati using some very clever visual effects, notices and appreciates Sylvie’s affection. He gently teases her and her relatives with simple ghost tricks—blowing out their matches, preventing Sylvie from blowing out her birthday candles, etc. At the same time that Alain and the art dealer’s son, Frederick, are sneaking around the castle, a reform-school dropout turned petty thief has also managed to break in, but becomes trapped when the police begin combing the countryside for him.

Sylvie’s father gets the idea to hire an actor to play Alain de Francingy at Sylvie’s birthday as a fun midnight surprise during an adorable scene where his butler reads him bedtime ghost stories. When Frederick and the thief, Ramure (aka Branch, “It’s my winter name”), get caught by Sylvie’s father he simply thinks they were sent by the actor’s agency. By the time Sylvie’s birthday starts, we’re up to three fake ghosts and one real ghost all playing overlapping tricks and having separate encounters with Sylvie. Romance and ghostly hijinks ensue as Sylvie becomes confused about which version of Alain’s ghost she’s truly in love with, while all four “phantoms” (including the real one) compete for her affection.

Sylvie et le Fantome does not offer the frothy costuming of Le Mariage de Chiffon and Lettres d’Amour, nor the emotional depth of Douce, but it is still a playful delight. Despite the sophisticated effects and the overwrought comedy of errors plot, this film seems like the only one of the four that could work as a play. It has the same nimble wordplay as the other three, but a greater number of intimate moments between characters that would translate well to the stage. Overall, this was the least political, but most poetic of the series. Perhaps it was the cachet of Jaques Tati, but it was probably the utter-adorability of Puppy Ghost that cemented this film as my favorite in the box set.

-CC Chapman

Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast: Romantic Escapes from Occupied France & Trouble Every Day (2001)

Welcome to Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-second episode, Brandon and CC close out the year with a discussion of fancy-schmancy French cinema. They discuss four escapist romances directed by Claude Autant-Lara during Germany’s WWII occupation of France. Also, CC makes Brandon watch Claire Denis’s New French Extremity horror Trouble Every Day (2001). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Douce (1943)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Lettres d’Amour (1942)

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!

-CC Chapman

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1943)

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.

-Brandon Ledet