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

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

Overlord (2018)

There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still fees damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it cares about historical accuracy. Overlord opens as an immersive WWII battle demo; it operates like a dirt-cheap Dunkirk in its earliest stretch, where a group of American soldiers are deployed in France to take out a contingent of “rotten son of a bitch” Nazis occupying a local church. That introduction is just a coverup for an entirely different kind of well-budgeted schlock, however: a Nazi zombie movie with a distinct video game sensibility. Neither the WWII thriller nor the Nazi zombie action-horror descriptors fully capture how distinctly fun & cathartic Overlord can be as a middle finger to modern Nazi grotesqueries, which is always a good sign for a genre film repeating narrative patters we’ve already seen many times before. We may be living in a word where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

Two of the earliest introduced POV characters in Overlord are black & Jewish American soldiers preparing to parachute into German-occupied France, even more terrified of Nazis that their fellow troop members because of their ethnographic identities. They later join forces with a local French woman who has suffered Nazi tyranny in prolonged, horrific ways and skeptically aids the Americans’ mission to destroy a Nazi communication tower in her small town’s church. The demographics of those POV characters help distinguish Overlord from the doldrums of a generic war picture just as much as the supernatural phenomena they find in that church. Likewise, the church-lab’s experiments to reanimate corpses to create a “thousand-year army” for Hitler that they uncover is far from the Nazi zombie tedium of the Dead Snow series. This is partly because they’re not the typical Romero-style zombies who stumble around craving “braiiiiins,” but are instead styled after the Re-Animator tradition of botched science experiments that play loosely with the boundaries of undead lore. Neither side of this war/zombie divide should play fresh in a modern genre picture, especially one so simply structured like a video game – where each challenge feels like a level to be defeated on the way to the Final Boss (a Nazi monster so jacked on Evil-Science serum that he resembles the version of Bane from Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). Overlord pulls it off spectacularly, though, if not only in its prioritizing of modern anti-Nazi sensibilities over all logic & responsibility to history.

It’s arguable that there’s no need to reinterpret Nazi history though genre film sensibilities, since sci-fi & horror require an exaggeration of something so inherently evil that a metaphor would only cheapen it. That might be why Overlord was so cautions about anchoring the war half of its narrative to real-life atrocities – including systemic genocide, “scientific” torture, and widespread sexual assault – before moving on to the paranormal grotesqueries of its zombie half. Its horror film impulses are often kept at bay, then, but when they are allowed to flood the screen they arrive full-force. This isn’t exactly a gore fest, but it is often incredibly gross – mixing CGI & practical effects to make sure Nazis look as vile & monstrous as possible through a B-movie lens. Once-human figures dangle in fleshy sacks from the church-lab’s ceiling, filtering jars of red & black goo through their barely functioning organs while breathing heavily in pain. Severed heads gasp for air and ask for immediate relief from their mortal coil. Flesh melts; faces cave in; bullet wounds gush untold gallons of hot, sticky blood. Real-life Nazis are gross & worthy enough of destruction without the help of schlocky exaggeration, but just in case you’re not fully convinced (as seems to be the case with young Alt-Right recruits online) Overlord takes giddy pleasure in spelling it out for you.

There may be a secondary theme in Overlord about knowing when not to follow orders if it prevents you from doing what’s right (as the mission of destroying the communication tower is meant to take priority over destroying the zombie-filled church lab) but there’s nothing about that message than can trump the simple pleasure of watching gross, “rotten son of a bitch” Nazis get blowed up real good by the people they hurt the most. Overlord is not the year’s most thoughtful or nuanced genre film take on real-world evil racist institutions that have recently made an alarming comeback (that would be BlacKkKlansman). However, it does easily achieve the Herculean task of making zombies interesting again in a post-Walking Dead cultural climate by relying on a simple truth: Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed. In 2018, there’s immensely satisfying entertainment value to be found in watching that destruction, especially in an over-the-top action horror context.

-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

Mudbound (2017)

Dee Rees’s latest feature is a perfect example of why we should mourn the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film for adults. Made for just $10 million and barely turning a profit in its sale to Netflix, Mudbound tries its best to convey an Old Hollywood epic on an “online content” scale & budget and does an admirable job of it. If it were made a few decades ago it might have had the mid-range budget needed to fully capture the literary adaptation scope of its look at race relations in the post-WWII American South (it also would almost certainly have been directed by a white man instead of a black woman, so I guess not everything is changing for the worse). Instead, Rees has to be careful about where she spends money to hit with full force even if the grand scale spectacle can’t deliver what’s promised. Mudbound is the story of two families divided by racial barriers in 1940s Mississippi, but it’s also the story of a talented director not getting the full resources needed to properly do their job in the 2010s.

Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) & Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) star as two Southern men on opposite ends of the racial divide who struggle to readjust to American life after fighting in World War II. Both soldiers suffer PTSD from the war & flirt with alcoholism to cope, but only one has to deal with what it feels like to be a second class citizen after their brief period as a war heroes, thanks to the violent racial bias of 1940s Mississippi. Their respective stories are told in the larger context of two families, one white & one black, who share the same failing farmland (with matriarchs played by Carey Mulligan & Mary J. Blige). Mudbound explores the way post-slavery servitude continued in the Jim Crow South, the tyranny of racial privilege, the weight of war atrocities on the human psyche, the routine disappointments of an old-fashioned loveless marriage, and all kinds of other issues more befitting of a novel or a movie twice its length & budget. At the foundation of this mountain of historical dramas, though, is the horrific connection made between the two ex-soldiers who shared a common traumatic past but lived in two entirely different worlds because of their race. It’s a connection that can only end in misery, a tragic inevitability the film does not shy away from when it counts most.

Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact. Both families at the heart of this story are physically & metaphorically weighed down by the oppressive terrain of 1940s Mississippi farmland. Their lives are literally sinking into the endless mud that surrounds them, inextricably molded by the violence & history of their surroundings. This becomes especially powerful in intimate moments where a flash flood nearly drowns a white man digging up an anonymous slave’s grave or where the sounds of a black man getting kicked in the ribs overpower the soundtrack with the whaps of a baseball bat driving into a punching bag. When the impact of its imagery actually matches the scope of its budget, the movie is an undeniable powerhouse.

Mudbound should have been a $30-50 million adult drama with wide theatrical distribution and a genuine Oscars push. Instead, it’s a third of its appropriate production scale and heading straight to Netflix, where it’s in danger of being promptly forgotten. Considering the resources Dee Rees was afforded to tell this historically & culturally expansive story, she did an impressive job in delivering powerful details in the small, aggressively uncomfortable moments that make the movie work better than it should. She should have never been put into that position, though, and the movie would have been so better if she were afforded the freedom of full, appropriate funding.

-Brandon Ledet