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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Michel Deville, Nina Companéez, and À cause, à cause d'une femme

I'm thinking again about French director Michel Deville: why he remains so underrated after 50 years of filmmaking, why his films are so difficult to see. The occasion for these musings is my first viewing of Deville's wonderful 1963 À cause, à cause d'une femme, which as far as I know has no critical reputation and is not available in any medium. (A friend taped it for me off Cyprus TV, without subtitles.)

Deville has made about 30 films, 15 of which I've managed to see over the years. After a little-known, co-directed 1958 debut called Une balle dans le canon, he formed a close collaboration with writer/editor Nina Companéez, with whom he made a dozen or so films between 1961 and 1971. Both the writing and the editing of these films is so distinctive that it is reasonable to wonder how much of their magic Companéez took with her when the collaboration ended. She went on to direct a few features, one of which, 1972's Faustine et le bel été, has admirers. After that she worked mostly in French TV; other than a co-writing credit on Rappeneau's 1995 Le Hussard sur le toit, I don't believe she's had much recent international exposure.

At times it seemed that Deville may have lost artistic focus in his post-Companéez period. But his filmography doesn't support a theory of simple decline. Not only has he made a number of extraordinary post-Companéez films (especially 1988's brilliant La Lectrice), but the writing and editing of the later films often partake of the same sensibility that we find in the Companéez collaborations. Not enough of Deville's and Companéez's careers are available in the United States for me to make clear distinctions between their artistic personalities. It's especially regrettable that international distribution of Deville's work has fallen off since 1990.

Not that Deville's early films made too big a splash abroad. Benjamin (1968) seems to have traveled the most, but it is never revived. The first two Deville-Companéez films, Ce soir ou jamais (1961) and Adorable menteuse (1962), garnered a few admirers in English-speaking countries: the latter, especially, is a brilliant example of the kind of subject matter and tone that the filmmakers cultivated over the years.

À cause, à cause d'une femme, which immediately followed these first two efforts, is even more obscure, and yet no less dazzling. Its story is the airiest entertainment imaginable: a carefree Don Juan (Jacques Charrier) is falsely accused of murder by a jealous lover (Juliette Mayniel), and tries to clear his name, with the help of a few loyal girlfriends, while on the run from the police.

This kind of lightweight material is common for Deville-Companéez. They skip and jump through the story with deft transitions that create a reflexive, playful distance. One of their favorite devices is the whip-pan that picks up the action of the next scene; in general, any cue that moves the story forward results in a graceful ellipsis that favors momentum over scene establishment. There's a very funny moment where one of the hero's girlfriend/helpers (Mylène Demongeot) tells a tall tale to a hotel clerk to gain entry: Deville holds the shot on the girl as she gives her long, daffy spiel, then cuts abruptly to the clerk as he yields the room number, giving him barely enough time to register on our retinas before ending the scene. Throughout his career, Deville plays with this sort of comically ragged editing, which draws attention to the artifice of the storytelling even as it returns control immediately to the narrative.

(This entry really needs visual aids, but I don't have a digital copy of the movie. If anyone does, and gets it to me, I'll edit clips in.)

Deville and Companéez are interested, not in the mechanics of their commonplace plots, but in an affectionate and profuse evocation of the feminine principle, and in giving a deadly serious account of romantic love. To promote these interests, the network of lovers who both persecute and sustain the hero do most of the work of moving the story forward, in an endless Parisian warren of white, mirrored bedrooms and parlors that seem to interconnect. (A classic Deville-Companéez touch: Demongeot tries repeatedly to shake a cop on her tail. Giving up, she stops at an outdoor stall to try on a few hats. The cop is confused by the fashion moment, and Demongeot is surprised to find herself in the clear.) And the female-supported hero finds himself on a mission far more important than escaping his murder frameup when he falls hopelessly, solemnly in love with the one woman (Jill Haworth) who does not return his affection.

To give full play to their concerns while remaining faithful to their narrative task, Deville and Companéez direct us to the important stuff largely through cinematic form. One of Deville's pet formal ploys is to move dramatically in for sets of cross-cut closeups that focus us on emotions that do not pertain directly to the story. Like the abrupt cutting during transitions, the change from long shot to closeup is so much larger than expected that it becomes a form of direct address, tipping us off to the filmmakers' concerns.

Even more strikingly, Deville and Companéez overload their transitions with poetry. It's not a big exaggeration to say that they do most of their important work during transitions: the practical apparatus of getting from one scene to another is hijacked by the filmmakers and transformed into moments of great lyrical or symbolic power. When one girlfriend (Marie Laforêt) creates a distraction to allow the hero to pass to the room of another (Demongeot), Deville-Companéez make the scene transition on a beautiful, unexpected motion cut that fuses the images of the two girlfriends whirling to face us. Later in the film, the hero and his hopelessly unavailable love object have been drenched in a storm; the filmmakers transition on two sensuous, rhyming shots of them each drying their hair in their own bathrooms.

All Deville and Companéez's films use allusions to classical art as a springboard to greater emotional intensity. From the pre-credit sequence, in which the hero and his vengeful lover move through a pastoral setting; through the farce conventions of hotel rooms exchanged and traversed; to the climax of the love story, set in a room improbably adorned with a loom, medieval-style tapestries, and a standing candlestick: the filmmakers deploy imagery and music to recast the mundane present-day story in mythological terms. The film's most beautiful moments have the aura of fable: a rapturous flashback that the filmmakers refuse to end after it serves its narrative purpose; a fireside shot in which the hero's beloved is gathered by her lover as the hero kneels in the foreground, ignored as if he were invisible.

Sorry to go on about a movie that you probably can't see. In hopes of sparking your interest, here's a complete list of the Deville-Companéez collaborations: as far as I know, not a single one is available on DVD with English subtitles. (Beware the dubbed black-and-white DVD of L'Ours et la poupée that Fox Lorber tried to palm off as The Bear and the Doll. Benjamin also circulates in a dubbed DVD - the one I bought from Super Happy Fun is of unwatchably low quality.) The four that I've seen are all better than good.
  • Ce soir ou jamais (1961)
  • Adorable menteuse (1962)
  • À cause, à cause d'une femme (1963)
  • Lucky Jo (1964)
  • L'Appartement des filles (1964)
  • Les Petites demoiselles (1964) - made for TV
  • On a volé la Joconde (1966)
  • Martin Soldat (1966)
  • Zärtliche Haie (1967) - made in West Germany
  • Bye bye, Barbara (1968)
  • Benjamin (1968)
  • L'Ours et la poupée (1969)
  • Raphaël ou le débauché (1971)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan, I've only seen one Deville and that was Le Voyage en douce (1980), which starred Dominique Sanda and Geraldine Chaplin. I thought it was quite engaging and I'm definitely intrigued to see more. Thanks for this post.


March 9, 2008 10:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dan, I've seen no Deville, but I put 2 of them (Love at the Top, Woman in Blue) on my Netflix queue after reading this a_film_by post you did on Deville last year. I also noticed a recent Deville at Netflix: Un Monde Presque Paisible (2004). Might you recommend it?

After you mentioned La Lectrice here, I went looking for it at Amazon. It's not on DVD but lots of VHS copies can be had (I'm not kidding) for a penny plus postage.

March 10, 2008 8:36 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Girish, Jaime - let's hope we all get to explore Deville's career further. Somehow Deville impresses many English-language critics as a frilly, unsubstantial filmmaker. Sarris gave Benjamin a very good review back in 1968, and wrote: "...confirms Deville's early promise (Ce Soir ou Jamais and La Menteuse) as the French Lubitsch. And if Deville should happen to be underrated by Americans, well, so was Lubitsch. Directors who make difficult things look easy are seldom appreciated adequately." At that point I sat back and waited for history to upgrade Deville. But it hasn't happened yet.

David Thomson wrote about Deville in A Biographical Dictionary of Film - he didn't care much for Benjamin, but loved Ce soir and Adorable Menteuse. Thomson was reminded of the Renoir of La Règle du jeu instead of Lubitsch. I always think of Ophüls first, myself - there's such a great sadness in Deville's films about love.

I like Un monde presque paisible pretty well, but I wouldn't judge Deville by it: it's so modest in its artistic ambitions that it seems a little pale. The two you Netflixed, Girish, ought to show you some of his chops, though. La Lectrice is the late Deville that is closest in mood and style to the Companéez collaborations.

March 10, 2008 10:06 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Trying to find a copy of "Zärtliche Haie" - anyone have any ideas?

April 24, 2008 5:10 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I wish I did. That film doesn't come up often when Deville's work is discussed - I've never heard of a screening.

April 24, 2008 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just so you know, Companeez's TV films are real gems. A french anonymous lover of Deville's and Companeez's work !

February 12, 2009 5:21 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I had a chance to see Faustine long ago, before I knew about Deville/Companéez, and I've been reproaching myself ever since. Have you seen her theatrical features?

February 12, 2009 8:02 AM  
Blogger estienne64 said...

I'm obviously coming to this party rather late, but I couldn't leave it without expressing my delight - and surprise - that there are other Deville fans out there. I've seen more than half of Deville's 30-plus films (and it wasn't easy tracking them down), and have been consistently impressed by the visual and (where I have been able to understand it) verbal elegance of his work. I've even considered putting together a spec piece on Deville's "lightness" (a pejorative term here in the UK, but less so in France) for our august film journal Sight and Sound, though my French isn't really up to scratch and I doubt they'd be interested - I don't recall if he rated even a mention in their recent feature on the Nouvelle Vague. However, I gather the films are becoming available in France via a series of "Coffrets Deville" (see the French Amazon site, for instance): so far there are four boxed sets containing five or six films each...

April 18, 2009 5:21 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

estienne64 - never too late to join the Deville party. It's really too bad for us that those French coffrets don't have English subs - maybe one day I'll go for them anyway.

Have you seen much of Deville's recent work? In the last twenty years, all I've seen are Toutes peines confondues and Un monde presque paisible, both of which I liked but didn't think were as intensely creative as the best Deville.

April 18, 2009 10:10 PM  

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