Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
The Soft Skin (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Francois Truffaut’s cool, creamy smooth melodrama of a doomed affair, channels the director’s love of Hitchcock into a film that you wouldn’t otherwise associate with the work of the master of suspense. It’s not a thriller in any generic sense of the term, but Truffaut sets the lush romanticism of exciting indiscretion in a world where sudden stabs of ominous music hint at a tragedy in the making.
Literary critic Jean Desailly doesn’t have adultery on his mind when he becomes entranced with a lithe, lovely young stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) who keeps crossing his path on a speaking engagement—he’s happily married with a wife (Nelly Benedetti) and a daughter—but he plunges ahead with an affair that, despite his best efforts, begins to unravel all of their lives. Truffaut invests it with Hitchcockian echoes of guilt and fear of discovery as well as stylistic touches both effective (a meticulously plotted sequence of just-missed connections) and merely offbeat (a drive to the airport backed by a Psycho-like violin theme). Pulling back the veneer of chic elegance and attractive confidence, Desailly emerges not so much sordid as vain and pathetic, and his wife comes into her own with her heartbreaking discovery of his lies, at once angry, hurt, threatened, and grasping at reconciliation while sabotaging her own efforts with frustrated attacks. It’s an unusual film with sudden changes in tone that does little to prepare the viewer for the dark climax: the tragic side of Truffaut’s fascination of philandering men that runs throughout his career. Watch for the scene with the kitten who licks off the plate set out for room service; Truffaut recreated it for his film-within-a-film in Day For Night.
Previously only been available on a poorly-mastered (and long out-of-print) DVD in the U.S., it’s been remastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new digital HD digital transfer from the original camera negative. It features commentary (in French, with English subtitled) by Truffaut’s co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana (originally recorded in 2000), the half-hour 1999 documentary Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock (about the famous interview book), a new video essay by film critic Kent Jones, and an archival interview with Truffaut from 1965 about the film, plus a leaflet with an essay by Molly Haskell.
The Criterion restoration is also available to stream for Hulu Plus subscribers, but an HD stream can’t match the quality of a high-quality Blu-ray.