Sacha Guitry Four Films 1936-1938 (Cert U)
4 Discs Blu-ray/DVD Combo (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 379 minutes approx.
Described as the “French Noel Coward”, Sacha Guitry was a polymath of film and theatre, and inspiration for many French New Wave filmmakers. Guitry’s renown is unlikely to yield the same reverence in the UK today, outside of the most dedicated Francophile cineastes, which this Blu-ray release of four of Guitry’s films may change.
It has to be said that Guitry’s work is something of an acquired taste. Established in the theatre as an actor and playwright, Guitry favours verbose dialogue over action and it shows, even after transposing his plays to the big screen, showing little signs of adapting to the freedoms this medium offers.
A recurring motif, at least in these films, is teasingly fertile plots buried deep under mountains of prolix passages of dense disquisition, thus practically imperceptible to anyone with limited patience. Admittedly not the sort of endorsement I want to proffer in the opening paragraphs of a review but hopefully I can elucidate as I go on.
The first film is The New Testament (Le nouveau testament) from 1936, in which Marcelin (Guitry) is fully aware of his wife Lucie’s (Betty Daussmond) infidelity with Fernand (Christian Gérard), the son of his former lover (Marguerite Templey). Marcelin’s revenge is to hire young Juliette Lecourtois (Jacqueline Delubac) as his secretary, a job Lucie hoped Fernand would get.
On the night Marcelin invites the entire Worms family to dinner, he is late; a tailor drops off a coat Marcelin left behind at a suit fitting, from which an envelope falls, containing Marcelin’s newly revised will stating part of his fortune is bequeathed to the woman and young girl shown in two accompanying photos – his lover and their illegitimate daughter.
Beyond the verbal diarrhoea lies a catalogue of deftly intertwined revelations and decoys in the central conceit, with laughs to be found in the scene when the will is read, thanks to the cast’s aghast reactions to its contents and their simultaneous need to hide their guilt. The twist at the end is cute although the moral ambiguity is a little disconcerting – provided I understood things correctly.
Next, also from 1936 is My Father Was Right (Mon père avait raison), a tale of paternal advice shared across three generations and the effects of heeding it. Guitry is Charles Bellanger, the 30-year old father to 10 year-old Maurice (Serge Grave), deciding to protect his son when Charles’ wife Germaine decides to leave him for another man, by teaching him to be wary of women.
20 years later, Maurice (Paul Bernard) returns home with his doting girlfriend Loulou (Delubac) but having subscribed to his father’s counsel, Maurice keeps Loulou at arm’s length. Charles realises his error and helps bring Maurice and Loulou together, whilst at the same time Maurice is worried that Charles is enjoying his single life too much.
Aside from the folly of silver-haired 51 year-old Guitry dying his hair to play a 30 year-old, the formula is unchanged: slivers of plot vaguely revealed via verbose exchanges. Gaston Dubosc as Charles’ father, shares amusing success stories from lying about his age, while the sophistry from cheating wife Germaine (Daussmond) is usually heard from a male perspective, reasserting Charles’ position as the aggrieved party.
Let’s Make A Dream… (Faisons un rêve...) again from 1936 has even less plot to discuss. Guitry (again with dyed hair) is a lawyer having an affair with a woman (Delubac again) whose husband (Raimu) seeks his help in covering up his night of sin from his wife.
The first film in this set that actually sees Guitry embrace the liberation of movement the cinema brings to his work, at least in the opening prologue set at a fancy dinner party, this flirtation is sadly brief and quickly reverts to Guitry’s safe haven of the single room set. At least this time the number of edits and cutaways featuring other cast members is on the increase.
A wafflefest of epic proportions there are two amusing set pieces here – the first being an extended solo scene in which Guitry romanticises his lover’s arrival for their illicit liaison then has a row over the telephone; the second is the Jedi-esque manner in which Guitry concocts a plausible cover story to help the husband which actually benefits the cheating lovers more.
Closing this collection is Let’s Go Up The Champs-Elysées (Remontons les Champs-Élysées) from 1938, seeing Guitry finally embracing the scope of cinema production in this journey through French history. Guitry plays a bored maths teacher keen to educate his young pupils about famous events that occurred on France’s most famous street, also playing key figures like Louis XV and his descendants.
The reason for this is revealed after the first act but it does cast a slight shadow over the veracity of the historical accuracy within, but this is cinema so that is to be expected. Guitry is quite the patriot and this shows especially in the closing scene, but it’s not as cloying as the flag waving found in Hollywood films.
Better late than never, Guitry breaks free from the confines of faithfully replicating the stage setting and spreads his wings – he lets the camera move, his actors move and perform rather than simply recite endless dialogue, and he ventures outside too. In true historical epic fashion, this is a lavish costume drama replete with towering sets and extravagant costumes in stark contrast to the previous bare bones productions.
It is also this film that sees Guitry’s reputation as a master filmmaker become clearer, most notably his use of editing and framing to create a stirring narrative in the final act; prior to this, the other films in this set shows us a man who either didn’t know or didn’t care about the rules of filmmaking, committing many cardinal sins, such as shooting people from behind when they’re talking or crossing the line in over-the-shoulder shots.
Judging by the excessive lengthy verbiage of the scripts Guitry clearly loved the sound of his own voice, often talking for minutes in end, rarely taking a breath or letting anyone else speak. His rhythms and speech patterns are unnatural, his tone and timbre rarely open to modulation, but Guitry’s execution is flawless; credit where it is due for him – and the other cast members – for being able to remember so much dialogue.
Sacha Guitry was a prolific writer, director, and filmmaker and this set offers a fleeting glimpse of his output for neophytes such as myself. Given the almost identical formula of the first three films it might not seem to be the best representation of Guitry’s canon but is at least a truthful one.
Mileage will vary depending on how patient one is to essentially listening to one-man wax lyrical about love, life, and history at a hundred miles an hour but I am sure there is an eager audience for such arcane yet urbane work. The Champs-Elysées outing is the standout offering here for this writer, others may disagree.
This is a set will niche appeal but those who are able to get onboard with Guitry and his unique – and very talkative – brand of cinema might just find these films something of a revelation and a gateway to discovering a long forgotten icon of French cinema.
Limited Edition Dual Format Collection [2000 copies]
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
Original French Mono Soundtracks (Uncompressed LPCM on Blu-ray)
Optional English Subtitles
Introduction to Sacha Guitry by French Cinema Expert and academic Ginette Vincendeau
Selected Scene Commentaries by Ginette Vincendeau
Four Video Essays by Critic Philippe Durant
Interviews with Writer and Director Francis Veber and Filmmaker Pascal Thomas
Let’s Make a Dream… Sound Tests
Let’s Make a Dream… Theatrical Trailer
Limited Edition 60-page Book (Limited Edition Exclusive)
Rating – ***
Man In Black