Quatorze Juillet (1933)

20 07 2009

Not quite as innovative as Á nous la liberté (which actually came two years earlier) but it certainly is just as funny. Also, instead of a rather heavy-handed rant against industrialism and everything it entails, this is a very sweet and tender ode to a young romance. In its own cutesy (not a fault in this case) and very French way, it reminds me of a Frank Borzage film. It is perhaps one-dimensional and unrealistic in its depiction of love, but it feels right and looks wonderful.

Jean, a taxi cab driver and Anna, a flower girl, are very much in love during the celebration of Bastille Day in Paris, France. They quarrel, but they fail back into eachothers’ arms before the night is over. Jean returns back to his apartment with a not so pleasant surprise, his ex-lover Paula. It only takes a few minutes to realize that she is a manipulator, the antithesis of Anna, and she talks Jean into letting her spend the night. With her arrival comes the departure of Jean and Anna’s relationship. She pushes Jean into the shady lifestyle of gangster, a life where his closest friends are missing. More importantly, Anna is nowhere to be seen as well.

Taking the Borzage comparison into account, it is pretty easy to see where the narrative turns from here. Needless to say, the conclusion is not just touching, it is life-affirming, assuming the viewer is in the right state of mind and isn’t a completely hopeless cynic. The depiction of love here (and in a majority of Borzage’s pictures) is naive, almost fairytale-esque, but there’s a grain of truth to it all, and this tiny truthful fragment is what makes Clair’s picture work.

Clair’s formal experimentation from his previous films is pretty much absent here, but instead his aesthetic represents a well-formed, albeit more conventional cinematic presentation. The sound here is natural, not ambient abstraction, which kind of helps the comedic relief flow much better, but I suppose it calls less attention to itself. Depending on your outlook, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. Watching Clair’s work for its technical accomplishments is a just thing to do, he was (or is) a master, but his art goes beyond its form. There’s something profoundly moving about this love story, no matter how predictable and old-fashioned it seems.