A Woman of Paris (1923)

29 10 2012

You have to give Chaplin a lot of credit here. At the height of popularity as a comedian, he decided to make something more personal and dramatic. Weirdly, this movie does have a hint of comedy to it, but it’s not the kind one would expect from Chaplin. Considering the tragic conclusion, it isn’t really strictly a “comedy of manners” either because it be hard to consider such a narrative of being a relatively upbeat picture, but there’s something unique coded away within all the Important Drama that sets the film’s overall tone. The presence of Adolphe Menjou obviously helps, but even without him there’s definitely still a touch of Lubitsch in here, though the similarities are not exactly the most striking.

Marie St. Clair plans to run away with her lover, Jean, but the parents of both work against their plan. They both end up in Paris a year later, but Marie is an comfortable situation with the rich playboy, Pierre Revel and Jean is still a struggling artist. The two reunite but Jean’s mother once again steps in, which further complicates Mary’s decision. She can struggle for happiness with a man she truly loves in Jean or she can be mistreated but still financially “taken care of” by Pierre.

Yes, the “love or money” dilemma doesn’t sound all that original or compelling, but Chaplin does get a lot of mileage out of the two lovers reuniting. It’s also forced and contrived, but it doesn’t feel effectively wistful, even as Chaplin himself doesn’t stress too hard on the past, instead directing his focus to the drama that leads up to the relationship’s heartbreaking finale. I guess, it’s worth mentioning that this is a spoiler, but Jean eventually kills himself in front of a extravagant party that Marie attends with Pierre. Up to this point, I was actually comfortable calling the film great, but the final minutes following the death turn out to be the most problematic.

Jean’s mother, who denied him her blessing in marrying Marie speeds through the grieving stage of her son’s death and develops a bloodlust. The haunting portrait that her son painted of Marie stands in the background like a deliberate reminder to her that Marie is responsible for her son’s death. Her vantage point is understandable but obviously wrong: Marie was living the Paris lifestyle and her country origins obviously shuns such behavior. That’s the reason she forbids her son from asking Marie’s hand in marriage, but she doesn’t manage to see that this is what drove him to suicide. She shifts the blame to Marie, but her thirst for blood dies off when she sees grieving over her son’s corpse. The film would be fine if it ends here.

It doesn’t, however and instead we’re given a sequence that leaves such a terrible taste in one’s mouth, that it may or may not ruin the film. Marie and Jean’s mother have started a life in the country, raising orphans (?) and fully embracing the country life. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the film’s final implication is that it was Marie’s lifestyle that ultimately hurt Jean. She came from the same background as him but her needs to be successful, even if it was by involving herself with a man she didn’t care for, were ultimately selfish. The film’s end celebrates the obedient life of a housewife and openly shuns the independence of the city life. Chaplin seems to have aligned himself with the politics of Jean’s mother, which seems so weird considering that she is something of a villain for most of the film. It’s a throwaway sequence and I wouldn’t be surprised if many forget the scene all together considering the emotional intensity of what comes right before, but it left a particularly bad feeling in my mind. It’s a very backwards message from someone who has been recognized as a progressive. It’s not a blatant statement, but it is upsetting one and it almost ruins what is otherwise a very impressive film.



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