Douce (1943)

Director: Claude Autant-Lara
Screenwriters: Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of my favorite directors is Bertrand Tavernier. I haven’t come anywhere near to seeing all his films, but I’ve tried to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along. I was fortunate enough to see the terrific cop drama L.627 at the 2002 Ebertfest and watch Roger interview Tavernier. Little did I know that when his then-newest film, Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct), played at the Gene Siskel Film Center a few days later, I would see Tavernier again and get a chance to participate briefly in an informal chat he was having with some other film fans in the lobby of the theatre. It was easy for me to see why he can make such wonderful films—he’s a genuinely nice man.

The reason I bring Tavernier up here is that Laissez-passer chronicles the world of French filmmaking during the World War II German occupation of France. The film is based on a memoir of one of the screenwriters of that time, Jean-Devaivre, and features as one of its main characters Jean Aurenche, depicted as a bon vivant who manages to stay just the right side of the stern Germans who man Continental Films, the German production company that controlled the French film industry, in general, and its French employees, in particular. I was utterly captivated by Tavernier’s film, his comments about the period he was depicting, and a whole era of films I knew nothing about. I set about learning, seizing whatever opportunities I could to view the mainly escapist entertainment of the time that nonetheless bred some of the great French filmmakers to come—Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and others. Fortunately, the Siskel Center ran a series of these films in 2005, and now, DOC Films at the University of Chicago is doing the same on Tuesday nights this spring. The hubby and I took the long drive to the South Side to view Douce last night, and it was certainly worth the trip.

Douce, an historical drama typical of this era, tells a story of love and ambition in class-conscious 19th century Paris. The film takes place near Christmas. The story opens on snowfall created by trick photography—rather distracting—but settles down as the camera ventures into a church and into a confessional, where a heavily veiled woman is being grilled by a priest about a love affair she is having. Listing the various impediments to a happy union, the priest finally hits on the right one—low born. The priest is appalled and tells her a horrible fate awaits her and her lover if they should go through with their plan. “I want to be happy,” she answers defiantly. “Do you want me to grant you absolution?” he asks accusingly. “Well, I won’t.” She storms out of the confessional and the church, leaving her umbrella behind.

In a nifty segue, a feeble-minded young man is sent to return the umbrella to its owner. He is cautiously admitted through the gates of a stately home. When the front door opens for him, we are admitted into the opulent, pampered world of the wealthy de Bonafé family. Loyal servant Estelle (Gabrielle Fontan) fusses and musses about, then calls Mademoiselle Irène (Madeleine Robinson). A beautiful and elegant woman emerges onto the long, balustraded hallway of the upper floor. Estelle says a boy has come with the umbrella she left at church. “What did you give him?” a somewhat startled Irène asks. “My umbrella,” replies Estelle. “He needs something to get home.”

Irène returns to her needlepoint and hands Douce (Odette Joyeux), a young lady in her charge, a wooden egg used for darning socks. The egg has “Trouville,” a seaside resort, burned into its side. Douce gets very excited: “You know Trouville?” “No,” says Irène. “It was a gift from some people who had been there.” Douce listens to a thumping above her head. She is annoyed. “Doesn’t he know how it sounds?!” she says in exasperation. Irène warns her to be more respectful of her father and sympathetic with the fact that he has to walk on a wooden leg, and then questions her about the umbrella. At this point, it becomes clear that Irène is Douce’s governess, and Douce is the well-born young lady in love with an inferior.

This surprising reversal sets up a subtle dynamic that infuses the rest of the film with commentary on social climbing and stifling social roles. With great dexterity, Bost and Aurenche manipulate a simple love story with a hundred small, telling moments. The first, of course, is our assumption that Irène is the mistress of the house. Indeed, she is aiming exactly for that position, having noticed and cultivated widower Engelbert de Bonafé’s (Jean Debucourt) attraction to her. The fact that he is a cripple and considers himself a failure—his leg wasn’t even lost in war but in a riding accident that was his own fault—and Douce his only success marks him as a relic of the past being overtaken by the schemers of the present. We know that Irène, though very tightly self-controlled throughout the film, is one of those schemers because he finds her in his library reshelving a book she has finished, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.


Her partner and lover is Fabien Marani (Roger Pigaut), manager of the family’s estate. Of course, Douce is in love with him, but he wants Irène to emigrate with him to Quebec and be out from under the humiliating, controlling thumb of the de Bonafés. With a financially advantageous marriage within her grasp, Irène rejects him. Marani pursues her, planning to tell all to Engelbert and his mother, the wickedly imperious Madame de Bonafé (Marguerite Moreno), but Douce intervenes. Les Liaisons Dangereuses does indeed seem to be the driving narrative of this film as it unwinds to a sad, inevitable conclusion. The classes should not, must not mix. The worst curse Madame de Bonafé can cast on Fabien and Irène is that they remain together, trapped in their low-born status.

Douce was the first film scripted by the so-called “Tradition of Quality” team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Tradition of Quality films were dubbed as such by the leading critics of the 1940s and 1950s for their academic production values, basis in traditional literary classics, and theatrical scripting. I might add that the work of Aurenche and Bost, frequent collaborators of Autant-Lara, is where I would place the quality. Their writing is extremely witty and subtle when they are going for social commentary. Marguerite Moreno certainly had a plum role as the Grand Dame of the house. Her lines and actions would have been buffoonish if they hadn’t been closely observed and written. When she goes through her closet to choose items to give to the poor tenants on her land for Christmas, she holds back one jacket. “That’s too good,” she instructs Irène, saying (I paraphrase), “It will only depress the people because they will see the heights to which they never can aspire.” When she calls on her tenants, she brings Irène and Fabien with her to carry the clothes and soup. One tenant gets up to heat a bowl of soup for herself and her husband. “No, no,” says Madame, “It’s my turn to serve you. Irène, put the soup on the stove.”

Douce_05.jpgSome quibbles. Joyeux looked too old to still be dressing like a child, and Joyeux, Robinson, and Pigaut have a severe, mannered acting style. The love talk between Pigaut and the two women is the ultimate in purple prose, as well. The film takes a somewhat predictable turn to tragedy, but it was startling to me because up until then I had been watching a very funny comedy of manners. The overly melodramatic elements made me all too aware that there was a moral to this story. I wonder, in fact, whether the German honchos might have insisted that the story reflect a superior/inferior class ethos to suggest the depravity of “mixing.” But this is mere conjecture.

Interestingly, Tradition of Quality films were condemned by André Bazin and his protégé, François Truffaut. This condemnation reflected the desire for a purely cinematic art form not beholden to literary tradition, ushering in the naturalism of the French New Wave and other film movements of the 1960s that took their inspiration from the French movement. However, according to John Hess:

Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their ‘profanity’ and ‘blasphemy.’ His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d’auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded ‘messages,’ are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.

Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the ‘profanity’ and ‘blasphemy’ in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.

It is interesting to read that the intellectuals and filmmakers who ushered in the breath of fresh air we think of as the French New Wave were, perhaps, the reactionaries, and that the German-controlled masters of the Tradition of Quality films were, perhaps, the revolutionaries. Douce is a highly entertaining, well-written, if somewhat mannered example of a very high quality of filmmaking indeed.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    1st/05/2008 to 7:33 am

    I love that analysis of Truffaut at the end by John Hess. Though I’d never read it before it makes perfect sense to me that Truffaut would feel that way. His films were always the most grounded and conservative of the New Wave movement. They were the films most done in the “Hollywood Tradition” rather than outside it. While many deservedly love “400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim” they don’t have the controversial reputation that “Breathless” or “Weekend” do. I can fully see Truffaut wanting to do things “by the book.”
    And re “Douce” your conjecture of the German honchos having a say about the direction of the story doesn’t sound like it’s too far off the mark (no pun intended).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/05/2008 to 8:26 am

    Thanks for the comments, Jonathan, and I agree with you. Bost and Aurenche substantially changed the novel on which Douce is based–I gathered that it was very sympathetic to the governess, almost sentimentally so. So, I imagine the adaptation was easy to get passed by the Germans, and then the subversion could take place under official sanction. Again, I really need to do more research on this era. It’s really a fascinating time.

  • Campaspe spoke:
    5th/05/2008 to 12:11 pm

    I can’t believe you reviewed this film, since I just put it on a list of things for Mr. C to look for in Paris. I am not sure it’s on Region 2 but I am making him try.
    I hugely admire Truffaut as a filmmaker but as a critic he often makes me wince, however influential he may have been. I like so many of the films he disses.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/05/2008 to 12:52 pm

    Campaspe – I hope he finds it, too. I’m sure you’ll love it.
    I’ve only read Truffaut on Hitchcock. I don’t read a lot of movie criticism. I actually prefer theatre criticism, with Brecht and Arthur Miller being my favorites. They’re more influential on my thinking about film than any movie critic I’ve read.

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