Director/Coscreenwriter: Julien Duvivier
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I recently had a discussion with Jason Bellamy at his marvelous blog The Cooler about the relative merits of the 1942 biopic The Pride of the Yankees. I dislike that film intensely as a slapdash piece of hagiography, yet Jason argues persuasively that the film was an important morale booster for an American public suffering under the privations and fear that came with our involvement in World War II. Showing the courage with which Lou Gehrig faced his physical decline and death must have helped the millions of filmgoers who were facing death overseas or coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones.
In a similar vein, the 1930s saw a number of filmmakers around the world deal head on with the effects of the Great Depression and the threat of German aggression by making politically charged “popular front” movies, endorsed, but not sponsored, by the Communist Party. Popular front movies were characterized by a vigorously democratic approach, frequently dealing with the hardships of working-class life and the need to stand together to better our collective circumstances. Frank Borzage trained his camera on the unemployed in Man’s Castle (1933), and Leo McCarey combined the plight of unemployment and old age in the heartbreaking Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), while less serious-minded approaches to social problems could be found in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 and Louis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933).
In France, filmmakers with socialist sensibilities attempted to stir the populace to fight both monied interests and fascism; the pinnacle of these films was, in my opinion, Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Two years earlier, Renoir was mulling whether to direct La belle équipe, scripted by Charles Spaak, his collaborator on Grand Illusion (1937) and The Lower Depths (1936). In the end, Renoir’s friend Julien Duvivier took the reins. La belle équipe, which translates as the beautiful team, does indeed bring together a beautiful team of designers, cinematographer, and actors, led by the complex, charismatic performance of Jean Gabin, to tell a quintessential film of the popular front in Europe.
France’s revolutionary motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” finds its representatives in this film. Mario (Rafael Medina) represents the active revolutionary—a Spanish republican ejected from a number of countries who is one step ahead of the French authorities. He is in a serious relationship with Huguette (Micheline Cheirel), a piece worker in a dried flower factory whose name is redolent of religious persecution in France. Forced to abandon his hotel room to avoid the gendarmes who have been sniffing around, Mario arranges to meet Huguette at a bistro where their unemployed friends Jean (Jean Gabin), Raymond (Raymond Aimos), Charles (Charles Vanel), and Jacques (Charles Dorat) eat on the credit the proprietor (Charles Granvat) reluctantly extends. The friends sneak Mario into their one-room digs at the King of England, evading the badgering hotel manager (Jacques Baumer) for a time. Eventually, Mario is discovered, but as great luck would have it, the good news arrives that the men have won the national lottery and will split ₣100,000. The residents pour out of their rooms to celebrate and drink the cases of congratulatory wine Raymond has arranged.
Jacques talks of using his share to emigrate to Canada, Raymond wants to start a small machine shop in the country, but Jean suggests that if they pool their money, they could do more together than they could alone and still maintain their great camaraderie and friendship. He suggests they open a guinguette—an open-air café on a river to attract the boating crowd. The men row down a river a few miles outside of Paris, passing one grand home after another, as Raymond scoffs that such opulence is not fit for their proletarian spirit. Finally, they find a husk of a house, burned and for sale. Raymond imagines a castle tower, Jean sees an open-air dance floor, and before long, the men have purchased the derelict building and started working to transform it into “Chez Nous (Our Place),” a tribute to collective labor and shared rewards.
The lot of the working class and political progressive is aired, miraculously without making one feel terribly depressed. When Jacques falls for Huguette, he leaves for Canada rather than introduce disharmony into the enterprise. When the police catch up with Mario, the gendarme (Fernand Charpin) is a kind and sympathetic grandfather who gives Mario a day’s reprieve to attend the pre-opening party the men throw for all their friends from the old neighborhood, and even brings his grandchildren to enjoy the party. When Huguette decides to join Mario in exile, her sickly grandmother (Marcelle Géniat) offers her blessing and even finds the strength to waltz with Jean at the opening party. The generous esprit de corps of the working class that typifies popular front movies is well developed by the nuanced performances and warm and lively mise-en-scène Duvivier encourages.
The film is teeming with ingenious and pleasurable moments. Mario despairs of getting Huguette a gift for her birthday, but the friends have a solution. While one distracts the owner of the bistro, the others lift and tilt a skill claw crane machine to win items to give her. When she comes to the bistro, each holds out the prize they snagged—a clock, an eraser—with Mario presenting her with the present she hoped for, a make-up compact. The scene is innocent, funny, and perfectly timed to endear the audience to their attempts to please Huguette with a minor bit of larceny. Indeed, larceny is a fall-back position of the working class, but cheating a penny-arcade machine or avoiding the rent collector are seen as a way to balance the scale with the monied classes.
Another lovely scene involves the men rowing down the river and stopping at the burned property. Each of them gives himself over to Raymond’s reverie, walking through the shell and imagining what they could do with the place. It’s a leap-of-faith moment, as the building is in extremely rough condition, but each of the actors helps us see what he sees with enthusiasm and imagination. When the construction is threatened by a violent storm, and the roof starts to blow away, we are horror-stricken and then encouraging as the men climb up in the downpour and use their bodies to hold the tiles down through the night.
The most serious threat to the enterprise is femme fatale Gina (Viviane Romance), the estranged wife of Charles. Unlike the more vicious American femmes fatale, Gina is merely a greedy hedonist. She manipulates a still-smitten Charles into giving her part of his winnings—they are still married, she reminds him—and lures Jean into an affair when he goes to her Paris apartment to reclaim the money, needed to repair the damage done by the storm. Jealousy threatens to tear the comrades apart; both Charles and Jean find Gina irresistible, and she lies without compunction to get what she wants or to seek revenge. It is a bit disconcerting to hear Jean exclaim about fraternal friendship being the more noble and lasting bond, but there is something so quintessentially French about examining the folly of love that it’s hard to feel offended. It must also be acknowledged that the women in the film are not caricatures, with Huguette a real part of the team and Gina a strong, if negative, agent of her own life, refusing to let Jean shame her for posing for nude photographs.
My cousin, who has lived in Paris for many years, relayed some comments she heard about French detective films to me: “The difference between American films and French ones is that the American ones have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the end is usually happy. In the French film, things happen every which way, and we can’t really follow who’s doing what why. And someone almost always ends up dead.” While La belle équipe isn’t a detective film, someone does indeed end up dead. In fact, there is an alternate, tragic ending to the happy one of the print the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered from France to the theater; reportedly, rather than having one or the other, French audiences usually see both endings in succession when the film is screened.
Remains of “Chez Nous” can still be found on the riverbank where it was constructed. Tourists occasionally visit it out of curiosity and to remind themselves of a traditional type of communal meeting place that has declined in France. For modern film audiences in any country, La belle équipe is a wonderful reminder that a popular front that offered courage and camaraderie to people bent by fear and poverty is part of our heritage, with pleasures and lessons for a new generation.