November 8, 2019

by Craig Keller 


A new iteration of a diseased world has wafted up and come to choke, pervasive, since the last time this Ozu picture was screened with any real sincerity. 

Tonight Andy has grasped the horns of the California day’s last steers, with the prospect of Renoir’s picture in mind to follow: we will experience beautiful animals pleading emergency. On our minds, the safe word remains: “Evacuate.”—For the world is burning, and we’re internalizing now bestial shrieks, are absorbing them deep, and a chance few hear sounding from the wreck: “Come to the theater for respite and relief…”

So shameful to be us, crying when the night is like a dawn menacing soft on the horizon. The irony of orange in Los Angeles County. Cinephiles, where do associations lead? An autumn shell on the horizon, East Coast connotations, but substantial heat, smoke in the high winds. Landowners elsewhere, envious, postulate nothing political per se in the burning of the planet, and yet, at this moment is that not all there is? Are these fires not, species-wide, our spectacular concern?


A Woman of Tokyo allocates its characters by a kind of human chain—taken in another sense, as illustrative elements of human bondage. A disturbance in one individual reverberates over to and within the others. (The undulations of a suspension bridge; the flail of prey in a web.) The title woman of Tokyo, Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), represents the center median, or medium in the sense of a substance through which emotion and judgment move in waves. She provides the context for the moral relativism that defines the attitudes of the characters. When Ozu proclaims in 1933 by title alone, that there is “A Woman of Tokyo” (“Tōkyō no onna”)—well, it’s comically inarguable. Considered more deeply, who dares to dismiss this? She is not merely a “woman in Tokyo,” she is “one of Tokyo’s women,” “a woman belonging to Tokyo”—a fateful figure. Adjacent to the vagueness, the quality of the everywoman/cipher, lies a specificity that comes perilously close to turning the phrase into a metropolitan euphemism. More broadly: Chikako is the Tokyo archetype of one who does what one must to get by in the big city.   

She is at once the inscrutable and the presently apprehensible—an apple taken from a mantle. The upset of Chikako’s brother Ryōichi (Ureo Egawa) over the discovery of her moonlighting as a prostitute constitutes a split in the bond between siblings, a disruption of the expectations which one held for the other. What began as a pair soon becomes redefined as halves. (That apple on the mantle will reveal still more dimensionality [still-life, la nature morte] in the conclusion to Ozu’s 1949 Late Spring [Banshun].)

Other pairs in A Woman of Tokyo:

• Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her older brother, a keisatsu (police-officer) referred to only by his surname, Kinoshita (Shinyo Nara)—here, the latter assumes the role of caretaker for the former, a reversal of the dynamic between Chikako and Ryōichi 

• Kinoshita and an investigating officer from his bureau 

• Two reporters working for rival papers 

• A personnel manager and a clerk at Chikako’s place of employment  

• The 47-minute 1933 Yasujirō Ozu film A Woman of Tokyo and the 2 minute 21 second Ernst Lubitsch short from the 1932 Paramount omnibus If I Had a Million, titled The Clerk

Ozu’s remarkable intertwining of the Lubitsch segment with his own film not only pays homage to Lubitsch and the Hollywood studio-system (and to his beloved Gary Cooper, visible on the back cover of the theatrical program for If I Had a Million, in which he stars in William A. Seiter’s sketch), but also echoes the structure of A Woman of Tokyo: like Woman’s seemingly curtailed ending, Ozu withholds the final punchline scene from the Lubitsch. There, after opening the random million-dollar cheque, Charles Laughton marches through a series of office doors belonging to his firm’s senior bureaucracy and, finally confronting the chief of the company, blows a raspberry his way. This has been excised. (But will be evoked time and again by Ozu through the series of children in his other films who stick their tongues out in defiance of stoic, unbudging parents.) The openness of A Woman of Tokyo results at least in part by its diminishment. As Andy writes in his own program for the screening, “The film is silent, seemingly by choice rather than technology, as if to say: the situation depicted is unspeakable." (And, I might add, also unraspberriable.) "We’ve found no explanation for the film’s odd length of 47 minutes—no industrial, or exhibition-related explanation. Perhaps the length is wholly the result of the story and the arrested way of its telling. A shorter film for the lives of the ruined or cut short; tragedy becomes brevity, and brevity becomes tragedy.” In the curtailed structure, in the plain and complicated title of A Woman of Tokyo, a terrible universality is born.

A dialectical film, then, one in which people enter rooms and the first reaction before inevitable recognition is: Who are you? or: Why are you here?. Pairs, splits,—and mirrors which, paradoxically, in A Woman of Tokyo, estrange. Objectivity encounters disbelief, a sussing-out of what could or could not be true. “Tell it slant,” goes Dickinson’s phrase, now commodified as the tagline for an eponymous Apple show; the policy is characteristic of Ozu’s work, but perhaps never has the ellipsis functioned so powerfully in his films as the scene in which Chikako stares before the mirror and, as in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie conforme, 2010), the “divide” (in the senses of “split,” and of “distance”) becomes implicit. As such the scene might be said to stand as the locus, as in Cocteau or Bergman, of an irremediable trauma. And whereas in later films Ozu characters will have, literally and figuratively, built up a front, as suggested by the director’s framing en face, in A Woman of Tokyo they are presented obliquely: torsos directed to left or right frame, heads turned, at times we might say twisted, toward the camera. (This posture, in fact, recurs among the characters of many Ozus from this period, but to examine the practice requires a scope beyond the present text.)

The movie ends shortly after the mercenary reporters drop in on Chikako and Harue to scavenge details about Ryōichi. “There’s no big scoop here,” smirks one to the other. Soon images, objects, come spiraling back, imbued with a new absence of life, their inanimation now underscored. The film moves outside, the camera abandons the reporters, and a tracking shot fixed on the rubbish-strewn sidewalk begins to roll. Of this moment Andy observes that it “seems to draw a hyphen rather than a period on the story. A hyphen to life outside the film and the movie theater.”

How many tragedies will it take to change the world?

Ozu's A WOMAN OF TOKYO will screen tonight at 8pm at ECHO PARK FILM CENTER, Los Angeles, as part of KINO SLANG PRESENTS... More information here.

November 7, 2019


at the
Echo Park Film Center

November 8th, 2019
Doors at 7:30pm
$5 Suggested Donation

Echo Park Film Center 
1200 North Alvarado St. 
Los Angeles, CA. 90026 


(Ozu Yasujirō, 1933. Japan. 47 minutes)


(Jean Renoir, 1932. France. 75 minutes)

preceded by

"A Peddler"
Sequence from HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA 
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-98. France. 4 minute excerpt)


女の京東  |  TŌKYŌ NO ONNA
1933. Shochiku Kamata Studio. Japan. 
Silent. 7 reels (47 minutes)
Directed by Ozu Yasujirō. Original Story: Nijuroku jikan (Twenty-Six Hoursby Ernst Schwarz. Script: Noda Kôgo and Ikeda Tadao. Assistant Directors: Kiyosuke Akira, Hara Kenkicki, Kashiwabara Masaru, Hiratsuka Hiroo. Cinematography: Mohara Hideo. Assistant Cinematography: Atsuta Yuharu, Irie Masao, Kuribayashi Minoru. Lighting: Nakajima Toshimitsu. Art Director: Kanesu Takashi. Cast: Egawa Ureo (Ryoichi), Okada Yoshiko (Chikako), Tanaka Kinuyuo (Haru), Nara Shinyo (Kinoshita), Chishû Ryû (Reporter).

"If you don't convey humanness, your work is worthless." 

"Talking pictures began in 1931 in Japan, and viewers welcomed this new medium. However, Ozu-san was against it and persisted in making silent films.... He would not jump on the bandwagon. He released the silent film A WOMAN OF TOKYO in 1933. ('I know Japanese films will become all talkies one day, but before they do I think we should create a new silent form,' Ozu said that year.) The film strongly reflects the anxiety and crises caused by the Great Depression and tells the dark and tragic story of a poor brother and his older sister living in Tokyo. She works at a bar at night and sells her body in order to earn money for her brother's school tuition. He learns of what she does and (takes irreversible action). Even though this film was completely different from the previous slapstick comedies directed by Ozu-san, he did not give up on imitating American films. In the film, Ozu-san boldly included part of a film by Ernst Lubitsch that he loved. (The original story of A WOMAN OF TOKYO, Nijuroku jikan [Twenty-Six Hours] by 'Ernst Schwarz', is a fiction title and pseudonym of Ozu's, compounded from the names of the two directors Ernst Lubitsch and Hanns Schwarz.) As a result of this audacious insertion of another filmmaker's work, viewers come to realize what it's like to be under the Depression in America. The Japanese social conditions in which the brother and his girlfriend live come to overlap with the American situation." 

—Kiju Yoshida, 
"The All-Important Archeo-Cinematic Scene", 1988

Shot in eight days without a finished script, with the working title of HER CASE, FOR EXAMPLE (例えば彼女の場合), this is one of Ozu's most devastating and oblique films. The film is silent, seemingly by choice rather than technology, as if to say: the situation depicted is unspeakable. We've found no explanation for the film's odd length of 47 minutesno industrial, or exhibition-related explanation. Perhaps the length is wholly the result of the story and the arrested way of its telling. A shorter film for the lives ruined or cut short; tragedy becomes brevity, and brevity becomes tragedy. The final tracking shot of an empty sidewalk and full gutter seems to draw a hyphen rather than a period on the story. A hyphen to life outside the film and the movie theater.

A WOMAN OF TOKYO, a story of the economic struggles of a young brother and sister in the Shitamachi district, was Ozu's first film of 1933. Two more were to follow that year: DRAGNET GIRL, a stylized gangster film, and PASSING FANCY, the story of a struggling father and son. Along with AN INN IN TOKYO (1935), RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (1947), and A HEN IN THE WIND (1948), A WOMAN OF TOKYO deals with suffering in poverty, and have been neglected for no other reason that I can see than that their sadness, and their pause, is connected not only to pain between the generations, but also to war: class war in the 30s, and the effects of World War II in the 40s. Ozu is not typically seen as a war director.

A WOMAN OF TOKYO will be presented silent, without musical accompaniment.

A new text by Craig Keller on A WOMAN OF TOKYO, "Apple on the Mantle", written on the occasion of this screening, can be read here.


1932. Europa-Films, C.F.C. France. Sound. 71 mintues.
Directed by Jean Renoir.
Based on the Inspector Maigret novel La Nuit du carrefour by Georges Simenon. Adaptation and Additional Dialogue: Jean Renoir. Assistant Directors: Jacques Becker, Maurice Blondeau. Second Assistant: Jean Mitry. Producer: Jacques Becker. Cinematography: Marcel Lucien, Asselin. Cameramen: Paul Fabian, Claude Renoir. Montage: Marguerite Renoir. Sound: Bugnon, Joseph de Bretagne. Set Design: William Aguet, Jean Castanier. Assistant Editor: Suzanne de Troye. Script Girl: Mimi Champagne. Cast: Pierre Renoir (Inspector Maigret), Winna Winfried (Else Andersen), Georges Térof (Lucas), Georges Koiudria (Carl Andersen), Digimont (Oscar), Lucie Vallat (Mme Oscar), G.A. Martin (Grandjean), Jean Gehret (Emile Michonnet), Jane Pierson (Mme Michonnet), Jean Mitry (Arsène), Michel Duran (Jojo), Max Dalban (the doctor), Boulicot (the policeman), Manuel "Raaby" Rabinovitch (Guido).

"I tried to give the impression that the mud sticks when you walk in the mud and that the fog blocks your view when you walk in the fog." 
—Jean Renoir

"Perhaps only a grain-of-salt audience, who takes pleasure in imperfections, who likes to see a film as it knocks itself together, can appreciate this night of disorder and chaos, crime and eroticism, humor and premonition, this NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS."
 Bernard Chardère 

Inspector Maigret solves a crime.

This Renoir film, made in the early sound era between two of his finest, rawest films, LA CHIENNE (THE BITCH) and BOUDU SAUVÉ DES EAUX (BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING), is a strange adaptation of a popular Georges Simenon mystery novel of the same name, and the first film to put Simenon's famous Inspector Maigret to work in cinema. NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS is set entirely at a real crossroads between industrial and agricultural France called Bouffémont, a crossroads of the classes nineteen miles north of Paris. Amidst gas pumps, garages, running boards, and damp fields, a Jewish diamond dealer, Goldberg, has been murdered. Inspector Maigret (played by Renoir's brother Pierre) is called in to investigate; a brother and sister curio, Carl and Else Andersen (Georges Koiudria with a black monocle, like a thumb-hole in his eye, and the sublime erogenous zone Winna Winfried) are prime suspects, but as the "obscure network of nocturnal grapplings and multiple character reversals" (Rosenbaum, 'Number Seventeen') begin to mount, and the overwhelming sensuousness and sensuality of the locale and people begin to take hold, any clear solution to the mysteryperhaps simply reality (the "Renoir river of uncertainty" as Durgnat wrote)is overtaken. 

Renoir and crew "hot with passion for our job, which we dreamed of wresting from the grip of commerce" consciously "subordinated the plot to the atmosphere" that were both present in Simenon's original novel; the cinematographic result is so thick with sound and abberance that it irrevocably stamped three of the most radical practitioners of the modern sound filmJean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, who together hailed it the greatest of all thrillers and one of the most beautiful films in existence. In a seminal text on film sound called "Sound Thinking", critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was moved to write: 

"...the voluptuous, intricate uses of direct sound in Renoir's LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR and Straub-Huillet's MOSES UND ARON have moral and political consequences by proposing that we live in much richer, more symbiotic places than the insulated box frames conjured by most movies."

The opening of the ear to mixed accents, dialogue suddenly drowned out by other sounds of the world, the sound of objects or non-speech is still somewhat taboo film practice and often perceived as defective if directly recorded from reality on the soundtrack (whereas, illogically, amplified and artificial sound effects are given free reign and the benefit of the doubt). "In any case, the audience must have good ears since the imperfections (sic) of the sound in addition to Renoir's cult of natural accents gives us a soundtrack not entirely perceptible on first 'hearing' (Bernard Chardère, Jean Renoir [1962]). 

The liberations of NIGHT OF THE CROSSROADS have not aged.


CAHIERS: We recently saw NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS again. The striking thing is that this is an imaginary adventure film. You never try to produce terror but, rather, a kind of disorientation, and at the same time it's incredibly realistic. 

RENOIR: The otherworldly (féerique) quality came despite me, and simply because an intersection nineteen miles outside Paris on a road going north is an enchanted place. When you drive around at night on the roads outside Paris, you're in fairyland. In the end, reality is always fairylike. In order to avoid making reality seem otherworldly, certain writers go to a great deal of trouble to present it in a truly strange light. But if we leave it as it is, it's otherworldly.     

Cahiers du cinéma no. 78, Christmas 1958.



"His most mysterious film. An unintentional mystery, perhaps, as Jean Mitry lost three reels after shooting was completed and the film had to be edited without them. But the reason does not alter the result. (...) 
"Watching this strange and poetic film, one experiences fear. A fear which is not yet fear, but which nevertheless already comprises its own explanation. In the same way, Pierre Renoir-Maigret solves his problem before it has even been posed. At last we can understand the exclamation which Simenon places in Maigret's mouth at the end of each investigation: 'Simple. Why didn't I think of it sooner!' In 'chiaroscuro' there is 'chiaro'—'clear'. Thanks to Renoir, we have no difficulty in sharing that clarity.  
"Gunshots shattering the darkness; the purr of a Bugatti setting of in the pursuit of the traffickers (a sublime subjective tracking shot through the streets of the sleeping village); the air of confusion, craziness or corruption about the villagers wandering on the main road; Winna Winfried with her English accent and the curious eroticism of her drug-addicted, philosophizing Russian; Pierre Renoir's lazy eagle eye; the smell of rain and of fields bathed in mist: every detail, every second of each shot makes NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS the only great French thriller, or rather, the greatest French adventure film of all." 
Cdc no. 78, Renoir Special Issue, Dec. 1957  
Translation: Tom Milne, Godard on Godard. 


Raymond Durgnat's chapter on NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS from his book Jean Renoir (1974) is fantastic, one of the more nuanced and detailed examinations of the film I've found. Some excerpts:

"Along with its contemporary, Dreyer's VAMPYR (1932), another purely perfunctory 'mystery', its Stimmung is inspired by location. Where Dreyer's is a film of mists, moonlight and flour (photographic whites), Renoir's is a film of fog, night and rain (photographic blacks). In both films even suspense is soft-pedaled. A hand slips two bottles of poisoned beer through a window, but this echo of Fantomas is neither melodramatic nor Surrealist. It is, rather, an abrupt modulation of the confusion. Boldly composed shots seem veiled, clogged, muffled by the obscure osmosis of mist and night, of headlamps blurrily staring through the rain, of strained-for sounds beyond a wall. This road is the Renoir river of uncertainty, but in its spiritually sinister guise. Though this was the epoch of shallow focus, there is little reverse-angling; Renoir works over the limit of focus, and the resultant softness and the black foreground silhouettes recall coagulations of tenebrous air. 
"The film smells of wet earth, of oiled metal, of woodsmoke and manure, of a sulky stove which Maigret has to coax..." 
"NIGHT AT THE CROSSROAD's internal, psychic elements are the eerie continuity between sleep, drugs, delirium and dying; and the contrast between a diffuse yet pervasive ignorance, and the passive, roving acuity of Maigret. The events seem not so much committed by the characters as exuded by them, like sweat, or by the atmosphere, like rain."   
"Perhaps (Renoir) is playing with a feeling that some mysterious poison afflicts many working-class people's relationship with the larger society. This poison is not their innate inferiority; and it doesn't lead to the theoretically possible right-wing option, for Renoir's every instinct is egalitarian. Nor would it be in character for Renoir to blame Communism. For to do so would be to suppose that an ideology in itself can form the whole man in its image. The grain of Renoir's thought runs the other way. He usually implies that a man is formed by every aspect of an entire life-style, in which various partial and local patterns must appear, of which ideology is only one. A French working-class Communist could not but be a human being, a Frenchman, a worker, and a Communist, in that order. The category Frenchman appears, not out of patriotism (still less chauvinism), but simply because the label France is a (misleadingly simple) umbrella word for a multiplicity of factors: geographic, historical, social, personal, pediatric and, yes, gastronomic. Renoir's sensitive awareness of class borrows from Marxism principally its sense of continuous class struggle. Though he, later, seeks conciliatory solutions, he never quite forgets it." 


"I asked my brother Pierre to play the role of the commissioner Maigret and found a strange creature, a kind of bizarre seventeen-year-old girl, with a very pale face, whose name was Winna Winfried. I don't believe in the term photogenic, but it happens that this girl justifies its use. Just put her in front of a camera, and everything works. Her voice also works. She delighted the sound engineer, and she also delighted me."  
                                 —"Propos rompus", Cdc no. 155, May 1964. 

"After a period of involuntary unemployment, neither my first nor my last, I again yielded to the temptation to produce a film of my own. The money came to me from private sources, nothing to do with the film trade. The story was based on a wonderful novel by my friend, Simenon, entitled LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR. Jacques Becker was production manager, my nephew, Claude Renoir, was assistant cameraman; the script-girl was Mimi Champagne and Jo de Bretagne was in charge of sound. All friends, in short, with my brother Pierre playing the leading part. The supporting cast were all amateurs except for a few professional actors who were personal friends. The team also included a musicologist, Jean Gehret, the painter, Dignimont, the film-critic Jean Mitry, and the dramatist, Michel Duran. My aim was to convey by imagery the mystery of that starkly mysterious tale, and I meant to subordinate the plot to the atmosphere. Simenon's book wonderfully evoked the dreariness of that crossroads situated nineteen miles from Paris. I do not believe there can be a more depressing place anywhere on earth. The small cluster of houses, lost in a sea of mist, rain and mud, are magnificently described int he novel. They might have been panted by Vlaminck. 
"We rented one of the houses at the crossroads, which happened to be empty, and there set up our quarters. A good many of the team slept on the floor in the living-room. We had our meals there. When the darkness was as mysterious as we wished we aroused the sleepers and went to work. Within twenty miles of Paris we led the life of explorers of a lost land. In the matter of mystery the result exceeded our expectations, particularly since, two reels having been lost, the story was pretty well incomprehensible, even to its author. 
"Marcel Lucien, the cameraman, achieved some remarkable fog effects, and the actors, both amateur and professional, were so influenced by that sinister crossroads that they became part of the background. They enacted a mystery in a way they could never have done in the comfort of a studio. NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS remains a completely absurd experiment that I cannot think of without nostalgia. These days, when everything is so well organized, one cannot work in that kind of way."    
—Renoir, My Life, My Films



Sequence from HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA 
Chapter 4b, "The Signs Among Us (Les Signes parmi nous)
1988-89. Périphéria, Gaumont. France. 4 minute excerpt.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

"There was a novel by Ramuz that told: one day a peddler arrived in a village by the Rhône river, he became friends with everyone because he could tell a thousand and one stories, but then a storm came and lasted for days and days, and so the peddler told them: it is the end of the world, it is the end of the world, but the sun finally returned, and the villagers chased the poor peddler away, this peddler was the cinema, it was the cinema, it was." (JLG)


Program total running time: 2 hour and 6 minutes.
There will be no introductions.
Program Notes provided at the Door.
Doors open at 7:30pm, film at 8pm.
$5 Suggested Donation.

Special Thanks to Chloe Reyes, Cristina Fernandes, Michael Raine.


October 6, 2019

September 27, 2019

Jean Renoir 

LAST NIGHT, I had a strange dream. I was sitting at my dining room table carving a leg-of-mutton. I went at it in the French manner, which is to slice it in length. In that way, you get a great variety of cuts. Those who like it well done are served first. You wait till you get closer to the bone, for those who prefer it rarer. My guests had been lost in a sort of fog, but as I asked each one how he liked his meat, they suddenly came into a very sharp focus, and I recognized them as people I admire and like. The couples of The Best Years of Our Lives were right there at my table, smiling amiably at me. I served them, and they ate with evident appetite. Next to them were the priest and the pregnant woman of Open City, a bit more reserved but no less cordial. At the end of the table, the loving pair of Brief Encounter were holding hands. This abandon was proof that they felt themselves among friends, and I was gratified by it. As I was about to proceed to the beautiful courtesan of Children of Paradise, the door-bell rang. 

I went to open the door and found myself facing a gentleman of distinguished appearance. Off-hand, he reminded me vaguely of someone I knew well, a little old tramp who had made the whole world laugh. But I quickly understood that the resemblance was merely physical. Even under the rich fur coat of a gold-mine owner, the other one had remained a bit of a gutter-snipe. It was obvious that he would never completely get rid of his lowdown ways. Whereas this one, on the other hand, was most certainly the scion of a "good family". His parents had taught him proper table manners, and when and how to kiss a lady's hand. He had breeding. And all of his person gave off that impression of suppressed passions, of hidden secrets, which is the earmark of the bourgeoisie in our old Western civilizations. 

I introduced myself. With exquisite politeness which bespoke his old provincial background and his prep-school education, he told me his name was Verdoux. Then he placed his hat and cane on a chair, flicked a speck of dust from his jacket, adjusted his cuffs, and headed for the dining room. Immediately, the others edged closer together to make room for him. They seemed happy to see him. Obviously, they were all members of the same social world. 

After dinner, we went outdoors. But word of the presence of my famous guests had spread, and the street was crowded with people. When we walked down the porch steps, the public enthusiasm burst out. Everyone wanted to shake their hands, there was a terrific crush, the autograph-seekers were at work. Suddenly, a very dry lady, wearing an aggressive little hat, recognized Monsieur Verdoux and pointed a finger at him. And, strangely, the enthusiasm turned into fury. They rushed at him, raising their fists. I tried to understand, and kept asking the same question over and over again: "What did he do? What did he do? ..." But I could not hear the answers, for everyone was speaking at once and the caning the poor man was taking made a deafening racket. So deafening, in fact, that I awoke with a start and had to close my window, which a sudden storm wind was violently banging back and forth. 

I don't believe that the people who attacked Chaplin so sharply over his latest film (Monsieur Verdoux, 1947) did so for personal or political reasons. In America we haven't yet reached that stage. I think rather that the trouble is their panicked terror before total change, before a particularly long step forward in the evolution of an artist. 

This is not the first time such a thing has happened, nor will it be the last. Moliere was a victim of the same kind of misunderstanding. And the Hollywood commentators who have been unable to recognize the qualities of Monsieur Verdoux are in very good company, indeed. Moliere's detractors had names no less important than La Bruyere, Fenelon, Vau-venargues, Sherer. They said he wrote badly. They criticized him for his barbarism, his jargon, his artificial phrasing, his improper usage, his incorrect wording, his mountains of metaphors, his boring repetitions, his inorganic style. "Moliere," said Sherer, "is as bad a writer as one can be." 

This animosity on the part of certain self-appointed intellectuals is not the only point of resemblance between the careers of Moliere and Chaplin. 

In his early stages, the former achieved great success by simply following the traditions of the Italian Comedy. His characters bore the familiar names and costumes, their predicaments were those to which the public was accustomed. Only, beneath Sganarelle's make-up and behind Scapin's somersaults, the author injected a rarer element, a little human truth. But on the surface, there was not too much of an apparent change. When the action slowed down, a solid laying-on with a stick was always good for a laugh. The sentimental side was taken care of with formulae no different, except for the author's masterful touch, from those used elsewhere in the same period: a noble young gentleman falls in love with a scullerymaid and his family will have none of her. But, in the end, it all works out. It is revealed that the ingénue was really a well-born maiden who, as a baby, had been carried off by pirates. 

Chaplin, to begin with, simply followed the traditions of the then most popular form in the world, English farce. His feet foul him up on the stairs and his hands get entangled in flypaper. The sentimental side in his films is represented by babies left on doorsteps, street-girls mistreated by life, or other carryovers from the good old mellers. In spite of that, he never falls into the worst vulgarity of our time, phony, bathetic goodness. And beneath his character's flour-face, as well as behind the fake beards of his companions, we rapidly discern real men of flesh and blood. As he grows, like Moliere, he introduces into the conventional framework, which he has made his very own through the vigor of his talent, the elements of a sharper and sharper observation of humanity, of a more and more bitter social satire. Nevertheless, since the appearances remain the same, no one is shocked, no one protests. 

One day, Moliere decided to give up the form which had brought him his success, and he wrote The School for Wives. Accusations were heaped upon him. He was called a mounte-bank. People became irritated with him because he was director, actor and writer all at the same time. 

One day, Chaplin wrote Monsieur Verdoux. He turned his back on the outward forms to which he had accustomed his public. There was a great hue and cry of indignation, he was dragged through the mud. 

After The School for Wives, instead of giving in, Moliere went on hitting harder and harder. His next play was Tartuffe, which impaled phony religion and bigotry. 

What will Chaplin's next film be? 

I think it is unnecessary to explain why I like the Chaplin of the old school, since everyone seems to share that taste. It is even probable that some of the attackers of his present film must have written glowing tributes to The Gold Rush or The Kid. I would like, however, to present a few of the reasons which, to me, made the showing of Monsieur Verdoux a pure delight. 

Like everybody else, I have my own ideas about what is conventionally called Art. I firmly believe that since the end of the period in which the great cathedrals were built, since the all-pervading faith which was to bring forth our modern world is no longer present to give artists the strength to lose themselves in an immense paean to the glory of God, there can be quality to human expression only if it is individual. Even in cases of collaboration, the work is valuable only insofar as the personality of each of the authors remains perceptible to the audience. Now, in this film, that presence is, to me, as clear as that of a painter in his canvas or of a composer in his symphony. 

Moreover, every man matures, his knowledge of life increases, and his creations must develop at the same time he does. If we do not admit these truths in our professions, we might as well admit right now that it is an industry no different than the rest, and that we make films like efficiency experts supervise the production of iceboxes or shaving cream. And let's stop priding ourselves on being artists, and claiming that we're carrying forward the grand old traditions. `

It is agreed, some will say, that Chaplin has created a highly personal work, and we admit that he has undergone a natural artistic transformation. We only feel that he has done all this in a wrong direction. And they add that the greatest crime of Monsieur Verdoux was the killing-off of the beloved little vagabond who had been such a charmer. His creator should not only have kept him alive but depended on him in his search for a new form of expression. I cannot share this opinion. 

In giving up the rundown shoes, the old derby hat and willowy cane of the raggedy little guy whose pathetic hangdog look used to melt our hearts, Chaplin has gone deliberately into a world that is more dangerous, because it is closer to the one we live in. His new character, with neatly-pressed trousers, impeccably-knotted tie, well-dressed and no longer able to appeal to our pity, does not belong in those good old situations, outlined in strong broad strokes, where the rich trample the poor in so obvious a manner that even the most childish audience can immediately grasp the moral of the story. Before, we could imagine that the adventures of the little tramp took place in some world that belonged exclusively to the movies, that they were a sort of fairy tale. 

With Monsieur Verdoux, such misapprehension is no longer possible. This one really takes place in our time, and the problems faced on the screen are really our own. By thus giving up a formula which afforded him full security, and undertaking squarely the critique of the society in which he himself lives, a dangerous job if ever there was one, the author raises our craft to the level of the great classical expressions of the human novel, and strengthens our hope of being able to look upon it more and more as an art. 

Let me add a purely personal note here: Having given up the powerful weapon which was the defenselessness of his old character, Chaplin had to look for another to be used by his latest creation. The weapon he chose is one that appeals particularly to the Frenchman in me, steeped as he is in the 18th Century: psychological logic. 

I understand perfectly the misgivings of certain confused minds before this method which seems to belong to a bygone aristocratic era. I hope they will forgive a devoted reader of the works of Diderot and Voltaire for the pleasure he found in Monsieur Verdoux

Moreover, even when it is not thus spiced with psychological logic, genius often has something shocking about it, something subversive, some of the characteristics of a Cassandra. That is because it has better vision than ordinary mortals, and the commonsensical truths that it has still strike the rest of us as something akin to madness. 

Another reason for liking Monsieur Verdoux: I like to be amused at the movies, and this film made me laugh until my tears flowed like wine. 

I believe I see growing up about me a certain taste for collective accomplishments, the anonymousness of which is a tribute to the 
adoration of new deities. Let me mention at random some of these false idols: public opinion polls, organization, techniques. These are but the saints of a dangerous god that some are trying to substitute for the God of our childhood. This new divinity is called Scientific Progress. Like any self-respecting God, he tries to attract us with his miracles. For how else can one describe electricity, anesthesia or atomic fission? But I am very leery of this newcomer. I am afraid that, in exchange for the refrigerators and the television sets that he will distribute so generously, he may try to deprive us of a part of our spiritual heritage. 

In other times, every object was a work of art, in that it was a reflection of the one who made it. The humblest early American sideboard is the creation of one given wood-worker, and not of any other. This personal touch was present in everything, in houses, in clothes, in food. 

When I was young, in my village in Burgundy, when we drank a glass of wine, we could say: That comes from the Terre a Pot vineyard up over the hill behind the little pine wood, or from the Sarment Fountain, or from some other specific spot. Some bottles left on your tongue the silex taste of their vines, others were like velvet and you knew they came from a lush green valley with plenty of moisture. Closing your eyes, you could see a certain greyish hill, with its twisted little oaks and the imprints of the boars' feet which had been found there last fall after the harvest. And later the young girls bending under the weight of their baskets full of luscious grapes. Especially, you recalled the wrinkled face of the vintner who had devoted his life to the culture of that difficult soil. 

All the manifestations of life took on a profound meaning, because men had left their mark upon them. You felt that you were in the center of an immense prayer sent heavenward by all of the workers, with their ploughs, their hammers, their needles, or even simply their brains. Today we live in a desert of anonymity. The wines are mixed together. The stainless steel pipes in my bathroom, the wood of my inlaid floor, the fences around my yard, evoke in me only the uniform humming of the machines that produce them.

There are still a few places where we can seek a refuge. A painter can still speak to us of himself in his canvases, as a chef can in his culinary creations. That is probably why we are ready to pay fortunes for a good picture or for a good meal. And then there is also this film craft of ours, which will remain one of the great expressions of human personality if we are able to retain our artisans' spirit, which fortunately is still very much alive. That spirit is Chaplin's, down to the tips of his toenails. One feels it in a certain decent way he has of going into a scene, in the almost peasant-like thriftiness of his sets, in his wariness of technique for technique's sake, in his respect for the personalities of actors, and in that internal richness which makes us feel that each character just has too much to say. 

Monsieur Verdoux will some day go into history along with the creations of artists who have contributed to the building of our civilization. He will have his place alongside the pottery of Urbino and the paintings of the French Impressionists, between a tale by Mark Twain and a minuet by Lulli. And during that time, the films which are so highly endowed with money, with technique and with publicity, the ones that enchant his detractors, will find their way God knows where, let us say into oblivion, along with the expensive mahogany chairs mass-produced in the beautiful nickel-plated factories.

July, 1947