Friday, April 18, 2014

The Fanny Trilogy

I am going to try doing my movie reviews one at a time both to increase my post output and to see if the prospect of shorter posting helps my concentration and thought contrast.

The Fanny Trilogy: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), Cesar (1936)

A working class family saga set in the old port of old Marseille, adapted from Marcel Pagnol's plays. Pagnol, like Cocteau and other French creatives of that era, worked across the artistic spectrum. I don't believe he painted, but he was a playwright and novelist of considerable renown in France--he has never been as widely celebrated as a literary figure in this country, my sense is because his writing tended in the direction of a romantic realism that has not much interested our best creative and critical minds since his time--as well as a film director. He was heavily involved in the production of all three of the Fanny movies, but he only directed the third one. The director on Marius was Alexander Korda, one of whose other efforts, Rembrandt, was seen here a few years back, and that on Fanny was Marc Allegret, with whom I am not otherwise familiar.

I like these films. I don't love them, though maybe I would love them if I saw, or had seen them a few more times, on occasions which would in after years call up momentous associations. Each of the three does have a different style, likely due to their having different directors, but I cannot say that any one installment stands out as far superior or inferior to the others. I would say that Korda's was the most polished film, but Pagnol did some interesting things with staging, both indoor and outdoor, and Allegret's contribution had a somber, realistic quality about it that I liked. Raimu, the actor who played Cesar, seems to have been the big star among the cast members. I suppose he was good--I have often maintained that French movie acting in the 30s and 40s was the greatest in the annals of that art, and there were a number of excellent performances in this, though overall it seemed a little below the level of the Carne-Renoir-Cocteau films I was thinking of--but I had trouble warming up to him, I think because he looks just like the father of one of my old high school friends, the lawyer who was always chastising me about not being productive. I thought the actor who played Marius (Pierre Fresnay) was appealing, and those who handled the supporting roles of Monsieur Panisse and Monsieur Brun (played by Fernard Charpin and Robert Vattier, to give credit where credit was due) helped to elevate the movies considerably. Orane Demazis as Fanny was pretty, and gives off an air of perfect Frenchness. I am not as keen of a judge of female acting (though I can tell that some people, Edith Evans say, were good). Many critics have found her to be a weak link in the cast, though I cannot detect that this is the case.

The main appeal of this trilogy to me is the poignancy of the lost time that it depicts. One feels this strongest in the final episode when Pagnol does some filming outdoors on the streets of Marseilles, a city that since this film was made suffered extreme bomb damage during World War II as well as having become much less classically French or Provencal in character due to the constant influx over the last century of immigrants, especially from North Africa. Granted, every place is less classically itself than it used to be, even where there has been less significant change in the make-up of the population, but in Marseilles apparently the changes have somewhat more of an in your face aspect than in others. Nonetheless, one sees these old scenes full of people who are no longer alive, streets and cars and occupations and rituals and clothing fashions and attitudes that have come and gone, and it is affecting. The classically French cafe-bar that Cesar runs I guess you can still find variations of, just like you can find old style bars all around America, but it isn't really the same. Their raison d'etre is too elevated, their business plan too sophisticated. They don't exist for a schlub like me to get comfortably plastered in anymore.      

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