“Duvivier is ripe for rediscovery”, declares Ben McCann in the opening to his book on French filmmaker Julien Duvivier and indeed the cineaste is a welcome addition to the French Film Directors series published by Manchester University Press. The series itself is designed for students and teachers seeking a rigorous critical study of French cinema, as well as the cinema enthusiast, and McCann’s book is certainly aimed at this broad audience. Researching his book in Paris archives, McCann admits that he “detected an explicit shift in [Duvivier’s] critical reputation, from cool detachment to a warmer acceptance,” concluding that we have therefore “reached a point where his legacy and his diverse output are being re-evaluated.” (p. 15) This book makes an important contribution to this re-evaluation of Duvivier’s legacy which, for McCann, was long overdue. The need for reassessment is in part because, from around 1947 through to the 1990s, Duvivier and many of his films “were erased from film history” (p. 2). This book seeks to redress this oversight on the part of critics and film scholars and restore to Duvivier his rightful place in the history of the cinema. McCann’s point is not that all Duvivier’s films have passed into oblivion; it is rather that many of his films have and that there is a need to restore to these films their place in an oeuvre which might be called ‘auteurist’. It is a strong claim, and one I think holds up well, particularly when expressed in McCann’s engaging and persuasive style.
Meticulously researched, McCann’s book is the first-ever English-language study of this French “auteur” – a contentious label for a director who has long been situated outside the realm of French auteurist cinema. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the director’s career alongside close analyses of familiar works such as the films he made with Jean Gabin, among them La Belle Équipe (They Were Five, 1936) and Pépé le Moko (1937) – the subjects of most pre-existing scholarship on Duvivier’s cinema – alongside his lesser-known films, to consider how they are “equally representative of his artistic prowess and how they showcase his exemplary technical and narrative control.” (p. 6)
Perhaps the most daring aspect of McCann’s reassessment of Duvivier is claiming for the filmmaker the status of an auteur. Duvivier has long been dismissed as a technician – a metteur en scène – and denied the more creative or artistic classification of auteur. In his introduction and first chapter – aptly titled the “Impure Auteur” – McCann makes a compelling case as to why Duvivier deserves the status of auteur. He then goes on throughout the book to demonstrate that Duvivier’s standing as auteur is both assured and definitive, particularly by considering in detail the key films of Duvivier’s œuvre and locating in them recurring motifs and themes.
In addition to staking a claim for Duvivier’s status as auteur, McCann has four other main objectives in his book. First, he argues for Duvivier as an accomplished film technician and hardworking, skilled professional as well as the creator of a “scrupulous moral universe” (p. 3). According to McCann, Duvivier’s film worlds are populated by the recurring themes of “pessimism, misanthropy, the cruelty of the crowd, fatalism, defective memory, masquerading, exile, and the (im)possibility of escape” (pp. 3-4). Second, McCann shifts to a socio-political approach to Duvivier’s oeuvre. Unlike the films of Jean Renoir or André Cayatte, Duvivier’s cinema seldom dealt with politics in any direct or explicit way. Even his most apparently “political” film, La Belle Équipe, was in Duvivier’s eyes only political in the sense that any film about the working class takes a left perspective. McCann seeks to demonstrate how Duvivier’s films “engaged with significant historical developments, such as pre-war anti-Semitism, class and race in America, the climate of reprisal in post-Occupation France, and the emergence of 1950s youth culture,” occasionally offering up “contested ideological readings” (p. 4), rendering Duvivier’s political agnosticism problematic. Along similar lines to this deconstruction of Duvivier’s dis-engagement, McCann also examines the critical penchant for dismissing the filmmaker’s attitude towards women as misogynist, arguing that Duvivier’s gender politics is more complex, reflecting social attitudes towards women rather than any personal view or opinion. Third, McCann demonstrates how these various aforementioned themes were portrayed in terms of style and aesthetics. Despite the often “invisible” nature of the director’s visual style, McCann perceptively locates in Duvivier’s films hallmarks of what he calls the “Duvivier touch”: “expressive close-ups and double exposures, highly fluid camera movements, strong central performances by established stars and new actors, and the nuanced incorporation of music, costume, and production design.” (p. 4) Finally, McCann’s overall objective is to demonstrate that Duvivier is “all about opposites: misanthropic versus good-hearted, cruel versus sentimental, auteur versus metteur en scène, commerce versus art, French versus ‘international’, Hollywood versus artisanal, ‘maniaque de la précision’ versus ‘rêveur’.” (p. 5) Duvivier’s contradictions signify, for McCann, a “productive conflict” that shaped his extraordinary career.
Chapter 1 provides an overview of Duvivier’s early life as well as his shifting reception and reputation throughout his career. Here McCann argues for the need for “restoring the reputation” of the filmmaker and outlines the three main reasons Duvivier has been “airbrushed out of French cinema”: a “critical consensus” from the mid-1950s that characterised Duvivier as lacking in a signature style or personal approach; the perception that he was undiscerning because he made too many films; and an “unsavoury reputation” amongst his cast and crew which diminished his significance as a director (pp. 12-13). Perhaps most importantly, this chapter also considers in more detail the “Duvivier touch”, detailing the filmmaker’s formal and thematic preoccupations. Here McCann outlines the themes and patterns of Duvivier’s cinema including: men’s stories but not women’s stories, “Black realism” (pessimism, despair, nihilism, deception and duplicity); “the outside coming in”, and “the group”. In terms of style and technique, McCann details the recurring elements and treatment of these in Duvivier’s cinema: for example, his settings contain “a strongly evoked sense of space” (p. 21), and his cinema is filled with colour – that is, “authentic sights and sounds”, and actual sites shot on location. Subsequent chapters focus on Duvivier’s silent era films, the director’s relationship to religion, his transition into and experimentation with sound cinema, and his Hollywood period from 1940 to 1945 when the director renewed his approach to filmmaking by bringing “Frenchness” into a markedly different industrial system (p. 110).
In response to the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to Duvivier’s American films, McCann argues that a re-evaluation of his Hollywood period is long overdue, stating that once in America Duvivier “continued to make innovative, challenging, and interesting films that were both critically and commercially successful.” (p. 111) Here, McCann also considers Duvivier’s diverse “artistic and professional compromises” while working in the Hollywood system. Fittingly subtitled “Darkness and Light”, the fifth chapter, spanning the decade 1946-1956, relates Duvivier’s difficult homecoming to France in the post-war period. In this chapter McCann provides detailed analyses of several films from the period to claim Duvivier as a filmmaker of “dynamic variability” (p. 5) who is “firmly positioned at the interface between auteur and popular cinema of the 1950s.” (p. 183) In the final chapter, “Late Style”, McCann outlines Duvivier’s late period from 1956 until 1967 (Duvivier died four weeks after shooting ended on his last film Diaboliquement vôtre [Diabolically Yours, 1967]), claiming that the filmmaker established an undeniable “late style” that leant his films from this period a “startling modernity” (p. 5). After 1956, McCann writes, the director “continued to push at the rigid boundaries between commercial and auteur projects, working with significant stars (Bardot, Darrieux, Delon, Léaud) and creating a diverse body of “late style” work that is a rich storehouse of themes and ideas about the future of French cinema” (187).
McCann skilfully positions Duvivier’s work within the larger context of French cinema. A key strength of the book is the author’s lively and engaging writing style and the seamless transitions of his chapters which draw the reader in. McCann’ growing enthusiasm and passion for the subject grows on the reader in turn, all the more so as it is supported by the author’s rigorous scholarship. Indeed, meticulous research is another key aspect of the book: in constructing his study McCann draws on a range of French and English-language materials sourced from archives including the BFI Library London, Bibliothèque du Film Paris, and the Margaret Herrick Library Los Angeles. Of the 68 films that Duvivier made over a five-decade career, McCann has viewed 57 (constituting, as McCann himself points out in his usual precise way, 84% of Duvivier’s cinematic output).
One of the stated aims of the MUP French Film Directors series is to “provide informative and original English-language studies of established figures, and to extend the range of French directors known to anglophone students of cinema”, as well as to promote the formal and informal study of French cinema and the enjoyment of its audience. McCann skilfully achieves these aims in what will become an invaluable study of an often overlooked and marginalised figure in French cinema. Further, McCann’s insistence on the auteurist nature of Duvivier’s cinema should ensure that an otherwise heterogeneous body of work may be understood instead as a continuous, if oftentimes polarised, thematic and stylistic unity.
Julien Duvivier will find its readers among both cinema scholars and a general cinephile audience. In particular, it will appeal to academics and students of French Studies and Film Studies who are interested in directors whose work traverses different historical periods and genres, and which blends the popular with auteurist cinema. McCann provides a wealth of information on the director’s life, times and work as well as an accessible yet rigorous critical study of Duvivier’s cinema which brings Duvivier into line with his other more revered contemporaries – also featured in the series – Renoir and Carné. If, as McCann argues, Duvivier’s work is ripe for re-evaluation, then this book is surely the guide to such an endeavour. Indeed, it might serve well as a companion to the revisiting of Duvivier’s cinema or, for those familiar only with his best-known films, an exhaustive introduction to those films which, for one reason or another, found their way into the ashcan of cinema history.
Ben McCann, Julien Duvivier (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).