Though lesser known than some of his later films, Goupi mains rouges (1943) was Jacques Becker’s second solo feature and received acclaim at the time of its appearance in Occupied France. It also became the first film from that period to gain an American release after the Liberation, retitled It Happened at the Inn. After working as an assistant to Jean Renoir on Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), La Vie est à nous (1936), Partie de campagne (1936), Les Bas-fonds (1936), La Grande illusion (1937) and La Marseillaise (1938), Becker left production of his initial feature as director, L’Or du Cristobal (1939), at the outbreak of hostilities to serve in the French Army. After the defeat, Becker returned to work directing his first completed film, Dernier atout (1942), a gangster film parody, before making Goupi mains rouges, the movie that led him to be regarded as one of the most important film directors of his generation. Goupi mains rouges is a challenging and ambiguous film, one that may be regarded as either pro-Vichy or subversive of Marshal Petain’s values of “Travail, Familie, Patrie!” (1). Yet, far from falling into either category, Goupi mains rouges may actually belong to that category of deliberately challenging and hybrid works of French Occupation cinema (an era from which more films need to be seen outside of France, to say nothing of English translations of books and articles in French that have appeared since Evelyn Ehrlich’s pioneering study of this cinema ). However, if we avoid categorising Goupi mains rouges as either pro- or anti-Vichy then it can be seen as one of those Occupation films that utilise ambiguity, cinematic hybridity and paradox to challenge the restraints imposed on cinema at this time.
French Occupation cinema operated under conditions of financial and ideological restraint. It often resulted in the employment of techniques of low budget filmmaking, so it is not surprising that many of the films of this cinema reflected the visual style of what would soon become recognised as film noirin Europe and the United States, helping to highlight that the style did not immediately spring up in the postwar era. Alongside Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), several other “Occupation” films further developed the “roots” of French film noir that actually began in the 1930s, as L’Assassinat du Père Noël (Roger Chapatte and Christian-Jacque, 1941) reveals. Goupi mains rouges was adapted from a novel by crime writer Pierre Véry, who also worked very closely with Becker on a screenplay derived from his 1937 novel (3). Working with a team that included many key Jean Renoir collaborators such as editor Marguerite Renoir and cinematographer Christian Matras, Becker directed a film very close in spirit to the ambiguous hybridity characteristic of works such as Jean Gremillon’s Le Ciel est à vous (1944), where the celebrations of the aviation achievements of a French married couple played by Madeleine Renaud and Charles Vanel could be interpreted as an ode to the resilience of the occupied French nation as much as celebrating Vichy family values. Along with the remarkable German Expressionist/poetic realist/proto-film noir, Voyage sans espoir (1943), directed by Christian-Jaque (who also made other significant noirs during this period), Goupi mains rouges may be regarded as a covert critique of Vichy ideology that collates oppositions that, unlike the conclusions of Gregory Sims, cannot be resolved – nor should they be. As claimed earlier, more work is needed on this aspect of French Occupation cinema especially that involving the challenging aspects of noir.
Featuring two key actors from French cinema – veteran Fernand Ledoux (1897-1993), known especially for his roles in Le Bête humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938), Les Visiteurs du soir (Marcel Carné, 1942) and his appearances in two versions of Les Misérables (1968; 1982) that starred two icons of French cinema (Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura, respectively); and the infamous Robert Le Vigan, now best known for references to him in three Louis-Ferdinand Céline novels (Castle to Castle, North and Rigadon) – Goupi mains rouges belongs to a venerable tradition of French literature and film ranging from rural satires such as Clochemerle (1934) to celebrations of country life.
Beginning at Goupi Inn while introducing several family characters, with gendarmes seated at a gaming table where money changes hands, the economic thrust of the film becomes evident even before Paris dweller Goupi Monsieur (Georges Rollin) arrives at the dark country station. As several critics have noted, these night scenes evoke the visual world of German Expressionism. They also anticipate a similar opening scene in A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) the next year, both engaging in national celebrations of rural life, one affirmative and the other satiric. Both films also contain dark elements that they attempt to resolve in different ways. In the Archers film, the “glue man” faces penance for his nocturnal activities while the Cathedral service looks forward to D-Day. Goupi mains rouges ends by seemingly celebrating Vichy family values while it subtly undermines them by visually emphasising the economic imperatives that really motivate Goupi family values.
Becker has directed a deliberately diffuse film. Merging elements of the detective mystery, romance, comedy and melodrama, the film is structured by Véry in such a way as to resemble his detective novels, with relevant clues provided to the viewer. Such clues appear throughout the film both visually and thematically. In many respects, Goupi mains rouges is a French version of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), a novel that deliberately satirised the popular rural novels of Mary Webb. Goupi mains rouges is no less satirical but keeps its satire low-key so as not to offend the sensibilities of Marshal Petain and the ruling “Tea Party” of the time. Economic greed is not confined to the big city but rules this agrarian community as illustrated by the name of Monsieur’s father, Goupi Mes Sous (Arthur Devère). Like his entire family, Father, who thinks he knows best by summoning a seemingly affluent son from Paris to marry one of the Goupis, wishes to know the location of the family treasure hidden by the 106-year-old Goupi L’Empereur, an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte. (The murder of the sharp-tongued, whip-wielding Goupi Tisane [“Tea”; Germaine Kerjean] motivates the detective mystery aspect of the film ). Although appearing like an effeminate dandy, even Monsieur shrewdly reveals his grasp of Goupi economics when he answers the gendarmes’ question about existing on a low salary as a tie salesman in Paris by mentioning the commission he gets on each sale. His eventual inclusion into the family is not entirely due to his espousal of the land (depicted in an excessive Vichy propagandist scene). He removes his tie and jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and surveys the countryside in a distinctive left to right point-of-view panning shot that ends with Goupi Antoinette (Blanchette Brunoy) entering the frame with overt signifiers of the sexual (but only marital) pleasures of Mother Earth. It is doubtful whether Becker regarded this as a serious scene since it is filmed in a manner that resembles a Vichy agrarian wet dream.
Goupi Mains Rouges (Ledoux) is the black sheep of the family. Family prejudice has led in the past to the suicide of his sweetheart, Goupi the Beauty. He exists outside the family circle, carving his own version of voodoo dolls that resemble detested family members. Goupi Tonkin (Le Vigan), another impoverished but deranged representative of French colonialism, later uses the same dolls to express his resentment against the Goupis when he loses Antoinette to Monsieur. When Goupi later hears a flashback confession from Tonkin, it ends with the hapless Jean (Albert Rémy) and Tonkin standing opposite each other. A lap dissolve returns us to the present with Mains Rouges standing in Jean’s position, the new scene revealing he and Tonkin standing in identical positions to those seen in the preceding scene. Jean will be cleared of the crime and brought back into the fold at the end of the film, as is Mains Rouges. But Tonkin will die a sacrificial victim for family guilt and French colonial exploitation, both based on economic greed. Before Tonkin falls to his death from a tree, Becker uses a handheld camera to reveal a shaky point-of-view overhead perspective of the forces of law and order waiting below. With them is Grandfather Goupi La Loi (“the Law” played by Guy Favries) who is an ex-gendarme.
In the final scene, the family allow Mains Rouge, grudgingly, to sit at the family table. The black sheep returns to the fold less due to sympathy on the part of his relatives but more due to the fact that the ailing Emperor seems to whisper the location of a family secret he already knows. At the table, Mains Rouges delivers a speech seemingly espousing pro-Vichy values of work and land rather than economic gain (although he does say that money would be available should the family fall on hard times). A less dandified, shirt-sleeved Monsieur looks forward eagerly to his new patriarchal duties of making Antoinette be fruitful and multiply. That scene would have warmed the anti-Semitic, reactionary heart of the old Marshal. Yet the final shot is deliberately ambiguous. In a masterly mobile movement, the camera moves from the family table to a long shot of the bedridden Emperor to a close-up of the grandfather clock where the loot is hidden in the pendulum and weights. Sims sees the final image as “a reassertion of the value of the eternal, of the timeless over the temporal and the material” (5). But rather than seeing it as a symbol of Vichy family unity, it is more appropriate to regard it as a symbol of the economic greed that has characterised the Goupis throughout the film. It is also a critique of the right-wing materialism behind the veil of Vichy propaganda. Despite the changes Becker and Véry had to make to the novel (6), they supply several clues in the best manner of the latter’s detective novels to alert the keen eyes of any viewer whether in the past or the present.
1. Observing Goupi mains rouges’resolution of visual and thematic oppositions – where “ideology is performative, betraying itself and seducing less [by] what it says than through what it does, through the silences it imposes and the fault lines it artfully glosses over” (31) – Gregory Sims makes a detailed and well-researched case for regarding the film as more directly related to Vichy ideology than it appears. See “Returning to the Fold: Questions of Ideology in Jacques Becker’s Goupi mains rouges,” French Cultural Studies no. 13, 2002, pp. 1-31. For opposing views see James Travers, “Goupi mains rouges”, French Film Site 2011: http://frenchfilmsite.com/review/1943-G/Goupi_mains_rouges.html; and Otis B. Driftwood, “Goupi mains rouges”, DVDClassik February 2003: http://www.dvdclassik.com/critique/goupi-mains-rouges-becker. Alain Masson sees Goupi mains rouges and Becker’s first completed feature as not historically dependent on anticipating the stylistic and thematic features of his later work. See, “Des debuts resolve”, Positif no. 608, 2011, pp. 96-98.
2. Evelyn Ehrlich, Cinema of Paradox: French Filmmaking Under the German Occupation, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985.
3. The novel appeared a year before the adaptation of his Les Disparus de Saint-Agil (Christian-Jacque, 1938) featuring Erich von Stroheim (who acted in several French pre-war noirs).
4. Goupi Tissane is named “Tea” in the subtitled DVD I was viewing, an appropriate name under present circumstances in the United States. Travers (2011) asks, “Is there any significance in the fact that she resembles a Nazi, governing the other Goupis with a barbed tongue and a ready whip?” One remembers the zealous attitudes of many of the French and gendarmes when rounding up Jews. It is also worth noting that Alain Resnais had to remove stills of French police from concentration camp documents that he intended to use in Nuit et brouillard (1955).
5. Sims, p. 18.
6. See Sims, pp. 19-26. Apart from dealing with the complex issues of adaptation raised by Sims, I wish to note that the film does state that the founding Goupi father was a “rootless drifter” while Mains Rouges uses the term “itinerant”, a term applied to Jews who had no fixed location according to Vichy propaganda (see Sims, p. 21). The reference to Republican violence obliquely remains both in the term “Red Hands” as well as the scene where Tonkin decapitates one of Rouge’s voodoo dolls that he identifies with a family that has disowned him for economic reasons.
Goupi mains rouges/It Happened at the Inn (1943 France 96 mins)
Prod Co: Les Films Minerva Prod: Charles Méré Dir: Jacques Becker Scr: Jacques Becker, based on the novel by Pierre Véry Phot: Jean Bourgoin Ed: Marguerite Renoir Art Dir: Pierre Marquet Mus: Jean Alfaro
Cast: Fernand Ledoux, Georges Rollin, Blanchette Brunoy, Arthur Devère, Robert Le Vigan, Germaine Kerjean