A cool Paris in the evening, 1951. Atop a flight of stairs the window to a modest apartment sits closed, overlooking Rue de Seine. (Take a left at the end of the street, Musée d’Orsay; take a right, Notre Dame.) The image is fleeting: mere seconds are granted to take in the bustle of city shoppers, of workers making their way home under the bright street lamps; that mystical power of self-propulsion drawing people towards their personal destinations. The apartment is simple, like that of a cheaply rented space above a grocer – clothes are hung over middling wooden chairs, books are piled up on top of a disused fireplace, a painting of a ship sits in front of it confirming it so. Indeed, there is no table in the middle of the living room that makes up the small studio apartment that this couple inhibit – the chairs sit idly, as if awaiting a guest that will never arrive. It is a glimpse that can only be described as banal as the camera then shifts right to introduce the main stars of the film, yet is equally fascinating in its exploration of the very same banality.
Like many of the features made during Becker’s short career (he died in 1960, aged 53), Édouard et Caroline (1951) is without political allegory or defining message. Antoine et Antoinette (1947) and Rue de l’Estrapade (1953) share this with Édouard et Caroline: light romantic comedies that are miles away from the defining pictures that he previously worked on with Jean Renoir as assistant director, namely La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). Becker’s own style was not immediately obvious and perhaps he was working through the aforementioned films to find it. As he said himself, “I am French, I work on Frenchmen, I look at Frenchmen, I am interested in Frenchmen” (1).
It is on this basis however that Édouard et Caroline should be judged. Not as the light romance that it was viewed as in 1951 (The New York Times dismissed it upon release as “a heap of effort… expended on a wispy story, which the scenarists [sic], director and cast have the devil’s own time in keeping from blowing away entirely” ) but as a study of working class Parisians.
François Truffaut, one of the most prominent directors of the nouvelle vague, suggests Becker’s focus on “stories that were simple, vivid, true to life” worked against him (3). “Perhaps what alienated audiences was his way of working with very few elements and events”, he further argued. Becker “wasn’t into sensationalism” and a track record of major films often being released around the same time as his own smaller pieces ensured he was often ignored during his lifetime and only through the process of revisiting were critics and audiences able to reassess his work and acknowledge it without interference.
Becker entered Édouard et Caroline in competition at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Considering it against the winners, Vittorio De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano and Alf Sjöberg’s Fröken Julie (Miss Julie), it is on the chancy side of nominees and it disappeared behind Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, the film that earned the award of best director.
Watching Édouard et Caroline in 2014 it becomes evident that French film romanticism owes much to the work of Becker. Édouardis a product of the jazzy cinema of the 1930s, a scene Becker himself frequented – Édouardis as bohemian as one can possibly be, living as a pianist with his wife Caroline Beauchamp whose family are prominent members of the bourgeoisie. Édouard hates them, declaring he would sooner die than wear the waistcoat owned by such a person. Still, he loves his wife and concedes that some battles are best not fought too strongly and obliges with her request, sneaking jokes at their expense instead. (Becker does the same, particularly via Igor, the man hired to serve drinks, reducing the Beauchamps to hilariously petty imbeciles who take issue with his moustache.)
Becker’s method was also starkly different to the training that Renoir granted him, and different again to that of many directors of the time. When shooting smaller scenes for the very economical Renoir, Becker would use “as much film on exteriors as Renoir used on all the rest”, says Marguerite Renoir, an editor on multiple Renoir films who later worked with Becker. It is the core of Becker’s approach to cinema, a style that is far more successful when attempted organically. For example, consider filming the exterior of a downtown building for 30 seconds while capturing a brief snippet of sounds and image, as compared to say five minutes and the witnessing of birds flying past, people opening their windows to smoke and listening to stretches of conversation at length.
It is this elegant approach that has only been able to be fully appreciated since his death. Marguerite Renoir approximates his filmic sensibilities in the following way: “When I speak about continuity, it wasn’t about making sure a cigarette was the same length in two shots, but a continuity of emotions”. Take into account the brief appearance in Édouard et Caroline of the landlady’s nephew, Ernest. He is not a heroic man that we imagine earning a stack of medals for bravery – he is more likely to be killed on the first day of battle, such is his nervous tendency to tug at the brim of his cap. He needs to be pushed into the apartment by his aunt and he spends his time in there looking absolutely clueless as to how he should behave, as if he were a pimply teenager dressed in his father’s old suit at graduation. Becker’s men of war are not heroes to be singled out and applauded but equal to the men and women he explores on the street, only in different clothing. Just as his bohemians display horrible, violent tendencies, so to is the reverse granted to the men in charge of weapons.
Remember the final shot, where the camera reverses the introduction and pans left, returning to the closed window now facing the same street in the very early morning. Édouardhas accepted Caroline’s request for divorce after slapping her across the face, and he is now trying to bed her one last time. The attempt is embarrassing – he chases her around the room like a plaything and upon catching her she screams. The phone rings. It’s an opportunity for a paid gig, but more importantly it’s the answer to all their problems. Passionately they embrace and the camera pans over objects we’ve not yet seen in the room, items of suggested value – a small statue, an impressive religious painting – that hint towards a successful future, monetarily speaking. Here Becker does not shy away from the humanity of his characters: Édouardhas admitted his wrongdoings; Caroline accepts that she still loves him. We may not applaud her for taking him back but that is the least of Becker’s concerns. What matters most is seeing them happy, above everything else. Given what the world looked like in 1951 maybe that’s what we need.
1. Ginette Vincendeau (in the Encyclopedia of European Cinema, 1995) cited in “Jacques Becker”, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?: http://www.theyshootpictures.com/beckerjacques.htm.
2. A. W., “Edouard et Caroline”, The New York Times 30 April 1952: http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/145006/Edouard-et-Caroline/overview.
3. This and all subsequent quotations are taken from Claude de Givray’s documentary Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967).
Édouard et Caroline (1951 France 88 mins)
Prod Co: Union Générale Cinématographique/Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinématographique Prod: Raymond Borderie Dir: Jacques Becker Scr: Annette Wademant, Jacques Becker Phot: Robert Le Febvre Ed: Marguerite Renoir Prod Des: Jacques Colombier Mus: Jean-Jacques Grünenwald
Cast: Daniel Gélin, Anne Vernon, Elina Labourdette, Jacques François, Betty Stockfield, Jean Galland