Friday, June 18, 2010

L'Assassinat du Père Noël

1941, France, directed by Christian-Jaque

As with so much of French cinema during the occupation era, L'Assassinat du Père Noël is set in an enclosed community - a snowbound Alpine village in this case - that it's tempting to interpret as a sort of metaphor for occupied France, and particularly for the threat of corruption from within in the form of collaboration. Accusations of collaboration no doubt rang in the ears of director Christian-Jaque (and others, like Henri-Georges Clouzot, then also in the employ of the German-controlled Continental Films), and obviously obliged them to be rather indirect in their critique. As Susan Hayward has written, though, it's almost equally easy to interpret the film, and others of the period, as a paean to a France of the past, in other words to find in it a rather conservative, even vaguely Pétainist viewpoint.* It's perhaps that ability to be all things to all people - and, crucially, to appear innocuous to the German censors - that accounts for the film's substantial success when first released.

Although the film announces itself as a whodunit, the promised plotline is ultimately rather unimportant, with the question of Father Christmas's killer not even raised until well past the halfway point in the film. Instead, Christian-Jaque spends his time serving up a detailed portrait of the village, populated - indeed over-populated - with a variety of eccentrics, not the least of whom is the baron, just returned from many years abroad to cast his sinister shadow over the village. Harry Baur, one of the great stars of the era, and shortly to die in the custody of the Gestapo, plays a local craftsman, a globe manufacturer, who dresses up as Santa Claus each year, and he's especially amusing in the sequences in which Santa comes under the increasing influence of the alcohol with which each and every family rather liberally plies him.

As David Cairns has noted, Christian-Jaque employs a highly mobile, eye-catching camera, moving around within both the village and the interior spaces - a cosy inn, a rather bleak castle, a workshop - to explore both the nooks and crannies and their inhabitants, and he makes good use of the unusual, snowy location, perhaps most obviously in the atmospheric nighttime scenes when two rambunctious boys go exploring. Given the shadows in these sequences, I'm guessing that they may have been shot "day for night," but they're still filled with mystery and a sense of danger - much more than the main intrigue. That plot is the film's weakest element, thankfully balanced by an intriguing group of character actors and the prowling, curious camera.

*Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, revised edition 2005.

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