Friday, August 10, 2012

Mademoiselle Docteur

1937, France, directed by G.W. Pabst (aka Salonique, nid d'espions)

Pabst's first slice of exotic wartime intrigue is rather more successful than the follow-up, Le Drame de Shanghai, not least, I suspect, because the setting is a couple of decades in the past and rather less bound to contemporary events; there are no asides on the geopolitical realities here. It's also a more carefully conceived bit of work -- it has some of the vivid set pieces that characterize the later film, particularly during an exuberant nightclub scene, but there's also a precision and care in the quieter sequences, the camera subtly moving from one character to another, or lingering on an apparently insignificant object while the action happens outside the frame.

Louis Jouvet appears here, too, as a spy whose cover story involves a vegetable shop; Jouvet's features and voice seem perfectly attuned to the kind of moral compromises that are inevitably part of the spy game, with a world-weariness apparent on his face before ever he opens his mouth. As so often during this phase of his screen career, Jouvet's part is brief but vividly drawn, though on this occasion the rest of the cast is also very strong: Pierre Blanchar's work as the oiliest of intermediaries is especially good, while Jean-Louis Barrault makes an indelible cameo appearance, while I'd never have guessed that Dita Parlo starred in L'Atalante -- she's entirely convincing as the self-possessed spy of the title, nothing like the barge-girl of the earlier film.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States