Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Goupi Mains Rouges

1943, France, directed by Jacques Becker

Like Henri-Georges Clouzot with Le Corbeau, Jacques Becker made his first major film in 1943 (after, in Becker's case, a long period of close collaboration with Jean Renoir). Both directors chose the claustrophobic confines of a small country settlement as a metaphor for Occupation-era France. Becker's setting is even more restricted than in Clouzot's film, since his characters are all members of the same extended clan, the Goupi family; each member has a different nickname, ranging from Goupi Tonkin, a veteran of France's Asian adventures (part of a rich vein of commentary on France's relationship to her colonies), to the eponymous Mains Rouges (wonderfully played by Fernand Ledoux, the standout in a tremendous cast).

There's nothing bucolic about this country tale, however, which reveals spectacular jealousies and a mad dash for personal gain whenever the opportunity presents itself: like Clouzot, Becker never masks his cynicism about the motivations of many of his fellow-citizens during wartime.The film undermines the notion of a peaceful country retreat from the very beginning: when one of the clan, Goupi Monsieur, makes his way from Paris to his father's home -- a place he barely knows, due to the fact that his parents separated -- the atmosphere is about as welcoming as that of the opening segment of Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, when Harker journeys to Transylvania, a sequence that was surely in Becker's mind.

For all that Becker takes a dim view of human nature, however, his film is blackly humorous rather than dour, and there's occasionally an almost frantic tone, as family members steal from one another and desperately try to discover the location of what they believe is a hidden fortune. Despite their internecine strife, however, they're adamant about regulating their affairs themselves: at one point, the paterfamilias comments that "a gendarme will never set foot here," perhaps implying that even in occupied France there are limits to the Goupi clan's willingness to tolerate outside authority.

One of the most striking aspects of the film -- beyond, in retrospect, the fact that it was made at all in such conditions -- is Becker's sense of the French countryside. Whereas his son, also a film director, indulges in a soft-edged view of the past in films like Les Enfants du marais (1999), Becker père never romanticises the financial hardships of country life, nor the restrictions under which some of the clan's members chafe. In some senses, that desperate search for hidden treasure, unpleasant though it may appear, is a pragmatic response to the family's financial needs, as they endeavour to make ends meet. It's not hard to see the first stirrings of European neo-realism here, notwithstanding the difference in tone from the early Italian neo-realist films.

Becker confidently switches registers from deep seriousness to high comedy in several virtuoso sequences, without the transitions ever seeming abrupt: the viewer is constantly on the back foot, never quite sure what to expect either with regard to the story or the treatment of events. The final joke comes after all seems lost, and yet it simply underlines the ability of this self-contained community to regulate itself and ensure continuity in the face of adversity, either personal or political.


The Siren said...

This looks fantastic and you have me wanting to see it. Le Corbeau was one of my best viewing experiences this year.

Gareth said...

It's a shame that no-one seems to have thought this movie worthy of a super-duper cleaned-up transfer. The existing versions are not in great shape, and don't do Becker's visual work justice. I've seen it suggested that Becker was much more than a mere assistant to Renoir, and while I tend to credit Renoir for most of what is Renoir's, Becker is no slouch!


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