Saturday, November 22, 2014

L'Année sainte

1976, US, directed by Jean Girault

This is a contribution to the fifth annual Late Show blogathon, hosted, as ever, by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

The final card in many careers is a dispiriting one: there really aren't that many people who go out on a genuine high, and Jean Girault's lightweight comic fable about two escaped prisoners disguised as members of the clergy was never likely to restore Gabin to the glories of old. In truth, the actor seemed to have been playing out the string for more than a decade by the time the end came. The 1970 Simenon adaptation Le Chat, starring opposite Simone Signoret, was one of his best postwar films, as Gabin himself recognized, but it's a rare highlight for the period after 1963, which marked the close of the second great phase of his career (perhaps not quite as glorious as the pre-war phase, but fine nonetheless, with even the lesser films brisk and well-constructed and with Gabin still magnetic despite the advance of middle age).

The saddest thing about L'Année sainte is how diminished everything seems. Gabin had been convincing in roles far beyond his years since at least the early 1960s where the role called for it -- he's quite brilliant as the apparently retired politician of Le Président, for instance -- but here he is very visibly decrepit himself. The sequence where the camera lingers on him as he struggles with a a set of stairs would seem almost cruel if had been shot by a more skilled director, whereas in Girault's case I suspect that it just didn't occur to him to do anything more creative.

Gabin was never an especially vain actor onscreen -- he makes no attempt to conceal his jowled face or his ample belly in something like Un Singe en hiver, playing opposite Belmondo in his absolute prime -- but the passage of time never seemed like a distraction in such roles, and in many films he projected a continued energy that belied his chronological age, with the decisive, overbearing farmer of La Horse perhaps the exemplar in terms of his later career, although he shows quite the turn of speed in Un Singe en hiver when running from exploding fireworks.

But Gabin is only a symptom of the larger malaise, in which the overall cheapness of the enterprise is revealed by the frequent shots of an airplane with obviously different logos depending on whether it is shown in flight (in the livery of the fictional Air Italia) or taking off (when it's interchangeably a Pan Am 'plane and a KLM airliner). Such technicalities wouldn't seem so significant except that they are so glaring, as if to signal that the filmmakers have virtually nothing invested in their product.

The same is true of the appearance of the glorious Danielle Darrieux. There's no real reason for her character to exist since she barely contributes to the plotline, but once the filmmakers invent her they barely trouble themselves actually do anything meaningful with the actress, one brief, nostalgic scene between Gabin and Darrieux perhaps excepted.

As with half a dozen of his later films, Gabin shares the lead with a much younger actor, on this case Jean-Claude Brialy, although unlike Gabin's film with Belmondo or the several pictures he made with Alain Delon, Brialy is mostly called on to react to Gabin rather than to do much of interest himself. It was hardly the most glorious of decades for Brialy, either: he made very few films during the 1970s, after a great run from the late 1950s through the end of the subsequent decade, and this is at best a forgettable entry in his filmography, though the line where Gabin summarily rejects a third cellmate on the basis that he's gay acquires a certain frisson from the knowledge that Brialy was comfortably out far earlier than many actors.

It's tempting to read a greater degree of meaning into some of the other lines, too, particularly Darrieux's comments about having known Gabin's character in his pre-war glory, while there are perhaps allusions to Gabin's mortality -- nothing too surprising, given that he had suffered from health issues for several years, and indeed hadn't made a film for a couple of years by the time this opportunity came along. If the film doesn't mark a glorious ending to Gabin's career, it does at least have an amusing finale, and Gabin gets to deliver the payoff line with a flash of the old energy that made him so compelling across four decades.

Incidentally, Jean Girault has his own Late Films story, as something of a career-ending specialist: he died during the filming of Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes, the fifth and final entry in that series of astonishingly popular films that starred Louis de Funès, which also became de Funès's last picture since the actor died a few months later. De Funès marks roughly the edge of the boundary of my enthusiasm for French popular culture: he's an actor whose appeal often eludes me, especially when he is not paired with another, less rubber-faced performer (he was excellent with Gabin and Bourvil in La Traversée de Paris, though). His final film was hugely popular in its year of release, but I could barely make it past the half hour mark, blogathon or not.


D Cairns said...

A melancholy conclusion to a great career. But it is December, after all.

Gareth said...

Plus, as a friend said, it's still Gabin and perhaps we hold actors like that to a higher standard.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States