Director: Jacques Becker 
Writers: Maurice Auberge, Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe
Starring: Raymond Rouleau, Micheline Presale, Jean Chevrier
Year: 1945
Duration: 111 mins
Country: France
BBFC Certification: 12

It really is very sad that more people aren’t aware of Jacques Becker. It is, however, perhaps understandable. For a start, he died young (at only 53 years of age) leaving behind just thirteen feature films to his name. Secondly, those feature films vary wildly in terms of genre. Becker made everything from tragic romances, to gangster films, comedies and prison movies. Like a French Howard Hawks, it is almost impossible to pin him down, ensuring that his work is difficult to categorise and therefore canonise. 

Thankfully, someone at StudioCanal seems to be on a mission to ensure that Becker’s name and reputation does not fade away with the passing of time. Over the last several years, several of his most accomplished works have been released on Blu Ray, including the comedic Edward and Caroline, the dark, unusual gangster film Touchez Pas au Grisbi, the utterly gripping (and severely underrated) prison break out film Le Trou and perhaps his best known work, Casque d’Or, a tragic, heartbreaking historical romance starring the great Simone Signoret (Arrow, to be fair, have also released Montparnasse 19, where Becker stepped in to replace Max Ophüls after the latter passed away).

This month sees StudioCanal continue in their mission of bringing Becker to a wider audience with the release of Falbalas (also commonly known as Paris Frills), a lesser known work from the director made in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s. Not that you’d guess, of course. Falbalas, a romantic drama set in a Parisian fashion house, feels a world away from the brutality of foreign occupation; yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that it avoids an exploration of the darker and more ugly side of human nature. 

It stars Raymond Rouleau as Philippe Clarence, a mercurial fashion designer who sees women and relationships as disposable as last year’s designs. When he encounters Micheline (Micheline Lafaurie), his best friend’s fiancé, he decides to try and seduce her as his latest conquest. Yet there is one thing Philippe didn’t count on – the fact that he might actually fall in love with Micheline, a turn of events that has devastating and far reaching consequences.

At its heart, Falbalas is ostensibly a tragic romance, which immediately likens it to Casque d’Or (a modern day equivalent would Paul Thomas Anderson’s A Phantom Thread). Yet the film is an altogether rather different beast from Becker’s masterpiece. Whereas Casque d’Or (or any tragic romance for that matter) relies upon evoking audience sympathy for doomed lovers forced apart, Falbalas presents us with a man so selfish and unsympathetic that it keeps the audience at an emotional distance. At one point early on in the film, his current lover rifles through a wardrobe, where Philippe has kept the dresses of past exploited lovers as trophies to his sexual conquests. As unlikeable as he may have been in the 1940s, his behaviour today seems even more repulsive and exploitative, immediately recalling the abuse of power over women exemplified by such figures as Harvey Weinstein. 

Yet it is to Becker’s great skill that this doesn’t turn the audience off completely. There is no doubt that this is due in part to the other half of Philippe’s dangerous liaison, where Micheline’s plight and very human mistakes are captured with far more empathy. It is the combination of watching the affair unfold, in both feeling for Micheline and at anticipating the consequences of Philippe’s actions, that draw you in and keep you watching. This isn’t so much a film about the tragedy of unrequited love but more a warning about the dangers of love itself, of how passion and obsession can catch you unawares and destabilise you entire existence.

The backdrop in which this doomed affair plays out positively brims with authentic detail. Becker’s mother ran her own fashion house, so it is not surprising that the world of Falbalas feels so rich and fulfilling. From the design of elegant dresses, to the sweat and toil that goes into making them, all wrapped up in the pressure cooker of getting everything ready for the big reveal of a fashion show, the environment of Falbalas feels as much an intrinsic part of the film as Philippe and Micheline’s story. Anyone who has even a passing interest in 1940s fashion or of fashion in general, will find an Aladdin’s cave of delights in Falbalas’ visceral evocation of Parisian haute couture.

The elegance depicted in the world of the film also finds its way into Becker’s film making. Utilising stunning use of close ups that pre-dates Bergman, Becker never lets the constraints of having to film under the strict rules of occupation (the production was not allowed to use electricity during day, for example) to hamper his visual style. The first meeting between Philippe and Micheline is wonderfully captured via drifting shots on an elevator, while the closing moments of the film contain some of the most hauntingly romantic imagery I have ever seen committed to celluloid. Indeed, the last five minutes of Falbalas contains such yearningly beautiful, dreamlike visuals that you feel Becker should earn his place among the great auteurs of 20th century cinema on their strength alone. 

Falbalas may not be a perfect film. Its pace can drag at times and the development of Philippe’s feelings for Micheline from simple attraction into something more powerful is captured jarringly, where his feelings change more because you feel the screenplay demands it rather than because he has gone on a believable emotional journey. 

Yet putting those few faults aside, Falbalas remains a haunting tale of lust and desire, shimmering with striking visuals and romantic yearning. It confirms, if any more confirmation was needed, that Jacques Becker is one of the most under appreciated directors of classic world cinema, with Falbalas being another essential edition to an filmography ripe for rediscovery.

Falbalas is being released on Blu Ray, DVD and Digital by StudioCanal on the 25th October. Based on a new restoration, the picture quality (as seen in a comparison featurette) significantly improves upon older versions. Upon viewing the Blu Ray version, I would say that the picture quality isn’t the most astounding I have seen from a film of this era. Maybe it is due to the source used for the restoration, but the film appears rather soft throughout, lacking some fine detail and definition. However, in places this actually benefits the film, especially in regards to its dreamlike final moments. While it may not be anything to write home about, Falbalas looks pretty decent overall. Music and dialogue sound clear while the English subtitles were perfectly legible throughout.

The Blu Ray disc contains the following extras:

  • Falbalas, A Family Affair
  • Fashion and clothing, Jean Paul Gaultier
  • Interview – Micheline Presle
  • Auditions
  • Falbalas, restored version 

Falbalas, A Family Affair: In this half hour interview, Jacques Becker’s son discusses the film and his Father’s career. He amusingly admits that he hates fashion (finding it boring) and that his interest in the film stems from the characters. He explores his rather difficult relationship with his Father, shedding some illuminating  light on the man behind the films.  A frank, open and interesting interview.

Fashion and Clothing, Jean Paul Gaultier: In another half hour interview, the always engaging and friendly fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier discuses the huge impact Falbalas had upon his career. He discusses the fashion world seen in the film and offers his thoughts on its accuracy, before moving onto more general thoughts about the world of fashion and design. A fun and informative interview.

Interview – Micheline Presle: In an archive interview, the main actress from Falbalas recalls her friendship with Jacques Becker and reminisces about working on the film. A touching interview that offers a warm portrait of the director.

Auditons: These are clips from a series of auditions from various supporting characters in the film. Amazing that these have survived! They offer an interesting insight into the behind-the-scenes process, but it isn’t the most riveting watch.

Falbalas, restored version: This is a brief picture in picture comparison of the restored version of film played against an older film print, offering a comparison of several scenes and moments.

 

  

Falbalas
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