Many years ago, as part of my ongoing quest to see every film in the second edition of the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (959 and counting. Very slowly counting!), I watched a little-known French film called Le Trou and absolutely loved it. The film was by a director I’d never come across called Jacques Becker. It was his sole entry in the book and my attempts to see more films by him were thwarted by a lack of availability. Consequently, Becker got pushed to the back of my mind somewhat, although Le Trou always stayed with me. So when Studiocanal announced they were releasing four of Becker’s films (including Le Trou) on DVD, Blu-ray and EST, I jumped at the chance to acquaint myself with more of his work.
EDWARD AND CAROLINE
Director: Jacques Becker
Screenplay: Annette Wademant, Jacques Becker
Producers: Raymond Borderie, Andre Halley des Fontaines
Starring: Daniel Gelin, Anne Vernon, Elina Labourdette, Jacques Francois
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 88 mins
Edward and Caroline is often billed as a light comedy and, with its bright pink cover art featuring two young lovers in evening wear, I came to the film expecting just that. With its beautiful, crisp cinematography by Robert Lefebvre, lavish costumes and Becker’s ability to make his small collection of interiors seem cavernous, Edward and Caroline has a sumptuous feel suited to a lightly farcical trifle. But the tone of the material that plays out in this setting is significantly darker than one might expect, at times effectively so and at others in a queasy, misjudged way. While the film largely stays on the right side of this fence, its slips onto the other side manage to undermine it pretty severely.
I should mention at this point that I intend to talk about the plot of Edward and Caroline in its entirety, although some would contend that spoilers are of little consequence in a film that has often been described as having no plot. This is at least partially true and yet the film is not without a certain narrative drive and there is definitely tension in the close examination of a fragile relationship and whether it can survive the events of one hectic evening. One of the fascinating things about a comedy-of-manners such as this is how it allows us to glimpse the dominant attitudes of the age in which it came out. Yet this is a reductive assumption on the part of viewers like myself and accordingly Edward and Caroline refuses to completely adhere to a single viewpoint. In this way, it emerges as both complex and tentative, multi-layered but jumbled.
Edward and Caroline follows an evening in the life of the titular couple. Caroline is a beautiful, vivacious woman from a middle-class family who look down on her choice of husband, the poor but talented pianist Edward. The couple are getting ready to attend a party at Caroline’s uncle Claude’s house at which Edward has been asked to play for a group of Claude’s influential friends in the hope of furthering his musical career. Amidst the hubbub of preparation, Caroline’s whimsical flakiness clashes with Edward’s volatile temper and an escalating series of events involving a waistcoat and an evening dress lead Edward to slap Caroline across the face. Consequently, Edward attends the party alone while Caroline remains at home contemplating whether she can continue to live with her husband. Claude’s son Alain, who is in love with his cousin Caroline, gets wind of this and attempts to complicate matters further.
Edward and Caroline’s strength is in its initial slice-of-life style, which places the viewer firmly in the middle of a frantic evening’s events and makes them feel the frustration of every little obstacle. But once the pivotal slap is meted out by Edward, the tone changes significantly. This tonal change is not without warning as Edward’s nasty temper is pre-empted in an early overreaction involving the disorder in which Caroline has left his prized dictionaries. Caroline, in turn, shows her own selfish nature by denying she ever touched them and then, when Edward goes out, using them to stand on in order to examine her appearance in the mirror. Here we have a thematic crux with Caroline displaying elements of her snobbish family’s oblivious entitlement and Edward showing his own condescending preconceptions about Caroline’s class, the dictionaries acting as a weighty symbol of his imagined intellectual superiority. This class divide is brought into focus even further when, having been slapped for the apparent crime of altering her dress, Caroline yells that she can no longer live with Edward because the slap has revealed him to be “so vulgar”.
There’s always an element of discomfort about older films when it comes to depictions of domestic violence and a major fear here was that Becker would treat Edward slapping Caroline as a triviality but fortunately the film gives this event a central importance, characterising it as a hot-blooded impulse which is no less reprehensible for its spontaneity. Some of Edward’s best scenes come in the aftermath of this, as he wanders alone through a sea of patronising relatives and friends of friends like a lost little boy, at one point being led by the hand from person to person like a performing chimp. Looking to the hedonistic party guest Florence for advice on his actions, his hypothetical query about what she would do if her husband slapped her face receives an immediate, unequivocal response; “Get a divorce”. But Caroline’s response in the aftermath of the slap is not handled with quite the same sensitivity and her determination to leave for her mother’s house is treated with a misjudged condescending lightness as she comically misspells her goodbye note. Herein lies the major problem of where Edward and Caroline goes, for as Caroline arrives at the party and requests a divorce, Edward immediately and courteously accepts and in this one action the power begins to shift towards Edward instead of retaining the previous balance in which no-one really seems to have anything akin to power in the wake of a senseless act.
In a horrifying final scene Edward, smirkingly withholding the news that he has secured a prestigious new job in the apparent certainty that it will be enough to win Caroline back, locks the door of their apartment and tells Caroline he wants to rape her. As he chases her around the flat she begins screaming, at which point a telephone call interrupts them, reveals the truth and suddenly Caroline changes her attitude completely and begins kissing Edward. Now, there may be an element of satirical sting in this eleventh hour switch but even if that is the case, the scene is played too monstrously for it to work. In his fake (as far as we can tell) rape attempt, Edward is actually playing a childish game but, since Caroline is not in on the secret, what he does to her here is arguably worse than the physical violence of earlier. I could perhaps forgive the film had it ended with a slightly dated view of ‘the battle of the sexes’ as so many classic Hollywood films do but this plays like someone crossbred the end of The Awful Truth with a nightmare. In a few short minutes it bumps the film up to a 12 certificate for ‘brief sexual threat’ and knocks it down a whole star in my review.
TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI
Director: Jacques Becker
Screenplay: Jacques Becker, Albert Simonin, Maurice Griffe
Based on the novel by: Albert Simonin
Producers: Robert Dorfmann
Starring: Jean Gabin, Rene Dary, Dora Doll, Vittorio Sanipoli
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 94 mins
Having been intrigued, somewhat disturbed and ultimately disappointed by Edward and Caroline, I approached Touchez Pas Au Grisbi with an unaffected sense of optimism. After all, this was still only to be my third foray into Becker’s filmography and to allow an apparently anomalous misfire to colour my expectations after the excellence of Le Trou would be as unfair as thinking Hitchcock might be a one trick pony after a double bill of Vertigo and The Trouble With Harry! I was delighted to discover then that Touchez Pas Au Grisbi was another little-known gem from a director in whom my interest has grown rather than diminished.
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (aka Don’t Touch the Loot) stars the legendary French actor Jean Gabin of La Grande Illusion and Le Jour se Leve fame in a remarkably naturalistic, beautifully judged turn as Parisian gangster Max, a cool-headed kingpin whose taste for action and beautiful women is beginning to wane as he grows older. Max’s main desire now is to retire on the profits made from selling eight bars of gold that he and his partner in crime Riton stole. Riton, who looks like an aging, hangdog Charlie Chaplin, is not as focused or professional as Max and longs to hold onto his youth rather than slide into a carefree retirement. This desire causes him to let slip about the stolen gold to his much younger girlfriend, who in turn tells her lover, rival gangster Angelo. As Max shrewdly realises he is suddenly the recipient of unwanted attentions, he must spend three eventful days attempting to keep himself and Riton safe while also profitably disposing of the gold.
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi makes something remarkable from what could have been a fairly standard crime-thriller plotline. The screenplay, co-written by the author of the original novel on which it is based, takes the time to really draw us into Max’s world, a mixture of seedy sex-shows and drug deals, lavish meals and champagne stocked fridges, and allow us to get to know how Max functions on a daily basis before this routine is disrupted. Even when the trouble kicks off, Max adheres to certain habits. In one superb scene, he takes Riton to his secret hideout to tell him they are being hunted down by Angelo. But before he imparts this crucial news, he prepares a small meal of pate and crackers, even apologising that this is all he has to offer. Hospitality comes before urgency.
What makes Touchez Pas Au Grisbi especially notable is its focus on ageing, a theme that Hollywood films seem evermore reluctant to address in fear of alienating younger audiences. Max is clearly getting, to borrow one of Hollywood’s own clichés, too old for this shit. In one early scene he looks at the promise of an evening of drinking, entertainment and sex with beautiful women and he just can’t be bothered with it. He says that after midnight he feels like he’s on overtime, keen to get away from his friend Pierrot’s club before he has even arrived. Although he is sharp enough to get the drop on his potential assassins, Max goes through every step of this story reluctantly and with a sense that, in a few short years, he might no longer be able to stay ahead of the game. It is only through his loyalty to Riton, whom he affectionately refers to as “porcupine head”, that he ends up constantly moving from place to place, putting himself in harms way for what he hopes will be the last time. Their friendship is the film’s wild card, a touching wrinkle on a grubby face that drives the narrative forward even as it prevents Max’s plans for a quiet future from also doing so.
As you have probably gleaned, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is not an action film or a high-spirited caper but a thoughtful meditation on growing older by way of the crime genre. Of course, the way the narrative is heading inevitably means that there is a climactic action scene and Becker completely delivers on this build-up with a tense, economically presented stand-off that doesn’t feel like a jarring shift in gears. A lesser director would probably have ended on this scene but Becker wisely shifts down again for a quiet, thoughtful ending that brings the film full circle visually and thematically. In one of the last moments, Max puts on a pair of glasses and another character remarks that she has never seen him that way before. This is not another tired glasses-as-metaphor-for-seeing-the-light moment but rather a comment on the perception of others. Max’s reply that he needs them to read shows his acceptance of his ageing body but how readily will those who see him as an indomitable force accept his growing frailty? Touchez Pas Au Grisbi opens with scenes of Max eating at his favourite restaurant in the company of a young woman. This is also the way it ends. Were the viewer to skip from the first scene to the last scene, they wouldn’t see much difference but having been privy to everything that has happened in the intervening three days, the difference is glaring. It’s a beautiful, perfect way to end a remarkable film.
All those years after having fallen in love with Le Trou, I’ve really enjoyed finally seeing more of Becker’s work and, despite my distaste for where Edward and Caroline ultimately went, I can see a master craftsman at work in both of these films. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi in particular passes immediately into my list of great films of the 50s and an essential work for fans of the crime genre, albeit one that takes a far more deliberately-paced look at the world of the gangster. Becker’s next film was to be a colour comedy-adventure take on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a fact that still leaves me with no idea of what to expect from the next Becker film I encounter. Sometimes this unpredictability makes the experience of exploring a lesser-known artist’s work even more exhilarating.
Edward and Caroline and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi are released by Studiocanal on DVD, Blu-ray and EST on 21st August 2017, along with two other Jacques Becker films, Casque D’or and Le Trou. Extras are as follows:
- Interviews with Professor in Film Studies Ginette Vincendau on both films
- Edouard Et Caroline on Au Cinema Ce Soir
- Jacques Becker on Le Jazz Et La Jeunesse
- New interview with Jean Becker on Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
- Jeanne Moreau on Gros Plan