Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A '50''s rarity: Gervaise

I must admit I have not read any of the great 19th century French novels (Balzac, Zola etc) where grim malevolent fates lay in store for the likes of Madam Bovary, Therese Raquin, Cousin Bette and of course Gervaise and her daughter Nana .... Maria Schell in Rene Clements' 1956 film GERVAISE delivers a great performance even if she smiles too much as everything conspires against her, but today's feminists would scream at her almost wilful complicitness in her own misfortune and putting up with those useless men who leech off her and not seeing through her rival Viriginie. Clements' film though has the complexity of a greart novel and its a marvellous recreation of 19th century Paris working class life.

Poor Gervaise has a limp, works in the laundry (there is a great extended fight scene), men use and abuse her, she can't be with the real man she loves, the roofer husband has an accident and takes to drink and sinks into a spiral of alcoholism and is soon using up all her money from her shop .... and she too sinks into drink as little Nana runs wild. Strong stuff ! This adaptation of Zola's L'Assommoir is a harrowing and somewhat excruciating tale of working-class Parisians in the mid-19th century. .

The film begins with Gervaise being left by her lover Lantier, leaving her with two young boys and she finds out everyone knew about his cheating. This leads to an extended cat fight when Gervaise is confronted by the other woman's sister, Virginie (Suzy Delair) at the laundry. Unfortunately for Gervaise, this incident has long-term ramifications for her.

Gervaise then marries the roofer Coupeau (Francois Perier) and they have a daughter Nana, but his roofing accident takes all their money, but his steadfast friend Goujet who quietly loves her, loans Gervaise the money to finally open her own laundry shop, but then Virginie returns with her own plan for revenge as she re-introduces the neighbourhood. Coupeau who is sinking into a spiral of drink becomes best friends with Lantier and even invites him to move in with them! Both men are soon using up the profits of Gervaise's shop, the disgusting Coupeau even pawning customers' sheets, while Lantier casually forces himself back on Gervaise whose shame kills her blossoming romance with Goujet. Finally the only solace for Gervaise is to hit the bottle herself.

Schell won the best actress award at the Venice film festival and was soon on her way to Hollywood. Clements had a good run of interesting films I like a lot: KNAVE OF HEARTS with Gerard Philipe in 1954, GERVAISE in '56, THE SEA WALL (or THIS ANGRY AGE) which I have written about here several times (Silvana Mangano label) in 1958 and PLEIN SOLEIL in 1960. His 60s successes included LES FELINS with Delon again and Jane Fonda, and the 1966 IS PARIS BURNING?

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