One of the most regrettable holes in home video right now is the one shaped like French master Julien Duvivier. Only a scant half dozen of his more than 70 films are on DVD. Thankfully, Facets is working to fill in the gaps, having released the utterly charming Poil de Carotte> (1924) earlier this year. Now they’ve come out with a beautiful restoration of Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930), the director’s last silent film and certainly one of the landmarks of French cinema.
Concurrently a modernist fantasia and urban nightmare, Au Bonheur Des Dames focuses on the rivalry between a fast-rising department store, Ladies’ Paradise, and a small mom-and-pop storefront across the street. A 20-year-old Dita Parlo (that vision of monochromatic beauty from Vigo’s L’Atalante and Renoir’s Grand Illusion) stars as the young woman caught between the two businesses. Arriving in Paris to work in her uncle’s small fabric shop, Parlo finds the sky literally raining advertisements — planes overhead are dropping flyers for Ladies’ Paradise. In an urban montage that rivals the surreal multiple-exposures of Murnau’s Sunrise and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, Parlo is accosted by visual representations of the clamor and crowds of the metropolis, a sequence which culminates in the excessive splendor of Ladies’ Paradise, a department store to end department stores. A palace of fast-moving crowds, shiny objects, grand staircases and sickeningly ornate architecture, the department store is a beastly manifestation of all of consumerism’s grand promises.
Across the street, however, is the bare independent shop, where customers hesitantly poke their heads in, ashamed to show their faces before turning around and heading to the competition. So poor is business that Parlo is sent away to earn her paycheck elsewhere. Naturally, she heads to the department store, where she becomes part of an army of bobbed-haired, lingerie-clad models. Temptation, however, lurks in the enemy camp, as the ambitious manager of Ladies’ Paradise has fallen in love with her, but also harbors plans to wipe out her uncle’s store forever.
In addition to the visual splendor of Au Bonheur Des Dames — its symphonic editing, alternately lyrical and percussive, and inventive compositions that exemplify the magical potential of the silent screen — what is so impressive about Duvivier is his flawless transitions between contrasting tones. At points a whimsical romantic comedy, a formalist satire in the style of Vigo, an anti-capitalist cine-essay à la Eisenstein, and a brutal drama about life’s losers left behind in the name of “progress,” Au Bonheur Des Dames is a marvelous stylistic mélange unified by Duvivier’s capricious, multi-faceted sensibility.
Also on DVD this week:
Fatal Attraction (1987) (Paramount, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – Adrian Lyne directed this sleazy, Academy Award-nominated thriller in which Michael Douglas played a married doctor whose one-night stand with Glenn Close comes back to haunt him when she won’t let the affair die.
Indecent Proposal (1993) (Paramount, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – More sleaze (though this time not nominated for an Oscar) from the auteur of white-collar sordid affairs, Adrian Lyne. In case you don’t remember seeing this way back when, Robert Redford wants to pay Woody Harrelson one million dollars to sleep with his wife, Demi Moore. Who could we get to remake this?
The Jack Lemmon Film Collection (Sony, Region 1) – Comprising five films of the legendary comic actor – including Phffft! (1954), Operation Mad Ball (1957), The Notorious Landlady (1962), Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963), and Good Neighbor Sam (1964) — this box-set makes us miss the guy all the more.
Zane Grey Theatre: Complete Season One (VCI, Region 1) – 14 and a half hours of this classic anthology program from the golden days of television, based on the stories of iconic Western author Zane Grey, and hosted by Dick Powell.