David Cairns, the Scotland-based filmmaker, critic/instructor and proprietor of the most delightful film blog on the internet, recently announced that he'd be mailing DVD-Rs, burned from VHS recorded off TV in the 80s, of Julien Duvivier's 1939 film La Fin Du Jour (The End of the Day) to anyone who asked nice. This is something like the ultimate cinephiliac gesture — an unknown, unavailable film from a once-renowned, now-out-of-fashion director, recorded from a chance broadcast, dug up out of an archive, and advocated passionately for. (He's said he's doing this because he wants to rewrite film history for the movie's sake.) It's a lovely film and I thank him for the opportunity to see it.
We begin with a traveling company of actors packing up and moving from one half-filled provincial theater to another — they start striking the set almost before the curtain's all the way down. And that's the movie in a nutshell — taking place predominantly in a home for aged actors, it's a brisk, tender look at the dying of the light, and the importance of soldiering on in the service of the craft.
The well-constructed script (which seems as if it'll reward multiple viewings) weaves the old wounds and needs of the characters (each of whom is shaped to embody a different tragicomic response to aging) into a story primarily concerned with theater as storytelling, and storytelling as the force that gives life meaning (and fame, an audience, to affirm the value of your story).
There's some frank tear-jerking, but Duvivier's pacing tamps down sentiment: a frequent device when transitioning from one scene to another is to cut to a camera already moving. This makes it all the more moving when he does stop to silently linger, one by one, on the weathered faces of the extras. (Because of the quality of the disc, I can't really comment on the visuals too extensively — a shame, I do love the high-gloss lighting and lowly poetry of the prewar French cinema.)
And one moment that made me laugh. If you read Nicolas Rapold's interview with Arnaud Desplechin in last week's issue, you'll recall this exchange:
The L: To begin at the very beginning, the city name Roubaix appears on screen under the original French title. Could you explain the significance?So I felt a slightly cosmic breeze at the back of my neck at a dicey moment in Fin Du Jour, when it looks as if the old actors' home will be shut down, and the residents are informed of their new living arrangements. The most physically exuberant, young-at-heart of the actors is assigned to a residence in... Roubaix! "Not Roubaix, you can't be serious!"
Arnaud Desplechin: Yes — Roubaix! with an exclamation point. It's sort of a silly French joke. I was looking at some Sacha Guitry movie at home, and there was this funny line. Sacha Guitry's character is arguing with his secretary, and he says, "If you still behave like this... you will be a teacher of German in Roubaix!" It's a funny line because Roubaix is terrible: cheap, gray, austere, the kind of place you don't want to stay anymore. I was born there, and I think it's nice to transform such a landscape that is austere, gray, dull, and to see the beauty of it, the nobility.