Term Paper: Emile Zola and the Movies

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[. . .] It was then that his love of the developing motion picture industry led him into directing.

Renoir maintained a profound respect for life and nature. His affection for "the common man" did not blind him to the foibles of the individual, however, and a number of bonafide minor classics emerged from Renoir's efforts in the years prior to World War II, among them Bondu Saved From Drowning (1932), Toni (1935), The Lower Depths (1936), The Rules of the Game (1939, a commercial failure now viewed as Renoir's masterpiece), and The Grand Illusion (1937, perhaps his most widely-acclaimed work).

During and following the Second World War, Renoir's output is generally seen as dropping away from the peak years of the Thirties, but he still turned out such respected and entertaining films as French Cancan (1955) and (1951, you either love it or hate it). Renoir was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1975 and was inducted as an officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1977. He died after a long, full life in 1979, universally praised and frequently cited as France's greatest director.

In 1938, Renoir scripted and directed a film version of Zola's La Bete Humaine / The Beast in Man. Humaine had been published in 1890, and was one of the author's last groundbreaking works. With Jacques Lantier, Zola introduced a main character who almost ventured into the territory pioneered by Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Lantier, a railway engineer, is at heart an ordinary sort, but he suffers from one of the primary themes of the series (0f which this novel is a part): mental degeneracy. Lantier is subject to moments of insane and uncontrollable rage, during which he is compelled to assault and murder, most often women. When the railway worker sees the station master and his beautiful young wife disposing of a man who had made "improper advances" to the woman, what first seems to be an opportunity for blackmail is transformed by a number of factors (not the least of them sexual obsession) into a triangular confrontation worthy of a later James M. Cain novel. When Lantier becomes involved with the young woman, her husband becomes the unwelcome third wheel in the relationship.

In a pleasant development, Renoir's version of the story delivers more than might have been expected. Simone Simon is beautiful and undeniably enticing as the stationmaster's wife, but it is Jean Gabin, perhaps the quintessential French leading man, who carries the film beyond Zola's original boundaries. His Lantier is a man at war with himself. At his center, he wants what most men take for granted; the chance to live a normal life filled with normal joys and problems, but due to his fatal flaw, the "Hyde" side of his personality (often defined as an epileptic condition by modern reviewers, he understands that he is never more than a moment away from destroying even the most sacred portions of his existence. He doesn't actually need the "inherited tragedy" of Zola's explanation. He is really any man who has looked within himself to find an awful capacity for violence and the realization that his best efforts will not be sufficient to keep that violence trapped in its own black pit forever. It is as much a part of his emotional makeup as love or tenderness.

Gabin, a much underrated performer, doesn't need histrionics to convey this terrible truth to the viewer. A change of expression, a small glint of chaos in his eye, these things remind Lantier - and the viewer - that nothing will turn out right in the end. As much as he would give to change his fate, he knows that eventually the Darkness will well up from inside him and drag him into itself. Gabin's performance is riveting, and credit must go to Renoir for his direction of it. The undercurrent of suffering and hopelessness is not only translated from Zola's novel to the screen, it is also cleverly magnified.

Marcel Carne

At first glance, moody, dark Marcel Carne would seem to be an ideal craftsman for interpreting Emile Zola on screen. Born in Paris in 1909, he worked several jobs, including apprenticing to his cabinetmaker father and selling insurance, while studying film in night school. By 21, he was working as an assistant cameraman with Georges Perinal and then with the delightful Rene Clair as assistant director. He began a very productive association with poet/screenwriter Jacques Prevert after making his debut as a feature director in 1936. Over the next decade, the two produced some of France's most renowned works of cinema, including the uncharacteristically light-hearted Bizarre, Bizarre (1937), Port of Shadows (1938), and Daybreak (1939).

Carne was typically fatalistic and dark in his style. It was said of him that he would rather construct an entire city in-studio than step outside to film a cloud passing below the moon, but this devotion to complete artificiality (designed in large part by Alexandre Trauner) worked very well in the moody "poetic realism" style of the immediate pre-War years. Carne became highly successful and widely regarded during this time.

Even the invasion of the Nazi hordes couldn't keep Carne from producing two well-received films: The Devil's Envoys (1942), and a work which still shows up on many lists of the all-time best motion pictures, Les Infants Du Parades / Children Of Paradise (1945). The latter was named the greatest French film of the century in a poll of 600 French directors, critics, and motion picture workers during the mid-1990's.

Carne's popularity dropped precipitously following this acknowledge classic, however. Unlike his contemporaries in France and abroad who were liberating their cameras from studios, Carne largely refused to change with the times. He continued to work rather steadily, but without Prevert and Trauner, the glory days were over. By the time of his death in 1996, Carne had been forgotten by many film fans and dismissed as something of a "one-hit wonder"(Children Of Paradise) by many critics. Actually, he was quite good at what he was most attracted to, even if a lack of versatility denied him the status that many had once predicted.

In 1953, Carne filmed a version of Zola's first really important novel, Therese Raquin (known as The Adulteress in the United States). The tale of orphaned Therese who is forced into an early marriage with her sickly cousin Camille, only to face desperation in all areas of her life until meeting the virile Laurent was a revelation to the reading public in the mid-1860's.

Sexual tensions which had been predominately male-focused (as well as addressed only metaphorically) until that point exploded into the mainstream, and descriptions of injury, death, decay, and disease which had been relegated to historical accounts of warfare and the Inquisition were suddenly fodder for "recreational" reading. Once the doomed Camille is supposedly out of the way, Therese Raquin mutates into something of a ghost story, with the guilty couple literally haunted by their actions. Was there in fact a ghost, or is this an early example of what has come to be known as psychological horror? That's up to the reader to decide, but what is real within the parameters of the novel is the suffering through frustration in its first half and through the knowledge of their sin in the second portion.

Carne's version of the story proved to be an odd duck. Simone Signore as Therese, Raf Vallone, as Laurent, and Jacques Duby as Camille all appear to neatly fit their respective parts, but the tone of the work never rings true. The movie seems to be Carne's attempt to shoot his own film noir entry (a genre' some critics feel that the director's own earlier works helped to bring to the screen). Even at her darkest, the Therese of the novel inspired some measure of sympathy; the reader could understand why she felt the way that she did, and Laurent was in some ways as much a prisoner of his life as she of hers. Their suffering was something that the reading audience could identify with in their own experience, if to a much lesser degree (hopefully).

The people who populate the 1953 film version seem to be as much annoyed by their circumstances as trapped within them. It would hardly be a shock to hear a vintage Barbara Stanwyck voice-over punctuated by short, gun-short observations from Bogart as the actors go through their paces in the French movie. The understanding of the motives remains, but the space separating the performer from the viewer is wider and colder. You really never care what happens to Simone and the men in her life, so, at least in this way, Zola's characters, who were intended to be little more than types observed from a distance by the author, seem more real than the very real people we see before us. Therese Raquin was really about a decade… [END OF PREVIEW]

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