- Julien Duvivier by Ben McCann
In this, one of the latest contributions to Manchester University Press’s ever useful French Film Directors series, Ben McCann announces from the outset that he believes it is time to “rehabilitate” Duvivier (3). Marginalized, [End Page 495] if not completely erased, viewed as an uneven filmmaker, a second-rate semi-auteur, a technician or artisan rather than an artist, Duvivier nonetheless made sixty-eight films and had a significant impact on the industry and culture within which he worked. Given the recent restoration and release of a number of long-unavailable Duvivier films on DVD in both France and the United States, McCann’s book is a welcome and useful addition to any library—personal or institutional—especially because no other book-length study of the director has been published in English.
McCann clearly states the book’s four objectives in his introduction. First, he argues that Duvivier created a “scrupulous moral universe” (3). In so doing, he characterizes Duvivier’s filmmaking as dark, cruel, and pessimistic. Second, he situates Duvivier’s work within its political and social context, including “significant historical developments such as prewar anti-Semitism, class and race in American, the Climate of reprisal in post-Occupation France, and the emergence of 1950s youth culture,” as well as examining Duvivier’s ambivalent representation of gender politics (4). As one can glean from this list, the book balances its examination over the whole of Duvivier’s career, rather than over-weighting its analyses towards the well-trod ground of the 1930s or late 40s (although McCann does not banish discussion of Duvivier’s most famous films, such as La Belle équipe). Third, McCann articulates how although Duvivier’s style might seem to be “invisible” in fact it can be characterized by certain recurrent articulations such as “expressive close-ups and double exposures, highly fluid camera movements, strong central performances by established stars and new actors and the nuanced incorporation of music, costume, and production design” (4). This question of directorial signature is likely to irritate or be dismissed by film scholars “tired” of auteur studies (which is rather bad faith if one has even gone so far to pick up a book about a single director!), but is nonetheless valuable in that the inclusion of close analysis can be both insightful for specialists and highly informative for student and general cinephile readers looking to gain a greater aesthetic appreciation of Duvivier’s filmmaking. In any case, this objective is essentially an obligatory component of the auteur study, and in this case, a challenging endeavor, insofar as Duvivier’s oeuvre suffers from decades of critical and scholarly literature already dedicated to and supporting a clear and strong consensus that he did not in fact have a noteworthy style. McCann’s fourth and final announced objective is to reveal how Duvivier is all about opposites: “misanthropic versus good-hearted, cruel versus sentimental, auteur versus metteur en scène, commerce versus art, French [End Page 496] versus ‘international’, Hollywood versus artisanal, ‘maniaque de la précision’ versus ‘rêveur’ ” (5). The book is organized into six chapters, the first of which gives a sort of general overview (almost a second introduction) that lays out the stakes, questions and issues to be seen across the ensemble of Duvivier’s films and extant scholarship on them, while the remaining chapters are structured chronologically and examine what McCann has identified as the main periods of Duvivier’s career.
The body of McCann’s text is replete with nuggets certain to be of interest to specialists (few of whom working outside of Paris will have had access to the large number of Duvivier films that McCann has viewed, or to the wealth of press resources he incorporates). Thus, McCann’s brief presentation of Duvivier’s co-directed (with Henry Lepage) 1924 documentary La Mchine à refaire la vie sounds fascinating (34–35). I also appreciate his smooth (and informative) integration of the films’ reception histories, including his synthesis of current Duvivier scholarship—tidbits about discourse on noir and the policier in the specialized press at...