Au Bonheur des Dames (1930)

“You seem to use women too easily, my dear man. People get hurt in that game. Beware, one day one of them may avenge the others.”

I’ve been reading quite a few Zola novels lately, and since I have a fascination with the book/film connection, it was only a matter of time before I started watching film versions of Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. Some months back, I watched Gervaise (1956) which is based on the 7th novel L’Assommoir, and then recently I found a copy of Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies Paradise), a silent 1930 version of the 11th novel in the Zola series. This film is from director Julien Duvivier. He also made Pot-Bouille based on another novel in the series, but I haven’t found a copy of that with English subtitles yet.

While the novel is set in the hustle and bustle of France’s Third Empire, the film is set in the 1920s, and the film immediately captures the atmosphere of a world in flux–a world of horses, carriages and small businesses about to be replaced by cars and huge department stores.

The film begins, appropriately at a train station with the arrival in Paris of young Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), an orphan from the country who’s arrived to join her uncle at his small shop. As she steps off the train and makes her way through the bustling streets of Paris, a plane flies overhead showering leaflets advertising the huge department store, Au Bonheur des Dames. Everywhere Denise turns there’s mention of this phenomenon and when Denise first sets eyes on the glittering lights and the gorgeous window displays, she’s mesmerised.

Unfortunately Denise’s uncle invited his niece in better times. The mammoth store Bonheur de Dames, which is directly across from her uncle’s business, has effectively ruined him.  His grimy, dingy little shop simply cannot compare to the glittering competition. He’s no longer in a position to employ anyone, and so Denise drifts across the street to the beckoning lights of the Bonheur des Dames and there she’s employed first as a floor model. 

Soon she attracts the attention of several men: a homely young clerk, the lascivious manager and the owner, Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand)….

The film lacks the complexities of the book. Background information on Octave Mouret is absent, and unfortunately the film simplifies the intensity of Octave Mouret’s business acuity. In the novel, he’s a brilliant businessman, and this is detailed in several instances. In the film, however, this is distilled down to the essentials and the physical evidence of the Bonheur des Dames. For example, in the book, Octave sets in motion a fierce sense of competition between the shop clerks by giving commissions. In the film however, employee interactions are mostly limited to a brawl in the cafeteria, and a bitchiness between the floor models. Neither does the film address the dilemma of Denise’s divided loyalties, and only hints at the book’s depiction of Denise as a woman with an intuitive business sense that matches Octave’s ambition.

Although the film simplifies the book, it is not a disappointment.  The film’s strength lies in its depiction of the huge department store. Interior scenes depict a lavish, garish Tower of Babel with distant aerial shots of the customers resembling ants on a giant anthill as they ascend and descend the enormous, central sweeping staircase. Close-in shots concentrate on the madness and mayhem of the shoppers in riot-like scenes.

As Mouret plans the expansion of the Bonheur des Dames, neighbourhood shops fall victim to the insatiable appetite of progress, and phantasmagorical scenes depicting the destruction of the old shops are juxtaposed with the expansion of Mouret’s   “Temple of Temptation” to consumerism. Another scene depicts Octave’s love interest, madame Desforges (Germaine Rouer) sitting in an alcove against the backdrop of a gorgeous art deco mural. Beautiful shots of reflections in mirrors and in glass windows are scattered thoroughout the film.  Visually this is a gorgeous film and Dita Parlo’s wonderfully expressive face is complemented with plenty of close-ups.

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Filed under France, Silent

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