Monday, December 3, 2012

Brother To Him That Destroys

As a warm-up for tomorrow's Criterion Bluray release of PURPLE NOON (1960) - Rene Clement's vibrant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mister Ripley - I thought I'd check out GERVAISE (1956), Clement's ultra-bleak adaptation of Emile Zola's novel, L'Assommoir. I'd seen Clement's FORBIDDEN GAMES ages ago and found it tedious but I loved NOON so I figured GERVAISE - which came out a few years ago on the Essential Art House Criterion sublabel - might serve as a Clement tie-breaker.

Uniting the three films together into some grand thesis about Clement would take more thinking than I'm able to do right now. Their subjects - war-scarred children in GAMES, hedonistic playboys in NOON, and the beset doormat/woman in GERVAISE - are very different and the films tend to mold themselves around the characters rather than the other way around. Clement was a stellar craftsman but didn't necessarily have a particular stylistic signature or thematic obsession. So any ideas I had of playing connect-the-dots from GERVAISE to PURPLE NOON were quickly dashed. However, I'm glad I found an excuse to get to GERVAISE. It's a solid film.
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GERVAISE's eponymous heroine is played by Maria Schell as a woman constantly on the verge -- of tears, of violence, of self-destruction, of infidelity. There isn't a melodramatic color in Zola's palate that doesn't get smeared all over poor Gervaise's mussed-up mien. She's poor, has a gimp leg, lives out-of-wedlock in a society that frowns on such things, and has an attraction to the most boorish men she can scavenge up.

When we meet her, Gervaise is leaning out the window of the disheveled flat she shares with her live-in lover, Lantier, (Armand Mestral) and their two children. She's pining for his return whilst he's cavorting with the town trollop and her equally trollop-y sister, Virginie (Suzy Delair). When Lantier does finally stumble home, he expects a clean house, a warm meal, and for her to shut the kids up. Naturally, she capitulates to his bullying. There's isn't so much a codependent relationship as it is some extra-depressing variation on Stockholm Syndrome.

Gervaise works at a wash-house, a job that looks especially thankless. After her daily dose of verbal abuse at home, she heads to work where she learns that Lantier has left her for the aforementioned trollop. For once, Gervaise sticks up for herself, channeling her rage toward Virginie, culiminating in one of the most impressive cinematic cat fights of all time.

(That's Virginie in the center.) The two women slap and slip all through the steamy, soggy wash house. It's a brutal exchange and extremely well-choreographed. If you're just going to study one scene in GERVAISE, I suggest this one.

The fight culminates in Gervaise ripping out Virginie's earring (with a wince-inducing spurt of blood):

And, better still, a literally public, bare-bottomed spanking administered to Virginie by Gervaise to the cheers of their co-workers.

The melee ends with Gervaise victorious and, more importantly, no longer fettered to her useless brute. She cuts out on her own, marries a roofer, and begins taking steps toward opening her own washing business. The film irises out as Gervaise enjoys a deliciously decadent Christmas goose:

Oh if only that was the end! But GERVAISE is too brutal to let us off easy. Zola has a point to make about the misery of the working class, especially when alcohol abuse gets thrown into the mix. And Zola isn't afraid to stack the deck against his beset heroine.

Her new husband is involved in an accident where not only does he fall off a roof, he also has a pot of hot coals dumped on his head. Tweaked slightly, the Rube Goldberg-like scene wouldn't be out of place in a Wile E. Coyote scenario. The injured husband stops working, turns to the bottle, and Gervaise's cycle of abuse begins afresh.

I guess my biggest problem with the film is Zola's insistence on making things worse and worse on his characters, sometimes flying in the face of logic. If it wasn't for Schell's brilliant, nuanced performance and Clement's light hand with the material, I could see it being a slog. If Zola had written IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George Bailey would have jumped off the bridge and survived the fall only to spend his remaining days paralyzed and addicted to morphine while Mr. Potter rented him out to carnival sideshows. 

According to ever-dubious Wikipedia, the title of Zola's novel translates very roughly into “To Get Hammered”, an obvious double entendre for the beating life gives Gervaise and the perpetual state of her lovers.

There's a lot more that happens on Gervaise's way to rock bottom -- she falls for a noble iron worker who seems like her ticket to a happier life. But, naturally, he's involved in some union dispute that lands him in jail.
“... And the only one who loved me," she intones in her voiceover, "had to be in prison.” That sentence is pretty much Zola's broadly painted tale in miniature. The most devastating element is the complete devolution of Gervaise's simpleton husband from injured worker to layabout to skirt-chasing cad to outright villain. His final act of destruction rivals Victor Sjostrom becoming unhinged in PHANTOM CARRIAGE.

This film even somehow manages to double-down on its tragedy with a devastating coda that promises that Gervaise's misery will be passed on down the generations. Bleak stuff but a good example of a director and cast grounding outlandish material.

BONUS STILL (presented without comment):

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