One day, a looooooooooong time ago, Farran Smith Nehme and I came up with a couple of titles as suggestions for movies outside each other’s comfort zone that we would recommend the other view and then review. Farran was openly relieved that my suggestion for her-- Freebie and the Bean-- had little in the way of beheadings or cannibalism or any other obvious monstrous behavior. (I save those kinds of challenges for my sisters!) And about two months ago Farran posted her end of the bargain. Two months later, just about enough time for Farran to have finally thrown up her hands, convinced that I would never come through, I have finally prepared my thoughts on the movie she chose for me, Julien Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour (1939), sometimes known, if it is known at all in this country, by its English title The End of the Day. Duvivier’s film doesn’t feature any cannibalism or beheadings or satanic sacrifice or brains being scooped out and eaten on camera—dammit—though there is some talk of an off-screen character being blasted by a shotgun. What is does feature is intimate character drama that is dependent on emotion and expression instead of all the perhaps more obvious cinematic fireworks. Of course, because that’s usually the way Farran rolls, the movie turned out to be exquisite, and I must thank her immensely because without her procuring a PAL DVD and sending it my way, I might not have ever seen the film, and certainly not right now, during a moment when I seemingly needed to see it. For that, and for your enduring friendship and willingness to sit down for a long talk, which was posted here and here, I also thank you, Farran, for that talk and the resulting enjoyment taken in it by a whole passel of readers. It turned out to be one of the most genuinely wonderful things that happened to me all year, perhaps in many years. The blogosphere is good for many things, but most unexpectedly in its ability to bring people together who would have never otherwise met, and for the happenstance that brought Farran and I and many, many others into the same circle I kick off this Thanksgiving week with the first of many pronouncements of humble appreciation.
Director Julien Duvivier’s dramatic comedy La Fin du Jour opens, as do most films set in the world of the theater, in a flurry of action—technicians and backstage staff whizzing to and fro, fretting about schedules and cues, bemoaning the sorry state of attendance. (The cinema and the circus routinely outstrip their meager but sincere performances at the box office, leading one wag to proclaim, “Art has had it.”) Meanwhile the play presses on, the actors unaware of the stirrings and attendant madness that allows their moments in the spotlight, their onstage collusion with character, their interior identification that gets projected far into the cheap seats. In these opening scenes La Fin du Jour will stir memories and associations with everything from All About Eve, To Be or Not to Be and Children of Paradise to The Red Shoes, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and A Prairie Home Companion. Whether it served as direct or indirect inspiration for the worlds conjured in these films is debatable (and perhaps immaterial)—it is enough that it evokes, in a brief sequence lasting no more than seven or eight minutes, the same strong sense of abandon to the spirit of the theater that occupies these more well-known films, films that it predated by as much as 60 years. By the time it was finished, I wasn’t much surprised that its intimacy and profound sense of community within its cast of characters had me believing that it might be the greatest of these, the best movie I’d ever seen about the way actors see the world.
Duvivier, a great director with whom this would be my first exposure (his Pepe le Moko, an established classic, is next on my list), has a feather-light touch in introducing his players, one which will not preclude our eventual emotional involvement in their various plights. No sooner than we’re witness to the overwrought Barrymore-esque St. Clair (Louis Jouvet) performing in a scene during which he murders his true love, the theater’s season is over and the company disperses. In his evangelistic piece on the film at his blog Shadowplay, David Cairns sums up St. Clair with a precise clarity worthy of a master jeweler:
“St. Clair is a complete egomaniac, introduced as such, whose character development consists of a slide into madness which is really just an exaggeration of his normal personality… Other people just don’t exist for St. Clair, except as an audience for his greatness. So there’s no possible malice in him. But he’s blithely unaware of the emotional destruction he leaves in his wake. If somebody kills themselves over him, that’s just fuel to his ego. He’s perhaps the most stupendously selfish character ever written, and it seems he got this way just by basking in the audience’s affection.”
Victor Francen (center) and Louis Jouvet in La Fin du Jour
At first seems as though St. Clair will be the film’s ostensible protagonist, and although it is true that much of the film’s sense of melodrama focuses on his past and his relationship with the other characters, St. Clair’s departure after the performance is simply the film’s device to transport us to its real stage, the Hospice of St. Jean la Riviere, a retirement home for theatrical actors where the residents are facing possible eviction, expulsion from the protective cocoon where they can spin tales of past triumphs and revel in a good-natured late life, one often expressly lacking in luxuries, spent with like-minded friends and fellow artists. Though many of the hospice’s number are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the star, whose plan it is to stay only until the start of the next season, there is at least one resident who harbors some ambivalence about his presence. That person would be Marny (Victor Francen). Stodgy and self-important on initial observation, he will form the second in a triad of personalities around which Duvivier and his scenarist, Charles Spaak, will weave the intricacies of the “plot” and the relationships from which it is composed. Marny’s frequent claim is that of being an actor without an audience, and he does seem an unlikely candidate for letting down his guard long enough to inhabit a character that an audience could connect to emotionally. Perhaps making a statement about her husband’s stiff, impregnable dignity, Marny’s wife left him long ago and wound up in St. Clair’s arms, only to die in a hunting accident for which Marny holds St. Clair responsible. St. Clair regards Marny, condescendingly but without contempt, as “a great actor, a failed star,” while undoubtedly seeing no such shortcoming in his own countenance.
Then there is Michel Simon as Cabrissade. A character who might be simple comic relief in another film of this ilk, Cabrissade is never in any danger of sloughing off the more complex cloak presented him by Duvivier by virtue of the director’s own apparent ambivalence toward the character and the audience’s immediate connection to and empathy with him (even in his more apparently childlike moments). According to Cairns, Duvivier’s politics were somewhat conservative, which may account for a fascinating ambivalence in his approach to Cabrissade. There’s a certain relish apparent in allowing this foolish leftist pot-stirrer, whom the director sees as socially hamstrung by his own childish impulses, to shuffle off into obscurity, even as we sense Duvivier may see him as the bright core of intelligence and passion that proves a bridge between Marny’s diffidence and St. Clair’s increasingly dangerous delusions. When considering St. Clair’s return, Cabrissade comically assures one of the female residents of his own comfort as a cuckold while skewering St. Clair’s reputation as a literal lady-killer: “Mme. Chabert, I’d hate to make you blush, but if I killed my rival every time I was deceived, France would be a necropolis.” Most importantly, Cabrissade must fight not only his own reputation as a failed actor (his moment onstage, paralyzed by fear and an inability to remember his lines, is one of the film’s most immediately potent) but by the insistent realization that, despite his best efforts, age is not a force that can be fought off by simple attitude. “Being sensible means being resigned and being resigned means being old,” he tells another resident, “and I can’t grow old—it’s against my nature.” It’s a point of view that seemingly consigns Cabrissade to the tears of a clown, but one of the great triumphs of La Fin du Jour is how Duvivier rescues Cabrissade from indignity and embarrassment, finally allowing him the film’s greatest moment of tribute, that of a faithful, obscure and marvelous dreamer.
(It’s worth noting that neither Simon nor Cabrissade is diminished by the actor’s resemblance to Charles Laughton here—the through-line between the overarching hamminess and intense passion of one fictional actor to one quite anchored in the real world made for some fascinating comparisons in attitude and style while I was watching La Fin du Jour. And I was further amused afterward by Cairns’ note about Simon, that he was “only 44 when he made the film… with the face of a compressed buffalo.” How attracted we so often are to actors with exaggerated visages such as these. There often seems to be so much more a direct line to our sympathies—easy—but also, and more difficult, our empathies. This kind of directness comes in handy when a character like Cabrissade has a boorish, scabrous side to go along with his cutting comic observations.)
La Fin du Jour is also notable, as a film about actors, for the way in which it restricts the stage experience itself, outside of St. Clair’s introduction and Cabrissade’s disaster, to the halls of memory. A lesser film might be full of moments in which the actors are given scenes intended not to accentuate their talents as actors but to reflect upon or otherwise embody the dramatic arcs the screenwriter and director might be too lazy to map out for themselves. But here the drama is “confined” to moments like Marny’s struggle to accept St. Clair’s overwrought sense of himself, and at the same time his questionable explanation for the fate of his wife, or the way in which St. Clair seduces the female residents with his romantic fatalism, or the pain and regret and fear stirred up by the possible closure of the home. The one scene that seems structured to appeal to this apparent need to see the actors at their business is the one in which Marny and the aforementioned Mme. Chabert, who once divided her attentions between Marny and St. Clair (and perhaps others), perform Romeo and Juliet in the presence of a reporter. The two stage the scene in a barn, away from the larger company, and for Duvivier it is enough for us to know why they would feel moved to present the scene for an outsider—- the moment is contrived to stir support in the press for maintaining the hospice, but the actors also gently seize the opportunity to reconnect with their love for performing and their desire to once again experience something like the sensation of youthful romance. What’s remarkable is that Duvivier cuts away just as the scene is getting started—it’s that love of theater that sustains us, conveys what it is that makes the act of creation on stage important for them, and Duvivier, incredibly, brilliantly cuts away just as the poetry begins. He has the good sense to treat it as a private moment.
Scene after scene, La Fin du Jour establishes itself among the great films about the way the process, the memory, the sensation of acting embodies itself in the inner lives of those who practice it, for better and for worse. It shares a romantic vision that is remarkably unclouded by sentiment and false hope. And in its regard for the lost youth that echoes amongst the residents of this old actors’ home La Fin du Jour has a certain integrity and fearlessness in depicting the reality of being aged that elevates it to a plane on which it can be seriously considered alongside Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow as one of the movies’ great acts of empathy for senior citizenry, regardless of artistic or political bent. I can only hope, perhaps through the good graces of the folks at Criterion, that one day the curtain will be lifted on Julien Duvivier’s lithe, intricate and overwhelming jewel of a movie, revealing it to a potentially appreciative audience from which it has long been hidden, an audience that will undoubtedly be transported by its generosity, its humor, its inquisitive nature and its longing for opportunities for artistic expression for those who can only access their youth emotionally, abstractly, as well as for those who still revel in it.
(Again, my thanks to Farran Smith Nehme for insisting I see La Fin du Jour, and to David Cairns for his contagious and expansive appreciation of it.)