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Le Roman d'un tricheur

Santos Zunzunegui

Tabakalera | Cinema - Screen 1

12/01/2020 - 19:00

  • Conference
  • Screening


Santos Zunzunegui




3,5 €

January 12, sunday

19:00 Conference: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 Le Roman d'un tricheur  (Sacha Guitry, France, 1936, 81 min.)

Who are we talking about when we talk about Sacha Guitry (1885-1957)? Any encyclopaedia offers us a simple answer. He was a playwright (author of more than one hundred and twenty plays, the vast majority somewhere between pure comedy and the so-called “boulevard theatre”), actor, stage director, but also a screenwriter and film-maker (with almost forty films under his belt!). Outstanding characteristics of his work are the control, exhibited without any shame (although this word does not exist in the vocabulary of the artist in question), of the narrative mechanisms of theatre and cinema (“Ah! But are they not the same?”, the maestro might comment), the savoir-faire of writing that even his detractors grant displays a certain elegance (since it is not a true elegance), and a keen taste for language and plays on words. Also frequently brought up (in many cases as a reproach) are his both confessed and clearly exhibited penchant for the glories and grandeur of France, his admiration for those who are generally referred to as “great men” (count for yourselves the number of his theatre and film works that involve Napoleon and his male or female troupes) and a never hidden nostalgia [1] which, when things got ugly (for example during the Nazi occupation) caused him no end of problems, although, despite all this, the story ended relatively well for him. Of course, if we want to bring the story up to date, we could add that his art sometimes clearly displays a touch of what we might now, with one of those fashionable euphemisms, call suspicion of the other or a hint of misogyny which can usually be observed when he was cultivating the fin du siècle stereotype with which he portrays his female characters.

But trying to offer a resolution to the Guitry puzzle is not my intention at all. In a much more modest way, I would simply like to try to show that we are talking about a unique film-maker. And, in my opinion, one of the great French film-makers. I am not so sure that his theatre work, such as it is, will resist the onslaught of posterity (and who cares if it does not?) but I sense that his cinema, which Guitry himself saw merely as an economic formula for “canning” his pieces to expand his audience, does have many things to say to a present-day viewer. Guitry’s cinematographic art is perfectly defined by the words that Paul Claudel (another artist suspected of political incorrectness if not of something worse) put in the mouth of the annoncier who opens his Le soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper): “Listen well, don’t cough and try to understand a little. What you don’t understand is the most beautiful, the longest is the most interesting and what you don’t find fun is what really is fun.”

Let us briefly review the critical appreciation of Guitry in the middle of the nineteen-sixties when a short period of time had elapsed since his demise. This is the summary judgement that one of the first great historians of cinema made of his cinematographic work: “The famous actor-author of boulevard theatre in the two pre-war periods (1914 and 1939), found in the cinema a means to preserve his theatrical works. His cinema is not an artistic expression but a mirror to contemplate himself, an echo to savour his own witticisms” [2]. It is not fundamentally untrue, but shows an inability to capture what was interesting about this “canned theatre” (at that time films were “canned”, after all). Little to argue with, then. In fact, quite the opposite, given his appreciation of our subject’s narcissism. But what if this characteristic provided the fuel that would push his work in directions that we should give serious consideration to?

The very same year in which these value judgements were published (1965), the Cahiers du cinéma published a surprising issue in the month of December which opened a parenthesis in what was now becoming the new tone which would prevail over the next few years: without abandoning their favourite film-makers, the critical compass began to swing towards giving increasing attention to the emergence of what were soon to be called “New Cinemas”, the most important of which would be that “Nouvelle Vague” (“New Wave”) in which a large part of the old critical guard of the magazine prepared their weapons as film-makers. In contrast, issue no. 173 looked back at the past of French cinema by dedicating what was almost a special issue to the re-evaluation of two leading film-makers, so far not particularly well regarded by the official critics: the great Marcel Pagnol (who also decided to film his plays to “preserve them”), and the equally important Sacha Guitry.  So that things were clear from the beginning, the issue opened with a reflection by André Bazin taken from one of his fundamental texts (“Teatro y cine”, 1951) [3]: “The more the cinema intends to be faithful to the text, to its demands, the more it will have to deepen its own language.”

In this context, should it surprise us that some film-makers – and, as we shall see, not the lesser ones – always saw Sacha Guitry as “one of us”? This was the case with a certain François Truffaut, and also with Alain Resnais. But I would like to focus on the director for whom, from his very beginnings as a film-maker, the imprint of the multifaceted French artist is most evident.

Interviewed by Bill Krohn near the end of his life, Orson Welles responded in an unexpected way to a statement by the critic who saw the logical association of the work of the film-maker from Kenosha in the field of film-essay with his previous television experience:

“I have never understood the names that are brought up when it comes to elucidating where my inspiration as a film-maker comes from, but I know very well where my style comes from … It is Sacha Guitry who has inspired me in my “essay” style. Watch the films by Guitry! He is always the main vedette. He appeared at the beginning of them, without shame, delicious and fun, he came into his stories and left them. What I do is, perhaps, a technically more ingenious derivative of the conception of the essayist than Sacha Guitry had. In any case, I owe him a lot.” [4]. Noting this, we can go one step further than Welles himself by not limiting Guitry’s influence to the film-essays of the last era of the American film-maker (if this categorisation is not somewhat problematic in his case) but suggesting that it is patent since the beginning of his career in Hollywood, so much so, in fact, that one of the main companion pieces of Citizen Kane, its superb trailer, could not be understood without the direct influence of the Guitry and, more specifically, of Le roman dun tricheur and, even more precisely, of the opening scene of this last film. As is so often the case, critics have taken the maestro’s early explanations in good faith when he insisted on his cinematic virginity and the influence – no doubt, true – of Stagecoach in his initial way of understanding cinema, without asking themselves something that, as soon as you think about it, seems obvious: Welles was an attentive cinephile, with well-defined and refined tastes, and this is demonstrated by the late revelation which we are discussing. It should have been enough to have seen (though everyone knows that we often report on hearsay) the two previously mentioned films, Guitry’s full-length film and the short film that Welles produced to announce his film debut, to confirm this. As if this were not enough, and although Welles lacked the pedigree of a writer who adorned the French language, he shared both personal traits (among which an indomitable narcissism stands out) and professional traits with him (both were multi-faceted artists: theatre, cinema, television and writing) and it is not surprising that he should be interested in a product as singular as Guitry’s previously mentioned film.

It is enough to closely scrutinise the Welles that in Hollywood develops the complex diptych formed by Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and whose film adventures are framed between the trailer of the first film and the credits that close the second. It is easy to recognise that these two fragments of film represent the expression of an important part of Welles’ will as an author, trusting everything to the power of the word (his image is absent from both the trailer for Kane and the credits of the Ambersons) in order to better affirm his thaumaturgical power as an absolute creator (“I wrote and directed this film. My name is Orson Welles”, we hear over the image of a microphone at the end of the Ambersons, for which he uses the same shot that he had used to open the Citizen Kane trailer).

Because throughout the thirties Sacha Guitry had already explored all the cinematographic ways of declining the name of the author and bringing the back room of the cinematographic set to the fore in the series of masterpieces he created between 1935 (Pasteur) and 1939 (Ils étaient neuf célibataires): from the “prologue” of Faisons un rêve (1936) to the “presentation” of Désiré (Guitry walks through a door to announce, in a tone somewhere between ironic and solemn: “Ladies and gentlemen, the film that we are going to perform is the work of myself”) and also, of course, including the memorable spoken credits at the start of Le roman dun tricheur, which in just a few minutes contains a number of the strategies that Welles will display (the similarities are so obvious!) both in the trailer for Kane and in the credits at the start of the Ambersons. It is enough to consider the initial appearance of the maestro who, with his back to the camera, scribbles his imposing signature on a white wall while his voice-over indicates that “I have conceived and made this film myself”. Sacha and Orson: soulmates; two great narcissists, two men “of their word” in any sense of the term.

All of the above leads us straight to the very heart of Le roman dun tricheur, which is primarily a spoken film [5]. This would not have great importance (by this time sound was already a well-established invention) were it not for the fact that what Guitry seems to propose (here we see his taste for the paradox) is a kind of return to primitive cinema. In fact, the entire film is invaded by Guitry’s voice, which seems to take us back to archaic times, in which the film projections were accompanied by the commentary made by someone standing next to the screen about the images and who in Spain was known as the explicador (the explainer) and who the French called the bonimenteur. If the Spanish word points to the fact that the task of the “explainer” is to “normalise” the meaning of the images, the French word accentuates the function of orally announcing or commenting on a performance in order to attract the attention of the public through all kinds of verbal fireworks. This, incidentally, fits in very well with Guitry’s creative intentions and abilities and, above all, with his strong desire to make it clear that he is the sole author of everything we see and hear (so that, on many occasions, the voice of the narrator will recite the dialogues of the various characters in sync with the movement of their lips! In fact, in the film we hardly hear a voice which is not Guitry’s, if we exclude the two conversations (or, more accurately, monologues) given to the great Marguerite Moreno in her splendid role as Countess Beauchamp Dubourg de Catinax.

But nobody should think (as a very significant proportion of the critics did and made public when Le roman dun tricheur was premiered) that this is a work of indifferent images. The relatively segmented structure of the story presents us with an organisation into blocks which, in almost all cases, receive a specific visual treatment. Let us list some from memory: the “documentary” about the kingdom of Monaco (a hint of Vigo?); the episode about the frustrated attack on Nicholas II of Russia that adopts the emblematic visual styles of the French detective films at the time, in addition to confidently making use of archival material; the scene that describes the protagonist’s “first time” in the style of the indirect logic of Lubitsch (the lift, the way it stops, the open doors that prevent its descent, the people who gather on the ground floor, the final descent of the young man who has accompanied the Countess to her room, carrying his trophy: a gold watch that will be discussed again later); the sequence dedicated to the presentation of the character played by Jacqueline Delubac (his wife at that time), a true tribute to the beloved woman who is filmed in a long series of close-ups with the most diverse outfits and headdresses. There is also powerful use of rhetorical figures: the ellipsis: a jump cut empties a table of twelve diners sending eleven of them to the great beyond after eating poisonous mushrooms; the summary: the ageing of the protagonist during his military service while the volumes of Balzac’s enormous work progressively accumulate on his table. The same applies to the frequently displayed taste for metafilmic games: the movements of a camera which seem to follow the instructions of the omnipresent voice (over or not), the glances towards the camera, the use of the playful possibilities of the cinematographic device as in the scene of the changing of the guard of the Monégasque petite armée. And, of course, as we would expect from someone for whom histrionics was a matter of style, the great sequence of transformations in which Guitry indulges his penchant for changing his appearance with half a dozen costumes each more flamboyant than the last. And everything is “packaged” in the fantastic score by Adolphe Borchard which, with the use of Mickey Mousing, both wraps up and comments on images that seem to emerge as if summoned by the word of a tireless and almighty demiurge.

Fifteen years after the appearance of Le roman dun tricheur, Max Ophuls and his screenwriter Jacques Natanson brought to the screen the adaptation of a play by Arthur Schnitzler, entitled The Round. In the opening scene, added to the script by the French film-makers, the following words were given to the “meneur de jeu” (master of ceremonies) who directed “the carousel of love”, which seem to me characterise the attitude with which Sacha Guitry approached cinema and the objectives pursued by the film which I have been discussing: “Who am I? (…) I am you. I am the incarnation of your desires.” This bonimenteur to whom we have referred earlier has only one task, which is to light the fuse of art and keep it incandescent, making cinema a servant of a global art, that of dramaturgy, while exploring the limits of the dialogue between the image and sound. With a single purpose that no one has expressed better than Michel Mourlet —“appropriated”, we would say now, by Godard in the credits of Le Mépris (Contempt) and revamped with the authority of André Bazin— which is: “to replace what we see with a world that matches our desires.” The history of art, I would add, is nothing more than the history of that world.

Santos Zunzunegui


[1] Two examples, both in the field which we are now addressing, that of film-maker: the first has to do with Guitry’s first film, Ceux de chez nous, filmed between 1914 and 1915 and re-released with commentary by the author in 1952. This medium-length film shows important people (mainly artists) from the France of the beginning of the 20th century (including Claude Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Camille Saint-Saëns and Sarah Bernhardt). The second, the 1942 film entitled De Jeanne dArc à Philippe Pétain (ou 1429-1942), in which five hundred years of the history of France are reviewed in a singular work (summarising briefly, it involves no more and no less than filming the pages of a book) produced in the middle of the German occupation. Interestingly, when it appeared in 1965, Guitry’s first important filmography in Cahiers du cinéma (no. 173), compiled by Jean Kress, did not include this medium-length film. Why?

In any case, they are two examples of an idea that Guitry himself expressed better than any of his detractors (or defenders): “Let’s prepare a magnificent past for France.”

[2] “Guitry, Sacha”, in George Sadoul, Diccionario del cine. Cineastas (1965), Madrid, Istmo, 1997, page 210.

[3] These are the two essential texts by André Bazin about the problem at hand: “Teatro y cine” (“Theatre and cinema”) (1951) and “El caso Pagnol” (“The Pagnol case”), both in ¿Qué es el cine? (What is film?), Madrid, Rialp, 1966, pages 216-267.

[4] KROHN, BILL, “Troisième entretien (19 et 20 février 1982)”, in Orson Welles (Bergala, A. and Narboni, J., eds), Paris, Cahiers du cinéma/Éditions de l’Étoile, 1982, page 59.

[5] Le roman dun tricheur is a screen adaptation of the only novel by Guitry, entitled Memoirs dun tricheur and published in instalments in 1935 in the magazine Marianne and shortly afterwards in a single volume by Gallimard, and whose text is used, extensively and literally, in the film.