Soaring camerawork, luminous decor, and stylish montage sequences make Au bonheur des dames (“Ladies’ paradise”) appear strikingly modern, yet it can be seen as an elegy to silent filmmaking. Directed by Julien Duvivier, the film was shot in the autumn of 1929, just as the first French sound films were being released. Adapted from an Émile Zola novel, the film describes the fate of a family tailor shop that is driven out of business when a gigantic department store opens across the street. Dita Parlo, a German actress who later appeared in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937), plays a wide-eyed innocent from the country who is lured away from her uncle’s small shop by the richness of the department store.
One of the last silent films shot in France, the film shows influences from silent cinema throughout the world—hand-held shots of street scenes from the Germans, crowd scenes from the Americans, a climactic montage sequence from the Soviets, and elaborate tracking shots and long takes from the French. Duvivier depicts the demolition of businesses, buildings, and families in the face of capitalist progress; yet his cinematography lovingly portrays the splendid architecture of the department store, a “temple” dedicated to women’s pleasure. The exquisite interiors of the department store were shot at the Galeries Lafayette, a famed Parisian department store that still exists today. Duvivier constructed an elaborate set of the tailor shop, street, and department store façade, so that a cameraman could follow characters fluidly from one room to another. The set also allowed for sophisticated composition of scenes that juxtapose the implacable blinking lights of the department store with the musty interior of the dying tailor shop. Yet even while this film epitomized the height of French studio achievements during the silent era, it also foreshadowed the difficulties that the industry soon faced in the era of sound. The scene in the film showing the demolition of the family store in the film was in fact footage of the demolition of the studio where the film was shot, Film D’Arts de Neuilly, to make way for expanding commercial areas.
The director of Au bonheur des dames, Julien Duvivier, was born in Lille in 1896, the son of a salesman and a pianist. Duvivier had a strict Jesuit upbringing and had to sneak out of the house to indulge his early passion for theater, a pastime his family condemned as “immoral.” When Germany declared war on France in August 1914 and the Germans soon after invaded Lille, Duvivier, deferred from the army because of a “weak constitution,” escaped with his father to Paris. Duvivier found a small acting job at the Théâtre Odeon, but discovered that he could not memorize dialogue. It was here that Duvivier met André Antoine, a renowned theater director who pioneered a “naturalistic” performance style in theater before turning his talents to the burgeoning French film industry. Antoine joined the legions of French filmmakers inspired by Émile Zola’s topical stories about labor unrest, prostitution, and the rise of consumer society. They felt that film was a natural medium for Zola’s tales, as they could shoot in factories, coal mines, and the countryside, giving their films authenticity and realism. Duvivier collaborated with Antoine on films throughout the war, often replacing actors in mid-production as they were mobilized.
The economic and social hardships of the First World War ended France’s primacy in the international film market. Though French productions dominated screens around the globe before the war (one French historian claims that “90 percent of the films exhibited throughout the world were French films”), by 1919 only ten to fifteen percent of films shown in Paris alone were French. However, the industry’s fragmentation and decentralization gave French filmmakers unparalleled opportunities to experiment and take risks. Artists and filmmakers produced countless innovative, creative experiments in film, including Germaine Dulac’s La souriante Madame Beudet 1922), Fernand Léger and Man Ray’s Ballet mécanique (1924), René Clair’s Dada classic Entr’acte (1924), the apocalyptic sci-fi Paris qui dort (1925), and Jacques Feyder’s Les visages d’enfants (1925).
At the same time, Zola continued to inspire filmmakers. Feyder released an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1928), and Jean Renoir invested much of the fortune earned by his father’s paintings into his first solo directing project, a 1926 adaptation of Zola’s Nana. Though the film is now considered a classic, Renoir lost his entire one-million-franc investment.
From 1927 through 1929, the runaway success of American and German films featuring degrees of sound synchronization convinced French filmmakers and studios that “talkies” were the way of the future. In spite of this threat, 1928 was an apogee of French silent filmmaking, with the release of Jean Epstein’s La chute de la maison Usher, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’argent, and Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Though filmmakers had experimented with sound almost since the invention of the medium—the French company Gaumont, for example, explored various techniques from 1900 to 1913 without finding a viable solution—widely marketable techniques were not found until 1928, thereafter instigating expensive patent rivalries among a handful of American, German, and Dutch companies. French studios that lacked the resources to install the expensive new technology went bankrupt and the French film industry was pared down to only six companies by the end of 1929.
Au bonheur des dames, Duvivier’s 21st film, was a victim of bad timing. The film was shot, without sound, during the autumn of 1929. Instead of releasing the film along with the glut of silent movies released during the summer of 1930 to clear the way for a fall season of synchronized sound, Duvivier’s producers moved Au bonheur’s release back several months and hastily added post-synchronized sound to a few scenes. Though the silent version previewed to the press had won praise for the “symphony of light inspired by the vertigo of constructions and demolitions,” the sound version released to the public in October 1930 was roundly criticized for the poor quality of the sound. The film quickly came and went in theaters. Duvivier’s next film, David Golder (1930), incorporated fully synchronized sound and met with critical and popular success. The director became most well known for his polished postwar films La belle équipe (1936), Pépé le Moko (1936), and Un carnet de bal (1937). He worked for several years in Hollywood during World War II but spent most of his life in his native France. Duvivier continued making films until 1967, when he was killed in a car accident at age 71, soon after finishing his 70th film, Diaboliquement vôtre.
Though Julien Duvivier was considered a commercial director, he built a body of tightly crafted, stylistically sophisticated work. In 1934, Duvivier wrote: “Too many people imagine that the cinema is the art of amateurs, that vocation and faith are sufficient to give birth to masterpieces.… Genius is only a word; the cinema is a profession, a difficult profession that one learns. Personally, the more I work, the more I realize that … I know practically nothing in proportion to the infinite possibilities of cinema.
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by The Hot Club of San Francisco