René Clair’s final film of the silent era was not the film he’d planned to make. When Films Albatros renewed Clair’s contract in 1927 after the success of The Italian Straw Hat, the director began work on a realist crime film to be called Une Enquête est ouverte (“An Investigation Is Begun”). The prospect of censorship derailed it (Clair was forbidden from showing even a guillotine), so he returned instead to a scenario he’d written earlier, based, like Straw Hat, on a theater piece by the prolific mid-nineteenth-century playwright Eugène Labiche. Unlike the Labiche five-act comedy Straw Hat, the original Deux Timides is a one-act “comedy-vaudeville.” Charles de St. Cyr, in his review of the film version, dismissed Labiche’s play as “a trinket … lighter than a dead leaf.” To many contemporary critics Les Deux Timides was merely a pleasant variation in a minor key on the achievements of Straw Hat. However, closer examination reveals a film that Clair’s biographer Celia McGerr calls, “one of the most visually ambitious—and successful—films of the silent era.”
Labiche’s fluffy one-act swiftly outlines a love triangle between a timid lawyer, his overbearing rival, and an ingénue with a mind of her own. The comedy lies in the contrast between the determined heroine and her shy suitor. The punch line is that the timid lawyer has some damning information about his rival—if only he realizes it in time. The piece seems intractably theatrical; characters recount events and explain their feelings in a series of speeches and songs. Clair develops this slight material into an ever expanding series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations; firecrackers become gunshots, a man coughing into a handkerchief a masked bandit.
Designer Lazare Meerson had collaborated with the director since Proie du vent (1926) and many of the cast of Les Deux Timides were Clair regulars. Jim Gérald, who plays Labiche’s self-centered suitor as a Bluto-like blusterer, was making his fourth film with Clair (he’d most recently played the cuckolded husband in Italian Straw Hat). Newcomer Véra Flory plays the ingénue Cécile and Théâtre-Français actor Maurice de Féraudy—who had originally been hired for Clair’s crime film—is Cécile’s retiring father. In the lead role as timid lawyer Frémissin (fremissement means “a shiver”) was rising star Pierre Batcheff, who, like Clair, had strong ties with the Paris avant-garde. Batcheff followed Deux Timides with Buñuel’s surrealist Un Chien Andalou the following year.
As cast and crew shot the film in the summer and early fall of 1928, moving from the studio at Billancourt to the countryside, a seismic shift in the film world was taking place. “The monster,” as Clair called sound technology, invaded France that fall, with two exhibitions of sound shorts, including one of Maurice Chevalier singing. Clair, who was convinced that sound would destroy film’s poetic qualities, told film writer Charles Samuels in 1972 that Deux Timides gave him “the opportunity … to render speech through images rather than sound—because it was precisely at this time that the silent era was coming to an end.”
Clair was throwing down a silent gauntlet in the face of sound’s onslaught, much like Ethel Merman singing “anything you can do, I can do better.” He makes his point in the film’s opening sequence. The camera tracks into a gloomy domestic interior where a woman bends over a sewing machine. She glances up anxiously, and a low-angle shot reveals a menacing man. We viewers wonder if we have wandered into a melodrama by mistake, as an exaggerated scene of domestic abuse unfolds before us. Then a dissolve to a courtroom reveals that the director has tricked us; we have been watching an unreliable flashback, an illustration of a prosecutor’s speech as he details the supposed crimes of the accused husband on trial. When the defense lawyer (one of the title’s timides) rises to present his side, we see the same domestic interior (now brightly lit) and the same husband (no longer viewed from a low angle) who enters to present his wife with a bouquet. An equally extravagant scene of domestic bliss ensues, until an errant mouse disrupts the courtroom and the lawyer’s speech. By the time order is restored, the nervous lawyer has lost his place. We watch the happy domestic scene repeat and then freeze as the lawyer struggles to pick up the thread of his argument; the scene runs jerkily forward and backward, the image literally stuttering—speech is rendered visually.
It’s not the last of the film’s visual delights. “Clair,” writes McGerr, “uses just about every unusual pictorial device extant in filmmaking: freeze frames, flashbacks, hand-held shots, reverse motion, exceptionally soft-focused photography, split-screen—even small jump cuts.” Historian Dimitri Vezyroglou says Les Deux Timides can be seen as a summation and sendup of the entire breadth of silent film. “It combines melodrama (at the start) with action adventure (the mock battle) and incorporates a nod toward the avant-garde as the audience sleeps while the singer sings at a soiree organized by Frémissin’s aunt, this being a possible reference to L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine.” Clair himself told historian Naomi Greene that “the split-screen at the end of the picture was a parody of Napoleon, an out-and-out gag that had no other reason for being there than affectionate kidding.”
Clair mixes this visual virtuosity with a new simplicity. The scenes of Frémissin pursuing Cécile through the rural countryside and finally kissing her in a meadow are gag-free, shot in long takes and smoothly edited. “It is in the nature of every beginner to be tempted … by startling effects of editing,” Clair wrote in 1970; but eventually “you come to wish that every filmed sequence, no matter how intercut it is with different shots, looked as if it had been cast in a single piece.” Also new is the director’s interest in character. Whereas the cast members of Straw Hat operate as so many cogs in a well-oiled comedy machine, Frémissin (especially in Batcheff’s subtle performance) has depth and complexity. Clair uses both split-screens and long takes to reveal the timid lawyer’s inner life, whether illustrating Frémissin’s fantasies of bravery or lingering on him as he hesitates over whether or not to follow Cécile.
After railing against sound in countless articles and even considering quitting film altogether, Clair resigned himself to the change. “We must cut our losses,” Clair wrote in May of 1929. Seeing The Broadway Melody (1929) in London was a turning point for him: sound could be used as inventively as images. His surrender led to three classic comedies of the early sound era, in which church bells toll popular songs, flowers appear to speak, and dialogue is sung. This last technique, writes film historian Lucy Fischer, “was suggested to Clair by the verse structure of certain Labiche light comedies.” Clair’s sound films fed off his silents.
Clair continued making films until 1965, including a sojourn in Hollywood where he directed the Veronica Lake vehicle I Married a Witch (1942) and the bloodthirsty comedy Ten Little Indians (1945), and he continued to write prolifically on film his whole life. However, his later films never achieved the renown of his early French comedies. These five films from 1928–1931, whether silent or sound, seem to belong to a single aesthetic, to have burst forth from the same blast of youthful, creative energy. Film historian Richard Abel credited these films (among others) with reviving the French film industry. Clair alone showed little reverence for his work, telling Samuels: “I don’t like to see my old pictures. I always think, ‘why wasn’t that better done?’”
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra