Under the spell of Max Ophüls’s Madame de . . . (1952), René Clair made his finest film since Quatorze Juillet (1933)—and his funniest since Le million (1931). Moreover, this film became his first in color—and such color: the cinematography by Robert Le Fèbvre and Robert Juillard achieved the loveliest, most gracious colors—restricted (as Garbicz and Klinowski point out) to one or two dominant hues per composition—in all of cinema, ones which were entirely appropriate to a period comedy-romance that slides into melancholy and worse: a heart shut to love; a premonition of war. Written by Clair, Jérôme Géronimi and Jean Marsan, Les grandes manoeuvres won Clair the best film prize of the French critics and the Prix Louis Delluc.
The subject is love as it collides with pride and poetic justice; the setting, a provincial town where a French army regiment is garrisoned prior to heading out for maneuvers.
Gérard Philipe is dazzlingly brilliant as Le lieutenant Armand de la Verne, who wagers fellow officers that he will seduce the first woman to appear at a ball to fall in love with him before the regiment leaves for maneuvers. Some reviewers mention names on slips of paper in a hat; but the hat spills its contents before Armand can choose, suggesting that the stars must align to get the right woman to be the choice: in this case, the one with whom the cad will really fall in love but who will break his heart (and her own) when she learns about the bet. This is Marie-Louise Rivière (Michèle Morgan, wan, tightly anxious), fresh from Paris, whose marital experience and divorce have made her wary of being hurt by men.
Poignantly, the time is sometime before the outbreak of war in 1914.
Tags: René Clair