THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA (Christian-Jacque, 1948)

Christian-Jacque’s The Charterhouse of Parma (La chartreuse de Parme), from Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), is the sort of film I should intensely dislike. Narrative by virtue of the novel on which it is based, it proceeds by scenes rather than by shots. It is long because it needs to tell its story; its nearly three-hour length isn’t made necessary by any thematic development. The film, moreover, represents that “Tradition of Quality” in French cinema that the nouvelle vague would blow out of the culture-vulture skies, transforming world cinema. Yet I do like the film, if only as a romantic entertainment rather than as a work of art. It’s absorbing, at times (such as during the hero’s daring escape from prison) thrilling, and, especially towards the end, very touching. It isn’t one long snooze, which is how I find Claude Autant-Lara’s The Red and the Black (Rouge et Noir, 1954), also from Stendhal.

It’s a far better film than Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming et al., 1939), with which it has things in common: narrative contrivance; doomed romance against a vast historical backdrop. It is better, even, than Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936), from Hervey Allen’s pseudo-Stendhalian novel, with which it has more in common, including the Napoleonic times, and the theme of tormented love and renunciation. It is certainly worth noting in passing that Stendhal’s novel is the literary achievement that Margaret Mitchell’s and Allen’s novels are decidedly not. (By dint of its style virtually unreadable, Gone with the Wind is trash, not to mention racist trash.) Both Balzac and Henry James considered La chartreuse de Parme a masterpiece, and André Gide adjudged it the greatest French novel ever written. However, be forewarned: the historical and political complexities to which the 1839 novel owes its exalted reputation aren’t in evidence in the film. Romance and Italian intrigue are pretty much all we get. Indeed, Fabrice’s (that is, Fabrizio’s) monastic days and death after he and his beloved separate for good are also dropped from the film.

What do I like then about the film? For one thing, it isn’t sentimental or moralistic—a hard thing not to be when its centerpiece of love, between Marquis Fabrice (that is, Fabrizio) del Dongo and Clelia Conti, is utterly doomed by the conventions of the day, not really by the oath that Clelia makes to the Virgin Mary to give up this great love of her life if only she will grant her wish for him to escape his cell. If the film had railed against these conventions, the result would have been sentimental; if the film had self-righteously supported these conventions, the result would have been moralistic. Either approach would have made the film intolerable for me. But Christian-Jacque instead takes in the time observantly and thoughtfully so that we can consider the fact of these conventions without indulging our own feelings about them one way or the other. Given the potential here for rank manipulation, I’m glad that the filmmaker pursued his unhappy plot with such calm and tact.

This is more than the absence of a negative. Christian-Jacque has made a reasonable as well as a dashing film. However, even more decisive to my enjoyment of it are the performances by Gérard Philipe and Renée Faure as Fabrice and Clelia. Philipe, here at the height of his sensitive boyish beauty, is the soul of romance as the young aristocrat who enlists in Napoleon’s army in time for the horrors of the Battle of Waterloo. To be sure, more brilliant performances by this wonderful artist were yet to come (Modigliani, in Jacques Becker’s 1957 Montparnasse 19; Valmont, in Roger Vadim’s Les liaisons dangereuses 1960), but already Philipe is an actor of great charm and perception—and such passion. The moment when Fabrice learns that Clelia hasn’t stopped loving him is tremendously moving. (Were it not for Olivier’s Hamlet, I would name Philipe 1948’s best actor for his Fabrice/Fabrizio del Dongo.) Who is this Renée Faure who is so perfect as the pure, spunky Clelia, whose father, General Conti, marries her off to a much older man, who is rich, and arranges for Fabrice’s recapture and (he hopes) death? If I’ve seen her before, I can’t recall, but she is heavenly here, her close-set eyes perpetual testimony to the steadfastness of her Catholic faith and the one thing that trumps this: her love for her Fabrizio.

I must say, in passing, that María Casares is disappointingly undefined as Gina Petranera, the Duchess of Sanseverina, who is in love with her nephew, Fabrice. Betwixt Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945) and Orpheus (Jean Cocteau, 1949), Casares is weak throughout.

Christian-Jacque, though, realizes a host of memorable scenes, including one in a church, with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” on the soundtrack (and as heartbreakingly beautiful as ever), where Clelia, as lovers sometimes do, senses her Fabrizio’s silent presence behind her. In this scene, and in nearly every other one as well, Christian-Jacque benefits from the contribution made by his black-and-white cinematographers, among them, Anchise Brizzi, Aldo Graziati (G. R. Aldo) and Nicolas Hayer. La chartreuse de Palme is in fact the most gorgeously photographed film I have ever seen, with its sumptuous shadows, and soft light that in church truly seems to come from God. No wonder the film took the prize for cinematography at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Lovely lighting, however, is no substitute for rigorous, meaningful mise-en-scène. Christian-Jacque has come up with good scenes, not good shots, and what striking shots there are, such as a traveling shot through trees overflowing with blossoms, are clichés. The film of Stendhal’s novel is a thing of feelings, not ideas—moods and impressions. One should watch it, therefore, expecting it to be what it is, despite the title. It’s a sad, simple story well told.

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