After the interruption of A nous la liberté (1932) René Clair returned to his beloved Paris for Quatorze Juillet, a semi-musical working-class romance stylistically recalling his Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Rooftops of Paris, 1930). (Earlier films of his set in Paris include Paris qui dort, 1924, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, 1927, and Le million, 1931.) On the other hand, the theme of the immediately preceding film of Clair’s, which the title For Us, Liberty aptly expresses, links the two films. The title, Quatorze Juillet, refers to Bastille Day, the national celebration of France’s freedom from oppressive monarchal rule (the Ancient Regime), symbolized by the French people’s storming of the state prison in Paris in 1789, and of the people’s embrace of self-determination (the first instance of this on the European continent) in the republican form of government that was formalized on the same day one year later. The annual celebration that the film shows, then, is no mere backdrop for a working-class romance. On the contrary, July 14 signifies the liberty of a people that makes possible the romance of the cab driver and the flower peddler. Tenderly and wittily, Clair infuses Jean and Anna’s romance with France’s cherished free spirit, and he finds in the fragile nature of this romance—its susceptibility to jealousy, youthful pride and (in the person of Jean’s former mistress) danger from the outside—a reflection of how fragile are the freedoms, won by the revolution of 1789, that France holds dear.
The greatest achievement of this episodic film is how lightly and casually it unfolds while in fact its comedy is epic: an expression of the French people. Despite its marriage of the romance of Jean and Anna to stirring national history, the film is utterly lacking in self-importance or patriotic rhetoric. This lightness of tone, because of the fullness of spirit it releases, brings especial poignancy to the romance. Quatorze Juillet is as warm a film as A nous la liberté, for all its technical daring and formal brilliance, is a cold one. Always compared to Sous les toits de Paris and Le million, it is often underrated; Quatorze Juillet is superior, say, to Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936), one of the two proletarian entries in the Astaire-Rogers cycle. (The other, the same year, is Swing Time.) The fineness of feeling in Clair’s film is irresistible—a reminder that French soulfulness, unlike the German kind, can be delicate, silken, precise.
One must consider the times when watching this film today. Were it not for the economic depression gripping Europe, elements of Quatorze Juillet would be incomprehensible. Among these are Jean’s participation in a robbery attempt, which he himself ends up foiling in order to protect Anna. When he chases away children who have gathered around and are touching his taxi cab, Jean isn’t being mean-tempered and possessive; this vehicle isn’t a showpiece but a necessary means to his livelihood. Jean’s response to the children (whom Clair lovingly portrays) discloses, then, his financial stress and anxiety. Above all, the volatility of the romance, as Jean and Anna come together, part ways, cross paths, part, and come together again, beautifully—now hauntingly (because we know of the German invasion a half-dozen years away)—reflects the uncertainty of the economic and political moment. One’s heart is stirred by the potential of the imaginary couple, as though the future of France depends on it.
Sung by an unseen chorus representing the collective wisdom of Paris on the subject of love, the music by Maurice Jaubert is glorious. It provides a lilting reflection on love that in turn punctuates the Anna-Jean romance. (“. . . [S]omewhere a soul,” sings the chorus, “. . . conjures a dream of love.”) But Quatorze Juillet is at least as much a dance musical as it is a song musical; the dance is at the heart of Fourteenth of July festivities. Couples, each under a single umbrella, dance in the rain. Two indoor dances are compared, one in a boisterous, vibrant working-class public dance hall, the other in a reserved posh club. The former scene would remain cinema’s best conceived and executed group dance until another Frenchman, Jacques Tati, devised his most brilliant set-piece, the club dance in Playtime (1967).
Anna, peddling her flowers at the high-toned club, walks away from her job rather than submit to the indignity of a drunk patron’s kiss. Perhaps it is such a detail as this that has led critics Garbicz and Klinowski to conclude, “[T]his tale about ordinary Parisians is faithful not so much to realism as to the motifs of proletarian mythology; it is a masterpiece of cinema for ordinary people rather than about ordinary people.” Would Anna really have departed from her income for the sake of class and maidenly pride? As it happens, Anna later on is unfairly fired from another job, helping to create a thematic train suggestive of the elusiveness of work at the time; but never mind that for a moment. When Anna protests what today we would call sexual harassment and quits, the incident provides psychosocial realism; it discloses the feelings of her class, the impulse of people to act in a certain way in a certain situation, implicitly drawing attention to the fact that their circumstances may require their acquiescence and submission nevertheless. I think the designation ‘mythology’ fails to cover the complexity of Clair’s penetrating method.
Visually, the film is a delight, beginning as had Sous les toits de Paris and Le million with a panning shot of Parisian rooftops to suggest a communal spirit and something else bittersweet: Clair’s own desire to protect the lives of his characters, that is to say, the (implicitly vulnerable) lives of ordinary people in his favorite city. The spiritedness of the public dance invites the viewer in; Clair’s camera, close up, becomes an extension of this energy, and the sight of a waiter, carrying a tray full of drinks, nimbly dodging dancing couples becomes a sublime moment of suspense. Perhaps the film’s most electrifying composition—it’s certainly the most dramatic—is a long-shot of Anna at night in the lit doorway of the establishment where she works, feeling abandoned once again by Jean. Georges Périnal is Clair’s superlative cinematographer, who is perhaps most adept here at contrasting deep, dark night and radiant, airy day.
Anna the flower peddler derives from the blind flower peddler in Charles Chaplin’s American masterpiece of the Depression, City Lights (1930). Clair had already drawn from Chaplin the prison escapee Emile in A nous la liberté. (In 1933, Jean Vigo paid similar hommage to Chaplin in Zero de conduite.) Chaplin returned the compliment, adapting for his own Modern Times (1936) Clair’s satire of factory automation, including the inhuman assembly line, in A nous la liberté. The company that produced Clair’s films, Tobis-Klangfilm, was prepared to sue Chaplin for copyright infringement when Clair himself, by this time in England, intervened to put a stop to this, saying, “All of us flow from a man whom I admire, and I am honored if he was inspired by my film.” (Footnote: It was Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist, who sought to sue Chaplin. Tobis-Klangfilm, which he ran, was part of the Film Europe Movement, begun in the 1920s, which of course could not survive Adolf Hitler.)
The actors serve Quatorze Juillet very well, with one exception: predictably, the actress playing Jean’s reappearing mistress isn’t permitted to be more than a clichéd obstacle to Jean and Anna’s romantic destiny. Charming, lovely Annabella plays Anna, sturdy, stoop-shouldered Georges Rigaud, Jean; the two are the very embodiment of youth in imperiled love. However, Paul Olivier’s dazzling performance as Imaque, the rich, eccentric drunk, is the film’s standout—indeed, perhaps the most memorable character creation in all of Clair’s cinema. But prepare to be weirded out by one thing: Imaque’s appearance uncannily anticipates Chaplin’s twenty years hence.
Quatorze Juillet is only the slightest bit less wonderful than Le million, whose string of dupings and misleading appearances slyly comment on a frantic race to locate a winning lottery ticket inside a poor boy’s lost jacket. Le million does have the bonus of hilarious comedy. Le million is a gentle film, but Quatorze Juillet is gentler yet. Its story isn’t as farfetched as that of Sous les toits de Paris, but once again there are Clair’s compassion for the poor and for the working people of Paris and his slightly world-weary commitment to romance: feelings missing from his post-war films except in skinny, fleeting threads. By the 1950s Clair had become literary, tame and “respectable”—for cinema, a loss of spirit.
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