Being bourgeois is a balancing act, and René Clair, adapting Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel’s play, hilariously pricks that balance with his satirical needle in his most visually expressive, brilliantly edited comedy, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie. The indefinite article in the French title better suggests the film’s light, casual air.
The nineteenth century is coming to a close. Clair has moved up the play from the 1850s; by evoking a time that some original viewers could recall, but only barely, he is better able to suggest how stuck in time are bourgeois notions of propriety and elegance, how stuck in trappings and property is the bourgeois mind-set.
It’s all about a woman’s hat. While the married woman couples with her soldier-boy in the country, a horse chews up this hat. The horse is transporting Fadinard by carriage to his Paris wedding. Lieutenant Tavernier demands that Fadinard replace the Italian straw hat, or else he will demolish Fadinard’s house: the ultimate bourgeois threat. One cannot blame Tavernier: Madame’s husband might notice the hat and put two and two straws together. Madame is property after all—and all this reflects on the marriage about to happen. Meanwhile, someone in the bride’s party can find only one glove to wear. An overhead shot revealing a plethora of women’s hats taunts both the missing glove and the partially eaten hat. Apparel, appearances: these are what matter.
The film opens on the wedding announcement and immediately cuts to the wedding day, with all its attendant nerves and commotion. Thus Clair implies that the wedding brings to fruition the announcement, not the mutual love of those getting married. The adulterous woman faints a lot.
Pauline Kael: Clair’s film “is so expertly timed and choreographed that farce becomes ballet.”
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