AU BONHEUR DES DAMES (Julien Duvivier, 1930)

Julien Duvivier’s Au bonheur des dames updates Zola’s 1883 novel, part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and substitutes a huge department store for a huge bookstore (scenes were actually shot inside Galleries Lafayette in Paris), in either case showing how the expansion of the goliath, and the capitalistic greed promoting this, destroys a small business, in the film, a fabric shop. Orphaned, Denise arrives in Paris to join her uncle, M Baudu (Armand Bour, wounded, moving), who owns the latter, but she falls in love with the owner of the former. Written by Noël Renard, who retains Zola’s impossibly upbeat ending on the heels of terrible deaths, the film ponders whether progress and happiness can co-exist.
      The film drags early on as we try to figure out whether Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand, excellent) reciprocates Denise’s love or is merely after another conquest. In arranging the deal that will bankroll the expansion of his store, which aims at the happiness of woman patrons, Octave explains, “The one who rules women rules the world.” He seems without genuine feelings, but Denise introduces him to these.
      Duvivier marshals a host of expressionistic devices. Demolition crews are at work all around Baudu’s shop, and a pan of the result perhaps influenced both the crane survey of Kane’s junk in Citizen Kane (1941) and the passage in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) that shows Main Street’s upheavals amidst superimpositions of growth. When Baudu’s daughter dies as an indirect result of the department store’s expansion, Baudu cracks; a worker delivering downward blows of a pick-axe literally seems to split the screen. The camera follows Baudu, gun in hand and after Octave, in a continuous motion that is itself split in half by an inserted shot of commotion inside the store.

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