Detailing a way of life that has passed from Earth, and capturing the rhythm of that life, Le cheval d’orgueil is based on Pierre-Jakez Hélias’s autobiographical novel. Claude Chabrol’s beautiful film depicts an impoverished, tight-knit, deeply religious Breton village in the years 1908-1918.
A representative of Hélias as an old reminiscing soul narrates. Since the three-day event with which the film begins is the wedding of his peasant parents, Pierre-Alain and Anne-Marie, “facts” organically yield to tall tales and small tales—“histories” in a community that’s steeped in the oral tradition of storytelling. What we sometimes “see,” with or without narration, may have happened or may not; in one instance, a panning camera in a field teases into legend a series of melodramatic suicides illustrating both the desperation wrought by poverty and the communal interconnectedness ironically reflecting on this “chain” of events. The sequence, darkly hilarious (compare Jon Jost’s stark, rapid-fire series of suicides in The Bed You Sleep In, 1993), includes an elderly woman’s crossing herself just before dispatching her soul to Hell. The macabre humor (including children’s All Saints Eve pranks) reminds one of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow (Prästänkan, 1920).
Unimaginable: a film more loving than this one is toward children. There are priceless moments between Pierre-Alain and his son. Chabrol being Chabrol, feelings run deep without being sentimentalized.
The title refers to the one “horse” that the Hélias family can afford: for Pierre-Jakez, his grandfather’s and his father’s shoulders—“the best horse,” he pronounces them, summoning continuity in the face of the Great War’s more-than-interruption of the family’s and community’s way of life. “We were of the earth,” the narrator explains. “The earth was our only happiness”—but such happiness that a war-torn world could not retain it.
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