Known in the U.S. by the title Man About Town, Le silence est d’or (literally, Silence Is Golden), from France and the U.S., is writer-director René Clair’s first film after returning from Hollywood to Paris following the end of the Second World War. It stars, in his finest role, Maurice Chevalier as middle-aged Emile Clément, a pioneering filmmaker combining traits of Feuillade and Méliès, in the early twentieth century, prior to the First World War. Its rambunctious comedy includes back-set slapstick and a film-within-the-film; its romance, both comical and poignant, shows two friends competing for the same girl, Madeleine, both before and after they know she is the same girl; and, with young Jacques, his assistant, the beneficiary of Emile’s tutelage in winning over a girl, it is a tragedy about the passage of time. Because Jacques has just returned from the military, the film also reflects a patriotic imperative to counterbalance an audience’s possible allegiance to Chevalier’s celebrated face and manner. One of Clair’s loveliest films, Le silence est d’or is also among his emotionally richest and most complex.
As you may know, I have been dispensing on this blog mea culpas over my crass dismissal of Clair’s postwar cinema. To say the least, Truffaut has been proven over time to have been a terrible film critic, but for a spell an influential one, and I regret to say I succumbed to his nastiness, cruelty, bombast and immaturity. I see the 1940s-’50s Clair more Clairly, less Truffautly, now.
It is nonetheless the case, though, that postwar Clair wasn’t the same soul as made those 1920s-’30s films of his that we all cherish. (I do not include here his overrated “masterpiece,” A nous la liberté, 1932.) Their lightness and heartiness are now missing; their darker complexion, along with their greater reliance on in-studio shooting, has squeezed out much of the airiness (and air) and spirit. However, they are more thoughtful and burrowing now—and, if less consistently, as dazzlingly brilliant as ever.
While several wonderful shots punctuate the proceedings (ncluding one in which, unseen by each other, Emile and Jacques, only inches apart, separately though equally ponder the identical romantic predicament), the film-within-the-film may be the film’s great set-piece: a faux-hybrid of Méliès and the Keystone Kops, which hilariously ends with the chain-reaction suicides of a pair of found-out lovers. This ending cannot stand! By the time the film has been completed and is being exhibited, by which time Emile has withdrawn from his romantic competition with Jacques, the film-within-the-film ends differently. Standing at the back of the theater, Emile flirtatiously asks the unaccompanied young woman, a stranger, standing next to him whether she likes happy endings. To her affirmative response Emile beams (as only Chevalier can beam), “So do I.” You know, there are other “fish” than Madeleine in the sea!
As terrific as Chevalier is, however, François Périer, still in his twenties and with what a remarkable career ahead of him, steals the show. Imagine! François Périer—funny! And, as timid, loyally conflicted, adorable Jacques, he, too, gets a “happy ending.” And so do we!
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