Vastly underrated, wrongly dismissed by some as being “cold,” Marcel Carné’s Juliette ou La clef des songes engages the beauty of romance and the power of love. It is certainly not the equal of Jean Cocteau’s splendiferous Beauty and the Beast (1946), with which it shares some elements; but then what is? Carné has made here one of his most magical, powerful and irresistible works.
The protagonist is Michel, who begins in jail for (we later find out) stealing from his employer so that he might treat Juliette, the girl he loves, to a memorable date. Now disconsolate for being separated from her, he dreams a dream of searching for Juliette in what turns out to be the Land of Lost Memories, where everyone is eager to appropriate anyone else’s memories as his or her own. Michel’s memories of Juliette, however, never dim.
He finds her in an enchanted forest and, by the power of his love for her, draws her heart from forgetfulness to a recollection of how much they meant to each other. Alas, the lord of a sumptuous castle, insisting that they are a long-term and loving couple, has designs on her and can sweeten the seduction with riches far beyond the poor boy’s means. Nevertheless, Michel succeeds in persuading the townfolk to storm the castle to rescue Juliette. In the Room of Locked Doors, they discover a box of wedding bands and, behind each door, a blood-stained bridal outfit. There’s no doubt who the owner of the castle is: Bluebeard! And now Bluebeard and Juliette are about to wed, but no one will help Michel intervene to stop the wedding-murder. The wedding must proceed, for the people have already forgotten what they encountered in the Room of Locked Doors. Michel wakes up from his dream’s bliss-turned-to-grief-and-horror. His employer, who resembles Bluebeard exactly, is dropping all charges against him at the insistence of his fiancée: Juliette. Michel embarks on a tragic course that surely must have brought down the Catholic Church’s condemnation on this heartbreaking film.
Gérard Philipe is superb as Michel—tender, charming, impulsive, irrevocably in love. Michel’s joyful little dance as, suddenly free, he heads down an unfamiliar road in his dream-accessed quest to find his beloved culminates in the fierce passion of his attempt to keep Juliette from being killed; both show Michel epitomizing youth. Suzanne Cloutier, Orson Welles’s Desdemona (Othello, 1951), is excellent as Juliette.
Our memories of love are sacred ground. If you believe this, you must see this film—although it may make you feel your heart will burst.
From a play by Georges Neveux; black-and-white cinematography by Henri Alëkan; the score, by Joseph Kosma, was honored at Cannes.
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