Julien Duvivier’s updated adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1883 novel is paradoxically a tale of modernization (how the rise of the great Paris department stores killed the small family-owned specialty shops) and a final flowering of silent cinema technical bravura. (And how! Duvivier grabs from the Soviets, UFA and Abel Gance with mad, and thrilling, abandon. All those made-in-the-camera montages & effects.) Dita Parlo (the bride in L’ATALANTE/’34 and the farm wife in GRAND ILLUSION/’37) stars as an orphan who comes to Paris to work at her Uncle’s ancient fabric store, unaware he’s going out of business thanks to Au Bonheur Des Dames, the fabulous new department store. (With interiors shot in the actual Galeries Lafayette, it truly is a jaw-dropping place.) The girl gets a job there and soon catches the eye of its young, debt-laden owner. Can love bloom under the shadow of tragedy? Duvivier never quite pulls the story together (the role of the girl’s sponging kid brother has been dropped which seems to unbalance everything), so the film becomes a series of set pieces . . . spectacular ones. There’s a young man’s excitement behind all the cinematic legerdemain which Duvivier would leave behind for a more poetic cinema. But this is so exciting to watch, you won’t want to miss it. Especially in the beautifully produced Lobster-DVD which includes a fine newly commissioned score and a fascinating short that shows the inner workings of an employees’ dining hall from this era.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: I know it's neither imaginative nor exciting to just say 'read the book,' but . . . read the book! The Penguin edition is fine, but with the usual odd Brit slant in translation, so you might want to try the Barnes & Noble edition (they've got their own classics line & you'll save six bucks) which goes by the title LADIES' PARADISE. The usual Zola realism & tragedy are wonderfully tempered here by what amounts to his very own Cinderella story. It makes a tremendous read, and the details on the retail world of the 1880s, especially dormitory life for the salesgirls, are real eye openers.