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Thursday, December 5, 2013

DESIRE (1937)

(That should read DÉSIRÉ, but my Title Posting Editor resists all attempts at accents.)

This is one of the strongest play-to-film transfers from author/actor/director/bon vivant Sacha Guitry’s wildly productive mid-1930s, when he seemed to be filming his effervescent boulevard comedies in batches. DÉSIRÉ sits neatly between the ironic social commentary of a Shavian exercise and a classic Ernst Lubitsch gloss on how sexual attraction effects every action. And if Guitry’s gifts in technique, structure and dialectic drama never go too deep, he’s perfectly delightful within his limits. Here, he’s an irresistible valet, that is, irresistible to his mistresses. And it’s happening again. At the same time, Guitry runs a sort of Upstairs/Downstairs dialogue on politics, manners, mores, house-service rituals and sex. Well, mostly sex, and with a blushing frankness that can still send out ripples. Adding to the fun is that his employer, and the object he denies himself, is Guitry’s actual wife at the time, Jacqueline Delubac. Desirable as she is, another beauty works below stairs, Arletty as Madame’s chambermaid, a servant who knows the proper tip for everything. Add in Madame’s longtime lover, a highly placed minister; a tetchy cook; and a well-placed, but slightly appalling, older couple for a climactic, hilarious, politically-incorrect dinner. (She’s deaf as a post; he’s both politically & sexually expedient.) As director, Guitry goes his own way, with a handmade quality to staging & editing that bumps along. You get used to it, and it pays off in a couple of tour de force soliloquies Guitry wrote for himself which might not work at all under more conventional terms.

DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well go for the matching pair and try Hollywood’s take on French manners, mores & sexual attraction in DESIRE/’36. That’s a non-accented DESIRE from one year earlier.) Frank Borzage directs this yummy Ernst Lubitsch production with Marlene Dietrich & Gary Cooper.

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