April 16, 2018  (Web Review)

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France

Eclipse, 402 min., in French w/English subtitles, not rated, DVD: $59.99

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

The long career of French filmmaker Claude Autant-Lara has largely been overlooked, in part due to critical neglect but also because of the filmmaker’s divisive late-in-life leap into politics as a reactionary nationalist. This set of three comedies and one tragic drama spotlights the work of a filmmaker who came into his own celebrating the French spirit during the German occupation. Le mariage de Chiffon (1942) is a slight but sweet little comedy with a generous spirit that brings out the best in everyone. The follow-up Lettres d’amour (1942) is a classic screwball comedy of mistaken identity, petty bureaucratic squabbles, illicit affairs, and betrayals in a 19th-century town. The plot is too convoluted to recount yet is also surprisingly easy to follow and Autant-Lara directs at an easy pace that makes it all feel organic. Douce (1943), set in 1887 Paris, is the sole tragedy here, a dark romantic roundelay set in a culture of strict class division. The romantic fantasy Sylvie et le fantôme (1946) is the most lovingly crafted of the quartet, a subdued comedy playing out in a haunted castle, beautifully filmed with superb special effects (and marking the film debut of comedy great Jacques Tati as a phantom). These films enchanted French audiences during dark times with buoyant, romantic visions of the past, and spirited leading lady Odette Joyeux playing innocent, idealistic, loyal young heroines who follow their hearts. There is an effortless quality to Autant-Lara’s direction and a generosity of character that suggests a belief in the best of human nature. Highly recommended. (S. Axmaker)