I hadn’t heard of him either, yet the writer, director and star of everything in Eclipse’s Presenting Sacha Guitry was Paris’ most popular and prolific playwright of the 1920s. Guitry’s reluctant turn toward the cinema—which seemed to him an inferior and technically fussy medium, one attempting to pickle the ephemeral vivacity of theatre—was initially done only as a method of reaching a larger audience. Yet the story of Sacha Guitry is as compelling a piece of evidence as I’ve seen that great things can arise when an artist is coerced to work in a form other than the one in which he or she feels most comfortable. I can imagine Guitry’s stage work as very fleet-footed, pithy and entertaining, but I’d be surprised if it had anything on the playful innovation or unbridled narrative accumulation or sense of quiet spaces within a noisy world that one finds in the quartet of movies collected here.
Far from stage-bound—it was actually based on Guitry’s only novel—The Story of a Cheat (1936) could only have been conveyed through Guitry’s rigorous, sometimes audacious embracing of montage, voice-over, and an audiovisual dissonance unique to movies. The Cahiers crowd would dub it “pure cinema.” As Guitry’s titular grifter writes his memoirs his words summon up images from the past, or in any case his own no doubt fabulous version of it—no one in these flashbacks speaks, so no one can contradict the narrator or subvert his total control. He was born to provincial grocers and had a litter of siblings, all of them killed by a poisonous fungus dinner the child cheat was denied because he swiped change from the register. So he learned very early that crime pays, and as his biography unfolds at absurd, breakneck speed, he moves between France and Monaco, becomes a card shark, a soldier, a master of disguise and a croupier. He tries to go straight now and then, but he’s always dragged back, perhaps because the particular rules of Guitry’s universe insist that anything that happens once will happen again and again.
A chronicle of crossed destinies that traverses continents and centuries in its attempt to follow the movement of small precious objects as they’re passed between royals and thieves, The Pearls of the Crown (37) seems ripe material for an Italo Calvino novel, but Guitry rendered it instead as a dizzying historical-apocryphal-completely made-up cinema spectacle, one incorporating over 80 locations and some 200 characters, many of them famous monarchs, three of which are played by Guitry, and another three by his spouse and regular costar Jacqueline Delubac, so witty and lovely and possessing of a smile that would later grace the visage of Brooke Adams. The Pearls of the Crown is in part a cosmic-comic study in simultaneity. The dialogue is divided between three languages—four if you count Guitry’s “Abyssinian,” which is actually French played backwards—though you need only understand one of them to get the gist of any given scene. Language lessons become grounds for seduction, half an entire conversation consists solely of adverbs, a statue comes to life—twice, lovely heads are chopped off, wars are fought, revolutions erupt, men scour the globe on wild goose chases, and those milky pearls are bequeathed from one generation to another. You feel like Guitry could keep telling the story forever, yet when it ends it ends at precisely the only place it could have.
A twisty comedy of complicated love, Quadrille (38) is chronologically the last movie in Presenting Sacha Guitry. It’s perfectly delightful, utterly engrossing, and most obviously based on a play. I’d rather end by describing Désiré (37), which seems much more modest than its predecessors yet might be my favourite. Guitry plays the dapper and meticulous titular valet who arrives very late one night in the hope of finding work with Delubac’s Odette Cléry, a retired and obviously wealthy actress currently involved with a starchy politician. From the start Désiré’s new gig is unnervingly tenuous—Odette telephones Désiré’s previous employer and discovers that his position was terminated only on account of certain romantic tensions that arose between the two—and you get the sense that Désiré’s gift for suddenly improvising monologues that feel like resolved conversations is the only thing keeping him off the streets.
Guitry’s age and portly figure—he resembles a cross between Jean Gabin and the elderly Fritz Lang—make his assuming the role of the haplessly seductive Désiré seem comical or simply the whim of a director’s vanity, yet this bit of counter-intuitive casting makes the protagonist only more interesting, and his situation far more desperate. Meanwhile, the off-screen action and dearth of locations feel less like canned theatre than an exploration of the cloistered world of servants, and the story’s focus on erotic dreams and private conversations provide a sense of intimacy and nocturnal quietude. It all ends as simply and strangely as it began, and for all its talk there’s so much left unsaid, leaving us strangely moved. Guitry is customarily compared to Noël Coward, but something in Désiré at least reminded me of Robert Walser. Here’s hoping that we can continue to discover more from this forgotten master.