Arletty, star image, and the return of the gaze: Gazing back from Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis.
Arletty, the film's star and a revered icon of French cinema, conspicuously uses devices, such as mirrors and calling cards, to return, redirect, and subvert the male gaze-that of male characters as well as spectators-at watershed moments in the narrative. Arletty's capacity to gaze back stems in part, at least, from two pro-filmic elements working in tandem: the first is the actor's star persona and the second is her on-going collaboration with Carne. Arletty's popularity soared during the Occupation where she starred in three hit films and earned one of the highest salaries in French cinema up to that point. Through her roles in Carne's films, this former music hall singer, with her trademark parigol, working-class Parisian accent, achieved star status. Generally, movie stars, as Richard Dyer points out, represent both a "reinforcement ofvalues under threat" and a "displacement of values."2 Fittingly, Arletty, as a cinematic Marianne image, served as one further reminder that France, even under foreign domi nation, could still produce great cultural symbols. However, Arletty also quite literally embodied France's acceptance of the German presence in that, starting from 1940, the actor publicly maintained an amorous relationship with Luftwaffe officer Hans Jurgen Soehring. This relationship caused her an eighteen-month jail sentence at the Liberation; the punishment forced her to miss the premiere of Children of Paradise, one ofthe first major premieres after the Liberation. According to Denis Demonpion, Arletty's biographer, this absence-and people actually attended the screening to "see" this absence-only added to her legend.(3)
As for the film itself, often cited as one of the cinema's master works, Children of Paradise represents Carne's chef-d'oeuvre and the pinnacle ofthe Arletty/Carne partnership. However, unlike other collaborations between heterosexual/male directors and heterosexual/female actors, Carne's homosexuality has arguably affected his figuring of Arletty. Edward Baron Turk explains that Arletty "served as a screen onto which [Carne] projected primal desires" and that she "understood the nature and limits of his attraction to her." (4) Turk argues that their relationship led to a sense of "androgyny" even in their mainstream hits. Carne and Arletty seem to use this ambiguity to explore possibilities of reversals of traditional cinematic sequences. The discussion below centers on a few notable examples.
In the film, Arletty plays Garance, a performer who becomes the object of desire for four different men: Baptiste, a mime; the Count Edouard de Montray, a rich dandy; Frederick, an actor; and Lacenaire, a criminal. In her initial appearance, Garance works as a model, representing "La Verite," in a street carnival tent; patrons pay to stand behind an iron railing and watch her rotate nude in a large tank of water. In her outstretched hand, she holds a mirror. Maureen Turim contends that the inclusion of the mirror in Garance's hand nuances male desire for that character.
The irony of Garance's sideshow display as an object of desire becomes apparent, as she is never simply available to a male gaze or to male possession; the mirror works to indicate, through a flirtation with the image of vanity, a nascent sense of female-generated desire. (5)
Turim's analysis coincides with aspects of Arletty's star persona; the performer often acted according to her own desire despite the threat of public decry. In fact, after the war and with reference to her choice of lovers, Arletty wryly declared, "mon coeur est francais, mais mon cul est international" (Demonpion 321).
Jill Forbes, in her study of the scene, writes that
Truth was traditionally represented, as Arletty is here, in the narcissistic pose of a woman looking at herself in the mirror. But the mise-en-scene is also a representation of the proverb that 'la verite est au fond d'un puits' (truth is found at the bottom of a well--that is, very hard to find). (6)
Truth proves very difficult to find indeed. Soon after this scene, Garance announces to Lacenaire that her job in the tent as "La Verite" has ended; she says patrons became dissatisfied with only "La Verite jusqu' aux epaules."
This scene also evokes the whole of the cinematic apparatus as a site for collective gazing, and specifically for gazing at female movie stars. Interestingly, before the advent of movie theaters, filmmakers actually did exhibit their works in tents and other structures erected temporarily in the street. (7) In addition, scopophilia arose as one of the earliest forms of visual pleasure associated with cinema. However, in the scene in question here, Carne denies viewers this pleasure as the mise-en-scene suggests a deconstruction of Arletty's "to-be-looked-at-ness" (to borrow Mulvey's neologism). In the tent scene, as Arletty/Garance--icon of the cinema and avatar of the Truth--spins around, she projects her own gaze, through the mirror, onto the male viewers in the tent and, by extension, onto the viewers in the movie theater. With this arrangement, still another mirror, the water line in the tank, cuts off the expected pleasure of viewing a nude human form. Trying to see a little more of the Truth, viewers me et their own gazes reflected in the water and the mirror.
The next scene for commentary uses the technique of shot/reverse-shot in establishing the romantic relationship between Garance and Baptiste. After falling in love with Garance, Baptiste walks her home through the streets of Paris at night. His love for her constitutes more of an emotional devotion than a physical yearning. This state of affairs, as Turk notes, reverses the traditional active/male and passive/female roles in the street scene where the two have their first onscreen kiss: "[t]o follow custom, the camera ought to focus on Garance. But Carne chooses instead to frame and highlight Baptiste's full face, quivering with expectancy, as Garance, shot from the rear, inclines forward and initiates the kiss" (287). In the (stereo-) typical shot/reverse-shot, directors first frame the man in a more or less horizontal medium or close-up shot, which parallels the viewer's position with that of the camera. Next, the woman, sometimes with a soft focus, appears in a more close-up shot, which assumes the point o f view of the male protagonist. Based on Turk's comments above, then, Arletty, the supposed object of men's desire, does not occupy the proper position, within the syntax of film language, for a traditional expression of such desire. Moreover, Arletty, throughout her professional career, rarely appeared in serious, dramatic love scenes; and so she seems all the more out of place here.
The final scene for examination occurs at the very end of the first part of Carne's two-part feature. Lacenaire has attempted a murder at Garance's hotel. Afterwards, she returns to her room completely unaware of the crime. The proprietor has informed the police of Garance's earlier association with the suspect; and the police subsequently question Garance accusing her of complicity. On the verge of arrest, she removes from her purse the calling card of the rich and powerful Count Edouard de Montray.
Viewers will recall that, earlier in the film, the Count had given Garance his calling card in the performer's dressing room after a show. The Count professed his love for her saying he could make her the richest, best-adorned woman in Paris. As Garance listened, she changed clothes--into a simple, checkered dress--behind a screen and stated her contentment with her own life. The Garance character rejects the Count's desire to figure her as he dreams her to be. Instead, she continues to figure herself, out of view of the Count, by dressing in somewhat plain clothes and modest jewelry; she controls "The Truth" about her life, as seen in the metaphor discussed earlier, through an emblematic adornment of her own body. She deflects the Count's active male gaze with the screen. Ironically, this screen also blocks the viewer's gaze upon Arletty's nude body, a body supposedly passive and available to the male gaze for visual pleasure via the movie screen.
In contrast to this arguably passive subversion of the male gaze, Garance, later in the film, actively uses this calling card, a symbol of patriarchal power, to redirect the authoritative gaze of the police, who also wish to figure her, although this time as a criminal. Again, returning to the final scene of the first part of the film, once Arletty hands the card to the police, she stands passively, almost mockingly, still. Rapid shots next frame each character looking at Arletty and wondering whose card she has proffered. As the police examine the card, Arletty looks at the other characters and enjoys their shocked expressions.
The political implications of this scene--obviously filmed before Arletty's imminent, real-life arrest--also accentuate the effect of Carne's timing. The camera, in almost Brechtian fashion, lingers on Garance long enough for viewers to start to realize their own act of gazing upon the actor Arletty on the screen. However, while present on the screen, Arletty--unlike Garance and unable to escape police persecution--remained absent from the film's premiere. As they watched Arletty on the screen, and perhaps as a symbolic, cinematic punishment for any wartime humiliation, the audience at the film's opening seemingly elicited a non-threatening version of castration anxiety, one of the cinema's primal fantasies. Although she symbolically emasculated France through her affair with Soehring, Arletty, screen icon and object of the gaze, reassures, through her screen presence and presence on the screen, the continuity and grandeur of French culture in the face of threat.
Such instances of gazing, both at and by Arletty, demonstrate the degree to which star persona and collaborative filmmaking can influence readings of the traditionally cinematic female position as object of the (male) gaze, even in such arguably mainstream works as Children of Paradise. In reference to Arletty's star persona, the Garance character takes on a distinctive autonomy through the nuances of the film's plot as in the scenes from above, the unique sexual charge of the Carne/Arletty collaboration, and the political events at the premiere. While at first a seemingly conventional, female figure of cinema, existing solely to offer beauty and visual pleasure to (male) spectators, the Garance character benefits from the persona of independence of the actor who plays her. As such, in those last, insistent frames of the calling-card scene, for example, she is perhaps not just "being-looked-at" but, rather, is also "looking-at."
(1.) Laura Mulvey. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16.3 (1975): 11
(2.) Richard Dyer. Stars, new edition with supplementary chapter and bibliography by Paul McDonald (1979: London: BFI, 1998) 25-27.
(3.) Denis Demonpion, Arletty (Paris: Flammarion, 1996) 297.
(4.) Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992) 343.
(5.) Maureen Turim. "Looking Back at the Mirror: Cinematic Revisions." Psycho analyses/Feminisms, ed. Peter L. Rudnytsky and Andrew M. Gordon (Albany: State U of New York P, 2000) 166.
(6.) Jill Forbes, Les Enfants du Paradis (London: British Film Institute, 1997) 38.
(7.) Alan Williams, Republic of Images (Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1992) 48-49.
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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