La Foire aux Chimères (1946)

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“Can you imagine the torture of feeling the sun’s warmth without being dazzled by its light?”
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vt Devil and the Angel; vt Carnival of Illusions
France / 93 minutes / bw / Cinéma, National Dir: Pierre Chenal Pr: Ralph Baum Scr: Jacques Companéez, Ernst Neubach, Louis Ducreux Cine: Pierre Montazel Cast: Madeleine Sologne, Erich von Stroheim, Louis Salou, Yves Vincent, Claudine Dupuis, Jean-Jacques Delbo, Margo Lion, Pierre Labry, Georges Vitray, Georges Cusin, Merove, Line Renaud, Gustave Gallet, Annette Poivre, Frouhins, Denise Benoît, J.P. Moulinot, Dora Doll, Howard Vernon, Devienne, Paul Delauzac.

I watched this in the form of the restoration done by the French Ministère de la Culture’s Archives du Film du Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie. As you’ll see from the screengrabs, the picture quality is a little soft; what you can’t see from the screengrabs, of course, is that the sound isn’t of the best. Even so, the restoration is very watchable and the movie itself quite enchanting, with a dark streak of noirishness revealing itself in the later stages, after the earlier Beauty and the Beast fairytale is over.

Erich von Stroheim as Frank.

It’s the 50th birthday of Frank Davis (von Stroheim), the man in charge of the printing of banknotes for a major bank. Frank is a lonely man and a prickly personality as a consequence of the facial disfigurement he suffered some long while ago—in combat or in an accident, we’re not told. (I think we’re meant to assume it was an accident involving the acids with which, as an engraver, he must work.) His subordinates, especially the younger ones, despise him for his irascibility and his humorlessness. Here’s an exchange early on in the movie as Frank tries to eat his lunch in the staff canteen:

Frank (pointing at plate): “What is that?”
Waitress: “I’d say it’s a fly, sir.”
Frank: “No. Several.”
Waitress: “That’s true.”
Frank: “Why are they meeting in my mashed potatoes?”
Waitress: “But they’re little flies, sir.”
Frank: “Little flies are a sign of great negligence, or perhaps of great malevolence.”

We grin at his apparent paranoia as well as at the humor of the scene, but in fact the joke’s on us: his subordinates, with ringleader Lenoir (Delbo), really did introduce the flies to Frank’s meal.

That evening a lonely Frank takes himself to the local carnival to try to cheer himself up. At first it doesn’t go well. Two pretty girls (uncredited) join him for champagne but beat a hasty retreat as soon as they see his maimed face. Later on, his winning of a child’s doll at a sideshow hardly compensates for his loneliness and humiliation.

The disfigured Frank (Erich von Stroheim) tries to make friends at the carnival.

But then later still, as he’s sitting alone with his prize, his evening is transformed—as indeed is his personality. Out of the gloom emerges a woman of almost ethereal beauty, seemingly a fantasy princess, or perhaps an angel. The better term is “angel,” because that’s how Jeanne (Sologne) is billed as the “target” half of the circus’s knife-throwing act, Satanas & Angela (“The Devil and the Angel”).

Frank’s first encounter with Jeanne (Madeleine Sologne) – the angel.

It takes Frank a little while to realize that the reason Jeanne isn’t repelled by him is that, like the doll he won earlier in the evening and to which he’s been speaking as if to a friend, she’s blind: she fell off a trapeze at the age of six and has been sightless ever since. She believes it’s out of pity that the knife-thrower, her childhood friend Robert (Vincent)—“Satanas”—employs her as his partner in the act. She’s not his partner in life, though: that’s Clara (Dupuis), the circus’s star bareback rider.

Robert (Yves Vincent) and Clara (Claudine Dupuis) seem to be a permanent item.

Frank promises to come back the next night to see Jeanne’s act. On his arrival home he receives a dressing-down from his sour-seeming housekeeper Marie-Louise “Marilou” (Lion), who spots the symptoms of infatuation immediately and assumes he’s been ensnared by some gold-digging strumpet. Just as our initial assumptions about Frank’s nature were wrong, so too with Marilou; as the movie progresses she becomes Jeanne’s best friend and confidante, her true warmth emerging and the lines of her face softening.

Marilou (Margo Lion) shows her disapproval.

The next night it’s bucketing with rain. No one wants to go to the circus on a night like this, so the performance has been canceled. Frank extracts from a barker, though, that if the circus could sell as many as 45 tickets the show would go on. So Frank buys 45 tickets and in solitary splendor watches the spectacle . . .

Afterward, Frank and Jeanne admit to each other that they’ve fallen in love. Jeanne tells a hugely drunken Robert that she’s leaving the circus, and goes home with Frank.

Jean-Jacques Delbo as the treacherous Lenoir.

Soon she and Frank are married, and he’s living far, far beyond his means in order to buy her everything her heart could desire—jewels, furs and not least the mansion in which they live. He borrows, borrows and borrows again, his borrowing facilitated by Lenoir—that same Lenoir who works beneath him at the bank. What he doesn’t know is that Lenoir is a crook, operating in league with casino owner and major-league twister Furet (Salou) to drive Frank into such a pit of indebtedness that he’ll fall prey to their blackmail plan: forge banknotes for us or we’ll destroy your life . . . and Jeanne’s.

Louis Salou as the crook Furet.

When Frank attempts to recoup some of his debts in Furet’s casino—and of course loses—the plan swings into action.

It does so on Christmas Eve. Frank and Jeanne have spent the evening celebrating at Furet’s nightclub, where they listen to a performance of great panache by Line Renaud of the song “Tant que Tu M’Aimeras”—and a very good song it is. As they’re leaving, though, Furet approaches Frank and requests repayment of the fortune Frank owes him . . . with interest.

Line Renaud gives a great performance of the song “Tant que Tu M’Aimeras.”

And so Frank, the master-engraver, while retaining his post at the bank starts a new career as a counterfeiter. In due course the inevitable irony emerges: he’s consulted by the Sûreté—in the form of Commissaires Dardel (Labry) and Grandel (uncredited)—to help them catch the counterfeiter who’s flooding the country with fake banknotes . . .

Two extraneous complications emerge. First, as soon as Jeanne departed Robert realized that, contrary to his demeanor, he was actually crazy about her. He tries a substitute “angel” (Poivre) but it’s quite obvious that she’s Wrong, All Wrong. He casts Clara from his bed and does a lot of moping.

The second development is that Jeanne falls in love with the idea of having her sight surgically restored so she can be an even better wife to Frank. Off she goes, with Marilou in tow, to the clinic of Dr. Monceau (Delauzac) for what seems like, under the circumstances, a remarkably simple piece of surgery—in and out the same day, sort of thing. Even after the surgery Marilou is skeptical of the merit of the whole enterprise:

Marilou: “Weren’t you happy as you were?”
Jeanne: “But I’ll be able to see, Marie. Imagine, I’ll find myself in a world I barely knew when I was a little girl. Can you imagine the torture of feeling the sun’s warmth without being dazzled by its light?”
Marilou: “There’s a proverb that says happiness is misfortune that you can’t see.”

And she warns Jeanne, too, that she must disguise any adverse reaction she might have to the sight of Frank, because it would be too easy to destroy him.

And so, when the bandages come off, Jeanne pretends to Frank that the operation has been a failure. Marilou knows better, as does Robert, when an inquisitive Jeanne tromps along to the circus and discovers he’s a complete dreamboat. Instantly she falls in love with him . . . and the stage is set for the tragedy that will make up the later stages of the movie.

By the end of La Foire aux Chimères you may well find yourself breathless. It’s grand melodrama from a director, Pierre Chenal, who’s perhaps best known for Le DERNIER TOURNANT (1939), the first screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s prototypical hardboiled novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Yet it does raise a few questions. First, although you wouldn’t actually think to put a photo of Frank’s face on a box of chocolates, he’s not that ugly—he’s no Phantom of the Opera. And, second, would it not be inordinately superficial of Jeanne to suddenly stop loving her husband because she can now see his ugly mug? (Third, as an aside, surely she must have had a pretty clear idea of what said mug looked like through stroking and caressing it, as spouses do.) Perhaps the notion is that, just in the same way that she has constructed an image of Frank based on her wishes rather than the visual evidence she lacks, so has he formed an artificial image of her (the movie’s called “Carnival of Illusions,” after all!) based on the externals, notably that first sight of her as an angel. In other words, perhaps she really is that superficial but, like Robert, we’ve been distracted from the recognition of this?

There’s some very noirish cinematography in the closing stages of the movie.

Von Stroheim—who I assume needs no introduction to readers of this site—is in terrific form in La Foire aux Chimères; I think it’s the best performance of his I’ve seen, bringing great depth to the character of Frank not just through obvious behaviors but via all kinds of nuance. Frank remains a bit of a curmudgeon to the end, and he retains a sort of pompous formality, especially in professional matters, yet he mellows so much from the martinet we see in the opening moments that very soon our sympathies are lodged solidly with him. That episode in the canteen with the flies might leave Lenoir and the others with an impression of their own superiority to the old bozo, but it backfires on them so far as the movie’s audience is concerned.

Of Madeleine Sologne I’ve (shamefully) been far less aware. She was born Madeleine Simone Vouillon in 1912 in the Sologne region of France, whose name she adopted for the stage. She began as a fashion model, though she also did some art modeling. It was while she was posing for the painter Mojzesz Kisling that he encouraged her to think of a theatrical career. She followed his advice, and was soon a well recognized stage actress. Her first screen role was in La Vie est à Nous (1936; vt Life Belongs to Us), a propaganda movie helmed by eight directors led by Jean Renoir. An early highlight of her screen career—again opposite von Stroheim—was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s sf movie Le Monde Tremblera (1939; vt La Révolte des Vivants; vt The World Will Shake). Other movies of note included Le Danube Bleu (1940; vt The Blue Danube) dir Emil-Edwin Reinert and Alfred Rode, Jean Delannoy’s Fièvres (1942) and L’Éternel Retour (1943; vt Love Eternal) and André Cayatte’s Le Dessous des Cartes (1948; vt Under the Cards). There’s an interesting video homage (in French) to her life and work here.

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