Fièvre (1921)

France / 43 minutes / bw silent / Alhambra, Jupiter Dir & Scr: Louis Delluc Cine: Alphonse Gibory, Georges Lucas Cast: Eve Francis, Gaston Modot, Solange Rugiens, Léon Moussinac, Edmond Van Daële, Elena Sagrary, Gine Avril, Yvonne Aurel, George Footit, A.F. Brunelle, L.V. de Malte, Lili Samuel, Gastao Roxo, Marcelle Delville, Barral, Varoquet, Jacqueline Chaumont, Siska, Jeanne Cadix, Vintiane, Bole, W. de Bouchgard, Bayle, Noémi Scize.

In a Marseille harbor bar, the regular topers tope while being served at their tables by landlord Topinelli (Modot) and his wife Sarah (Francis), who seems not impartial to a drop or two herself; clearly Sarah is acclimatized to the life she leads rather than content with it. She reminisces to an attractive young customer at the bar (Avril) about the romantic interlude she enjoyed long ago—shown in flashback—with a handsome sailor.

Sarah (Eve Francis) enjoys a tipple.

A ship comes in, and a bunch of its crew arrive at the bar, a leading member of the group being, sure enough, Sarah’s old flame, Militis (Van Daële); with him is an Asiatic woman (Sagrary) whom we discover—again in flashback—he married in gratitude for her having nursed him through a long illness.

The sailors’ women arrive—or maybe it’s just a platoon of the ladies of the harbor—and dancing starts. Sarah makes it clear to Militis she wouldn’t be averse to rekindling the fires of old and, as they dance, it seems he could likewise be persuaded into some amorous ignition.

A fraught landlord, Topinelli (Gaston Modot).

Meanwhile Militis’s wife, looking on distraught, is manhandled by a drunken customer (de Malte, I think); when Militis goes to defend her virtue—or, to judge by their relationship as portrayed in the movie, to defend his property—a brawl starts. Topinelli, who has been watching Sarah’s antics with increasing ire, takes the opportunity to strike down Militis, who in due course expires in Sarah’s arms.

The cops arrive and, seeing Sarah with the dead man, assume she’s the killer. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for her, though, because earlier she tried to organize the women into a lynch mob to tear Militis’s oriental wife to pieces.

Edmond Van Daële as Militis.

As the movie ends, we see the wife finally reach and take a scent of a flower that’s been on the bar throughout the proceedings. It seems that, of all the people there have been in the place, she’s the only one aware there’s a world filled with beauty beyond the hostelry walls, a beauty that can be attained if only you know it’s there and make the effort to reach it.

There don’t seem to be any extant copies of this movie that bear the intertitles and credits, so for character names I’ve had to rely on those given in French Wikipedia; it’s thanks, too, to French Wikipedia that I’ve been able to identify the barfly, who generally goes unlisted. (The actress is unlisted even there, but her name’s given in a picture caption. Thanks to the wonders of Goodsearch Images, I was able to confirm that this was indeed the player.)

Gine Avril as Sarah’s confidante.

Louis Delluc looked set to be an important pioneer of French silent cinema until a fever struck him down at age just 33, in 1924. He left behind a mere handful of surviving movies, of which this melodrama is one; most of them starred Ève Francis, his wife.

Alas, Fièvre hasn’t really aged very well; it certainly has interest as a curio, and as an indicator of the preoccupations of the moviemakers of the day—the opening half of the piece, dominated by footage of scenes in and around the Marseille docks, uses irising to transition between images so often that I found myself pleading with the ghost of Delluc to stop, just stop—but the tale seems trite and pointless and the acting, especially from Francis, more than a little overblown.

Topinelli (Gaston Modot, center) has cause to be jealous of his wife.

There are, too, some objectionable symptoms of the times, such as the idea that a Frenchman would only marry an oriental woman, no matter how beautiful, out of a sense of obligation, and that this woman should thereafter treat him with a sort of doglike subservience. The attack on her by the other women is likewise quite stomach-curdling.

And yet there are moments that make us realize why so much was expected of Delluc. Some of the character observation is delightful: a woman who sits alone at her table (Aurel), making the pipe she smokes seem quintessentially feminine, distancing herself from the rest of the clientele until the arrival of the sailors stirs a little warmth in her; and another solitary customer, a man with a hat (Footit), intent just on quietly sipping his drink and letting the world go past him—we expect that at any moment he’ll pull a book from his pocket and tuck into it. Flaubert, perhaps.

Yvonne Aurel as the woman with the pipe.

There’s also a little monkey, brought in on the shoulder of one of the sailors and eventually climbing into the rafters, where it acts as an appalled viewpoint character, bringing a welcome lilt of comedy to the proceedings. And I was amused to see a Dewar’s ad on the wall of the bar. Some things never change.

Overall, Fièvre is a movie that’s worth watching once as an insight into an aspect of cinema history, and for its sense of noirish nihilism—although it has otherwise nothing of the feel of a noir. The name of the second cinematographer made me smile.

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16 thoughts on “Fièvre (1921)

    • Looking at the poster made me wonder what it must have been like for cinema patrons, back in the 1920s and 1930s, to see gorgeous, ebulliently colorful, boldly delineated posters on the outside of movie houses and then sit down to watch a work in flickering black and white. I’m a big fan of b/w, as you might have guessed, but at the same time I was wondering if it mightn’t have been for them rather like being lured into the cafe by the smell of freshly brewed coffee and then served a cup of instant. Or maybe their minds filled in the color as they watched?

  1. My colleague Allan Fish held a copy of the film and always spoke glowingly of Delluc, who was also a noted film critic. Tragic that he died so young (of pneumonia). Fabulous review and unearthing here!!! Delluc was an important film pioneer.

  2. Yeah, what stuck with me from this film were the small character moments and the general atmosphere of the bar. I recall ripples of water when I think of.it. Best viewed at an indeterminate hour of late night.

    • It certainly is surprisingly striking, visually, especially when you consider that (unless there’s a good restoration around that I don’t know about) the copies we have are sorta murky and flickering. In fact, looking now at the screengrabs here, I’m wondering if I should dig the movie out for a rewatch.

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