Passions run high in rural France!
France / 29 minutes / bw / Société Française des Films Éclair Dir: Maurice Tourneur Story: La Bergère d’Ivry (1839 play) by Gabriel de Lurieu and Michel Delaporte? Cast: Renée Sylvaire, Paulette Noizeux, Henry Roussel, Albert Decoeur.
An early outing from noted director Maurice Tourneur—it may be his oldest surviving work—La Bergère d’Ivry is loosely based on a true story that’s well known in France.
In 1827 19-year-old orphan Aimée Millot was a shepherdess—in fact a goatherd—in Ivry-sur-Seine, then a rural region but now a suburb of Paris. According to the accounts she was both beautiful and maidenly, and who is to say the accounts were wrong? A local woman, Mme Detrouville, had taken Aimée under her wing, and was giving the girl an education, with the result that Aimée was habitually seen with a book in her hand.
The lovely young shepherdess attracted the adoration of a neighborhood lad, Honoré Ulbach, who seems to have been either a petty criminal or a bit of a simpleton or both. He gave her some small gifts as testament to his love—a couple of oranges, a cheap scarf, that sort of thing.
When Mme Detrouville found out about the gifts, she insisted Aimée give them back: the older woman knew all too well what Honoré was expecting in return for his generosity, oh yes.
In bitter frustration, Honoré waylaid the shepherdess in a spot called le Champ de l’Alouette (the Field of the Lark) and brutally stabbed her to death. Soon after, full of remorse, he turned himself over to the police and made a full confession. He went to the guillotine on September 10 1827.
The very next day, supposedly, Victor Hugo began writing his short novel Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné (1829; vt The Last Day of a Condemned Man; vt Under Sentence of Death), generally regarded as the first marker of his opposition to the death penalty. (You can find the book on Project Gutenberg, in an omnibus with two other tales, here.) A more direct fictionalization of the case is La Bergère d’Ivry (2014) by Régine Deforges.
Renée Sylvaire as Aimée the goatherd.
Tourneur’s cinematic adaptation is, as noted, a loose one. The opening credits say that it’s based on “la comédie dramatique de M. Gabriel,” which I think must refer to the five-act play La Bergère d’Ivry (1839) by Gabriel de Lurieu and Michel Delaporte. It’s kind of surprising Mme Detrouville didn’t sue de Lurieu and Delaporte, despite her name being changed, because the supposed philanthropic educator has now become a callous adulterer!
Aimée (Sylvaire) is employed by Hortense Fauvel (Noizeux), wife of the renownedly jealous postmaster (Decoeur), and they’re obviously the best of friends; the girl is affianced to François (uncredited), who also works for the Fauvels.
Animal magnetism between Granval (Henry Roussel) and Hortense (Paulette Noizeux).
One day the Terry-Thomas-like Comte H. de Granval (Roussel) calls by the house to arrange the purchase of some ponies from Fauvel, and the aristocrat’s eye is caught by the winsome Hortense—an attraction that’s mutual, as Aimée can see immediately even if Fauvel himself cannot.
Hortense (Paulette Noizeux) peruses the billet doux Granval has given her.
Granval gives Hortense a billet doux proposing that, if she’s as open to his advances as he thinks she is, she should drop her bouquet when she meets him during the local fair the next day. She drops it, Aimée picks it up and roundly berates the libidinous aristocrat . . . and is promptly accused by her fiancé François of setting her cap at the toff. She rolls her eyes—something Sylvaire shows herself to be adept at several times during this movie: even though La Bergère d’Ivry is silent, you can practically hear them roll. She coquettishly cajoles François back into a good humor and then, to reassure him, buys a long knife and tells him that, should her heart ever become unfaithful to him, he can use this weapon to kill her.
Aimée (Renée Sylvaire), having perused the very same billet doux, is rightly concerned.
La Bergère d’Ivry was made in 1913, decades before the term “film noir” would be coined. Even so, Aimée should have had the sense to know that this is the kind of rash pledge you shouldn’t offer if you want to make it intact to the end of the movie.
Aimée (Renée Sylvaire) arrives at Granval’s chateau in hopes of heading off catastrophe.
In a long sequence at Granval’s château, Aimée manages to extract a promise from the man that he’ll lay off Hortense and then—when Fauvel bursts in and, finding Hortense’s scarf in le comte’s study, threatens violence—attempts to rescue the reputation, and perhaps more, of her benefactress by pretending that it’s she, not Hortense, who’s Granval’s mistress . . .
Aimée (Renée Sylvaire) implores Granval (Henry Roussel) to abandon his plans to seduce Hortense.
Fauvel (Albert Decoeur, right) discovers Hortense’s scarf in Granval’s study.
La Bergère d’Ivry manages to pack quite a lot of tale into its scant half-hour—there’s plenty more plot to come after the point where I’ve left it, and right up until the last moment we’re not sure how things will pan out for Aimée—and the pacing is surprisingly good for a movie of its vintage. The acting likewise, although today it’d be seen as more Blackpool Panto than Royal Shakespeare Company.
Maurice Tourneur is almost certainly best known today as the father (by his first wife, actress Fernande Petit) of the more famous Jacques, but in his time he was a significant figure in, firstly, French cinema and then, after moving to the US in 1914, its US counterpart. By the late 1920s his directorial style was considered passé in the New World and so he returned to Europe. There he directed a number of further movies, some of noirish interest—such as JUSTIN DE MARSEILLE (1935) and Cécile est Morte (1944; vt Cecile is Dead), which latter starred Albert Préjean as MAIGRET—before, debilitated by a car accident, retiring to engage in such activities as translating English-language crime thrillers into French.