Des Gens Sans Importance (1956)

vt People of No Importance
France / 99 minutes / bw / Cocinor, Chaillot, Ardennes-Films de René Lafuite Dir: Henri Verneuil Pr: René Lafuite Scr: Henri Verneuil, François Boyer Story: Des Gens Sans Importance (1949) by Serge Groussard Cine: Louis Page Cast: Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Pierre Mondy, Yvette Etiévant, Dany Carrel, Nane Germon, Jacques Mann, André Dalibert, Pierre Fromont, Alain Bouvette, Ardisson, Nina Myral, Max Mégy, Gérard Darrieu, Lila Kedrova, Robert Dalban, Héléna Manson, Paul Frankeur.

Christmas Eve, and long-distance trucker Jean Viard (Gabin) and his co-driver Pierrot Berty (Mondy), veterans of the Paris–Bordeaux run, stop at a roadside diner, La Caravane, to grab a couple of hours’ sleep. La Caravane’s one-legged owner, their old friend Émile Barchandeau (Frankeur), has hired a new waitress, Clotilde “Clo” Brachet (Arnoul); even though she’s not much older than Jean’s wannabe-sexpot 17-year-old daughter Jacqueline (Carrel), she and Jean strike a spark.

I’m not going to be too worried about spoilers: first because Des Gens Sans Importance isn’t the kind of movie you watch waiting for the plot twists and second because most of the accounts of this movie you’ll come across will go into far greater detail about the plot than I will here. What I want to do is give a barest-of-bones outline so I can talk about other aspects of the movie.

Jean Gabin as Jean.

Despite the disparity of their ages and even though she knows he’s been married for years to Solange (Etiévant), Clo eventually seduces Jean. Five months into the affair, their relationship is a matter of their snatching fifteen or twenty minutes for “the routine” every time Jean can find a good excuse for he and Berty to stop at La Caravane.

Françoise Arnoul as Clo.

Things fall apart for both pretty dramatically. Clo discovers she’s pregnant and comes to Paris in search of a job and to be near Jean; the only job she can get is as a housemaid in the brothel run by Mme. “Vaco” Vacopoulos (Kedrova). Meanwhile Jean has lost both his job, thanks to socking a pocket-Hitler supervisor, and his family, thanks to Jacqueline reading to Solange the letter she’s intercepted in which Clo tells Jean she’s expecting.

Pierre Mondy as Pierrot.

Lila Kedrova as Madame Vaco.

Mme. Vaco, the brothel-keeper, puts Clo in touch with abortionist Germaine Constantin (Manson). Jean, horrified to learn of the pregnancy but not knowing of the abortion—he believes Clo when she tells him it was a false alarm—plans a new life for the pair of them in Bordeaux. They set off on a cattle truck he’s been hired on a one-off to haul there but, during a long and nightmare drive through thickening and eventually impenetrable fog, she rapidly sickens from complications of her abortion . . .

All this is told in a flashback from the present, two years later, when Jean is once again a regular on the Paris–Bordeaux run.

Yvette Etiévant as Solange (left) and Dany Carrel as Jacqueline.

Dany Carrel as Jacqueline.

Although Neorealism was an Italian movement and this is a French movie, I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far when I point at this as a quite central example of neorealist cinema. Had it been made in the UK around this time or a little later it might well have been lumped in with the kitchen-sink dramas. Both groups have their overlaps with the European version of film noir.

While I’d not view Des Gens Sans Importance as especially noirish taken in plot terms—mind you, you could point to the way that Jean, essentially a man of integrity, commits a foolish yet hardly mortal sin that catapults him into a hell of desolation, a typical theme of noir—everything else about it sings of noirishness. There’s the presence of Jean Gabin. And there’s the fact that Louis Page’s cinematography shows frame after frame that could have been plucked from any number of Hollywood noir classics. I’ve grabbed a couple of examples:

Despite the fact that this is at heart a melodrama, if you like your melodramas to be downers, there’s plenty of humor in it, mostly through the dialogue. Early on, as Jean and Berty are nearing the end of an idiotically long haul imposed by the bosses, Berty almost drives their truck into a shop window. The reason? The display behind the window is a bed.

Some of the humor is almost Pythonesque. Here’s Pierrot and Jean talking not long after they’ve agreed to give Clo a lift in the truck:

Pierrot: “I used to fish for roach [over there].”
Jean: “With flaxseed?”
Pierrot: “No, wheat.”
Jean: “Caught any?”
Pierrot: “No.”
Jean: “Then how did you know it was roach you were fishing for?”

 

Paul Frankeur as Émile Barchandeau.

Less cerebrally, even though Jean’s family is falling apart, thanks to his constant absences and Solange’s resentment thereof, there’s room for sitcom humor amid the embers. Here’s an exchange that cannot fail to resonate with any father who’s experienced the misery of waiting for his teenage daughter to get out of the flipping bathroom:

Jean: “Are you finished? Can I get in there?”
Jacqueline: “No, I’m naked!”
Jean: “I saw your bottom before you did,”
Jacqueline: “You’d find it’s changed a lot.”

As is fitting for realist drama from whatever era, there’s a subtext here for anyone who cares to look for it: here it’s about the vampiristic demands capitalism makes of long-distance truckers. In the early stages of the movie Jean and Berty encounter a trucker who’s just about to drive off the road because of inhumanely imposed hours at the wheel. As I’ve noted, Berty comes near to something similar himself. Jean is fired from his job because he whopped a supervisor, but that was only an excuse: the supervisor was already in the process of firing him through simple, hierarchy-fueled spite.

Des Gens Sans Importance is by no means a socialist tract—most of us ordinary people will enjoy it (or perhaps not) for the wholehearted trucker melodrama it is—but I can imagine some folks might have problems with the message it conveys that ordinary human beings, even those who do dreadful, dreadful things like fall in love extramaritally and become pregnant as a result, are actually people too: they may not be “of importance,” but their lives and their pains and their fates—yes, all of those are important.

2 thoughts on “Des Gens Sans Importance (1956)

  1. Oh, I love the look of the screenshots of this. Some very nice cinematography there. Clearly another one to add to the list. *Sigh.* I am a sucker for French cinema – noir, neorealist or melodrama.

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