But the damage to his psyche had been done, and Guitry spent the last years of his life in bitter disillusion with his fellow Parisians, whom he had entertained for so many years, with over 100 plays that he had written and produced, and in which he had acted, and a host of movies drawn from this treasure trove of material. These dated back to his childhood years with his actor-father, who had brought him from his birthplace in St. Petersburg to Paris, where Guitry père had carved out a niche for himself as a celebrated actor on the stage. There Sacha made his own acting debut in his teens, and at 17 wrote his first play.
His early films came out in a pre-Bazinian era that worshipped the montage theories of Sergei Eisenstein to the point that Guitry’s early works on the screen were dismissed as too static and “theatrical.” Yet when his collected works were revived at the 1993 New York Film Festival, critics and audiences were entranced by Guitry’s brand of confessional cinema, which spotlights the often lyrical frankness of his own stage performances and those of his leading ladies. These included the illustrious Arletty in Désiré (1937), only eight years before she became the mesmerizing female temptress of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise.
Of course, Guitry remained a child of the Parisian stage throughout his cinematic career, but his candor and unabashed sensuality have endured over the years, so as to provide an invaluable evocation of Gallic esprit on both stage and screen. In his films The Story of a Cheat (1936), The Pearls of the Crown (1937, co-directed with Christian-Jacque), Quadrille (1938), Désiré (1938) and La poison (1951), Guitry projects his owlish charm and romanticism as an actor to dramatize the elaborate rituals of selection and rejection that mirrored the Parisian society of his intimates and his artistic collaborators over the years. The opening credits of The Story of a Cheat, for example, are an introduction to the film and a kind of manifesto: the gusto with which he introduces his assistants and craftsmen are but a prologue to the glorious, cascading verbiage that turn his films into chamber concerts of arias, duets and quartets.
Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) is author of the seminal The American Cinema. He received Telluride’s Special Medallion in 1995. Reprinted with permission of Film Comment.
LA POISON | France, 1951, 85m | Director/writer: Sacha Guitry
Presented by: Monique Montgomery