The Entertainer
by Andrew Sarris
Aug 28, 2013 | 542 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sacha Guitry (1885-1957) has been likened loosely—very loosely indeed—to a French Noel Coward. As an auteur-Lothario, Guitry was married five times, each time to a screen siren, namely Charlotte Lyses, Yvonne Printemps, Geneviève de Séréville, Lana Marconi and Jacqueline Delubac. By contrast, Sir Noel was one of the most notorious gay celebrities of his time. And Sir Noel was frequently honored at home and abroad for services to the Allied cause in World War II, not the least of which was the rousingly patriotic 1942 naval epic In Which We Serve. Guitry, on the other hand, was arrested briefly in 1944 for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis during the German occupation of Paris. He was jailed for 60 days awaiting a trial that never transpired, after the prosecutor had been reduced to placing ads in newspapers requesting witnesses to Guitry’s “crimes” to come forth and testify against him. No witnesses emerged, and Guitry was released.

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

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