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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

On Julien Duvivier - Max Berghouse reviews a major new book on the enigmatic French master.

Julien Duvivier, Ben McCann, Manchester University Press (2017). ISBN 978 0 7190 9114 8. 254 pages

Julien Duvivier, 1930s
This book is part of the same university press's series "French Film Directors" which runs to very numerous directors starting from Chantal Akerman, down alphabetically to Jean Vigo. It is about the same size as a traditional Penguin paperback but is a genuine hardcover. However, the paper on which it is printed is relatively coarse and the photographic inserts are in the centre and do not reproduce especially well. This may be of relevance to a prospective purchaser in that the retail price of the book in Australia is between $120–$130. It is available on Amazon for about $90 Australian. It is by no means a cheap work.

Associate Prof McCann of the University of Adelaide teaches in "French Studies" and I think this book may be considered the last word in any descriptive sense on the work of the director Julien Duvivier. There is still some considerable room for creative interpretation but I think Prof McCann has studied not merely all available work of the director (much of his silent work is missing/permanently lost) but I would think, given the number of references, all important commentary on the work of the director.

Duvivier's first sound film
Just as an aside, but a winning one in my view, the author regularly quotes commentary in original French but always provides a translation and that translation is always elegant and idiomatic, not slavishly word by word. While I presume the author speaks French fluently, this aspect is genuinely very appealing. Short quotes appear in the main text and are immediately thereafter translated, whereas large quotations in French appear in the text but are translated in footnotes. I thought this was a little jarring but it is probably the right decision so that the main text, which is in a larger font than the footnotes is not excessively cluttered.

The various aspects of the director's career and the general glossing of his career appear in separate sections with references appearing at the end of each relevant section rather than at the end of the whole work in a. To me this makes the work appear close to an expanded PhD thesis which it certainly isn't. Prof McCann's PhD thesis was on something filmic, but not on the director.

Criterion Eclipse edition of four key 30s films
I have generally had the view that knowledge of this director's biography would provide some considerable insight into his working methods (he was very driven and productive) as well as his subject matter, particularly the Christian themed early sound work compared with the much more sardonic and fatalistic work of subsequent years. Yet there is very little that Prof McCann has been able to discover. Clearly it is not for want of labour; I think most of the facts about director' s life are lost.

Just another aside, one slight detail which I found very interesting was that the director escaped France in 1940 for the United States because his wife was Jewish while their child was named "Christian". One tends to doubt that with a first name like this that the boy would be brought up as Jewish and I think this exemplifies the mystery of the director's life.

A conspicuous part of the book is taken up with a general discussion of the auteur theory and whether the director was indeed an "auteur". I have not the slightest doubt that this is indeed the case both in visual continuity as well as style and approach in relation to varying subject matters. I think it is so obvious as to be hardly worth discussing but it is an issue around which Duvivier remains very controversial. I think critical judgement currently is much more favourable and I imagine if the author writes a further edition say a decade down the track, critical commentary will be even more generally favourable.

Adjudged by many as Duvivier's greatest film
Discussion of the films themselves is exemplary and fair and is well directed towards study of the director's main interests. There are some subject matters which I found particularly interesting and would be a worthwhile cause for further study for example his "colonial" films.


This is an eminently worthwhile purchase for anyone who has a genuine interest in completeness as regards Duvivier. The author also shows a very certain hand in his understanding of film technology and stylistic devices. I have but one criticism which is that there is the occasional stylistic "gaffe". Quite frequently the author refers to something "from the off" which in comparison to his elegant French translations is a phrase very much lacking in felicity.

Editor's Note: This blog has published a wide range of material on Julien Duvivier stretching all the way back to August 2015. More than fifty entries under the general rubric of "The Duvivier Dossier" were posted. Max Berghouse was the most frequent contributor and continues to doggedly track down the director's hard to see later films. 

If you put "Duvivier" into the search engine next to the Orange "B" on the top left most of the posts should come up.

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