Friday, September 4, 2009

Mademoiselle Fifi

[This is a contribution to the Robert Wise Blogathon being hosted at Octopus Cinema from September 1-7.]

Mademoiselle Fifi is a curious bit of World War II propaganda, made at the tail end of the war and drawing none-too-subtle parallels between the then-current German occupation of France and the 1870 occupation of France during the Franco-Prussian War. It was the first film of director Robert Wise, stepping in to helm the first of producer Val Lewton's non-horror properties. After producing a string of B-movie horror classics during the early 40s, Lewton, always more ambitious and literary than his low-budget films really required, was eager to branch out into a different kind of film. Mademoiselle Fifi thus initiated the general shift away from horror that characterized Lewton's later features, in which the horror elements increasingly became incidental to the stories he was telling. This film was also the beginning of Wise's fruitful collaboration with the producer, which would also yield The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Moreover, this film continued Lewton's collaboration with Simone Simon, who starred in both his Cat People movies.

Mademoiselle Fifi is thus important in relation to the careers of both Lewton and Wise, but it's also interesting in its own right. For one thing, it's an especially naked piece of propaganda — its narrative, adapted from the stories of Guy de Maupassant, is set during the Franco-Prussian War but every line is clearly crafted to refer directly to the situation of the occupation and the Resistance in 1940s France. It's blunt and forceful in delivering its messages, as was increasingly the case with Lewton, who often presented his rhetorical points with hammering zeal. Simon plays Elizabeth, a proud laundress with a patriotic love of her country and a corresponding hatred for the invading Prussians. She is being forced out of a town because she refuses to eat with the soldiers, refuses to do anything for them, because she heckles and throws things at them in the streets. She winds up in a coach full of rich snobs, initially gaining only the trust and companionship of the leftist political activist Cornudet (John Emery). Of course, in the fashion of a true fairy tale (or a moralist fable) it winds up being "the little laundress" who's able to teach the other passengers about dignity and compassion, generously sharing her food with the starving rich folks even after they've openly insulted her.

This kindness is repaid by the other passengers with contempt and betrayal. The carriage is detained along its route by the Prussian officer Von Eyrick (Kurt Kreuger), who the other Prussians have dubbed "Mademoiselle Fifi" because of his fey, bitchy manner. This officer with the feminine nickname is cruel and unyielding, and will not let the carriage pass until the proud Elizabeth has bent to his will by agreeing to have dinner with him. The other passengers, though initially in solidarity, eventually decide that their business interests are more important than this girl's patriotic idealism, and all but force her to give in. The film's preachy sermonizing would be deadening were it not for the performance of Simon at its core. The character of Elizabeth, this good, noble, saintly young girl who's implicitly compared to Joan of Arc in the film's opening minutes, would be insufferable and unbelievable if played by anyone but Simon, who radiates such sweetness and warmth and innocence with every smile. Her gentle demeanor makes her pious patriotism seem genuine rather than smug — and makes her eventual suffering and betrayal all the more heartbreaking.

Though the film is far from nuanced in its political content, it's nevertheless fascinating for the way it examines the shifting double standards and hypocrisies of the bourgeois. The coach's rich passengers snub Elizabeth and make snide remarks at her expense until they discover that she has food, at which point they begin thawing and making expansive remarks about "brotherhood," as though suddenly they are all the same. This camaraderie only lasts, however, until the girl inconveniences them, and then suddenly they are cavalier about her honor. There is a real undercurrent of sexual snobbery in these people, who seem to assume that any girl of a lower class is promiscuous and easy, with no real honor worth preserving. Thus they feel no guilt or shame in essentially offering up their young companion to the Prussian officer when he demands she have dinner with him. While Elizabeth is upstairs with the officer, below they are celebrating, getting drunk on champagne, laughing at what they assume must be going on upstairs, happy that they'll finally be able to move on in the morning.

Wise cuts purposefully between the dinner upstairs and the dinner downstairs, contrasting Elizabeth's quiet suffering with the reactions of the bourgeois revelers below. Von Eyrick forces her to sing at one point, and the diners downstairs take this as an indication of the charming dinner the couple are having. But when Wise cuts upstairs to Elizabeth, she is in tears as she sings, absolutely ashamed of herself, only going through with it because she has been convinced that it's for the greater good. Later on, when the couple upstairs fall silent, the bourgeois downstairs listen intently, looking at each other knowingly, implying that the officer and the girl are having sex now. But in the officer's chambers, Von Eyrick simply humiliates Elizabeth, pulling her close for a kiss and then blowing smoke in her face instead, then forcing her into his lap only to reject her offhand. He wants only to humiliate her. (And, indeed, it's here that his character's feminine nickname takes on an interesting subtext of homosexuality and misogyny.)

In scenes like this, Lewton's hand is apparent: the producer was frequently interested in issues of class and sexuality, in the hypocrisy and moral censoriousness of those who consider themselves superior to others, and especially in the treatment of women. This theme played out as a consideration of the eroticization and fear of the foreigner in Cat People, and here shows itself in the way these elites treat a poor girl who they seem to consider simultaneously naive and debased. The film is also distinctively Lewtonian in its atmosphere, its foggy nighttime streets, lit by gaslight, and its denouement with Elizabeth darting through this shadowy emptiness, hiding and fleeing. The film is marred by its performances, which besides Simon's incandescent innocence and Kreuger's polished Aryan evil, range from utterly forgettable to theatrically overwrought. Even so, despite the overbearing political parallels and a certain period stiffness in the adaptation, Mademoiselle Fifi is an interesting work in the Lewton/Wise oeuvre, a chance to see Lewton's unique sensibility separate from the horror premises with which he usually worked.


Andrew K. said...

Never even heard about this before, but you have piqued my interest.

Joshua said...

Great post, and you make a good point that the film would be far less if not for Simon. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that she's better here than she was in Cat People.

Sam Juliano said...

In fact this is her greatest American film performance in a film that could properly be described as a brave yet delicate chamber film. The great James Agee, always a big admirer of Lewton said in THE NATION: "I don't know of any American film which has tried to say as much, as pointedly, about the performance of the middle class in war. There is a gallant, fervent quality about the whole picture, faults and all, which gives it a peculiar kind of life and likeableness, and which signifies that there is one group of men working in Hollywood who have neither lost nor taken care to conceal the purity of their hope and intentions."

Ed, I would say that the faults of MADEMOISELLE FIFI are obviously the result of budgetary limitations, but there's little question that MADEMOISELLE FIFI represents the best work overall that Robert Wise did for Lewton, even with lightning flashes in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and the solid contribution he made on one of Lewton's most solid and popular films, THE BODY SNATCHER. It's true that the more graceful hand of Jacques Tourneur may have supplied a more marked flow of poetic style, but Wise pays a reverent attention to detail here, much in collaboration with Lewton himself. In many ways the film is every bit as brave as its heroine. Maupassant's stories are set in the Franco-Prussian War, and an opening titles clearly connects this period of German occupation with the similar occupation of France which was taking place while the film was being made. As you basically allude to in other words in your fourth paragraph, the film like its source is an attack upon the French middle-class and the ease with which it managed to accomodate itself to its oppressors. In this sense there is a moral richness and subtlety present here which no other Hollywood film of the period can match.
It is a fact that MADEMOISELLE FIFI was the first American film to be shown in France after the Normandy invasion.

Despite a stagy performance by John Emery that stand apart from the otherwise excellent cast, this is consumate piece of artistry that I have always loved, and I still have a copy of the old image laserdisc for collector's purposes.

It would virtually be impossible to write a better review of the film than what you have posted here.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. I agree that Simon is phenomenal, obviously. It's hard for me to rank her three Lewton appearances, though, since she's so great in all three: her psychosexual longing in Cat People, her otherworldly sweetness in Curse, and her earnest idealism here.

Sam, as much as I liked this, I don't really agree it's Wise's best Lewton film: that'd be the phenomenal, deeply heartfelt Curse, which is uncharacteristic of Lewton in some ways and yet so stunning in its effect.

And thanks for the anecdote about the film being shown in France after the war; I didn't know that! It's a shame this fine film has been so thoroughly forgotten. It's far from perfect, but strangely affecting anyway.

Classic Maiden said...

Need to see this, really. Your review made me even more interested in seeing it and Simon is always wonderful (she has been in the films I've seen with her).

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sebina. Simon is indeed always worth seeing. There's just something about her that's really fascinating.