LA FEMME DU BOULANGER
(The Baker's Wife)
Director: Marcel Pagnol
Production: Les Films Marcel Pagnol; black and white, 35mm; running time: 120 minutes, some sources list 110 minutes. Released 1938.
Screenplay: Marcel Pagnol, from Jean le Bleu by Jean Giono; photography: G. Benoît, R. Lendruz, and N. Daries; editors: Suzanne de Troye, Marguerite Houllé, and Suzanne Cabon; music: Vincent Scotto.
Cast: Raimu ( Aimable Castenet ); Ginette Leclerc ( Aurélie Castenet ); Charpin ( M. de Monelles ); Robert Vattier ( Priest ); Basac ( Teacher ); Charles Moulin ( Dominique ); Delmont ( Mailleterre ); Alida Rouffe ( Marie ); Maximilliene ( Angèle ); Maupi, Dullac, Blavette, Odette Roger, Castan, Maffre, and Charblay.
Sadoul, Georges, French Film , London, 1953.
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Variety (New York), 12 October 1938.
Greene, Graham, in Spectator (London), 24 February 1939.
Whitebait, William, in New Statesman (London), 25 February 1939.
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* * *
La femme du boulanger is a film which can stand as a summation of Marcel Pagnol's work in the cinema and of a certain style of 1930s filmmaking. It was a period in which the star and his or her attendant dialogue writer reigned supreme in French cinema. Despite the film's title, the sultry Ginette Leclerc has only a small role as the errant wife, but in compensation we are given Raimu at the height of his powers in a part shaped by Pagnol so as to give the maximum relief and humanity to the figure of a village baker deceived by his faithless wife, who runs off with a stranger. The plot could hardly be simpler: the husband now refuses to bake bread; the villagers have to join forces to "engineer" the wayward wife's return and acceptance by the baker.
In terms of Marcel Pagnol's work, La femme du boulanger , though it holds together remarkably well, is in many ways a hybrid, combining two divergent tendencies. The source of the film is a novel by Jean Giono, who had earlier provided the stimuli for the rural epics, Angèle and Regain . As with those films, La femme du boulanger breathes an authentic country atmosphere, with its open air meetings and sense of real village community. But here the epic qualities of Giono's vision are scaled down, and the village, though remote, is a microcosm of the city, with its social stratifications and religious differences. The performance of Raimu calls to mind the atmosphere of Pagnol's marvellous Marseilles trilogy— Marius , Fanny , and César —which the director and the star had completed just two years previously. This trilogy had its roots in Pagnol's writing for the stage, and it was essentially a studio work, in which the atmosphere of the Mediterranean port was summoned up through vivid dialogue and accent. Raimu's role in La femme du boulanger has the same verbal richness. These are speeches written to be performed—as in the theatre—and since Raimu was unhappy acting in the open air, many of them were restaged in the studio, giving the film its sometimes awkward combination of location and studio work. As always, the themes of Pagnol's work are simple, bordering on the melodramatic, but they are captured in dialogue of such verbal felicity, and shaped so cunningly as drama, that they hold the attention effortlessly, especially when—as here—they are set against a vividly drawn background.
The controversy which surrounded Marcel Pagnol's work in the late 1930s, the result of his enthusiastic welcoming of sound cinema as no more than a perfected means of recording and distributing theatrical works, has now subsided. His own work proved richer than the polemical positions which he adopted at the time. Despite his advocacy of the studio, he was in fact one of the first to record sound on location and take his players into the countryside around Marseilles. Formerly regarded as a marginal provincial figure, cut off from the mainstream of Parisian cinema, Pagnol was in fact consistently able to produce two or three films a year. That made him a major figure at a time when the major production companies had long since vanished and most films were made by ephemeral companies set to organise just a single production. Owning his own production and distribution companies, his own laboratories and cinemas, Pagnol created his films en famille in a uniquely personal atmosphere. La femme du boulanger , his last film of the 1930s, conveys perfectly the strengths of this spontaneous, uninhibited approach to production.