Grade: The Story Of A Cheat: A; The Pearls Of The Crown: A-; Désiré: B; Quadrille: B
Sacha Guitry made a name for himself in the French theater in the early 20th century as an actor, director, and playwright, and when cinema entered the sound era, he reluctantly tried his hand, first by turning out stagey adaptations of his plays. Then in 1936, he wrote, directed, and starred in The Story Of A Cheat, and his approach to the medium changed. Working from his own novel, Guitry recounts the multiple rises and falls of an orphan turned croupier, and does so almost entirely in voiceover narration, using the actors as puppets to pantomime the hero’s picaresque adventures. Guitry moves the camera around gleefully, and illustrates his ideas about luck, romance, and human folly with snippets of newsreel footage and quick sight gags. The Story Of A Cheat plays like a cross between Citizen Kane and a Goofy “how to” cartoon (though it pre-dates both), and expresses a worldview that’s simultaneously unsentimental and sweet, as Guitry describes how gambling is a more sublime vice than cheating.
The other three films in Eclipse’s Presenting Sacha Guitry box set aren’t as revelatory as The Story Of A Cheat, though each has its charms, and 1937’s The Pearls Of The Crown is brilliant in its own scattered way. The movie opens with Guitry explaining that he’s discovered the most remarkable true story, about how seven identical-looking pearls connected monarchs, patriarchs, and thieves across Europe and throughout history. Again, Guitry skips merrily through eras and locations, tossing out anecdotes in multiple languages as he demonstrates the petty desires that sidetrack even the noblest kings and queens, and ponders why we continue to identify with tales of royalty. (Telling the story, Guitry says he sees himself as François I, a part he actually plays.) The Pearls Of The Crown isn’t a narrative film in any traditional sense; it’s more like a dozen narratives, darting around each other for Guitry’s amusement.
Désiré and Quadrille are more conventional. The former has Guitry playing the randy valet for a stuffy family, and though the farce becomes a little strained by the end, the lavish sets, class-conscious spoofing, and sexual innuendo are all plenty entertaining. In the latter, Guitry plays a magazine editor whose actress-mistress falls for a movie star, leaving Guitry to settle for the consolation prize of a sexy ace reporter. As with Désiré, Quadrille is full of rapid-fire banter and trenchant observations about how silly we act when we’re aroused. Neither is as inventive visually or structurally as The Story Of A Cheat or The Pearls Of The Crown, but they have moments of stylistic daring, and even a straightforward Guitry film maintains a puckish self-awareness. In the opening credits of The Story Of A Cheat, Guitry introduces the cast and crew via quips like “Here, Marguerite Moreno pretends to point something out to Jacqueline Delubac, but they both know they’re being filmed.” Some might call that irreverent. But to Guitry, exposing the artifice was a way of gaining the audience’s trust, before leading them merrily into the fog of frustrated romance.
Key features: None.