By Tony Williams.
Though most notably associated with the Marseille Trilogy of Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and Cesar (1936) as well as the first version of Manon of the Springs (1952), later remade in two parts by Claude Berri (1934-2009) in 1986 and 1989, Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) also won acclaim in the pre-war period for his rural comedy La Femme du Boulanger (1938). As the first filmmaker to gain entry into the prestigious Academie Francaise, a credit emphasized on the later Berri adaptations, Pagnol belonged to those many “men of letters” in French culture who achieved notable success in other areas, such as literature and theater. In these particular films, Pagnol had the benefit of working with Raimu (1883-1946) whom Orson Welles described as “the greatest actor in the world whose only possible rival is Chaplin.” Possibly, the French actor inspired Welles in his Chimes of Midnight role.
The Baker’s Wife is a film that is less cinematic but more theatrical, falling into the definition of “theatrical cinema” that Pagnol emphasized throughout his career. Two such interviews mention this in the DVD special edition features from Criterion. Conscious of the fact that silent cinema had died when he began his film career, Pagnol espoused the virtues of sound cinema and theatrical representation, seizing on certain possibilities in his own inimitable way, which parallel the literate aspects of Joseph L. Manciewicz (1909-1993) when making his films. However, Pagnol’s interests were more theatrical in taking stock characters and developing them into types that are more believable. Thus, we have the frustrated old maid at the beginning of the film who eventually displays her libido at the end, as well as quarrelsome village characters who eventually reunite in friendship due not just to inebriation and the communal custom of teasing a cuckold but also by intuitively recognizing the necessity of restoring a disrupted community order of things. Pagnol employed these elements in developing his own form of actor’s cinema to display the talents of not only Raimu as his leading actor but also others in the film who functioned as part of a cinematic theatrical ensemble. Each element contributes to a particular creative synthesis very much in the manner of a specific type of Gallic inter-war organic cinema.
Allowing for the fact that Pagnol’s films are cinematically sparse with the camera engaged in a utilitarian manner following the actors or pausing to depict their most theatrical moments, The Baker’s Wife is a film displaying French professional acting talent at its highest. The chief example is Raimu. He changes character in a varied, but consistent manner, moving from arrogant husband taking his younger wife for granted, into self-deceptive shades of denial, until his sad realization that he has become “cuckolded” revealing openly his humiliation. His performance embodies a particular polyphonic form of acting. Eventually we move towards the resolution of the film where he accepts the return of his errant wife, not without some surrogate expression of his angry feelings, until the end when the reunited couple appear through the baker’s oven leading to the implication of growth on more than one level. He will possibly bake more than one loaf to solidify the relationship with a young wife he has nearly lost for good. The film therapeutically moves towards unity and resolution of problems, something the French audience wished for at the time and would see drastically disrupted a year later.
This is 30s French cinema at its best, revealing a cohesive and synthetic organic unity of acting talent that is rare today. At the pinnacle, Raimu appears as arrogant new baker Aimable who will supply better versions of the Gallic “pain” inhabitants of a local village so desire. He boasts about his younger trophy wife Aurelie (Ginette Leclerc), seen in the background during the opening shots and from behind as the villagers enter the bakery to gaze surreptiously at another new local delicacy. She finally appears in full facial close-up as she smiles at a compliment delivered by the local squire who also boasts of his collection of trophy “nieces” before she decides to run off and fill her own “appetite” with the squire’s Shepard, who has serenaded her that evening. The community unite to return the village to the status quo, sublimating their antagonisms in wine and jokes at the baker’s expenses. The secular schoolteacher and priest ally to return the errant wife home, the former carrying the latter like a “beast of burden” the cleric sees him as. All this, as Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles notes in his selected scene audio commentary, represents a French comedic “Carnival” situation. Yet this is not the total liberatory version espoused by Bakhtin but more an ideologically controlled release of suppressed energies needing expression before things return to the correct status quo, an element that Christopher Sharrett has noted in his scrupulous analysis of the supposed positive nature of the “Carnival” thesis.
The film was successful in its era providing a necessary respite for a divided France that had seen the collapse of the Popular Front movement and the installation of a new government that many felt would be infective against the encroaching threat of war. Bowles makes such points in his illuminating remarks that note three major aspects of the film: conflict in the Village, Sexuality and Marriage, and the Restoration of Order. When Bowles explores the second element, he outlines a possible Mulvey-type interpretation of the film being another example of the female subordinated to the male gaze. He then contrasts this with a more critically and historically informed, flexible interpretation based not just on contemporary left and right reviews but that of the whole film. The narrative represents also a learning experience for a husband humiliated in front of the entire community. He learns from the disturbance as much as his wife’s will. It is refreshing to listen to such an enlightened and non-rigid approach, revealing that there is still hope for academia.
Accompanying this DVD is a very informative essay by Ginette Vincendeau succinctly outlining the main elements of the film for those unfamiliar with both Pagnol and this celebrated work not often seen today. Exhibiting her usual lucid writing and critical acumen, the essay ends with this appropriate conclusion:
With The Baker’s Wife, Pagnol not only showcased memorable performances by his regular troupe of actors but also proved his ability to walk the line between broad comedy and emotional nuance, outdated social relations and modernity, universal themes and picturesque locality.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International, our cinematic version of “The Acadamie Francaise.”