Director: René Clément
Writer: Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost; based upon L'Assommoir by Émile Zola
Cinematographer: Robert Juillard
Producer: Agnès Delahaie
by Jon Cvack
The first film I’d seen from Rene Clement was Forbidden Games (1952), which unfortunately is no longer distributed by Criterion. The second was Purple Noon (1960), serving as the original adaptation of what would be remade as The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999; also the better film of the two).
Gervaise follows the Parisian lower classes, focused on laundrywoman Gervaise Macquart Coupeau (Maria Schell) who’s married to roofer Henri Coupeau (François Périer). When Henri experiences an accident, rendering him unable to work and mostly bedridden, he quickly turns to alcohol, developing a severe addiction. Nevertheless, Gervaise has saved up money and leases her own laundromat. Though times remain tight, it doesn’t stop Henri from using their meager profits to continue his alcoholism, increasingly erupting into violent fits of jealousy, rage, and assault.
Gervaise befriends two other men who contribute to the problem; one who helped front her some money in order to keep the shop afloat, and the other strikingly similar in look to Henri. Let’s just say that the latter benefactor is a handsome and decent man, while the lookalike husband is a bit of a con artist. I’m certain that Gervaise sleeps with the latter, and does so while her husband is passed out, and I think she’s done the same with the former; though it was much more dependent upon the power of suggestion.
After Henri has stolen the laundromat’s profits once again, going so far as to dig into the savings due to employees, Gervaise offers Henri an ultimatum - either quit drinking or she’d leave him. During the film’s best scene, and one of the possibly best dinner scenes of all time, Gervaise uses her remainder of savings to throw a dinner party; cooking a duck for a party of ten which could hardly feed four. Soon both men arrive, driving Henri into a jealous rage, in which we’re just waiting for him to explode. However, the added layer to the scene is watching as Gervaise exchanges glance with the benefactor, meeting him in the kitchen, a bit lit up on wine and unable to control her desire. I’ve never seen food used in such a sensual way as when they dig into the goose; the juices oozing and dripping all over their fingers as each person bites into the tender meat.
Henri also provides one of the greatest alcoholics I’ve ever seen on screen; showing the many nuances of impotence. On the one hand, he's sick and requires alcohol, and it's this illness that causes the injury which/ perpetuates the problem. On the other hand, we see his beautiful wife who’s pursued by much more successful men, and in some ways empathize with his complete feeling of inadequacy, requiring him to turn even further to the bottle.
It was a pleasure to see a woman as complex as Gervaise, especially from the period. Rather than painting her as the saint who sticks by her husband, we see how his actions push her away, toward flirting with and then pursuing her own desires. It’s a character that struggles for what is right and good; maintaining the honor of the love she wore versus living the life she deserves. This is a tragically underrated film.
BELOW: A brilliant, moving from light slapstick comedy to horror show
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