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GERVAISE (director: René Clément; screenwriters: based on the novel L’Assommoir by Émile Zola/Jean Aurenche/Pierre Bost; cinematographer: Robert Juillard; editor: Henri Rust; music: Georges Auric; cast: Maria Schell (Gervaise Macquart), François Perier (Henri Coupeau), Armand Mestral (Lantier), Suzy Delair (Virginie), Jany Holt (Mme Lorilleaux), Mathilde Casadesus (Mme Boche), Florelle (Maman Coupeau), Micheline Luccioni (Clemence), Lucien Hubert (M. Poisson, policeman wife of Virginie), Jacques Harden (Goujet), Jacques Hilling (M. Boche), Amedee (Mes Bottes), Chantal Gozzi (Nana), Francoise Hery (the older Nana), Patrice Catineau (Claude), Christian Denhez (Etienne at 8), Christian Ferez (Etienne at 13), Ariane Lancell (Adèle); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Annie Dorfmann; Continental Distributing; 1956-France/West Germany-in French with English subtitles)
“Grim period film of 19th century Paris that encompasses the human condition.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Grim period film of 19th century Paris that encompasses the human condition about the lower-classes, poverty and alcoholism, and of one woman’s desperate attempt to rise out of her utter despair. The flaw in the ointment in the drama about a family that self-destructs and becomes prey to the alcoholism of the times, is that it was unfeeling and never far removed from all the misery it wallows in for nearly two hours with no end in sight. It’s based on the 1877 novel L’Assommoir by Émile Zola (which translates as “Pole-axe”) and is written by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Director René Clément (“Is Paris Burning?”/”Forbidden Games”/”The Day and the Hour”) provides a detailed recreation of the Montmartre of the 1850s and astonishes us with a number of brilliant set pieces. The beautiful twenty-nine year-old Austrian actress Maria Schell won the best actress award at Venice and director René Clément won the FIPRESCI Prize at the same festival, while the picture was nominated for best film. This was the fifth and most lavish screen version of Zola’s L’Assommoir.

Club-footed laundress Gervaise (Maria Schell) is abandoned by her untrustworthy, lazy and womanizing lover, Lantier (Armand Mestral), a hatter by trade, and the father of her two children Claude and Etienne. She then marries the kind-hearted roofer Henri Coupeau (François Perier) and is lent money to open her own laundry shop from her husband’s handsome likable friend, the blacksmith Goujet (Jacques Harden), who is secretly smitten with Gervaise but too ethical to make a pass at her.

Difficulties arise for Gervaise when Coupeau falls off a roof at work and after a long recovery that eats up all the family money he becomes a drunken slob and never works again. Gervaise has a daughter named Nana (Chantal Gozzi) with Coupeau. When Lantier is ditched by the woman he ran off with, the weak-willed Coupeau invites him to live in their shop/apartment. The perverse arrangement drives customers away and Etienne is apprenticed to Goujet, and the two best things in Gervaise’s life leave town when they can’t understand how she can accept this awkward arrangement. As things hit bottom, Coupeau gets so crazed when drunk one night that he returns to wreck the shop and gets carted away to the hospital where he soon dies. This is the last straw for Gervaise, who goes to seed as a drunk and neglected mom.

The impressive set pieces include the animated cat fight in the laundry with Gervaise and rival Virginie (Suzy Delair)-a romantic friend of Lantier-that included Gervaise using a wooden paddle on the shrew’s naked behind; at Gervaise’s wedding to Coupeau the bored guests running around the Louvre like out-of-place little children with muddy shoes; Coupeau falling off the roof; a roast goose dinner at Gervaise’s birthday party, where Lantier reappears; a drunken berserk Coupeau mindlessly wrecking the laundry shop and the life of Gervaise; and the tragic final scene, with a drunken Gervaise alone and in a stupor in the tavern and the uncared for little Nana putting on a ribbon to play with all the other waifs in the street.

In Renoir’s 1926 Nana, he follows the Zola Character who grows up to be a third-rate actress and courtesan.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”