GREEN ROOM, THE (Chambre verte, La)(director/writer: François Truffaut; screenwriters: Jean Gruault/based partially on two stories by Henry James “The Altar of the Dead” and “The Beast in the Jungle”; cinematographer: Néstor Almendros; editor: Martine Barraqué; music: Maurice Jaubert; cast: François Truffaut (Julien Davenne), Nathalie Baye (Cecilia Mandel), Jean Dasté (Bernard Humbert), Jean-Pierre Moulin (Gerard Mazet), Antoine Vitez (Bishop’s secretary), Jane Lobre (Mme Rambaud), Patrick Maléon (Georges), Serge Rousseau (Paul Massigny), Monique Dury (Monique, newspaper secretary); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: François Truffaut; MGM Home Video; 1978-France-in French with English subtitles)
“More neurotic than poetic.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
French former film critic and New Wave director François Truffaut (“Jules and Jim”/”The Wild Child”/”Two English Girls”) adapts to film, along with cowriter Jean Gruault, two of Henry James’ short stories: “The Altar of the Dead” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” This heavy-going melancholy personal film is one of the director’s least known, and is one of my least favorites from his oeuvre. This film was much darker than the usual Truffaut picture and took many critics and his fans by surprise at how despairing it turned out. It’s a Gothic tale that is damp, vague and morbidly obsessive about death. Having Truffaut as the star is also a distraction, as his one-dimensional performance of angst only shows off his limited range as an actor.
Julien Davenne (François Truffaut) is a loner and a secretive man, who dwells in a small French town in the late 1920s. The widower, whose beloved wife Julie died ten years ago in 1919 when he returned home unharmed from WWI, works as a reporter for The Globe, a failing newspaper that caters to an elderly readership that is literally dying off. When offered a reporting job in Paris he turns it down, preferring to remain provincial. He lives a withdrawn life with a deaf-mute child (Patrick Maléon), whose presence is never explained but he seems to be the adopted son of his governess (Jane Lobre). Julien is so emotionally cold, that he no longer can love the living as much as he loves mourning the dead. He says to his pal Gerard, who is grieving at the funeral home over the loss of his wife “The dead only belong to us if we agree to belong to them.” Julien has one hell of a guilt-trip over his returning from WWI unharmed while everyone he knew was either killed or injured and to top that off he returns from the front after four years to marry and soon after the wedding his beloved wife dies. In her memory, he constructs a shrine and keeps there a life-size wax figurine of her.
By accident Julien meets the much younger attractive Cecilia (Nathalie Baye), someone he met eleven years before when she was a child, where she’s a secretary at an auction house (also doubles as a piano teacher). She seems like a breath of fresh air soul mate, as she also has a weird secretive thing going on about the dead. When her famous playboy writer lover, Paul Massigny, dies in a freak auto accident, she becomes a regular visitor to the cemetery where he’s buried. By coincidence Julien was friends with Paul, but had a falling out with him and that led to him despising his former friend as someone who betrayed his trust and altered his life forever. At the cemetery Cecilia keeps running into Julien and falls in love with him. But Julien has no time for love, he’s all about getting permission from the local church to restore a broken down chapel on the cemetery grounds so the dead can be remembered with dignity, and when he gains their permission he fills the chapel with photos of his dead friends, that include soldiers who died in the trenches and civilians who taught him to respect the dead, and he also fills the chapel with lit candles. For the icy cold Julien, his last hope for salvation is to accept the love of Cecilia. She joins him in the chapel seeing this as a way of healing and getting closure, while he’s stuck in believing that mourning with such piety is his mission in life.
The thoughtful and perplexing film gets its title from the shrine room in the house that is tinted green. Photographer Néstor Almendros has the early WWI battle scenes in black and white and effectively switches to colors that are mostly rusts and deep greens to give the film a Goya-like look at a dark world. The ultimate failure of the film, that still had its intriguing moments, was that it was never sufficiently eloquent or human enough to carry off all the metaphysical stuff it was trying to pass on in such a dry manner. It seemed more neurotic than poetic, when obviously the intention was to have it the other way around.
REVIEWED ON 2/22/2008 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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